Short songs with absurdly long codas

Form-wise, the Beatles’ Hey Jude is unusual. For 3 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s a conventional song, with melody, varying harmony, A and B sections that repeat in a predictable pattern — what you’d expect from a pop song. Then, for the remaining 3 minutes and 57 seconds, it’s something else entirely, a long vamp where the same static chord sequence repeats over and over again while the melody repeats with small variations and interjections. The proportion of these two parts feels like a bold move — there’s something about the length of the coda in relation to the body of the song that makes you question whether you just listened to a song or to… something else. Are we being tested? Are the Beatles daring us to walk away? If “art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol), are the Beatles pushing the limits?

Listening to it today, I was reminded of Keith Jarrett’s solo version of Treasure Island, from The Bremen Concert, another piece notable for its unusual proportions. It’s a fairly conventional jazz song, with melody, lots of nice chords, a solo section, and then poof! 3 minutes and 8 seconds in (coincidence!), it suddenly turns into an aggressively minimalistic vamp, which vamp lasts for 7 minutes and 51 seconds with nary a change as far as the content is concerned (well, there’s a tiny bit of blowing at first, but by the 3:56 mark he’s all in). For seven solid minutes, we’re listening to Jarrett play the exact same 2 bars over and over again, the only change coming in the form of dynamic variation, both at macro (gradual or sudden changes in the overall dynamic) and micro scales (choosing to bring out different internal voices at different times).

(He also occasionally throws a high C in there). To me, there’s absolutely no doubt that Keith is testing us, and himself. He’s daring us to keep paying attention, and he’s daring himself to make the extremely limited material so compelling that we’ll be rewarded for our attention. And he wins, no doubt about it. The gamble is huge, because all it would take is one tiny stumble — one moment of inattention to touch, to groove, or even to the integrity of the natural dynamic development — for our suspension of disbelief to come crashing down.

The Beatles win too, of course. In both cases, the pairing down of the musical content is a way for the artists to remind their listeners that there’s a lot that happens in music beyond variation in notes, rhythm and harmony. You take away variation and the what of the music falls away, leaving you only with the how. The Beatles put the emphasis on orchestrational and energetic changes. Jarrett takes it to the extreme, showing us that micro-variations in touch and phrasing can keep our attention rapt if done with sufficient skill, patience and concentration.

I don’t know if anyone reads these blog posts anymore (it’s 2018), but if you do and you think of a song with similar architecture, please share in the comments below.

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10 Responses to Short songs with absurdly long codas

  1. L.C. says:

    It feels to me like Radiohead’s Karma Police kind of attempts a wicked version of this, with a coda that sounds at first like an hopeful ending to a dark song but ends-up looping right back into the creepy vibes thanks to the eerie choir, distorded guitar and the fact that it’s just way longer than expected (albeit shorter than Hey Jude’s !). It has the same “all together !” feeling but it’s odd where Hey Jude is triumphant.

    Other than that, I’ve been racking my brains for 15 minutes and I haven’t found much examples of absurdly long codas…but I know there are more and that I heard them at some point !

  2. Greg Woodsbie says:

    How about a whole genre? Cuban rumba has two sections, with similar proportions. The first section (as described by Michael Spiro) is Europe, Spain and troubadours singing their ballads. When the rumba form (drums and vocals) becomes Son, and eventually Salsa, these sections are much more harmonically diverse. Then at some point in the piece (with very similar proportions to those two – I’m sure there’s data on this somewhere) we go to Africa, and it becomes a call and response vamp (coro-pregun).

  3. Earl Maneein says:

    Say hello to heaven, Temple of the Dog… I’m not sure it’s in the same league as The Beatles and Keith Jarrett, but still a good song with a similar format..

  4. Jack Walton says:

    King Crimson’s “Moonchild” begins with a couple of minutes of uncommonly lovely pop music, and then takes an abrupt turn into no-bloke’s land for ten minutes of Derek Bailey/AMM-style atonal skittering. (This sounds negative, but I personally eat the shizz up.) There is a hint in the subtitle of “Moonchild” — “The Dream and the Illusion” — but otherwise, I’m sure the juxtaposition continues to bewilder some new listeners.

    There’s also this hilarious fantasy on what happens to “Hey Jude” at concerts:
    https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/arts-entertainment/mccartney-unable-to-end-live-version-of-hey-jude-20170810133837

  5. David Rubien says:

    Layla?

    • dantepfer says:

      My friend Robby Kraft also brought this up on Twitter. Interestingly, the transition in Layla also happens around 3 min 8 sec in! But the next section has much more material than the two songs above — to me it feels like a whole other song, with new harmonies and new melodies. Quite different from the sudden move to extreme repetition that Treasure Island makes, and to a slightly lesser degree Hey Jude.

  6. Yisroel Arye Joshua Gootblatt says:

    Stevie Wonder, “Ordinary Pain”. 2:42 Song 3:42 Coda.

  7. Angus Grundy says:

    Nice article, Dan. Good to see you blogging again.

    Perhaps too obvious to state, but Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have both taken the coda to a bit of an extreme. More like a cadenza, I guess, as the bass and drums drop out. The solo ending is then often the same length as the preceding song. I’m thinking of Mehldau especially on ‘Baby Plays Around’ and ‘Since I Fell for You’, but it’s been a staple of his performance practice since the early albums. Not a vamp, to be sure. But clearly related to the original harmony and song in a way that Layla isn’t.

    For the vamp thing, would you count the band vamping under the drummer’s solo at the end of a tune? Which has become a bit of a cliche. There must be lots of examples but these outros probably don’t last all that long…they just seem to (kidding, drummers!).

    Also, Avishai Cohen’s song ‘Samuel’ (on the Continuo album) starts with 1:45 of harmonic complexity before settling into a vamp until the end of the 5:16 song.

    And The Bad Plus definitely make a point of playing over fairly repetitive forms, such as ‘People Like You’ (off Never Stop), orchestrated from lullaby quiet to rolling climactic waves before returning to a pianissimo. (Actually, as a lullaby, it never failed to work with my daughter…)

  8. K. C. says:

    I think a lot of the Pat Metheny album “We Live Here” is like this — see “Here to Stay” and “Red Sky” for examples.

  9. Vincent says:

    It reminded me of other Keith Jarrett’s examples, even if they aren’t as perfect as yours. In “In your own sweet way” (At The Blue note, 1994), he plays one last theme and goes at 11:05 for a coda that lasts 7 minutes. There are other examples of this on the same album, like the 26 minutes-long Autumn leaves ending on a coda… (But as for Layla, maybe you can think of it as another song following the previous one ?)

    I’m sure you can find other examples in Zappa’s discography. I’ll try to check it out.

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