Five amazingly great long songs that still end too soon

These songs still end too soon.
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"It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long
If you’re gonna have a hit
You got to make it fit
So they cut it down to three-oh-five"
-Billy Joel, “The Entertainer”

In the early days of movies, story films typically ran 12-15 minutes. That was the length of a single reel of film, the variance owing to the hand-cranked speed of the camera. But filmmakers soon chafed under the limitations of the short running time, and once audiences proved they would sit through more developed stories, the movies grew longer and longer.

Postwar popular music followed a similar trajectory. Early on, short, standardized lengths made it easier for radio DJs to program. But artists kept pushing the boundaries. The best story about what led to the eventual acceptance of songs running more than five minutes was that it allowed DJs the time to smoke a joint and pee, and not miss the next needle drop. There may be some truth to that, but the more significant explanation was that once again, the audience spoke.

The Temptations hit number one with a near-seven-minute radio cut of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in late 1972, and some eight-minute epic rocker by Led Zeppelin just kept gaining more and more popularity as the early ‘70s wound on. There were still plenty of “three-oh-fives” on the airwaves, but pop music was expanding, and it would continue to do so for decades to come.

Amazing long songs that still end too soon

Let’s take a look at some of the very best “long songs,” from the vast repository of popular music over the past fifty years. I’m going to stick to studio releases because if I opened it up to live recordings, we’d be here all day. The Allman Brothers alone could take up several pages with some of their titanic live jams.

I’m also going to try my best to include songs that, for the most part, hold together as a single unit, and are not what you might call “chapter songs.” So, for instance, the two different nine-minute tracks on Green Day’s American Idiot won’t be showing up. I consider them distinct songs that are held together by certain thematic and musical motifs but don’t really count as a single unit. I made a tougher call on Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” one of his greatest solo achievements. Its three sections are certainly linked by recurring musical refrains, but to my ears, they are different enough to count as separate songs.

We can argue over these things ad infinitum. We can also argue over run times because so many of these songs had multiple releases, all slightly different. But we’ll do that some other day. For now, let’s just check out an eclectic mixtape of glorious long songs. Today, we’ll stick to the merely long – five tunes that run between eight and ten minutes. We’ll go even further in subsequent lists.

Why eight-to-ten? Well, ten minutes seemed like a good rounded cut-off. And eight minutes? Well, that makes it longer the “Stairway to Heaven.” That gets you automatic admittance into the long song clubhouse.

“THE BAND PLAYED WALTZING MATILDA” by The Pogues, 1985 (8:15)

Eric Bogle wrote this anti-war masterpiece in 1971, at the height of the worldwide anti-war movement. He looked back to August 1915 and Suvla Bay in Turkey to tell the tale of an Aussie soldier caught up in the massacre at Gallipoli. Everyone from Joan Baez to Garrison Keillor has done their own version.

But it is very hard to top Shane McGowan when singing a song about a simple man being utterly destroyed by titanic forces that he scarcely understands. It was the final track on the Pogues' second album Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. James Fearnley’s accordion provides the ironic, music hall nostalgia beneath McGowan’s hopeless and bitter story of a man who will never waltz again after having his legs blown off in the war.