Record Story Day is Saturday. We urge you to support
the dead-enders the defenders of the brick-and-mortar-mom-and-pop-cool-indie-record-store-with-the-smug-hipster-clerks faith. Might we suggest you pick up the Flaming Lips’ Seven Skies H3 [PICTURED, ABOVE], a handsome vinyl LP of containing the highlights of their infamous 24-hour song. With liner notes (SEE BELOW) by yours truly:
Thus sprach John F. Kennedy, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He was talking about the race to land a man on the moon but he may well have been talking the race to write and record the longest song known to man. Also known as The Race To Colonize The Outer Limits Of Human Patience. You may laugh, but this is serious business. Men have died. (Not necessarily making long-ass songs, per se, but men have died nonetheless).
The first artist to break the sound barrier of the three minute pop radio single, and in the process trigger the starter pistol on The Length/Longness Race, was Bob Dylan with “Like A Rolling Stone,” which clocks in at an eternal six minutes and 58 consciousness-expanding seconds. Soon everyone was violating The Three Minute Rule. The next big leap forward in the race to prove that quantity is quality was Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Davida” which clocked in at a mammoth 17 minutes and — for good measure — one second.
Pink Floyd would take it to the next level with “Echoes,” which clocked in at a brain-frying 23 minutes. After that there was no putting the longness genie back in the bottle. For the remainder of the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, size mattered. Length conferred gravitas onto a song, it transformed a mere deep-cut album track into A Major Statement, and thereafter just about every album worth cleaning your weed on had at least one song that hovered around the 10-minute mark (think Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand”), with some venturing into heretofore uncharted territory of the 20 minute-plus song (such as the elephantine title track to Rush’s 2112 or Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”). Some never came back, never to be heard from again — which wasn’t necessarily an altogether bad thing.
And that was just within the confines of the studio. In concert, all bets were off. The Allman Brothers Brothers “Mountain Jam” could run anywhere from 22 minutes to 45 minutes depending on whether or not the cocaine gods smiled upon them that night. Can’s “Yoo Doo Right” was only 20 minutes long on record, live it was six hours long.
The race to establish the endurance limits of human hearing sort of ran out of steam by the end of the ‘70s. Punk’s ‘short, sharp, shock’ reductionist imperatives had a big hand in that. Cultural exhaustion, drug damage and carpal tunnel took care of the rest. But by the end of the 20th Century the race was back on. In 1998 Chris Butler Chris Butler’s “Devil’s Glitch” was, at 69 minutes, certified the longest pop song in the world by the Guinness Book Of World Records. In January of 2014, the German band Phrasenmäher broke Butler’s world record with the mind-numbingly inane “Zwei Jahre” which clocks in at 90 minutes and 10 seconds. It is accompanied, somewhat ingeniously, by a video of three young Germanic men dressed all in white assembling a piece of what looks like IKEA furniture in real time.
Not sure how that beats “The Chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space” by U.S. drone merchants Bull In Heaven, which clocks in at two months long. Rumor has it they also have a song that lasts six years. And on it goes. The inexhaustible pursuit of pointless monumentalism. The unquenchable lust for the miraculous, the limit-defying and the superhuman. All part of life’s rich pageant, right? Maybe. Let us not forget that history shows again and again how prog-rock points out the folly of men.
That’s where the Flaming Lips come in. They tend to look at these grandiose arty goofs like the whole world’s double-dog daring them not to even try. “Steven already had a piece of music that went for about a half hour, but it felt like five minutes,” says Wayne Coyne, explaining the origin of “7 Skies H3.” “So I thought, well, why don’t we see if we can make that longer and we’ll just go into this epic world of marathon songs? So we had to psych ourselves up, like ‘You know Brian Eno has a song that plays for 30 years on a mountain top, beat that!’ We’re like, ‘Fuck him, we could do that. You know, we’ll put one on the moon and it will last 100 years!’”
Wayne originally wanted “7 Skies H3” to be a month long. Long time Lips producer Dave Fridmann countered that a week-long song would be more doable. “Then we all agreed that that was insane so we compromised and that’s when we decided on a 24 hour long song.”
For a week in late 2011 they camped out in Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios — Coyne and Fridmann in studio A, Drozd in the b-room and bassist Michael Ivins in studio C, each coming up with parts and then connecting them like railroad tracks. There are 15 distinct sections in “7 Skies H3.” “It gets real interesting at the five hour mark and stays that way for the next 7 hours,” says Drozd.
And then? “I dunno, there’s five or six hours of it that I can’t even remember,” says Drozd, who insists he has listened to the entire 24 hour song beginning to end at least once. “7 Skies H3” was originally released on Halloween of 2011 as an EP, in the form of a flash drive encased in a real human skull, called The 24-Hour Song Skull. It was a limited edition run of 13 priced at $5,000 a piece. What you are holding in your hand is a 50-minute highlight reel of “7 Skies H3.” So where does that put the Lips in The Race To Make The Longest Hottest Mess?
Truth be told, the race was over 10 years before the Flaming Lips began competing. In 2001, an organ performance of John Cage’s “As Slowly As Possible” commenced at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, it is not expected to conclude for another 626 years, some time in 2640. Which seems impressive until you compare it to Jem Finere and Brian Eno’s 1000-years-long “Longplayer,” the Mother Of All Ridiculously Long Songs, which began 14 years ago and will not conclude until 2999. No matter. For the Lips it was never really about the race. They’ve staked their whole career on the premise that it’s not about the destination, it’s all about the getting there.
“The one good thing that came out of it,” says Drozd. “Is that I had no more musical ideas left when we were done. None. That’s never happened before. The well was emptied. After that I had to start from scratch and that’s a beautiful thing.” Despite graduating valedictorian from ‘it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done’ school of hard knocks, Wayne seems a little more ambivalent. “If I said we’d never do it again, we probably would,” he says, raking his hands through the obligatory Hendrix perm he’s sporting these days. “So I’ll say never say never.” — JONATHAN VALANIA