CDs Are Too Long:
by Peter Gorman
The Early Days Was a time when albums in the U.S. had 11 songs and ones in the U.K. had 14, those early days of rock and roll, when the whole album was 25 to 35 minutes long and we listened one side at a time. Rock albums rarely ventured above the 50 minute range back in the 60s, though both Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out! broke the 60 minute barrier in 1966. Due to vinyl recording limitations, these albums required an additional flat disc in the package, the" double album" of yore, which raised the cost for both the artist and the consumer and thus guaranteed that it wouldn't happen very often. The number of songs per album requirements disappeared by 1967, but album lengths stayed true for decades to come. Albums were either 45 minutes and under, or in rare cases over 60 and given the double-disc treatment. This was the recording world as it was meant to be.
Bonus Tracks It started out innocently enough. Was a time when there were extra tracks added to a CD and these were considered a bonus - those "CD only" tracks, which had been left off the vinyl release because the songs weren't good enough to make the cut. Bonus tracks were always placed at the end of the CD though, and still are when old albums are re-released, which means that if you want you can hear the whole official CD and switch it off when it gets to the bonus tracks, or let it play out (And notice how wise the musicians were when selecting the original tracks - it is rare that any of the bonus tracks outshine the regulars). In this way these extra songs truly are a bonus, there at the end if you want them, out of the way if you don't. Except that new albums no longer have bonus tracks, because these tracks have been mixed in with the other songs on the album. It seems that no song is too weak for an album anymore.
The only re-released album I can think of that got better with the bonus tracks is the blissful The Who Sell Out, partly due to its mock radio station format which allowed it to continue like a real radio station that never goes off the air, but mostly due to the brilliant recordings that the original never had room for, definitely an exception to the rule. The best one can usually hope for is to find a gem or two in the bonus track wasteland, like the Byrds "Lady Friend," one of their finest songs, buried in the mess of bonus babies at the end of Younger Than Yesterday, an album that happens to include what I consider the worst song ever put on a good album, goes by the name of "Mind Gardens." How this acid-damaged David Crosby song made it on the album in place of anything else including two minutes of the sound of breaking glass (which I love) I don't know, but the bonus section of Younger Than Yesterday includes an additional take of "Mind Gardens." How good a song do you think something called "Mind Gardens" could possibly be? If Malkmus wrote it maybe, but this isn't Malkmus getting cute, this is Crosby getting serious. So if you want to hear the Byrds "Lady Friend" you got to suffer for their art. Of course you could skip over the other bonus tracks to get to this song, unless you're bed-ridden without a CD remote control, which frankly is often my state of mind these days. Now even albums from the 60s are too damn long. Why go on? I go on.
Alternate Takes Included Don't even get me started on these.
The 70s Not surprisingly, the decade of excess that followed the 60s ushered in some bloated album lengths, starting with George Harrison's triple disc All Things Must Pass, which wasn't really a triple album, just a double album priced as a triple, with a "jam session" filling up the last disc. Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life was a long double album with a bonus 45" single included. (This was back in 1976, when his record company execs were exasperated because he hadn't released an album in two years. Italics mine again.[Ed: My Bloody Valentine, anyone?]) And remember back in 1973 when Yes put out a double album called Tales from Topographic Oceans (catchy title) that had only four songs on it, one song per side? Oh sure, the Soft Machine had already done this, but Yes were the real risk-takers here; they had something to lose, having reached #1 on the album chart with their previous release and thus putting their mass audience appeal in peril with such challenging material - we're talking 20-minute plus songs here. You mean you don't remember it? The album went top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, all the way to number #1 in the U.K. (!). I've never heard it either, though I've heard my share of Yes, so I say with confidence that the album is a pastiche of classical gas, precious vocals, and above all musicianship, man. Could those guys change keys! (Check watch to see how long until 1977.)
