The Long and Short of It

Music and its forms have always been in a state of flux. While operas often dragged for hours, recording them, when the means became available, was a different problem. When temperamental wax cylinders gave way to 78 rpm shellac discs, you had 5 minutes of music before you ran out of groove and had to turn it over.  Post-WWII, when brittle shellac gave way to more forgiving vinyl, record speed dropped to 33 rounds per minute, allowing up to 22 minutes per side on a 12” “long-playing” record (or LP, for short.). When the 45 rpm single – cheaper to produce, cheaper to purchase – became standard, music averaged 3-5 minutes a side.

If you wanted to get airplay on a radio, music had to be submitted on a 45, thus most popular songs were limited to around 3 minutes in length (Hence Billy Joel’s line from The Entertainer: “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05”). Albums could play for as long as 20 minutes a song on each side. Jump up to CD, and you can now go to 100 minutes. Streaming? The only limit is your tolerance.

So what’s the long and short of it? What are the longest and shortest songs on the road to success? The 50’s and 60’s, with the advent of transistor radios to make music portable, saw an explosion of short catchy tunes, meaning more could be crammed onto the radio, which meant more airtime, more commercials, and thus more money all around. Elvis consistently comes in under two minutes (Let Me be Your Teddy Bear1:43, Are You Lonesome Tonight, 1:25) as do the early Beatles ( From Me to You, 1:56, Please Please Me, 1:59), Summer Time Blues by Eddie Cochrane (1:58), and Hit the Road, Jack by Ray Charles (1:58).  

Albums play around more – If you’ve got 18 minutes of music, but can squeeze one more short track in, you fill it. Styx’s legendary Paradise Theater album has 3 blink-and-they’re-over tracks (AD 1928, 1:07, State Street Sadie – a flash at 33 seconds, and AD 1958, 1:06). Pink Floyd, who loves to drag out a tune, logs in at 1:25 with Pigs on the Wing, a beautiful melody on the Animals album. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s legendary Welcome to the Pleasuredome album clocks in two blips – Snatch of Fury, at 36 seconds, and The World is my Oyster, which is 1:02, perhaps 45 seconds longer than the track needs to be. 

 

But just how long can you carry a tune? Well, outside of perhaps an opera or symphony (Beethoven’s 9th is about 70 minutes long). American Pie takes up both sides of a 45 at 8 minutes 32 seconds, and Hey Jude clocks in at 7:11, perhaps the longest singles on 45s. But when you hit albums and their longer tracks, if you count all nine parts of Pink Floyd’s ethereal “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from the album Wish You Were Here, it totals 26:01, the longest segment being over 13 minutes. You could add Rush’s 2112, at 20:33, Yes’s Close to the Edge at 18:30, or the legendary In a Gadda da Vida by Iron Butterfly at 17:05 – three songs that can carry you clear across the state.  Meatloaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) made it to Number One on the Charts with a time of more than 12 minutes, so length does not affect popularity at all. 

With the pandemic, streaming of music and even live concerts has increased in popularity. While the current trend is to make shorter songs for the attention-short listener, it will be interesting to see in the next five years or so if, freed from the limits of physical media, musicians will increase the length of their songs or not. Genres are losing their hold as streaming crosses boundaries (ie, Jimmy Buffett gets mixed with a lot of country), 24-bit audio capacity has lead to quieter music (less digital noise on soft tracks and streaming services even out loud tracks anyway), music labels are losing importance as musicians self-release songs, and songs are even breaking up their ages-old format and frequently starting with the chorus instead of a verse. We might cringe at the pace of the changes, but in the end, for the musicophile, it’s a wonderful time for variety and a widening range of music.

Rock of Ages

As Neil Young said, “Rock and roll will never die.” 

