Recently, Bob Dylan made headlines for topping a Billboard chart for the first time in his 60-year career as a recording artist. "Murder Most Foul" topped the trade publication's Rock Digital Sales chart for its 10,000 downloads and 1.8 million on-demand U.S. streams. Amazingly, he did it with a 17-minute elegy that pinpoints President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 as the starting point in the erosion of America's moral compass. That is heady stuff for a nation of 328.2 million shut-ins to ponder over.
It makes you wonder if all bets are off in the digital age. We may finally be ready for a 17-minute No. 1 on the pop charts the year after we pushed "Old Town Road," the Lil Nas X chart-topper with the shortest playing time for a pop No. 1 hit after (Maurice Williams and The Zodiac's "Stay" which was an economical 1:36 running time in 1960).
Let's consider all the hits that have pushed the turntable time restrictions of their day and gone all the way to the top with songs longer than you can hold your breath. And please, don't hold your breath.
'What'd I Say (Parts 1 & 2)' — Ray Charles (1959)
Although it only made it as far as No. 6 on the Hot 100, this R&B No. 1 is crucial in the history of songs with long playing times before 1968. Atlantic sliced this into two unequal parts on 45 rpm, and it's the nearly two-minute second part, which is the rave-up at the end, that became the hit. Kinda like Atlantic taking "Stairway to Heaven" and just releasing the climactic guitar solo as a single.
'El Paso' by Marty Robbins (1959)
With Westerns making a killing on television in the late '50s, Columbia Records seized on the commerciality of this gunfighter ballad. They prepared a "Special Edition Radio Version" for DJs only with a radically butchered two-minute, 58-second playing time that was never commercially issued. When interviewed for this publication in 2000, Marty Robbins' son Ronny said, "It makes me upset just listening to it now. It's not only butchered, but they also sped it up a third, so he sounded like Mickey Mouse." Sony/Legacy must've agreed; they kept it off the remastered CD reissue. "I'm not sure they even have that mix," said Ronny Robbins. "But I hope they microwaved it or something."
'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' — The Righteous Brothers (1964)
The label listed the song's playing time as 3:05 to ensure Top 40 stations would play it. The ruse was only discovered after it became a huge hit. By 1999, it was ranked it the most-played song on American radio and television in the 20th century, having accumulated more than 8 million spins. Yes, producer Phil Spector lied to us all. What are we going to do? Throw him in jail for life?
'MacArthur Park' — Richard Harris (1968)
Sure, Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was defiantly released in 1965 as a single at its full 6:13 second length with no radio edit ever provided and made it all the way to No. 2. But Richard Harris' impassioned bawling of Jimmy Webb's cantata about exposing a cake to the elements pushed the envelope of how long a pop song could be even longer and made all the way to ... No. 2.
Why mention it here? Because it topped the charts in Australia and Canada, and eventually in the U.S. when Donna Summer covered it and issued a truncated 3:59 single edit and a bloated "MacArthur Park Suite" issued on 12-inch, which supersized the song to almost 18 minutes. It topped Billboard's Hot Dance Club Song Chart without even one orgasmic moan, but a bunch of witch cackles. But nothing will ever top the batshit crazy of Richard Harris bloviating over a confectionary, and then the nearly three-minute go-go section where he rushes it to ER for a green icing rescue.
'Hey Jude' — The Beatles (1968)
Not to be outdone by Dumbledore, the Beatles stretched McCartney's blissfully benevolent anthem to 7:11 with a mile-long fadeout that starts with the "na na na na na na na na" mantra at a little over the three-minute mark. Immediately following the Beatles' nine weeks at No. 1, endless repetitive codas became de rigueur in 1969. Witness The Fifth Dimension's "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" (4:49), Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" (5:10), Donavan's "Atlantis" (4:58), and Steam's "Na Na Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" which copies the "na nas" and the "heys" minus "Jude" for much of its comparatively conservative 3:45 playing time.
