Beatles, Dylan, Who....Does every classic artist need an epic?

(Posted by Mark Caro)

The previous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame post got me thinking about long songs, such as those Yes opuses. My general notion of the so-called perfect pop song is that it’s about three minutes long, yet many of the rock era’s most celebrated artists have signature songs that are on the epic side.

For example…

The Beatles:  “Hey Jude” (7:11), “A Day in the Life” (5:35)

Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone” (6:13)

The Rolling Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil” (6:18)

The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (8:32)

Led Zeppelin: “Stairway to Heaven” (7:55), “Kashmir” (8:37)

Stevie Wonder: “Living for the City” (7:21), “Isn’t She Lovely” (6:34)

Neil Young: a bunch, including “Like a Hurricane” (8:20) and “Down by the River” (9:13)

Derek and the Dominos/Eric Clapton: “Layla” (7:05)

Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (5:57)

Prince: “Purple Rain” (8:41)

Pink Floyd: many, including “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (26:00 total), “Echoes” (23:32), “Comfortably Numb (6:23), “Money” (6:22)

Television: “Marquee Moon” (10:40)

Radiohead: “Paranoid Android” (6:27)

Wilco: “Misunderstood” (6:28), “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (6:57), “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (10:46)

Green Day: “Jesus of Suburbia” (9:08)

The bread-and-butter of most of these artists’ is not long songs — as opposed to, say, the Grateful Dead (particularly live) and various prog-era bands or funk artists such as James Brown, whose classic late ‘60s/early ‘70s period was defined by such extended workouts as “Cold Sweat” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”

And it’s not like this rule applies to all rock artists: my favorite songs by Elvis Costello, R.E.M. and many others are not their epics.

Then again, Meatloaf will always be known for “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (8:28), and let's not forget Lynryd Skynyrd's “Free Bird” (9:08).

I’ll also note that this is a guy-centric list. Patti Smith’s “Horses,” which she’ll play all the way through Friday at the Riviera in Chicago to celebrate her 70th birthday, includes two songs that top nine minutes (“Birdland” and “Land”) plus her six-minute “Gloria” interpretation, so those count, though “Because the Night,” “Dancing Barefoot” and “People Have the Power” remain her biggest “hits.” And Joni Mitchell liked to stretch out in the mid-late ‘70s — “Paprika Plains” off “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” took up an album side — though, again, that’s not what most people think of when they think of Joni Mitchell.

So I don’t see epic songs as being the signature tunes of female artists the way they are with many male ones — please let us know which ones we’re missing.

Oh, co-author Steve, I think of you as a relatively compact songwriter, yet “Mayfly,” which appears on Dolly Varden’s 2013 album “For a While” and may be your most beautiful song, clocks in at 6:44, and you have other long ones too, such as “The Wheels Have Left the Road” at 8:42.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been trying to write my own epic, more in what our book calls the Pop Epic tradition (lots of parts strung together--was the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away" the first?) as opposed to a Jam Epic or a song with a really long coda or solos. I’m still sussing out the dividing line between an epic and a medley (e.g. side two of “Abbey Road”).

So what’s the deal? If you have aspirations in the classic-rock tradition, is writing an epic something you inevitably must do? Which are your favorites?