Here we are, 66 years later, and he may just be right (well, if you don’t count Mozart and the Old Masters who chalk up hits centuries later, like Herb Alpert’s A Fifth of Beethoven). Maybe because they’re cool, maybe it was just Covid isolation, but a number of “classic” rockers have put out new albums, some of which are rather good, no matter what style of music you like. Not bad for a group of people of whom the youngest is 71. I’ve never been a huge fan of Neil Young’s solo work – he’s twangy, he’s whiney, he’s slow and drawling despite unspeakable talent, but his new album Young Shakespeare got me. Sure, the songs are old classics, but the acoustic guitar on this live album is absolutely exquisite. Even if you don’t particularly care for him, give this a listen just for the guitar music. I listened to the album three times in a row. And he’s not even in my top 50 musicians.

Alice Cooper is another rocker I never got into. His first album was in 1969; I was 4, and it would be many years before I caught on to rock. Now he’s back with Detroit Stories, his 21st solo album.  Some of the album is classic metal work, while some of it is bluesy. I found Our Love Will Change the World to be delightfully commercial, and Wonderful World to be both seductive and ironic. Hanging on By a Thread is a direct acknowledgement that not everyone was able to deal with quarantine isolation, and not to give up. The album feels uneven because of the variety of styles presented, but age is no factor here and Cooper’s still got it. There’s a song here for everyone.

Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, is interesting because of its strangeness, in the way listening to Ironhorse play bluegrass Led Zeppelin is strange – good, but strange. Barry Gibb, the only surviving Gibb brother, sings many of their classic disco-era hits with top country singers, in a pleasant country-pop manner – such as Dolly Parton singing Words, and Alison Krauss singing Too Much Heaven. The effect is some nice easy-listening music, not too country and certainly not disco, with the benefit of the lyrics being suddenly understandable. Even if you don’t like country, this is something that should be easy for you to like. 

Paul McCartney released McCartney II in 1980. Now, 40 years later, he releases McCartney III. For someone with hits in five different decades (yeah, Elvis did that, but he was dead for two of them), it’s not likely he’s going to fail with this one. My favorite is Kiss of Venus, but check out the amazing blues guitar work on Long Tailed Winter Bird. This is classic McCartney unleashed, rock, blues, jazz, Beatles, and orchestration, sometimes all at once. Seize the Day sounds like classic late-60’s Beatles. He’s 79 years old and still plucking away like a master. You might not like all the tracks, but the album is worthy.

Badfinger: No Matter What: Revisiting the Hits is probably the weakest of this group. You might not immediately remember the name, but you’ve certainly heard their music, even if it was only the Brady Bunch doing a cover of Day After Day on their first album. One of the problems is most of the band is dead. Like Greenfields, having a different singer do a cover of one of Badfinger’s past hits isn’t a problem, but more like Alice Cooper, it’s the strange mix of styles that kind of sinks the album. Some sound deliberately tinny, 60’s British mono throwbacks. Some sound ethereal and Pink Floyd-ish. Some, because you know the song so well, just don’t sound right, as happens when – well, when someone remakes a favorite song in a very different style. Sometimes it’s done very right, such as The Art of McCartney (If you doubt Cooper’s talent, check out his Eleanor Rigby). This time, the greatness just doesn’t come together.

Peter Frampton hits his 50th year as a solo artist this year (he’s been in bands since the age of 12). His newest release is an instrumental cover album entitled Frampton Forgets the Words, an easy way to release old material. Imagine you’re at a massive outdoor concert – a rock festival somewhere, and you’re walking around the grassy fields picking your way through people, and there’s some really awesome band on stage playing a 50-minute instrumental improv and it’s just a groovy background soundtrack to your life. That’s exactly what this album is. Nothing sticks out, it’s just the perfect background music for your life, somewhat familiar and comforting without you really knowing why. 

If you know the artists, give these a try. If you don’t know the artists, give them a try anyway. You might just find you missed something good.

Same Old Tune

unnamedI am a semi-hard-core Pink Floyd fan. I’ve likely spent more hours listening to them than any other musical group, and I think I know the entire Wall album from memory – lyrics and orchestration. So when David Gilmour, who, along with Roger Waters wrote many of their greatest hits, came out with a new album, Rattle that Lock, of course I had to listen to it.