Still, these multi-disc extravaganzas remained the exception. Throughout the 70s album lengths on average still remained comfortably under 45 minutes. Here's one theory: Without the punks it's likely album lengths would have fattened up way back in 1977, but thanks to the revolution (heh) it was all kept under control. The Sex Pistols' lone official studio album release clocked in at around 40 minutes, which was about 10 minutes longer than most of their concerts, while X's debut album Los Angeles was a mere 27 minutes long, a rare case of an album that may have been too short, but that's no crime in my world. There's nothing to this theory, however. The mainstream market could have gone its own way and started releasing longer albums, but vinyl wouldn't allow it. There were technological limits to length, and if artists didn't have an entire double album in them they were forced to cut their output down to single disc 45-minutes-and-under size. No more to it than that.
We Have the Technology (Unfortunately) So it was that albums were still clocking in at under 45 minutes late into the 80s, and paradise remained short and sweet, if not trouble-free. Yes children, it took the compact disc technology to expand album length to the regrettable size it has become. Without the CD we'd still be talking about 45 and under albums, and the rarity of the double album. With the CD, the lazy, fat-filled album of 60-plus minutes has become the norm. Face it, we're all 60-minute (wo)men now, if not 75, and we're not getting any shorter.
And to what end? Was a time when filler was called filler, and it was expected. Hell it was the decent thing to do, bands had another 30 minute album due in six months anyway. Now we have to wait two or three years for a band's cd, which includes filler it doesn't even need since it already has 45 minutes worth of decent music. Understand that I believe there's a time and a place in this world for bloated albums, when the idea is to use length for the purpose of playing in every style the band can (or can't) play, throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks. I think here of The White Album, Sandinista!, and 69 Love Songs (!) clocking in respectively at 93, 143 and 173 minutes (!!!). These albums were long because size matters when it comes to mixing it up. Yer rockers of today put out CDs that pass the 60 minute mark because they can, not because they want to diversify, nor because they should. Yet one could say, why does it matter? Find the tracks you like and skip the rest. Easy for you to say, but I just can't do it. I want to cut the crap but I simply can't, I play the CD all the way through and hate myself in the morning. Oh I know I'm deluding myself with thoughts of maintaining the album's texture and flow (texture and flow!). Whether a 40-minute suite or one of those hour-plus crawling sprawls, I'm thinking I'll ruin my CD listening experience by cutting it short, I even go so far as to play the CD from the point where I left off last time, even if that was on the CD's last song, that's where I start, and I still feel guilty for having cheated the artist of a full listen, a short story should be read in one sitting, an album should be heard in one continuous listen, I may not be anal but I'm probably an ass, and I want my albums shortened, pruned, tightly wrapped and delivered without the fat. And so what if a few good tracks end up left off the album? It's not like anyone will know what they're missing. Leave them wanting more, of course, but whoever said leave them wanting less? Which is what today's rockers keep doing. It's all such a crying shame.
The Perfect Length There is a story in a John Barth novel about a minimalist writer who is writing a story about a minimalist composer, and in this story the composer keeps shortening his song until all that's left is a B-flat. When he plays the song in concert someone says that it's not much of a song, "But what a magnificent B-flat!" Meanwhile the writer keeps shortening the story until all that's left is the title "The Magnificent B-Flat," and even that gets edited down to simply "B-Flat." There is no moral to the story, unless it's that less is more, more or less, but only to a point. Albums can be too short, I'm not denying it, but it just never turns out that way anymore. It is often said that attention spans have gotten shorter, yet songs have gotten longer and albums have done the same and we do nothing about it, we tolerate it and continue listening. Enough I say! Enough. It's time to establish what the perfect album length should be, and see to it that our favorite rockers strive to meet that goal.
A friend once pointed out to me that most movies are 90 minutes long, which happens to be the same length as a dream cycle, and I agree, or at least believe that most movies should be 90 minutes long otherwise I will fall asleep, or feel unfulfilled if less than that. So what should most albums be? 35 minutes? 47? 52? 75? 33:20? None of the above. Listener, there is a perfect length for an album and this is the answer: 41 minutes, 38 seconds, which also happens to be the length of P.J. Harvey's late 2000 release, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Which is how I know.
[Editor's Note: This essay will be reprinted in 2002 with bonus paragraphs and alternate drafts included.]