Here are some long songs that I love:
The Wipers - "Youth of America"
Tool - "Third Eye"
Jimmy Eat World - "Goodbye Sky Harbor"
Turing Machine - "Bleach It Black"
Don Caballero - "The Peter Criss Jazz"
The Doors - "The End"
Here's one that I hate:
Don McLean - "American Pie"
I obviously don't hate because it's long--I hate it because it's long and boring. Six verses. One chorus repeated at least that many times. And that's it. No bridge, no key change, no major variations. There are some dynamics--slow beginning, fast middle, slow--but not nearly enough for a 9-minute opus. Even Weird Al couldn't bare to parody the full length of the song.
The lyrics are coyly cryptic in order to distract from their simplicity, and McLean refuses to spill the beans on who his characters correspond to in real life. And that's fine--I liked "Hey Man, Nice Shot" when it was still a mystery (and afterwards as well)--but "American Pie" is clearly not about anything too obscure in the first place. It pretty much just reviews 15 years of rock-related tragedy, like "We Didn't Start the Fire" but with the names changed.
At least Billy Joel got angry enough to throw over a table and say "I can't take this anymore." McLean just strums simple chords, sings easy rhymes, and repeats the chorus ad nauseum. Sometimes McLean nearly sounds sad, but most of the time it feels like he's on autopilot. Maybe the point is supposed to be that he's desensitized, but who wants to hear that for 9 minutes? The events that he's covering are certainly worth deep reflection, but lumping them all together lessens the impact, to me at least.
I get annoyed at the shorthand that is often used to explain the 50s changing to the 60s/70s. Over the media portrays it as one day it was Leave it to Beaver, and the next it was assassinations, hippies, the moon, and war. It seems so oversimplified. Likewise, with rock history, one day it was Elvis and Buddy Holly, then suddenly it was Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Janis Joplin. Is it all because of the plane crash? I don't think so.
Anyway, and I can't believe I'm even saying this, "Abraham, Martin, and John" is a more digestible and interesting song. I'm not saying it's enjoyable, but at least the melodrama seems appropriate and focused, and most importantly, it doesn't overstay its welcome. Writing this has forced me to read and analyze the lyrics to "American Pie" more than I had ever done before, and I will at least credit McLean's ambition and wordplay (something I wasn't prepared to do at the start of this entry), but I still just can't past the length and lack of dynamics. Maybe if Black Sabbath had written it, I'd give "American Pie" a chance.