They cut you down to size. Or not.

Why did all the pop songs of the ’50s and early ’60s last only three minutes or less? Technological limitations.

As rock and roll music came of age in the 1950s, the 45-RPM record had just been introduced. Like its predecessor, the 78-RPM record, its physical properties would allow no more than about three minutes of music per side, depending on the range of sound required and the depth of the groove in the disc.

That three-minute limitation worked out just fine for a while. Radio stations typically wanted songs that lasted between 2:00-2:30, allowing more songs per hour and more opportunities to sell air time for money-making commercials.

The pop music business had long ago chosen to operate under the assumption that the attention span of the average listener was also around the three-minute mark. The rule seemed to be, “Better to keep the songs short and play them repeatedly, and the public will rush to buy them and keep tuning in.”

As the Sixties progressed, however, it seemed as if every norm in society was being questioned and challenged, and the length of a standard pop song was not immune to this phenomenon.

As early as 1959, Ray Charles had recorded a marvelous melange of rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie and gospel called “What’d I Say,” a relentless, irresistible tune featuring the Raelettes on backing vocals. The problem was, it was more than five minutes long. If they wanted to release it as a single, they had two choices: Edit it down to three minutes or less, or cut it in half and put the two parts on two sides of a 45-RPM single. They opted for the latter, with Part 1 (lasting 3:05) as the A-side and Part 2 (lasting 1:59) as the B-side.

Record manufacturers eventually found ways to fit more than just three minutes of music on one side of a 45, and a few artists took advantage of that by releasing ever-longer songs as singles.

In 1964, producer Phil Spector was thrilled with the results of his “Wall of Sound” studio recording of The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” but he was concerned that radio might not want to play it because it lasted 3:45. His solution was to deliberately mislabel the record with a 3:05 length, tricking DJs into thinking it was shorter than it really was.

The real change came in 1965 with Bob Dylan’s titanic song “Like a Rolling Stone” from his iconic “Highway 61 Revisited” LP. The song clocked in at an unheard-of 6:13, and Columbia Records was hesitant to release it as a single. But once pop music clubs and influential DJs and program directors started playing it, the label went ahead and officially released it without any cuts. If it had stiffed on the charts, it probably would’ve been a case of “lesson learned,” and artists wouldn’t attempt such song lengths anytime soon. But against all odds, “Like a Rolling Stone” made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, which shattered the length barrier and opened the door to many more longer-than-usual hit singles.

As the less rigid formats of FM radio stations took hold in the late ’60s, artists realized they had a new platform that would play their songs regardless of length. This forced some AM stations to ease up on their restrictions, and suddenly, songs lasting five, six, even seven minutes were climbing the pop charts.

In 1968, actor Richard Harris made his recording debut with a bombastic, near-operatic rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” which lasted 7:21. It was one of those polarizing records that you either loved or hated, but enough people loved it to propel it all the way to #2 that summer. You would think it would’ve been truncated into two parts, or pared down to a more conventional length, but inexplicably, it remained whole.

Also in ’68, The Beatles, who had been breaking so many rules in pop music, released Paul McCartney’s gem “Hey Jude” as their next single. The basic song lasted just over three minutes before they broke into a chorus of “Na na na na-na-na-na” that went on and on and on for another four minutes, for a total running time of 7:11. Some DJs took the liberty of fading out on the interminable ending after maybe a minute or two, but still, the biggest band in the world had now joined the chorus of game-changers who wanted the freedom to create longer singles.

“American Pie,” Don McLean’s 1971 tribute to Buddy Holly and rock music up to that point, was the #1 song in the nation for four weeks in early 1972, despite its 8:42 length. The label broke it into Parts 1 and 2 (4:11 and 4:31) to fit it on a 45, but because of its enormous popularity, nearly every radio station played it in its entirety.

The late Harry Chapin said he often wrote songs cinematically, “which is an uneconomical technique, and that’s why my songs are so long.” His first hit “Taxi,” which reached a respectable #24 on the charts in 1972, ran 6:44. “I literally put you in that cab and let you experience the characters’ loneliness,” he said. “It’s a more involving form of music than sitting and hearing somebody sing ‘I’m lonely.'”

Later in 1972, The Temptations reached the top of the charts with their dramatic piece “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which ran 7:01. Incredibly, that was an edited version of the original album recording, which lasted just shy of 12 minutes, with a four-minute instrumental intro.

