The perfect length
By ProgBlog, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM
I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.
It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.
I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.
So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.
I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.
It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.
The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.
In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.