New Musical Express advert, 20 August 1965
In the classic British pantomime there will be a sword fight between (say) Aladdin, played by a girl dressed as a boy, and the wizard. The short Aladdin will draw his short little sword, and the taller villain will waggle his longer sword and say, “Ah, mine is longer than yours.” Wink to the adults in the audience. To which in time honoured fashion, Aladdin will say, “It’s not how long it is. It’s what you do with it that counts.” A double entendre beloved by British theatre goers for a hundred Christmases.
Was there a magic length for singles? A single is louder than an EP, which in turn is louder than an LP.
LPs suffer after the length of a side gets to 22 minutes or less. If you compress more onto the grooves, volume and frequency range suffer. On every LP, the sound as the grooves get towards the centre will not be as loud as from the grooves on the outside edge and frequency will degrade slightly. Frank Zappa reckoned eighteen minutes was the magic length:
Frank Zappa: One of the things you have to think about when you are sequencing an album is what kind of song you’re going to end each side with because the tone quality is going to suffer on that song. It’s always better to go with something that is softer as the last song on each side, because if you want to save your hottest number until the last cut on an album, it’s not going to sound as loud. It’s hard to keep the level if the side goes over 18 minutes. I’m trying to put the most powerful cuts on the outside of the groove so I have all the top and bottom left, but sometimes I can’t do that.
Modern Recording, March 1978
On their 1985 reunion tour, after a back-to-back series of classics, Don Everly apologised for breaking their two-and-a-half minute “rule” before playing their then current single, written for them by Paul McCartney, On the Wings of A Nightingale. As the live Everly Brothers Reunion album later proved, they’d been breaking that rule all night, but the point was valid. You had the sense of material being played at its original recorded length.
Something So Right: Paul Simon, CBS, 1973. While there is something so right about the 2m 30s single, this one is 4m 32s.
There is something so right about condensing a pop song to two to two and a half minutes. If it’s under 1 minute 50 seconds, it’s noticeably short. Thomas Wayne’s Saturday Date (London 1959) is 1 minute 31 seconds. He got his Saturday date over with unfortunate haste. Must have been ‘the lipstick from your kiss’ that brought it to a premature conclusion. Skinny Lizzy by Bobby Angelo & The Tuxedos (HMV, 1961) is another slim 1m 31s.
Stay: Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs, Top Rank, 1960 1m 38 s
Stay by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs had little more staying power (well, they were young) and was held to be the shortest charting single for years, at 1m 38s. However, Some Kinda Earthquake by Duane Eddy is claimed to be 1m 17s.
Mail Myself To You: Pete Seeger, CBS, 1963, B-side of Little Boxes 1, 08 s,
Pete Seeger undercut Stay by a full thirty seconds on Mail Myself To You. The breakneck live performance (on the B-side of Little Boxes) is 1 minute 8 seconds. This Woody Guthrie song is the inspiration for The Gift, a narrative by John Cale on the Velvet Underground’s second album in 1968, White Light / White Heat. The story of mailing oneself to a girlfriend because you cant afford the fare is developed to a macabre finale by John Cale when she decides to use a pair of long kitchen scissors to open the unexpected parcel. Like Murder Mystery on the third Velvet Underground album, it is best appreciated with the stereo balance control turned entirely to one side so as to appreciate the lyric while minimizing the thrash backing, and Guthrie’s succinct one minute song is replaced by Cale’s 8 minutes 16 seconds.
Long records weren’t new by 1964, though records aimed at BBC play and the charts avoided breaking the three minute barrier. Ray Charles’ What’d I Say had had to be broken into two parts as the A and B sides of this 1959 single. A few years later the total playing time of six and a half minutes would have been relayed unbroken on just one side.
Pre-1964 exceptions like the four-minute Dr Kitch by Lord Kitchener on Island’s Jump Up! sub-label could afford to ignore all the rules as the ska / calypso market didn’t rely on airplay (and didn’t get any). Those early Island releases were sold in West Indian barber’s shops and grocers, mainly in London and Birmingham. They spread by word of mouth and via house parties, and had no place on BBC radio. Even ones that sold well never got anywhere near the charts, which were based on conventional record stores, plus Woolworths and W.H. Smith.
The boys tell me they hope to do better with their second disc. I’m surprised by their choice: House of The Rising Sun (Columbia), a slow moody blues once made famous by blues singer Josh White. Mind you, it’s very catchy and might just click.
(Ken Bow, Fabulous magazine, June 1964)
(It) was played by so many groups in the old Skiffle era, and is now given the R ‘n’ B-type style of The Animals on their second Columbia release. The boys’ own performance is milder and much more gentle than their last and I think the song doesn’t come off so well from this particular treatment. The dominant feature is the organ, and the vocal is for the most part indistinct. The slow tempo rather accentuates the repetitious phrases from the organ … one that doesn’t quite come off for me.
