These are the songs that never end: 10 of music's most rewarding long cuts

Father John Misty just debuted Leaving LA, a 13-minute, chorus-free track off his upcoming album. Here are the most brilliant and bewitching songs to have gotten the long-form treatment

It takes giant cojones to go on national radio and bust out an acoustic version of a new, self-reflexive, chorus-free, 13-minute song whose lyrics start second-guessing its own reviews. But Father John Misty is not a man suffering from a shortage of self-confidence, so that’s exactly what he did on Lauren Laverne’s BBC Radio 6 show last week. Luckily, Leaving LA is a stunner, especially in its soon-to-be-released studio form, with stirring orchestration from British composer Gavin Bryars.

Pop songs aren’t really meant to be that long. Three and a half minutes has remained the industry standard for a reason, long after the death of the seven-inch single. Keep the tape rolling and most listeners will lose interest while you risk coming across as self-indulgent. Unless, of course, your song is unusually brilliant and bewitching, in which case long songs are the best thing ever. Here are 10 more that fall into that category.

To make the list easier to whittle down, we’ve imposed a minimum running time of 10 minutes. We haven’t ventured into the worlds of classical music, jazz, avant-rock, ambient or minimal techno, where longer tracks are the norm. We’ve disqualified drawn-out live versions, extended remixes, improvised jams and medleys or suites that are essentially just a bunch of shorter songs shunted together (sorry, Genesis). The selections we’re celebrating here are still, broadly, pop songs – ones so extraordinary that they remain compelling even at three or four times the usual length.

Television – Marquee Moon (10.40)

Not just one of the best long songs but possibly the greatest rock song of all time, the title track of Television’s 1977 debut LP has everything: the grandeur of the finest freewheeling 70s rock, the needling intensity of punk and the eerie tension of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, marked by strange encounters and elemental surges (“the lightning struck itself”). Despite the efforts of generations of critics to unpick it, Marquee Moon remains brilliantly inscrutable – a mystery inside an enigma wrapped in a stinging guitar solo.

Honourable mentions: David Bowie – Station To Station; Destroyer – Bay Of Pigs; Fairport Convention – A Sailor’s Life; Kiran Leonard – Pink Fruit

The Temptations – Papa Was A Rolling Stone (12.02)

Soul music had been stretching out since the late 60s, led by Isaac Hayes’ orchestral excursions and the psychedelic strut of Sly Stone and George Clinton. Former three-minute Motown hit machine The Temptations weren’t going to get left behind, although supposedly not all of their members were initially on board with this 12-minute roaster, fretting that it foregrounded the skills of writer/producer/arranger Norman Whitfield over their own vocals. Ultimately though, that’s kinda the point: over the course of four minutes of flickering guitar, hissing hi-hat and simmering strings, all anchored by that imperious three-note bassline, Whitfield ratchets up the tension so that when Dennis Edwards delivers the devastating first line about the day his daddy died, it cuts to the bone. A US No 1 hit in December 1972 – albeit as a shorter, seven-minute edit – Papa is proof that perfect pop doesn’t have to be hasty.

Honourable mentions: The Impressions – Thin Line; Cymande – Dove; Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit; The Temptations – Masterpiece

Dexy’s Midnight Runners – This Is What She’s Like (12.23)

Cementing his reputation as one of pop’s greatest contrarians, Dexys’ Kevin Rowland reacted to the huge success of Come On Eileen and Too-Rye-Ay by composing this whopper for belated follow-up album Don’t Stand Me Down. The opening couldn’t be more inauspicious – a minute of stilted, mundane, weirdly passive-aggressive chit-chat between Rowland and guitarist Billy Adams. But when the band kicks in, it’s glorious; an extended hymn to the inexplicable mania of new love, with an extended dig at ignorant poshos and “newly wealthy peasants” thrown in for good measure. Derided at the time, This Is What She’s Like finally found its natural place when closing out Dexys’ triumphant 2013 shows at London’s Duke of York theatre.

Honourable mentions: Van Morrison – Summertime In England; Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle – Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails

Donna Summer – Love To Love You Baby (16.53)

Initially a brief three-minute knee-trembler, Casablanca Record boss Neil Bogart persuaded Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte and Donna Summer to go back into the studio and prolong the ecstasy for almost 17 minutes. Time magazine counted 22 orgasms and it was banned by the BBC, ensuring Love To Love You Baby became an international smash on its way to elegantly reconstituting the DNA of pop. Still sounds glorious.

