Long Form No. 1

A couple of threads have been coming together in the past week or so, and as a result I’ve been digging into both the library and my memory for what I call long-form pieces of music.

It started, actually, the other week when I wrote about late 1972 and my quiet evenings in the basement rec room with a new batch of records. I wrote that one of the more arresting pieces I listened to during that time was the long, live version of “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain.

And then one of my music-loving friends at Facebook posted a call for friends to offer – one a day – their five favorite songs/records/tracks. Now, I’m always game to play along with one of those challenges, but I’ve done my top five singles there at least once and I didn’t see any point in doing that again.* So I agreed to play, but noted that I’d be offering five of my favorite long-form tracks or suites of tracks.

That was something I considered here as a successor project to Ultimate Jukebox series I offered here five years ago. In the last installment of that thirty-eight week project, I wrote:

One constraint I might ignore on a second go-round is length. I set a limit of 7:30 for a record, knowing that a 45 could handle that much, and I hit that limit with Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park.” (I came close, relatively, with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and Buddy Miles “Down by the River” and maybe a few others that don’t come to mind right now.) If I were to do the project over, I’d ignore that limit and include longer pieces.

Some of the worthy longer pieces that come immediately to mind are the Side One suite on Shawn Phillips’ Second Contribution, the Allman Brothers Band’s performance of “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East, Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks, “Beginnings” by Chicago from Chicago Transit Authority, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Leon Russell’s take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” from The Concert for Bangla Desh and Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me A Dime” from his self-titled album.

But when I posted the first of my five selections earlier this week, I for some reason ignored that long-ago limit of 7:30 as a guide and offered instead a limit of 7:11, noting erroneously that I chose that running time because that was the length of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” (As it happens, the track on the 1970 Hey Jude collection runs 7:06, and the track on the “Mono Master” CD of the Beatles in Mono box set runs 7:19. But never mind, 7:11 it was.)

But where to start? That actually was the easiest decision. In the blog post about late 1972, I’d noted that the live version of “Nantucket Sleighride” was the first long jam I’d gotten into. So I went back from there to the first long-form suite that had grabbed hold of my ears (sifting the difference between the two by defining a jam as an improvised extension of a song while a suite is a planned chain of multiple songs).

And the first long-form suite I dug into deeply came from one of the first two albums I bought when I became deeply interested in pop and rock music in 1970. In February or so of that year, a friend passed on to me an hour of taped music from the Twin Cities’ FM station KQRS, and among the tunes in that hour was most of Chicago’s “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” the original setting for “Make Me Smile,” which I soon heard coming out of my AM speakers in a single edit.

I grabbed the album – called simply Chicago at the time and now generally called Chicago II – in May of 1970, and then I bought the piano book for the album and a piano transcription of the long-form introduction. And I spent a good portion of my music time for the next year digging into the album and the long suite, which came from the pen of trombonist James Pankow. (During my freshman year of college, a lot of the guys I hung around with were impressed with my piano version of “Make Me Smile.,” The gals, however, went for “Colour My World.”)

So what was it that grabbed me? The horns, especially when they came in on the off-beat during “Make Me Smile,” the shifts in tempo and style, the romance in the lyrics of “Make Me Smile” and the triumphant return to “Make Me Smile” near the end of the suite. Even back then, the lyrics of “Colour My World” were a bit over-sweet for me, but that was a minor complaint.

And even though I don’t listen to it nearly as often as I once did, any exploration of the long-form music that moves me has to start at the beginning. And for me, that was Chicago’s “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.”

*While my list of my five favorite singles might vary slightly from time to time, it will always include “Cherish” by the Association, “We” by Shawn Phillips, “Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt and “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers. The fifth spot is often open for discussion, often with the comment – made here before, I know – that if the Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.” had been released as a single, there would be no discussion of No. 5.


One Response to “Long Form No. 1”

  1. Tim McMullen says:

    Nice to read the long form explanation of the FB post. Thanks.

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