(Peter Aldersley, Pop Weekly, June 1964)
The House of The Rising Sun: The Animals, Columbia 1964
UK #1 July 1964; US #1 September 1964
The first long record to top the chart was House of The Rising Sun by The Animals, a record that led to acrimony within the group, as only Alan Price had realized the significance in royalties gained by attaching “Traditional. Arr. A. Price” as the songwriting credit on the disc. The sheet music has just “words and music by Alan Price.” Years later a reunion tour foundered when the other guys suggested Alan Price might like to cut them in retroactively. Burdon has said it was EMI’s fault because there wasn’t enough room to list all the names on the label and Alan Price was first in the alphabet. Right. But only if you don’t understand how to list names alphabetically by surname. Both Burdon and Chas Chandler would have come before Alan Price. Sorry, Eric. Also Price’s Vox Continental organ part was what distinguished it from other worthy versions.
Eric Burdon nowadays maintains they were covering the old blues versions, and that he first heard it done by folk singer Johnny Handle. Though he’d told Fabulous magazine it was Josh White. Alan Price maintained it was a 16th century English song about a Soho brothel. Take those with a large pinch of salt. The fact that they had also lifted their previous single, Baby Let Me Take You Home, from the same Bob Dylan album which featured House of The Rising Sun, confirms that they were covering Dylan. Baby Let Me Take You Home was Baby Let Me Follow You Down with more teen-friendly lyrics. In an interview at the time in 1964, Burdon said as much about the Dylan influence, which is why I went out and bought that first Bob Dylan album. The influence worked both ways as Dylan has said he was inspired to go electric and feature organ prominently because of The Animals (or in other interviews, Manfred Mann.) House of The Rising Sun was 4 minutes 29 seconds in the UK version, but was edited to 2 minutes 58 seconds in the USA.
Four and a half minutes would have meant a considerable quality and volume drop a few years earlier, but Mickie Most who produced it said We’re in a microgroove world now. We will release it. In other words the grooves were akin to an EP.
Length was still an airplay problem early in 1965. The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling ran to 03:50. Phil Spector blithely had 03:05 put on the American labels because he felt the truth would stop DJ’s playing it. Most of us would think, hang on, they’ll find out as soon as they play it, but Phil’s ruse worked. It got to #1.
Bob Dylan …
Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan, CBS, 1965, 6 m 09 s
Sticking with Dylan and electric organs, the next long one was Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, which pushed DJs further past their three minute barrier, coming in at 6 minutes 9 seconds. It’s listed on the LP as 5 minutes 59 seconds. “Over 6 minutes” would have been more daunting. Columbia initially rejected it as a single release, but Bob Johnston, the producer, put it out anyway, then CBS went with it and boasted of its length.
With God On Our Side: Bob Dylan CBS, France, 1966
When Bob Dylan toured in 1966, a French disc of With God On Our Side / Motorpsycho Nitemare was released. They split the title track, so side one is (Debut) and runs to 5m 21s, while side 2 continues with (Fin) at 1m 43 s, then Motorpsycho Nitemare adds another 4m 31s. What is odd is most French 45s were EPs anyway which would have accommodated it.
Bob Dylan had changed the concept of what a “track” was on records from near the beginning. He seemed most happy at four to six minutes. However, he didn’t object when The Byrds reduced Mr Tambourine Man to 2 minutes 20 seconds and hat a hit.
By Another Side of Bob Dylan, the times were a-lengthening.
- Chimes of Freedom (Another Side of Bob Dylan) 1964 7 m 09 s
- Ballad in Plain D (Another Side of Bob Dylan) 1964 8m 15s
- Mr Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home) 1965 5m 25s
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream (Bringing It All Back Home) 1965 6m 29s
- It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home) 1965 7m 30s
- Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited) 1965 5m 59s (or 6m 09 s)
- Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited) 1965 11m 18s
- Stuck Inside of Mobile (With The Memphis Blues Again) (Blonde on Blonde) 1966 7m 05s
- Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde) 1966 11m 23s
Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands occupied the entire fourth side of the Blonde on Blonde album.
By 1975, he solved the problem of length by having one side of Hurricane as an edit at 45 rpm, with the full LP version at 8m 34s on the B-side playing at 33 1/3 rpm, It came from the album Desire which also had Joey running to 11m 05s
Bob Dylan hadn’t finished. Fast Forward to 2020 and the virtual single Murder Most Foul was released in advance of Rough & Rowdy Ways, where it becomes a second CD in the album on its own. It runs to 16 minutes 55 seconds. The first CD has tracks ranging in length from 4 minutes 13 seconds … Black Rider … to 9 minutes 34 seconds for Key West (Philosopher Pirate).