The biggest artists of the ’70s, who usually played by the rules and released conventional-length singles, sometimes wanted to release longer-than-usual songs as singles, and they were rarely denied. Elton John went to #1 in 1975 with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (which lasted 6:45), and The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” arguably the most popular song of the decade, ran 6:31. In 1978, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf’s mini-opera from his “Bat Out of Hell” album, made the Top 40 despite its 8:28 length (although some stations excised the baseball play-by-play segment that cut the tune to about 5:30).

The above examples notwithstanding, Top 40 radio never really wavered much in their time constraints. If artists and their record labels wanted their 5:00+ songs in front of a mainstream audience, they would have to agree to edited versions. Consequently, many hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were heard in two different lengths — the complete long version, which could be found on the album, and the abbreviated single, which sometimes was edited down to less than half of the original length.

Music aficionados like me hated hearing the butchered version of our favorite long tracks, but we could take solace by spinning the album at home. Casual listeners who didn’t collect albums may have never heard the album renditions of hit songs as the artists had intended…but they probably didn’t care. Many folks preferred their songs shorter and punchier, without the instrumental passages and extended endings.

I have assembled a list of 40 of the more popular songs from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that were truncated (sometimes severely) to make them suitable to Top 40 format. Read ’em and weep, music lovers. Walking amongst you are many thousands of people who have never heard the full versions of iconic songs like “Light My Fire,” “Layla” and “Radar Love”…


House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals, 1964. Original: 4:29. Single: 2:59.

Sunshine Superman,” Donovan, 1966. Original: 4:34. Single: 3:15.

Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” Bob Dylan, 1966. Original: 4:36. Single: 2:26.

Light My Fire,” The Doors, 1967. Original: 7:06. Single: 2:52.

Sunshine Of Your Love,” Cream, 1967. Original: 4:08. Single: 3:03.

White Room,” Cream, 1968. Original: 4:58. Single: 3:04.

Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf, 1968. Original: 4:25. Single: 2:55.

Time Has Come Today,” The Chambers Brothers, 1968. Original: 11:07. Single: 3:05.

Suzie-Q,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1968. Original: 8:37. Single: 4:33.

You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” Blood Sweat & Tears, 1969. Original: 4:19. Single: 3:26.

Spinning Wheel,” Blood Sweat & Tears, 1969. Original: 4:05. Single: 2:39.

Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin, 1969. Original: 5:33. Single: 3:10.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby Stills and Nash, 1969. Original: 7:28. Single: 4:35.

Make Me Smile,” Chicago, 1970. Original: 3:16 + 1:26 reprise = 4:42. Single: 2:58.

I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home),” Grand Funk Railroad, 1970. Original: 10:09. Single: 5:31.

All Right Now,” Free, 1970. Original: 5:31. Single: 4:14.

Green-Eyed Lady,” Sugarloaf, 1970. Original: 6:53. Single: 3:33.

Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970. Original: 5:20. Single: 3:16.

Beginnings,” Chicago, 1971. Original: 7:54. Single: 2:50.

Signs,” Five Man Electrical Band, 1971. Original: 4:05. Single: 3:20.

Layla,” Derek and the Dominos, 1971. Original: 7:04. Single: 2:43.

Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who, 1971. Original: 8:31. Single: 3:40.

Roundabout,” Yes, 1972. Original: 8:36. Single: 3:37.

Freddie’s Dead,” Curtis Mayfield, 1972. Original: 5:27. Single: 3:17.

Hold Your Head Up,” Argent, 1972. Original: 6:15. Single: 3:15.

Nights in White Satin,” The Moody Blues, 1972. Original: 7:38. Single: 4:26.

Radar Love,” Golden Earring, 1973. Original: 6:27. Single: 3:43.

Piano Man,” Billy Joel, 1973. Original: 5:40. Single: 4:30.

Give It to Me,” J. Geils Band, 1973. Original: 6:32. Single: 3:07.

Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974. Original: 9:08. Single: 4:41.

Miracles,” Jefferson Starship, 1975. Original: 6:52. Single: 3:25.

Carry On Wayward Son,” Kansas, 1976. Original: 5:26. Single: 3:26.

Got to Give It Up,” Marvin Gaye, 1977. Original: 11:52. Single: 4:12.

Heroes,” David Bowie, 1977. Original: 6:07. Single: 3:32.

