Define “epic.” For classic literature fans, this can represent something like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Homer’s Odyssey; for rock music fans, the term is much less absolute. To us, one person might use “epic” as the go-to compliment for anything that makes them want to crank the volume knob to its most extreme clockwise position and go crazy. Whereas others may consider “epic” solely on the length of the song or its storytelling subject matter, particularly when discussing progressive rock, jazz fusion, jam bands, avant garde, black metal, or the like.
There are obvious references to pinpoint, bands such as Rush or Pink Floyd, and though they do make appearances here, my list today comes courtesy of a much wider variety. I tried my best not to place the majority of this list in any substantial order around significance, because I hold every selection and honorable mention in the highest regard. That being said, I avoided some of the more given song choices and brought you a collective that really shows what it takes to make a song longer than 10 minutes truly stick with you.
From blues to prog, from protest to parody, here are some of my personal favorite songs at over 10 minutes in length. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below at your own risk. As a noted aside, some of these entries are dedicated to those who have inspired my eclecticism over the years.
The whole of this project is dedicated respectfully to my great grandparents — you’ve lived long and fruitful lives, and this one’s for you. Thanks for the model car when I was a little boy, it’s been well taken care of. I promise, one of these days, I’ll drive a nice yellow ’64 Thunderbird, I’ll crank up the Johnny Cash, and think of you both all the way down I-40 in search of my own dreams.
Opeth – “To Bid You Farewell” (10:56)
When it comes to long songs, we have our pick of Opeth‘s repertoire; this Swedish metal band has enough on Deliverance and Morningrise alone to comprise a list by themselves. That being said, it was simply favoritism and a roll of the dice that brought me “To Bid You Farewell”, a brooding track suited for any funeral procession you can fathom.
Similar in musical style to the majority of a later release, Damnation, “To Bid You Farewell” is an absolutely beautiful song through and through with no bad traits at all. If for no other reasons, I included it as a nod to a spectacular band and a reminder that dark romanticism is not dead by a long shot, at least in the musical sense.
Temple Of The Dog – “Reach Down” (11:13)
Temple of the Dog is a unique specimen in terms of supergroups. Back in the days of early grunge, there was a band called Mother Love Bone led by front man Andrew Wood; this band, which included future members of the alternative awesomeness called Pearl Jam, released one full-length LP and broke up due to Wood’s untimely demise. Wood’s former college roommate, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame, decided the best approach would apparently be a band tribute — a one-off shotgun blast of depth, a labor of love and loss.
Loaded with some of the best rock songs ever written during that time period, a collaboration with Eddie Vedder, and a profoundly bleak yet powerfully moving catalog of lyrics, Cornell and Mother Love Bone crafted Temple Of The Dog’s solitary eponymous release. It includes the famous-in-its-simplicity single “Hunger Strike”, the fast-paced “Pushin’ Forward Back”, the haunting “Wooden Jesus”, and the anthem-like ballad “Say Hello 2 Heaven”. In the midst of it all, there is “Reach Down”, an unlikely contender for its position and a sign that even the best of us need to just let it all out.
Also, a fun fact: Pearl Jam did a cover of this particular song on one of their Ten Club Christmas Singles – thought you should know, it’s that good.
Neil Young – “Cowgirl In The Sand” (10:03)
Neil Young is considered a godfather of grunge rock due to his vocal style among other things. While not a terribly big sensation with today’s youth, Young has consistently proven himself a viable artist on many fronts, and “Cowgirl In The Sand” is sustainable evidence of his blues roots, as well as his ever-present relevance in modern rock music.
While not necessarily an “epic” song, “Cowgirl In The Sand” is chosen for both its (albeit narrow) time prerequisite of just over 10 minutes, along with its stability as a tightly-written song on the whole. I am positive that, as our lovely readership, you can think of a hundred other reasons why Young snagged his spot here: the lovingly dated feel of the song itself, the imagery it invokes, along and along we go. “Cowgirl In The Sand” is a relatively peaceful stop here, so take a moment and ingest it, will you? We still have lots to do, but lots of time to do it, and yes, The Doors are here too.
