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Making long stories short: perfect goal for songwriters

W

hen I pop a CD into my computer, I get 17 options – listen on iTunes, listen on Windows Media Player, listen on Real Player, listen on Nero Audio, import songs, export songs, outsource songs, deposit songs in a Swiss bank account, rip a CD, burn a CD, stir fry a CD  or take no action.

With so many choices, taking no action becomes very attractive.

And here’s what I encounter when I order coffee at McDonald’s. Since the chain morphed into Starbucks for the Common Man, you don’t just order coffee and add your own cream and sweetener. They do it for you.

A sample coffee McDonald’s Q&A:

“Coffee, please.”

“Small, medium, large or senior?”

“Senior’s fine, thanks.”

“Would you like cream?”

“Sure.”

“How Many?”

“One, thank you.”

“Sweetener?”

“Oh, Yes, please.”

“How many?”

“Two will do.”

“Equal, Sweet ‘n’ Low, Splenda or sugar?”

“The pink one or arsenic, if you happen to have it.”

I should start drinking my coffee black or carry condiments in the car.

We’re asked too many questions about trivial things. All I want is a nice cup of coffee and I get cross-examined. What is this, Law and Order-Special Victims, NCIS?

The topic reared its ugly head while I was making a Beatles CD for my son.  I noticed how short the songs were.

Take “Rubber Soul”. The album’s 14 songs average 2:36 – around 2 ½ minutes each. The shortest, “Norwegian Wood,” is just 2:05. The longest, “You Won’t See Me,” is a whopping 3:23.

The last one must’ve given George Martin, the producer, palpitations. “Paul, John, lads, do you bloody think we have all day?”

Even when the Beatles got to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — where I suspect drugs, the Maharishi, self-awareness and possibly Yoko Ono began taking their toll — the average length was still just 3:25 a song. That’s a ditty, a jingle compared to song lengths these days.

And, if you subtract Sgt. Pepper’s two epics (“Within You Without You,” 5:05; and “A Day in the Life,” 5:34), the average length is still a very respectable, Top 40-ish 2:42.

When songs were short, a musician said his or her piece and left the ruminating to romance novelists. (The phrase “short and sweet” described the Beatles.) So what, I wonder, is so important that today’s performers take twice as long to say something half as good?

I write songs, so I understand the tension between brevity and self-expression. Unfortunately, I naturally lean toward the verbose and, without effort, and am no more succinct than the other long-winded louts. Last year, I recently put 10 of my songs on a CD. Average length?  5 minutes, 9 seconds. Who do I think I am, Shakespeare? Bob Dylan? Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

I know what realists will say: Times have changed, there’s no AM radio or top 40, music’s less commercial, people are less superficial, Steely Dan was really heavy, “Stairway to Heaven” was the best song ever made and bundling internet and cell phone services is the hottest thing to happen since the Bible.

But the fact is that in the late Sixties music went south when rock bands took extended guitar solos through mountains of amplifiers. One of my favorite bands then, the Grateful Dead, would embark on an improvised jam so long you could enroll in a correspondence course and earn a degree before it was over. This was before Trump University went tummy up.

I didn’t own a mountain of amplifiers, but I did play solos that were as long, rambling, repetitious and pointless as the next guy’s.

Songs from the late Sixties and on became five, seven and nine minutes long, and then there were the album versions, which were longer. That two-minute gem of the Sixties — “She Loves You” by the Beatles – was just 2:29. Sadly, it was replaced by meandering, self-indulgent glam four times as long.

And we’ve been going downhill since.

If you don’t believe me, order coffee at McDonald’s. But remember to bring a change of underwear. You’re going to be there a while.

David Knopf has written columns since 1985 and is also currently published in The Kansas City Star’s 816 section. you can reach him at david@esstanddard.com.

By David Knopf • david@esstandard.com

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One Response to Making long stories short: perfect goal for songwriters

  1. Billy Hale Reply

    October 15, 2016 at 10:48 am

    We’ve decided we want MORE. If we buy something it needs to do everything and be scented, we want our people to multi-task, and we want more choices. But does more make us happier?
    The overwhelming amount of consumer product choices is no more apparent than in the toothpaste and salad dressing aisles. My old reliable Colgate Total paste has been, over the years, relegated to the bottom shelf-lost in the mix of gels, flavor crystals, enamel shields, and every possible fruit-mint flavor combination. On your next grocery trip, attempt to purchase plain Italian dressing–see how that goes.
    I’m not saying choice is a bad thing necessarily, but consider we are now actually paying a membership to shop at places that have made these choices for us: Costco/Sam’s Club. There are a lot of products at the warehouse stores, but typically no choice–there’s 1 brand or flavor. You buy the 1 brand of peanut butter or none. I willingly pay for this “luxury” of no choice.
    While we no longer toil in the fields for our food, giving us more free time supposedly, our lives are now filled with hundreds of needless choices each day–none of which have any real importance or consequence, like when you phone asks: “What program do you want to use to open this link?” Who Cares? Just open it.

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