Longsongs #1

by Oliver Rose

I must start with an apology. After two previous forays (one into minimal wave synthesiser music, and another into a list of my sixty-nine favourite ‘songs about love’), you’d be forgiven for thinking I had something better to do. Unfortunately for us both, I don’t and so, beginning today, I hope to treat you to a weekly dose of opinion…

This time it’s all about long songs – anything over seven minutes, to be precise. I’ll investigate personal favourites, from that which just tips over 6:59, to the punishingly lengthy. Hopefully, there’ll be something for everyone here (don’t panic – it’s not all prog).

1. Europe Endless – Kraftwerk [9:42]

Released as: a B-side to the single Showroom Dummies [1977], taken from the album Trans-Europe Express [1977]; also featured on the same album.

What’s it about? Like many of the songs from Trans-Europe Express, Europe Endless is about travelling across the continent by rail. The passenger sees “parks, hotels and palaces”; “promenades and avenues”.

Length explored: By 1977, Kraftwerk had already thoroughly experimented with sprawling, progressive compositions on albums like Autobahn and their now deleted eponymous debut. The Trans-Europe Express period saw a fuller immersion into electronic music, dispensing with the flutes and cellos still occasionally audible on earlier records, and relying almost exclusively on analogue programming. Europe Endless is the record opener, building steadily on a single, cyclical melody that remains the last thing heard at the fade-out. After fully engaging at 1:25 into a softly buoyant rhythm, the song roves forward with a uniform pace similar to the transportation its lyrics describe. The composition remains largely unchanged until the introduction of a soloing, Theremin-like synthesiser texture at 7:00, which takes lead, snaking to the end of the song. Like Autobahn before it, part of Europe Endless’ charm is its unnecessary enormity – much like a continental commute, there’s a sensation that everything takes a needlessly long time. It’s a tonally beautiful thing though; the progression of the twinkly synthesiser sounds, whilst perhaps indulgent, is at least pretty.

Is this the best version? No. Kraftwerk’s English language recordings (a trend begun with this album) come across sounding quite stilted and awkward. Whilst many attribute a sort of kitschy, European appeal to this, it’s got to be said that the German originals are nearly always better – the music is identical, but the lyrics are often a better fit syllabically, with more natural rhyming sounds. (The German version of Europe Endless (Europa Endlos) is found on German pressings of the album, Trans-Europa Express). 

2. The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils – Morrissey [11:20]

Released as: a track on the album Southpaw Grammar [1995].

What’s it about? Ever heard the Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual? It’s the one about ‘belligerent ghouls [running] Manchester schools’ – teachers that want damning for their cruel mistreatment of innocent, gangly art students. Opening the seminal Meat Is Murder, it’s one of the band’s most-loved songs (Radiohead even did a fun cover of it during their webcast basement sessions). Ten years later, Morrissey would turn the tables for another album opener – this time for a solo record, entitled Southpaw Grammar. One of the heaviest, angriest records in his canon, Morrissey was never more firmly opposed to post-glam Brit-pop than in these eleven, nasty minutes. Brimming with squealing feedback and cascading drums, Morrissey now addresses the terror of misbehaving students and their militantly defensive parents, blind to the evils of their offspring – all this over a sinister sample of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Movement: Moderato.

Length explored: The Teachers Are Afraid… plays like two separate songs. A funeral-paced first half in which Morrissey elucidates on his nightmarish fantasy, concluding with the morbid assessment; “to be finished would be a relief.” At the 4:30 mark, the track takes a rip-roaring dive into aggressive guitar textures and savage, splashy drumming. Noise, noise, violence and noise before Morrissey returns, around the 8:00 mark, reprising the Day of the Dead-esque moan of complaining parents: “say the wrong word to our children – we’ll have you. Oh yes, we’ll have you.”

Is this the best version? It’s the best version I’ve heard, and the only officially released take available. Rumour has it there’s a thirteen-minute demo cut, and some live bootlegs too. Ultimately though, the only quality recording is this one, but because of Morrissey’s on-going legal disputes with just about every label ever, you can only hear it here: 

2. Sister Ray – The Velvet Underground [17:27]

Released as: a track on the album White Light/White Heat [1977].

What’s it about? An utterly debauched world of murder, sex and drugs. According to Lou Reed, the character of Ray is a transvestite heroin dealer – “the situation,” he said; “is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”

Length explored: Sister Ray begins life as a story and winds up just noise. Reed’s decaying characters fade quickly into nothing after only a few minutes, and the band’s hugely distorted instrumentation steals the stage. Reed returns around the 9:00, muttering about drug preparation and oral sex, but the avant-jazz nonsense quickly descends into further chaos and the sung element just evaporates, only to resurface again every couple of minutes with nothing further to offer. The raw, live aspect of this song sees the presence of instruments experimented with too, not just Reed’s vocal. Sterling Morrison, amazed at the volume of John Cale’s organ (routed through a distorted guitar amp), switches pickups near the beginning, and the entire band engages in a ‘rise and fall’, rotating dynamics game for the song’s second half.

Sister Ray was recorded in a single take as an extended jam. Regardless of what music critics have to say about its prominence in the history of experimental rock or indeed, the value of the song as an improvisational work, it’s inaccurate to describe it as anything other than extremely annoying. To my ears, that’s the point. It’s beautifully disgusting; a foul whimsy that multiplies, cancerously with every discordant, distorted noise. For its last two minutes, the song is almost entirely feedback and percussive shredding – it’s a violently provocative thing indeed.

Is this the best version? No. Live, the Velvet Underground was even more of an avant-garde tour de force than in the studio. In the case of this song, particularly, they often recorded more cleanly in concert. For my money, the ultimate Sister Ray, is the take recently included in the Complete Matrix Tapes box set, recorded sometime in late November 1968, and an almost grandiloquent 36:53 in length. It starts off slow but boy when it blows, take cover.