These Are the Songs That Never End

Sugarhill Gang, Cat Power, Bob Dylan, Umm Kulthum. Photos: Getty Images/Matador Records

Ever since the length of a 10-inch phonograph record playing at 78 RPM set the standard, people have assumed that the default length of a song is, you know, three or four minutes, something like that. Of course, a lot of pre-recording-era songs were longer–sometimes much longer. One of the Child Ballads, the fifteenth-century showstopper “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” goes on for a staggering 456 verses.

Still, it’s always a bold move when certain kinds of musicians record songs that crack, or smash, the ten-minute wall. It’s not terribly surprising when jam bands or progressive-rock acts go on at enormous length, obviously. The current champion in that category would probably be the Flaming Lips’ 24-hour-long “7 Skies H3.” Here’s the first six hours of it.
Monologues that don’t have to rhyme or scan, like Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute-plus “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” can go on for a while too. The same goes for dance mixes, like the Orb’s 39:57 mix of their 1992 single “Blue Room,” which became the longest track ever to make the British singles charts. (The rule, in those days, was that any recording over 40 minutes long was counted as an album for chart purposes.)
And musicians whose art is built around improvisation or grooves often play a single number at great length. (There’s a probably apocryphal story about John Coltrane telling Miles Davis that he’d just played an epic solo because he couldn’t figure out how to stop, and Davis advising him to try taking the horn out of his mouth.) The legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum often drew out a single song for two hours or more. Let’s just take a moment to watch this classic performance by her, shall we? And by “a moment,” I mean “56 minutes.”

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