11 June 2008

Lo-o-o-o-ng songs

Brothers and sisters, I have been moved.

Moved by the power of soul music, none other.

And that's Soul with a capital S, people. The electric power of the mighty song, undivided, unmistakeable, unquenchable, unshakeable.

What have I heard? I have heard the siren call of the black prophet, the soul guru, the master of the rhythm. His name? It is Mister Isaac Hayes, brothers and sisters.

Okay, perhaps we can ratchet the soul fervour down a notch or two in the interest of readability and fleeting credibility. For those unaware, Isaac Hayes is probably most famous for two disparate appearances in the media spotlight. From 1996 to 2007 he provided the golden voice of the character ‘Chef’ in the scatological animated TV comedy programme South Park, until he resigned from the show (or someone resigned on his behalf – stories vary wildly) as a result of an episode ridiculing Tom Cruise and Scientology, the dubious sci-fi religion of which Hayes is also currently a member.

Hayes obtained more lasting fame two decades earlier with his career-defining ‘Theme From Shaft’ – a strutting, street-wise, genre-defining funk jam with an oh-so-cool delivery – for a low-budget blaxploitation epic. The theme went on to win Hayes an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1971, as the awards that had named the whiter-than-white ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from Mary Poppins as Best Song seven years before finally caught up with the notion of black music. The ‘Theme From Shaft’ also caught the spirit of the time, channelling the black liberation movement and the power of soul and R&B into a funky pop song without rival, and one that pushed the boundaries of possibilities.

But before Shaft, Isaac Hayes is credited with playing a major role in shaping the course of black music through the 1970s and beyond with his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul. On it, Hayes displayed his massive confidence and innovative approach to recording, in part by eschewing the standard short-format three minute single in favour of much longer soul workouts. The album contained only four tracks, and climaxes with a track that’s 18 minutes and 42 seconds long – the effortless mastery of Hayes’ radically revitalised cover of country artist Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’.

The track begins with a long Hayes monologue at the microphone, his band keeping time behind him as the audience is drawn ever closer into the story. Author Robert Gordon says:

‘the long intro was how he shifted the audience’s attention from their conversations to his. Toward the song’s end, when the protagonist accepts his fate and states, “I got to go on,” the horns break like sunshine through the clouds. It’s masterful arranging and early evidence of the great work that would come from this star on the rise’

Hearing ‘Phoenix’ got me thinking about relatively rare art of composing and performing long songs, particularly looking into the past from an age in which the short attention spans of the 1950s and 60s have returned and album sales are declining. Generally my collection tends towards the snappy three-minute pop songs of yore. Not being a devotee of progressive rock, in which interminable album workouts with one track per side were not unusual (1972’s ‘Close To The Edge’ by Yes with its one track Side A, I’m looking at you…), I have been relatively ignorant of the longest of the long songs. But a simple click of a mouse (to sort the music collection by track length) reveals a treasury of longer material that requires no special devotion to enjoy. So in the inimitable style of Nick Hornby and pop anoraks everywhere, here’s a personal top 10 of quality clock-botherers. You will detect a distinct vintage flavour…

1. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace [16:10] (live, 1972) – Better take your vitamins and have your bible handy for this one, and a hefty stack of handkerchiefs to mop your fervid brow because by the time you’ve relished the entirety of this gospel workout you’ll be: A) full of praise for the almighty Queen of Soul, and B) completely exhausted.

2. The Who – My Generation [15:46] (live, 1970) – From arguably the greatest live album in history, ‘Live At Leeds’, the world’s loudest rock band blast out the most epic student gig ever performed. Not only is this masterwork nearly five times longer than the single version of ‘My Generation’, as the planet-frightening battery of sound reaches its crescendo you can hear Pete Townshend having a little fun by playing a duet with the echoes of his electric guitar bouncing off the back wall of the venue. Vital listening for even the most cursory rock fan.

3. Santana – Soul Sacrifice [13:52] (live at Woodstock, 1969) – Okay, so it begins with a few minutes of hippie chanting and tin-clanging (‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’), but it melds so beautifully into the intro for Santana’s incendiary series of instrumental rock solos that the results are hard to believe. Such virtuoso guitar-playing! Such machine-gun drumming! Truly a moment when the hippie lovegods smiled down and said ‘the People heard Rock – and it was Good’.

4. Traffic – The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys [11:36] (1971) – From the album of the same name, this loping jazz-tinged rock wonder sneaks up on you and before you know it, you’re listening to a Capaldi/Winwood masterpiece of epic proportions. The fuzz-toned keys are a special treat.

5. Elton John – Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding [11:07] (1973) – a bifurcated piano-rock-and-synths epic, the swirling instrumental of Funeral For A Friend, in which Elton imagines the sort of music he’d like played at his own funeral, forms an overture for the stomping straight-ahead pop of Love Lies Bleeding. The opening track of legendary 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton opened his 2006 concert in Wellington with this number, thus ticking off my #1 wishlist song in one fell swoop.

6. The Stone Roses – Fool’s Gold [9:53] (1989) – Beloved of TV producers searching for propulsive music loops, the instigators of the dance-rock Madchester scene were never finer than in this, their creative apogee.

7. Patti Smith – Land: Horses / Land of a Thousand Dances / La Mer (De) [9:27] (1975) – How badly does rock music need another reinvention as powerful as the one punk poetess Patti Smith offered up in ’75? Momentum and throwaway cool are steeped through this and it’s still as exciting as the day it was recorded.

8. David Gray – Say Hello Wave Goodbye [8:59] (1999) – This warm, wistful ode to a lost love closes out the mega-selling ‘White Ladder’, Gray’s breakthrough album, but this track was written by Soft Cell’s Marc Almond. It allows Gray to stretch out his vocal chords on the outro and provides the perfect end to a classic fin-de-siecle album.

9. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Almost Cut My Hair [8:52] (1970) – How’s this for a hippie manifesto, in which refusing to shear those free-flowing locks becomes a statement of stoner empowerment, kickin’ it to The Man. Everyone sing along now: ‘I feel like letting my freak flag fly!’

10. Sparks – Number One Song In Heaven [7:30] (1979) – Giorgio Moroder worked his magic over an extraordinary cult disco classic to produce this stretched-limo version with its soothing intro half leaping headlong into the tautest, jumpiest, catchiest, daftest electro-disco blockbuster this side of Boney M. ‘Gabriel plays it, god how he plays it…’. How this only made #14 in the UK pop charts I’ll never know. The video version below omits the intro but is still ace:

What, only space for ten? I could go on: anyone who hasn’t definitely needs to hear John Hiatt’s 1993 live version of ‘Slow Turning’, Paul Weller’s ‘This Is No Time’ at the Albert Hall, and Bowie’s ‘The Width of the Circle’ from The Man Who Sold The World...
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