Timing is everything (v2.42)

Larry Levine, the engineer at L.A.’s Gold Star Studios, was the man who built Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, so if anyone could confirm an old legend, he could:

At nearly four minutes long, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was a lengthy single by radio standards of the era. “It was running 3:50, and Phil was really worried that no DJs would play it,” Levine recalls. “So I suggested that we mark the record 3:05, and if anyone asked we could say it was a typo. Phil went along with that. We knew the programmers would figure it out after they listened to it. But at least it made sure that it got played once. It’s a good thing, too.”

Which is by way of reminding you of this item from 2005:

What makes the perfect song? Rich Appel, in his monthly newsletter Hz So Good, proposes criteria: “To me, the perfect song is about 2:30, has a beginning, middle and end, and is easy to sing along with.”

Hard to argue with that, though I’d stretch it out a few more seconds; seemingly every Motown hit up through 1967 or so ran somewhere between 2:40 and 3:00.

The sweet spot, argues Joshua Allen, is 2:42:

My scientists told me that the perfect song length had to be closer to three minutes than two, but definitely shorter than three minutes. Three minutes is where bloat starts to set in. Where the band thinks: Hey, let’s do the chorus seven times. Hey, let’s give the saxophone guy a real moment to shine on this one. Hey, let’s add another bridge…

The scientists then dug up this song by a group that pretty much defines one-hit wonder: the La’s. The song is “There She Goes,” and is so flawless that it instantly made everything else the band did pointless. This ditty is two minutes and 42 seconds, and is all about songwriting economy.

Allen also points to the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita” as an exemplar of the breed:

It delivers that psychedelic vibe and a coda but then gets the hell out of your life.

The Fab Four’s exquisite sense of timing — “Hey Jude” and “Revolution #9” aside — is manifest elsewhere: “Eight Days a Week” comes in at 2:42, as do three songs from the White Album (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Birthday” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”). Weirdly, or maybe not so weirdly, Underground Sunshine’s slavish cover of “Birthday” also ran 2:42.

Allen offers a proposed mix tape of songs running 2:42. I’d like to suggest a few more:

  • “Love Me Tender” (Elvis Presley)
  • “Ooh Baby Baby” (The Miracles)
  • “California Nights” (Lesley Gore)
  • “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin)
  • “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Glen Campbell)
  • “Midnight Confessions” (The Grass Roots)
  • “Down on the Corner” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

All of these conform to Allen’s dictum:

When [the song] is over, I guarantee absolutely no one in the room goes: “Jesus, finally.”

(About the title: I’ve had two previous posts with this name.)





10 comments

  1. Jeffro »

    18 April 2008 · 12:03 pm

    Unlike “Inna Gadda Davida,” which was way too long.

  2. McGehee »

    18 April 2008 · 1:52 pm

    And yet the version of In-a-Gadda-da-Vida on my .mp3 player, at 3:03, strikes me as too short.

    The fact I always heard the long version from my brother’s Iron Butterfly LP may have something to do with my opinion.

  3. CGHill »

    18 April 2008 · 1:56 pm

    The single version ran a modest 2:52; my own reedit was a reticent 2:00.

    A classic-rock station around here once spewed forth an edit running about eight and a half minutes. Split the difference, as it were.

  4. Michael Bates »

    18 April 2008 · 3:33 pm

    One of the songs that shows up as 2:42 in my iTunes is Bob Wills’ “Weary of the Same Ol’ Stuff.”

  5. sya »

    18 April 2008 · 3:53 pm

    Maybe this makes me too anal, but I’d like to see an actual distribution for song durations for the top 100 songs from say, oh, the past 50 years.

  6. Deborah »

    18 April 2008 · 5:06 pm

    Well this is a bunny trail, but sort of related. I thought I was going to grow old and die, listening to Mariah Carey sing on American Idol this week. She whined on, and on, on, on, and ON. I was hoping that Ryan would walk on stage and cut her off. It was awful and it was boring.

  7. Lynn »

    18 April 2008 · 5:27 pm

    I prefer “songs” that range from 20 to 50 minutes although if it’s really outstanding even 90 minutes is not a bit too long.

    Seriously though… talking about pop and rock and roll songs, I like longer songs if they’re good. American Pie… umm…. how long is Hotel California? I forget; it seems like that one is rather long but not too long. And I’m surprised that, with six comments already, no one has mentioned the greatest long song ever: Alice’s Restaurant 18:20

  8. Lynn »

    18 April 2008 · 5:31 pm

    Hotel California is 6:54 on the Hell Freezes Over album.

  9. unimpressed »

    18 April 2008 · 6:40 pm

    _In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida_ was 17:38, Rare Earth had a live version of _Get Ready_ that was 23:38, and Frampton’s live version of _Do You Feel Like We Do_ was 14:19. These I know off the top of my head, but with a little skull sweat I could come up with others.

    These were the versions I had on vinyl and listened to them extensively, these versions are the ones I prefer; any of the shorter versions sound…abbreviated.

  10. CGHill »

    18 April 2008 · 8:14 pm

    Or, for that matter, you could get into the 40-minute range with Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” or Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells,” both of which were cruelly truncated for radio play: “Tubular Bells,” in its guise as a theme to The Exorcist, is the longer of the two, at a mere 3:18.

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