The album, I must admit, left me with mixed feelings. It’s a varied album, with some pieces (The Girl in the Yellow Dress) being almost classical jazz, and others being such classic Floyd in tone you can almost recognize lines from Learning to Fly (Echoes), and riffs straight from The Wall. Parts of it are cranking rock, and other parts are very ethereal and New-Agey in feel – not unlike inventive Floyd tracks from Dark Side of the Moon. There are even two instrumental tracks. It was good, it was fresh, but I’m still not sure if I liked it. I’m not a jazz person, no matter how hard I try, and though I love my Floyd, it’s 2015, not 1979, and I want to say, “Yes, it’s good, but what are you doing now?”

Which got me to thinking: Why is it often so easy to pick out a band/singer on the radio? Because they are often stuck in the same style that made them famous. Their songs are caught in a groove of sound – it’s a good sound, but it doesn’t change. Sometimes they try but the fans turn away, because it’s not “their” sound. Sometimes they do and it works beautifully (how many heavy metal bands have one or two incredible slow ballads, like Kiss’s Beth, or the Scorpions’ Still Loving You?). Listen to The Police’s Every Breath You Take – the first four songs are almost identical in format, all hits, but identical. I love R.E.M., but they get monotonous if you listen to six albums in a row. As George Thorogood said, “I only know four chords on the guitar, so of course all my songs sound alike.”27club-660x300

According to the internet, some of today’s popular bands are guilty of unoriginality and being one-trick ponies. Not even getting into Boy Bands, or Brittney, or other manufactured stars (it’s fair to place The Monkees here, too), too many artists sound – well, too much like themselves. Pete Townshend’s last albums drifted song to song like a dream; you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began, and he’s a music legend. Ed Sheeran, Oasis, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, and the often-unfairly picked on Nickelback are among the worst offenders, by internet polls. Having a trademark “sound” is good, but a truly talented musician masters versatility.

So who, then, has successfully changed their tunes and embraced versatility over the CyndiLauperBodyAcousticyears? Both Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have attempted branching out into classical music, but classical music doesn’t rake in money on radio ads. One I would consider would be Cindy Lauper – she’s older than you think. Before she was a shock-haired icon of the 80’s, she fronted a rockabilly band called Blue Angel. They put out one album, Blue Angel (duh), which did well in the Netherlands, but you could see the genius. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36MgP5Hg6KU. To go from Money Changes Everything to Above the Clouds on her Body Acoustic album – she has an impressive range. What a Broadway career she could have had! Oh wait – she wrote all the music for Kinky Boots, winner of 6 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score!  She’s not as ditzy as she looks.

Robert_Plant_and_Alison_Krauss_-_Raising_SandAnother would be Robert Plant – the former lead singer for hard-rocking Led Zeppelin. Post-Zeppelin he formed the R&B group The Honeydrippers in 1981, and they shot up the charts with their # 3 slow-dance hit Sea of Love. If that wasn’t different enough, he’s recorded several folksy albums with Allison Krauss – my personal favorite being “Trampled Rose” from the album Raising Sand. Truly, no one would guess this soulful folk singer is one of heavy rock’s legends.

A third I would nominate would be David Bowie (yes,ZiggyStardust I’ve chosen all older musicians, because 40-50 year careers are living, breathing entities). Ziggy Stardust is a far cry from his later success with Suffragette City, and another layer removed from 2013’s The Next Day album, let alone his (in)famous duet with Bing Crosby on The Little Drummer Boy – and the soundtrack to Labyrinth.

So now we know David Gilmour can write and play good jazz, even if it feels like the jazz is being played in the dance hall of a Pink Floyd dream. Is it progress or stagnation? You have to decide that for yourself.