I put this song ahead of “Reach Down” as a clear statement to Young’s influence on Cornell and Vedder, as if it wasn’t already a clue.
Rush – “Cygnus X-1″ Duology” (10:25/18:04)
In multiple circles, Rush fans dub “2112” the band’s magnum opus. Here, today, I say unto you: read the storyline for these two pieces from Cygnus X-1 (courtesy of Wikipedia), both of which run over 10+ minutes each, and tell me that is not a bad-ass science fiction short story waiting to happen.
While “2112” is a significant work in the Rush catalog on even concept alone, the Cygnus Duology, linked between A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres, is a definitive pair of pieces in terms of scale, style, and depth of subject matter. Thank you to Neil Peart for bringing that kind of fantasy mentality to Rush, otherwise we would still be sitting on the Canadian Zeppelin sound of Rush ’74 (though “Working Man” still kicks ass).
Fantomas – “Delìrium Còrdia” (74:14)
If you have read my Icons Of Rock article on Mike Patton, or if you happen to keep up with his work regardless, then you have most likely heard of Fantomas. Explaining Fantomas to a newcomer is, to say the least, equivalent to breaking down physics and Dillinger Escape Plan album art for a fifth grader (now who’s smarter, Foxworthy?); in the vein of Patton’s experimental nature, Fantomas is a strange beast with a fixation on obscure foreign cinema (see: Suspended Animation, the eponymous debut, and Director’s Cut).
As for “Delìrium Còrdia”, at over 74 minutes, it is a song that literally makes up the entirety of its namesake album. Subtitled with the phrase “Surgical Sound Specimens From The Museum of Skin”, the album’s proper name is strictly Delìrium Còrdia and it is…Vitalogy‘s packaging with Pearl Jam replaced by Vincent Price and Beaker’s pistachio-headed friend from The Muppet Show after a Lost Highway screening. And it starts off quiet, too quiet.
I have no more appropriate adjectives.
“Weird Al” Yankovic – “Albuquerque” (11:25)
Despite the popularity of Bad Hair Day three years prior to this song, “Weird Al” Yankovic was something of a guilty pleasure for people in my age group up until 1999’s Running With Scissors. “The Saga Begins” (a parody of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, written to the storyline of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) and “It’s All About The Pentiums” (a parody of Puff Daddy & The Family’s “It’s All About The Benjamins [Shot-Caller Rock Remix]”) suddenly made “Weird Al” cool again pre-“Couch Potato” with pop culture enthusiasts who had just kissed the ’90s goodbye while rocking fitted, red Yankees hats. Was my high school experience awesome or what?
I give you “Albuquerque” because I feel “Weird Al”‘s work has been snubbed far too many times by the Walk Of Fame committee. Satire and parody, while today are systematically palmed to YouTube for “meme”-ing purposes, is a natural extension of creativity in musical comedy. “Albuquerque”, a style parody of The Rugburns (otherwise remembered for “Suburbia” from Bio-Dome, a movie named in this song) is Al’s longest studio recording; alongside “White & Nerdy” and “One More Minute”, here is proof that “Weird Al” cannot only sing and rap (Chamillionaire said so, and look who outlasted who), but can do some wicked improv. It was once thought by some that you were nobody big if you hadn’t been parodied by “Weird Al”, so Mr. Yankovic — this one’s for you.
To its discredit, though, I happen to like sauerkraut, at least with my bratwursts.
Arlo Guthrie – “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (18:34)
We have to love hippies, yes? Hippies gave us counter-culture that actually once represented more than passive awareness, a great nostalgic ideal to milk for profit (i.e. “flares” or bell-bottoms), and the prop comic known as Gallagher, but aside from destroyed watermelons, we give you Arlo Guthrie.
