Since the dawn of rock, hit singles have always been about three minutes in length. Radio stations, hoping to play as many songs as possible, routinely refused to play any record that approached four minutes or more. Artists and record companies, hungry for a hit single, went along with the unwritten rule. And fans, with notoriously short attention spans, preferred short songs.
Bob Dylan broke new ground in 1965 with Like a Rolling Stone. Clocked at 6:34, the song surprised Columbia Records execs when it became a No. 2 hit. By the mid-‘60s, long album cuts were routinely shortened for release as singles although some artists with clout demanded their songs not be cut.
Here are our Top 11 Long Songs, each of them over seven minutes in length. If we’ve missed any of your favorites, please let us know in the comments below.
11. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking by the Rolling Stones 7:15
The Rolling Stones’ Can’t You Hear Me Knocking was never intended to reach its 7:15 length. The final two-thirds of the song is an extended jam that features solos by saxophonist Bobby Keys and guitarist Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones in 1969. The result was one the favorite tracks from the Stones’ 1971 LP Sticky Fingers.
Taylor told Jas Obrecht that his long solo “just happened by accident. I mean, that was never planned. At the very end of the song, I just felt like carrying on, playing, and everybody was kind of putting their instruments down. But the tape was still rolling and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. And it’s just a one-take thing.”
“We didn’t even know they were still taping,” Keith Richards once said. “We thought we’d finished. We were just rambling and they kept the tape rolling. I figured we’d just fade it off. It was only when we heard the playback that we realized, ‘Oh, they kept it going.’ Basically we realized we had two bits of music. There’s the song and there’s the jam.”
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking by the Rolling Stones
10. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel 7:37
Billy Joel’s Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is the longest of his studio recordings, a seven-minutes-plus epic that starts as a tender ballad about a reunion, becomes a funky rocker, then returns to the ballad in the restaurant where it started.
“I was trying to tell the story of the king and the queen of the prom,” Joel told Newsday. “These are our heroes. But they’re typically people who peak too early. If you’re too popular in high school you’re probably going to go downhill from there. That was the story I was trying to tell: Watch out for what you wish for ‘cause you might get it, and this is what might happen. That was written as its own song, The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie. And then I wrote the other pieces either prior to that or after that.
“I said, ‘Well it needs an intro. Oh, now the intro needs an intro.’ It was kind of based on side two of Abbey Road. I think the Beatles all came in with individual song fragments and George Martin helped them sew it all together. It’s looked on now as a work of genius but I said, ‘I know what happened. They didn’t finish the songs, they didn’t feel like it, and George Martin said, “Why don’t we do this?” and then they called it Golden Slumbers. That’s pretty much what I was going for, a long extended series of fragments sewn together to tell a story.”
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel
9. American Pie by Don McLean 8:33
Fans have tried to decipher the meaning of American Pie since its release in 1971. Singer-songwriter Don McLean has acknowledged that “the day the music died” was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a plane crash. The song’s eight-and-a-half minutes are dense with references to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and James Dean but McLean has said little in the past 40 years to identify characters like the jester, the good old boys drinking whiskey and rye and Miss American Pie.
“I’m very proud of the song,” McLean said on the Starry Starry Night DVD. “It is biographical in nature and I don’t think anyone has ever picked up on that. The song starts off with my memories of the death of Buddy Holly. But it moves on to describe America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become, so it’s part reality and part fantasy but I’m always in the song as a witness or as even the subject sometimes in some of the verses.”
In 2015, McLean sold the original 16-page manuscript of American Pie at auction for $1.2 million. “Basically, in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic,” McLean told People magazine. “It is a morality song in a sense. I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015 … there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of American Pie.”
American Pie by Don McLean
8. The End by the Doors 11:41
Before it was recorded for their debut album, the Doors in 1966 often performed The End at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go. The band expanded what was originally a short song into an 11-minute tour de force. Written by Jim Morrison, The End was controversial because of its spoken word section. Morrison says, “Father / Yes son? / I want to kill you / Mother, I want to…” followed by an unintelligible scream.
Morrison told Rolling Stone that the lyrics were based on ancient Greek drama. “Oedipus is a Greek myth. Sophocles wrote about it. I don’t know who before that. It’s about a man who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. Yeah, I’d say there was a similarity, definitely.
“But to tell you the truth, every time I hear that song, it means something else to me. I really don’t know what I was trying to say. It just started out as a simple goodbye song. Probably just to a girl, but I could see how it could be goodbye to a kind of childhood. I really don’t know. I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery that it could be almost anything you want it to be.”
The End by the Doors
7. I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) by Grand Funk Railroad 9:58
Grand Funk Railroad’s I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) is the tale of a ship captain facing mutiny by his crew. Written by guitarist Mark Farner in 1970, the song became popular with troops in Vietnam who hoped to survive and come home.
Farner told Review magazine that his inspiration came as he prayed at bedtime. “I asked God to give me a song that would reach and touch the hearts of the people God wanted me to touch. And he answered my prayer and that song came to me in the middle of the night. I’d never written lyrics first in any of my compositions, so it was a monumental moment for me. I got up at 5 a.m. and wrote the words down and went back to sleep. I got up the next day, watched the sun come up, grabbed my flattop guitar, and then the music came to me. I brought the lyrics in from the bedroom and started singing along. I took it to rehearsal the following day and the guys loved it. They knew it was a hit.”
The orchestral score by Tommy Baker, performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, extended the song to almost 10 minutes. “We weren’t concerned with FM radio. We knew FM radio could play seven- or eight-minute songs,” drummer Don Brewer told Songfacts. “So we knew that it could get airplay, that wasn’t a restriction. Capitol obviously wanted to cut it, do an edited version for a single and we said, ‘No, no, no, no, you can’t edit that song. Just leave it alone.’”
I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) by Grand Funk Railroad