On Our Shelves: New Music for March

Music comes in more flavors than Bernie Bott’s Beans. No matter what your taste or style, there’s always something new being released – even from musicians long-deceased.  Here are a few recent releases on our shelves:

Life, Love, & Hope  by Boston

    Boston’s been around forever, it seems – their first eponymous album debuted in 1976 and reached number 3 on the album charts, and subsequent albums only climbed higher.  With the untimely death of lead singer Brian Delp in 2007, Boston underwent some changes, and to be honest, hearing them live in concert, they didn’t seem to have it anymore.  However, with the release of Life, Love, & Hope, their sixth album, Boston seems to have recovered: not quite the same, but with enough of the old magic to bring back the spark that gave them their identity. The same driving beats, the same luscious harmonies, but a little lighter, a little crisper, a little fresher to attract a new generation.  For a band that’s been around almost 40 years, that’s a difficult – and truly wonderful – thing to do. If you want something new or are longing for some updated nostalgia, this is a great album to try.

High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

        High Hopes bills itself as a rare, unreleased tracks album, which it may indeed be, but we’ve heard some of these before.  It’s wonderful to hear a non-live version of 41 Shots, but the album doesn’t add any real surprises. There’s not a bad track on it, but nothing particularly stands out. If you love Springsteen (and there’s a lot to love), then this album will give you exactly that – more. Not better, not bad, just more quality music, a long encore to a fabulous concert from a musician who’s as strong as ever.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches

   They pronounce it “churches,” but I pronounce the V anyway.  A synth-pop band from Scotland, Chvrches is a group that bridges a number of different music styles.  Like light modern popular radio music?  This is a great album.  Like a techno electronic sound with actual understandable lyrics to go with it? This is a great album.  Miss some of the 80’s pop from bands like Human League or The Fixx, or the sweet sounds of Sixpence None the Richer?  Then you will love this album.  Light, joyful, and not overpowering, there’s a wide variety of song styles to keep you entertained.  It’s been  a long time since I found a new popular band that has caught my attention this much, and I hope to hear more from them in the future. Give them a try!

Croz by David Crosby

Like Springsteen’s High Hopes, if you like Crosby, Stills, & Nash, you will probably enjoy David Crosby’s new album. Harking back to the band’s late-60’s melodies, this is more of the style you remember, an open, wandering melody with a touch of Eastern feel that could almost be filed under Jazz. Nothing jumps out and grabs you, it’s just a solid continuation of the old-style catalog.

 

 

Richie Havens, 1941-2013

6a00d8341c5f6d53ef01901b82b727970b-500wiRichard Pierce “Richie” Havens was an American singer-songwriter guitarist who passed away on April 22, at the age of 72.  His music appealed to a wide variety of listeners,  encompassing elements of folk, soul, and rhythm and blues.  His career was amazing and wide-reaching, and chances are, with 29 albums to his name, even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard his work.

            Havens began his career in Brooklyn, organizing neighborhood street-corner singing by the age of 16, moving on to gospel, folk, and signing on with Bob Dylan’s manager in the mid-60’s. By 1969, he was the opening act for Woodstock, taking the stage for nearly three hours. He ran out of material woodand wound up improvising the folk-song inspired “Freedom,” which became one of his most famous hits. In the 70’s, he branched out into acting, both on stage and in films such as Greased Lightning. He made popular television appearances on both Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson. While his albums climbed onto the Billboard charts, Havens began writing and performing highly successful commercials for Amtrack, Maxwell House Coffee, the cotton Industry (“The Fabric of Our Lives”), and others.

            Havens was a firm supporter of various ecological and charitable concerns.  He founded the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx, which led to the creation of the Natural Guard,  to teach children how they can help the environment.  He was a performer at The Benefit Concert for The Longest Walk, an American Indian spiritual walk, the Tibetan Freedom Concert, the fundraising concert for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, and many others.  He was honored with the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, the American Eagle Award by the National Music Council, and was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006. He played the Cannes film festival, and President Clinton’s inauguration.

Havens died suddenly of a heart attack, following several years of kidney issues. His cremated remains are scheduled to be scattered across Yasgur’s farm this summer, where the original Woodstock took place.

            You can check out some of the superb Richie Havens legacy at Cheshire Public Library with the following CD’s:

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