Guthrie is a hippie to the bone, and if there were ever solid proof of that, it is here at “Alice’s Restaurant”. Clocking in at over 18 minutes, this full-side of an LP tells the story of draft dodging, mole hills turned mountains, generosity, and disproportionate law enforcement prioritization in a humorous-but-important light. Though focused in the era of Vietnam, this piece shows little wear and tear in the dating process and is a healthy reminder that free speech, when used responsibly, can truly take on a most interesting persona.
To further show this selection’s importance, it is still played yearly over terrestrial radio in its entirety. We could not make this up if we tried. Also, the title is not a mistake, its official spelling includes “massacree”.
The Allman Bros. Band – “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed (Live)” (13:04)
Anyone who knows me is aware of my fascination with the Allman Brothers. While most of my love for this band lies in its singles, “Whipping Post” is, to date, one of my favorite songs of all time. This band landed on my controversial Top 10 Stoner Albums list back in 2009 and most certainly comes ’round the bend again with “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed (Live)”.
This particular version of the recording is a landmark piece and can be found on the Allman Brothers’ live album At Fillmore East. What makes the song unique, besides its sound in general, is that the live version specifically was added to with improvisation, which then signified it as a practically altogether new piece. “Elizabeth Reed”, in studio form, barely crosses the six-minute mark, and here we are onto 13 with no slack and no throwaway bits.
People who love jam bands and prog rock will tell you it takes a significant amount of skill to craft songs of this length or greater without coming off stagnant halfway or obnoxiously artsy entirely. The Allman Brothers succeed at turning one simple jam session into a real experience live — one to be relived over and over again.
The Doors – “When The Music’s Over” (11:06)
Strange Days, the album from which this song hails, is considered a sophomore slump by some and an eclectic masterwork by others, depending upon who you ask. While The Doors‘ eponymous debut and their third release, Waiting For The Sun, did better overall on sales, Strange Days comes complete with at least three of The Doors’ best known singles: “Love Me Two Times”, “People Are Strange” (later covered by Echo & The Bunnymen for The Lost Boys soundtrack), and our list-maker, “When The Music’s Over”.
“When The Music’s Over” stakes its claim here for at least three reasons: adding “The End” was way too predictable, The Doors are a landmark band with a very iconic musical style that I cannot overlook, and this song’s title is significant given its run time of nearly 11 minutes. “When The Music’s Over” has elements that reference The Doors’ first release, such as a piano riff akin to “Soul Kitchen” and a lyric delivery in parts similar to “End Of The Night”. While “The End” showcases more of Morrison’s true soul as the archetypal free verse poet of the hippie movement, “When The Music’s Over” brings everything The Doors have to the table.
Jim Morrison was not originally present for the recording session of this multi-faceted jazz and soul number. After Manazarek laid his vocals, Mr Mojo Risin came in to rerecord, and here you have it.
Pink Floyd – “Dogs” (17:08)
It was difficult for me to select a single piece from the Floyd. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, the Syd Barrett tribute from Wish You Were Here, demonstrates powerful orchestration in an elaborate suite of imagery and sound; “Echoes” is a good 23+ minutes of pure Floyd psychedelia; “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, from Atom Heart Mother, is an amalgam of those traits in early Floyd work.
“Dogs” comes from the five-song concept recording, Animals. The album’s overall premise is starkly simple, unlike more layered psychological fare, such as The Wall or Dark Side: humans paralleled as dogs (the lower class and the poor), sheep (general middle-class consumers scrambling up our ladder), and pigs (social elite) are in a manner loosely indicative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; book-ending the album are two short parts of a love song written by Roger Waters for his wife at the time.
The lyrics are some of the best I’ve ever heard, inspiring a good deal of my creative writing projects. Use of vox effects, such as morphing the sung word “stone” into the mimicry of a barking dog, make this Peter Frampton’s personal albatross. Unlike most of Pink Floyd’s longer arrangements, “Dogs” bears a solidarity that, upon hearing it in context or otherwise, makes you forget the clock altogether. It is a 17+ minute epic, a maniacal and very superbly sculpted poem about a dog-eat-dog reality, and my favorite Floyd song, period.