Disco Inferno,” The Trammps, 1977. Original: 10:54. Single: 3:35.

Who Are You,” The Who, 1978. Original: 6:20. Single: 3:24,

Rapture,” Blondie, 1981. Original: 6:31. Single: 4:58.

I Can’t Go for That,” Hall and Oates, 1981. Original: 5:09. Single: 3:45.

Edge of Seventeen,” Stevie Nicks, 1981. Original: 5:28. Single: 4:10.

Rock the Casbah,” The Clash, 1982. Original: 6:35. Single: 3:42.

Eye in the Sky,” Alan Parsons Project, 1982. Original: 4:36. Single: 3:55.

Let’s Dance,” David Bowie, 1983. Original: 7:37. Single: 4:08.

Here Comes the Rain Again,” Eurythmics, 1984. Original: 4:56. Single: 3:51.

Touch of Grey,” Grateful Dead, 1987. Original: 5:50. Single: 4:35.


Also part of the rock music scene in this era were the bands that had little or no interest in the singles market. They preferred to write and record extraordinarily long songs, or suites of songs, that challenged the serious listener. The underground and college FM stations might play them, but mostly, they were there on the albums for those who enjoyed diving in to lengthy, complicated works.

I’m referring only to studio recordings here. Many bands have released live recordings through the years that lasted 10-15 minutes or more (Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, for example), but they were often conventional length studio songs they had stretched out in concert.

Below you’ll find a healthy sampling of extended studio recordings that I find worthy of your attention.


Desolation Row,” Bob Dylan, 1965. (11:21)

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Bob Dylan, 1966. (11:23)

A Quick One, While He’s Away,” The Who, 1966. (9:10)

The End,” The Doors, 1967. (11:43)

When the Music’s Over,” The Doors, 1967. (10:59)

Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967. (18:35)

Viola Lee Blues,” Grateful Dead, 1967. (10:15)

Alligator,” Grateful Dead, 1967. (11:20)

A Saucerful of Secrets,” Pink Floyd, 1968. (11:57)

1983 (A Merman I should Turn to Be),” Jimi Hendrix, 1968. (13:39)

Voodoo Chile,” Jimi Hendrix, 1968. (14:59)

In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” Iron Butterfly, 1968. (17:04)

Moonchild,” King Crimson, 1969. (12:12)

In the Court of the Crimson King,” King Crimson, 1969. (10:02)

Lizard,” King Crimson, 1970. (23:19)

Child in Time,” Deep Purple, 1970. (10:20)

I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. (11:02)

Take a Pebble,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1970. (12:32)

Tarkus,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1971. (20:38)

The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” Traffic, 1971. (11:41)

Echoes,” Pink Floyd, 1971. (23:32)

The Musical Box,” Genesis, 1971. (10:25)

Thick As a Brick,” Jethro Tull, 1972. (43:50)

Close to the Edge,” Yes, 1972. (18:38)

Supper’s Ready,” Genesis, 1972. (23:05)

A Passion Play,” Jethro Tull, 1973. (45:06)

Lady Fantasy,” Camel, 1973. (12:45)

Grey Day,” Jesse Colin Young, 1974. (11:19)

The Gates of Delirium,” Yes, 1974. (21:49)

Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd, 1975. (25:58)

High Falls,” Allman Brothers Band, 1975. (14:27)

Baker St. Muse,” Jethro Tull, 1975. (16:39)

2112,” Rush, 1976. (20:33)

Paprika Plains,” Joni Mitchell, 1977. (16:21)

Awaken,” Yes, 1977. (15:31)


There are three Spotify playlists below. The first (“Let it last longer”) includes the songs mentioned in the essay text that pushed the barriers of how long a hit single could be. The second (“They cut you down to size”) includes both the original and edited versions (those available on Spotify) of most of the songs listed that were released in both lengths. The third (“Lonnnnnnng rock tracks”) includes the extra-long tracks I referred to at the end of the post.


  1. newepicauthor · March 27, 2021

    I have never heard Alligator played on the radio, but I was not a deadhead when it was released.


  2. brucehhackett · March 27, 2021

    It’s a pretty good bet you haven’t heard most of the extra-long songs on the radio unless it was at 3 am on college radio…


  3. John Holton · April 5, 2021

    Then there was WCFL’s approach, to play songs at oh, 48, 49 rpm. Except they did that for all songs, whether or not they needed shortening…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s