Honourable mentions: Isaac Hayes – Walk On By; Kraftwerk – Autobahn

Lou Reed – Street Hassle (10.56)

Arguably, Street Hassle – the apogee of Reed’s adventures in the New York junkie underworld – contravenes our song suite ruling, being made up of three “movements” called Waltzing Matilda, Street Hassle and Slipaway. But each movement bleeds into and informs the other, adding up to a stark meditation on the fragility of human life. Besides, if the track ended after the second movement, with an overdose victim’s corpse dumped unceremoniously in the street, it would simply be too harrowing; instead, a ruminative coda – with guest vocals from Bruce Springsteen – provides a sliver of solace. Ultimately, though, the message is heart-wrenchingly bleak, with Bruce adapting the words of Born To Run to fit Lou’s more pessimistic worldview: “Tramps like us, we were born to pay.”

Honourable mentions: The Velvet Underground – Sister Ray; Spacemen 3 – Suicide; Spiritualized – Cop Shoot Cop; Can – Mother Sky

The Knife (with Mt Sims and Planningtorock) – Colouring Of Pigeons (11.01)

Written in 2010 for an opera about Charles Darwin by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma, Colouring Of Pigeons strikes the perfect balance between The Knife’s pop sensibilities and their experimental urges. It’s a bit like an intellectual European answer to Papa Was A Rolling Stone, with a stately, portentous beat and eerily scraped strings setting the tone before the various singers begin their verses. The lyrics comprise evocative cut-ups from Darwin’s notebooks and letters that juxtapose observations of Borneo wildlife with touching words about wife and daughters, the gathering storm of the music brilliantly conveying the strange combination of exultation and terror he must have felt while making his revolutionary discoveries. The song climaxes with a burst of awe-inspiring vocal power from mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin before receding into a series of gnawing electronic drones. Strange, beautiful and utterly gripping.

Honourable mentions: Kate Bush – Misty

Flowered Up – Weekender (12.56)

At the turn of the 90s, Flowered Up’s irresistible combination of barrow boy swagger and rave euphoria found them heralded as London’s answer to Happy Mondays. But even Shaun Ryder never got around to penning a hedonist’s manifesto as brutally honest as Weekender. A defiant 13-minute epic that came with its own accompanying film and got Flowered Up dropped by their label before becoming a Top 20 hit anyway, Weekender is about choosing life in the Trainspotting sense. Surging guitars and faintly doleful trumpet fanfares mark the songs numerous peaks and troughs, the party and the comedown, the joy and the despair, the knowledge of being trapped in a damaging cycle but hanging on anyway because it’s all you’ve got. Sadly it would be the band’s last significant recording before they succumbed to the ravages of the lifestyle described therein. Remember them this way.

Honourable mentions: Underworld – Mmm Skyscraper I Love You; Primal Scream – Come Together; Studio – Out There

Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (17.04)

Although perhaps best known these days as the song Bart Simpson tricks the church organist into playing, causing Reverend Lovejoy to denounce the malign influence of “rock and/or roll”, this 17-minute psychedelic odyssey – and odyssey is surely the right word here – is a truly seminal track, spawning the genres of both prog rock and heavy metal while still remaining catchy enough to be covered by Boney M. Yes, there are lengthy drum and organ solos – deal with it.

Honorable mentions: Iron Maiden - Rime Of The Ancient Mariner; Mastodon – The Last Baron; Mogwai - Mogwai Fear Satan

Traffic – The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys (11.44)

By 1971, Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi had already seen it all, having ridden the 60s beat boom, gone psychedelic with Traffic’s first incarnation, split up, dabbled in blues-rock supergroups, and reformed as jazzy folk-rockers with one eye on the prog and funk movements.

They poured it all into this sweltering, sax-led masterpiece, which also seemed to anticipate elements of 80s pop. Capaldi’s lyric certainly wasn’t alone at the time in castigating music biz parasites and wondering what life was all about following the disintegration of the hippie dream. But rather than drift into abstraction or nihilism, Capaldi keeps faith that the rebel dreamers – the high-heeled boys – will one day rise again.

Honorable mentions: Yes – Heart Of The Sunrise

Burial – Come Down To Us (13.06)

Burial is often stereotyped as a producer of spectral urban soundscapes, but the ravishing, deconstructed R&B of Come Down To Us is most definitely a song, even if we don’t know exactly who’s singing. The internet’s best guess is a mangled Michael Jackson, although it could easily be several vocalists spliced together – the track also samples numerous video game soundtracks and 80s sci-fi films as well as Nasa earth scientist Melissa Dawson and a moving speech by transgender film director Lana Wachowski. Despite the music’s chimerical qualities, the themes of self-discovery and acceptance are, for Burial, unusually explicit. It makes for a uniquely absorbing emotional journey that you never want to end.

Honourable mentions: The Orb – Blue Room; Four Tet – Morning Side; Orbital – Are We Here; DJ Shadow – Lost And Found (SFL); Burial – Rival Dealer


Sam Richards

The GuardianTramp

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