'Isn't It a Pity' — George Harrison (1970)
Despite its Utopian stirrings, there was a lot of tension at the recording session for "Hey Jude." First, some of the orchestra session musicians balked at getting double pay and refused to clap and sing "na-na" along with their employers. That was after McCartney already had a heated exchange about not wanting Harrison to play answering licks to his vocals.
The Quiet Beatle was vindicated when Wilson Pickett covered "Hey Jude" soon after and session guitarist Duane Allman did that very thing. And when "Isn't It a Pity," a song bemoaning the bitchiness that was The Beatles in its death throes, was released as a double A-side with "My Sweet Lord," it technically was listed as No. 1. It was also preferred over "My Sweet Lord" in Canada, where it was listed as the No. 1 topside. Essentially it's a somber reconstruction of "Hey Jude" that deliberately clocks in one second shy of the Beatles' largest hit. It doesn't get much bitchier than that.
'American Pie' — Don McLean (1971)
Many writers have already pointed out that McLean's eight-minute and thirty-three-second madrigal about America's loss of innocence covers a lot of the same turf as "Murder Most Foul" in half the time. Maybe if McLean had given himself a larger palette, he too might have referenced the Birdman of Alcatraz and Harold Lloyd.
'Papa Was a Rolling Stone' — The Temptations (1972)
This scary elegy to a deadbeat dad was 11:46 on the full-length album version. AM radio DJs needing a bathroom break would play the long version long after bedtime when the kids were asleep. The Temptations didn't sing a syllable until almost four minutes had passed on the long version, leading to you believe something terrible had happened to them. They were being neglected not by a no-good dad but by their record producer Norman Whitfield who would deemphasize the vocals even further after this recording won three Grammys, including one for Best R&B Instrumental.
'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' — Elton John (1975)
'Silly Love Songs' — Wings (1976)
'Hotel California' — Eagles (1977)
For an era noted for its excesses like the late '70s was, it's a wonder that only three chart-toppers flirted with longer AM singles with no radio edits till the end of the decade. This is because if you're a producer snorting cocaine off a stripper's tit on the record company's dime, you give the label a 12-inch mix, a video mix, an instrumental version, a disco club mix, and an album version just to throw the accountants off.
'We Are The World' — USA For Africa (1985)
Four-minute plus singles were becoming the norm in the '80s. It took a lot of all-star power for this charity record to go over six minutes and crest the Top 100. Despite its good intentions, the general criticism of this exercise is that unlike Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas," the focus seems to be more on the giver than the recipient of the charity. The lyric "We're saving our own lives" glows with the self-importance as someone who believes they are the world's redeemer for bringing a canvas bag to Target.
'Father Figure' — George Michael (1987)
Nothing sounds the importance bell more loudly than a slow single with no compromising radio edits. I like to think that the record company first asked the ex-Wham member to do a radio edit of "Faith" that didn't repeat the title so much. "Look here, I've gotta have 'faith.' Furthermore, I've gotta have 'faith faith.' And most importantly. I've gotta have 'faith faith faith.'"
'I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)' — Meat Loaf (1993)
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In 1983, songwriter Jim Steinman had to whittle down a six-minute and fifty-nine seconds of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to a reasonable four and a half minutes to get radio play. Steinman was further vexed when told he had to prune the full 12-minute version of this song down to something more reasonable.
Life is too short to list which things Meat Loaf wouldn't do for love in the U.S. (at 5:13) that he would still do in the U.K. (at 7:52) Amazingly, they didn't take a razor to the line they had to censor for the Just Say No America organization, where he prays "to the god of sex and drums and rock and roll."
To date, no song that has topped the charts since Mr. Loaf exceeded six minutes. The closest any record has come is "I'm Your Angel," a 1998 duet by Celine Dion and R. Kelly that clocked in at 5:32, and "What Goes Around.../...Comes Around (Interlude)," a 2006 hit by Justin Timberlake that he wouldn't shear down from 5:13.
I wonder what the god of sex and drums and rock 'n' roll would have to say about that?