Murder Most Foul: Bob Dylan, Columbia / Sony 2020. Compact disc, 16m 55 s
Back to the rest …
Fakin’ It by Simon & Garfunkel was released as a single, and they faked it. It was 3m 14s, so too long for some stations, so it’s printed on the label as 2m 74 seconds.
Richard Harris’s version of Jimmy Webbs MacArthur Park ran to 7 minutes 20 seconds and was #4 in June 1968,
Hey Jude: The Beatles, Apple, 1968
Soon afterwards, Hey Jude by The Beatles became the longest chart topping single, coming in at 7 minutes 11 seconds in September 1968. I Keep Singing That Same Old Song by Heavy Jelly broke the eight-minute barrier on Island in 1969.
American Pie – Part One: Don McLean, United Artists, 1971
American Pie further destroyed length restrictions in 1971 at 8 minutes 33 seconds, and 4 minutes 11 seconds just for Part One. Initially, most US stations opted to play side two only, but the popularity of the song led to a groundswell of complaints, forcing radio stations to play the LP version.
Bohemian Rhapsody: Queen, EMI, 1975
By 1975 the six-minute single was common. Examples include 10 cc’s I’m Not In Love (6m 08s), Rod Stewart’s The Killing of Georgie (6m 28s) and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at 5m 59s. Even so, record executives told Queen that Bohemian Rhapsody was too long and would never be a hit.
Longer singles reflected the fewer but longer tracks on LPs, although LPs still had an overall limit of 22 to 24 minutes a side before sound-quality deteriorated.
Budget labels like K-Tel were coming in with TV promoted LPs at 30 minutes a side, but they were very quiet and sounded poor even on cheap stereos. They managed to squeeze ten to twelve tracks on each side. The first one was tempting with 22 or 24 recent hits, but after you’d heard one, that was enough.
Greater length (and self indulgence) had to wait until compact disc pushed the album length from 50 minutes (2 x 25) maximum, to 72, then 75 and eventually 80 minutes. More did not mean better.
Love To Love You Baby: Donna Summer, GTO, 1975. Seriously edited 45 version
Love To Love You Baby: Donna Summer, GTO, 1975 Side one of the LP is what DJs played. 16 m 50s
However, one of the most influential singles ever (see GTO) was Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby, at nearly seventeen minutes, or the whole first side of the LP. The 45 single is an edit.
The long disco mix issue was solved by the introduction of the 12″ single … the best way to enjoy Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
Computer Game(Theme From Invaders): Yellow Magic Orchestra, , 1980
In 1980, all previous records for short singles were comprehensibly trounced by The Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Computer Game (Theme From The Invaders), coming in at 22 seconds. This is in every chart as the charting title track (UK#17), even if it was a three-track single and their 22 second hymn to the then-new Space Invaders game was followed by 2m 12s of Firecracker on the same side.
Blue Room: The Orb, Big Life CD, 1992 39m 57 s
Ambient house music made the record for longest single go up in leaps and bounds. The Orb’s Blue Room (Big Life Records) is the longest single ever to chart in the UK, reaching #8 in 1992. It’s 39 minutes 57 seconds long, and would have been longer except that Gallup ruled that anything over 40 minutes was an LP. The basic artifact is the CD version. There’s also a 12” vinyl version clocking in at 18 minutes 45 seconds for Part 1 and 19 minutes 01 seconds for Part 2. Understandably there’s no 7 “ single, but one CD version includes a 4 minute 09 second radio edit called “Blue Room 7 inch”.
Help the DJ …
House of The Rising Sun, stored in a British radio station sleeve. Note: Intro length / Total duration / fades, ends information … which hasn’t been filled in.
In North America, singles always had the length printed on the centre. British singles generally didn’t on the general releases, but did on the demo copies. Those that did put the times on ordinary releases (e.g. CBS), put the time less prominently on British versions. Conversely, British singles always put the year on the label, American singles rarely do.
American DJs were working to tighter formats, and due to the number of smaller radio stations were far more likely to be working solo without an engineer sitting in the next room to tell them these details. But in any case, DJs were usually playing promo / demo versions, so that doesn’t explain the difference in style.
White Rabbit: Jefferson Airplane, RCA Gold Standard reissue, 2m 29s
Backstabbers: O’Jays, CBS 1972. 3m 07s
Compare the American RCA reissue of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, with a British CBS version of Back Stabbers. Find the playing times on the labels. A perfect 2m 29s for White Rabbit, 3m 07 s for Back Stabbers.
White Rabbit, in this RCA Gold Standard reissue, also tells the DJ when it was first recorded, right down to the date 3rd November 1966 … something to tell the listeners.
I’ll repeat the reference chart: