Ten Great Epics in Rock and Roll

Well, it is Saturday night here in the great destination city of Fair Oaks, California, and that can only mean one thing: IT’S PARTY TIME!!!

And since I am not doing that, I thought I would write a top-10 list instead.

Tonight’s topic is Ten Great Epics in Rock and Roll.  I don’t know why, but these are the kinds of things I think about when left alone with my thoughts.  I could dedicate my blog to top-10 lists, especially regarding music, but others are already doing that, and I like their work and have no desire to cop their gig.

However, once in a while is okay, right?

First, I would like to set a few ground rules.  I am talking about epic songs in rock and roll.  I am not talking about classic songs or anthems, only epic songs.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines an epic as “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.”  So to use Led Zeppelin as an example; Black Dog is a fantastic rock song, but Kashmir is epic.  Would a Grateful Dead example be more helpful to you? Okay then: Brown-Eyed Women is my favorite Grateful Dead song, but Terrapin Station is epic.

Therefore, I will not list AC/DC’s Back in Black or For Those About to Rock because those are anthems and not epics.  Paradise City is an anthem, not an epic.  Got me?

Okay, on to another matter:  Before anyone has a tizzy fit, I will acknowledge that I am aware of the following songs; Freebird, American Pie, Do You Feel Like We Do?, and Hotel California. The reason that you will never see them on any list of mine is because I can happily go the rest of my life without hearing those songs, and therefore their epic status is revoked!  Besides, that last one isn’t even an epic, rather it is a classic.

One last caveat:  Due to my contrarian nature, most of the songs I choose will not be the most obvious or popular choices for each band, but that is just how I roll.  Also, some of these choices are from Progressive Rock bands who are known for creating multiple epics.  That feels like cheating, but there you have it.  Write your own damned top-ten list if you don’t like it.  Pffffft!

And now for the winners.  In no particular order…

10) Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick

            1971 and 1972 were great years for sidelong songs by many Progressive Rock Bands.  Yes had Close to the Edge; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had Tarkus; and Pink Floyd had Echoes.  Jethro Tull had to top them all with a two-sided, album-length song, Thick as a Brick.  If I were interested in doing more research for this song I might learn how exactly Ian Anderson composed this lengthy tune.  Since I am not going to do that, I will only say that it sounds as if it were composed in order, rather than having several shorter songs piecemealed into one song.  There are several shorter, edited versions of this songs floating about, but I encourage everyone to take the time to listen to the entire thing.  I do just that about once a year because it truly is epic in every sense.  Brilliantly crafted and musically interesting, it takes the listener on a nice long journey before wrapping it up with a satisfying denouement.

9) The Doors – The End

            One of my oldest friends used to describe this song as one of the great orgasms in rock and roll.  It builds and builds into a nice peak that explodes, leaving the listener spent.  Again, this epic takes the listener on a journey, this time through Jim Morrison’s terrifying mind.  The album version clocks in at 11:41, but live versions could reach as much as 18 to 20 minutes.  Released in 1967, this song is provocative in so many ways:  weird lyrics that go into a sort of rambling poetry that eventually gets Oedipal.  Listening to this album from start to finish, Morrison only hints at his fascination with Death, but it is apparent in this final track.

8) The Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil

            Simply one of the greatest songs in rock and roll ever!  What makes this song epic is that it is the first song on an album that also includes silly songs like Parachute Woman, Dear Doctor, and Stray Cat Blues.  This song is serious, and it makes the listener wonder if Mick Jagger is, in fact, Lucifer himself.  The production is amazing, in that it begins sparse with only congas, and then piano and vocals.  The classic bass riff kicks in later, and eventually the whole songs sounds like a Voodoo ritual held somewhere in Haiti.  The “hoo-hoos” give the song an even more eerie vibe, and the jangly guitar solo sounds like an instrument of the Devil, used to snare your soul.  There just has never been another song in the history of rock and roll like it.

7) Pink Floyd – Echoes

            Another monumental sidelong epic, Echoes was the last of the true psychedelic masterpieces by Pink Floyd.  Dark Side of the Moon would come out the next year, and the band would focus more on concept albums.  David Gilmour has reportedly said that Echoes was the definitive Pink Floyd song.  When the band reunited in 1987 without Roger Waters, Gilmour insisted that they open their concerts with Echoes.  They performed Echoes eleven times before abandoning it in favor of Shine on You Crazy Diamond.  Gilmour’s reason?  The hired musicians that filled out the band’s touring lineup did not “understand” the song.  Gilmour would later play it again on his solo tour in 2006.

While it would have been easy to chose a half-dozen other Pink Floyd songs, I chose Echoes because it is often overlooked.  It has always been my personal favorite Floyd song, and clearly it was special to David Gilmour, as well.

6) Rush – 2112

            Even if you have seen “I Love You, Man” a dozen times, you may never understand what it means to be a “Rush Geek.”  I have often considered myself one, and I still do not understand it.  To love Rush is to transcend all the usual trappings of Rock geekdom.  To love Rush is to be cerebral and still have an uncontrollable desire to bang your head and lip-sync to every song.

2112 is another sidelong epic in the lexicon of rock and roll, and it is probably their first defining song.  Sure, there was Working Man, but 2112 was a game changer on so many levels.  Later, when it was cool to like Rush, 2112 was considered a retroactive classic, but in the 1970s, it was a hidden gem that only a few die-hard fans understood and loved.  It is a multi-part song that tells an epic tale, and it fucking ROCKS!!!  Personally, I consider Xanadu their best song, but 2112 is truly an epic.

5) Grateful Dead – Terrapin Station

             Yet another sidelong epic, Terrapin Station is the only song of its kind in the Grateful Dead catalogue.  Live versions only contain the first two sections of the song, reportedly because Jerry Garcia did not really get into the extra bits at the end, but the entire suite is beautiful and masterful.  When speaking of the Grateful Dead, one often refers to epic versions of various songs; however, Terrapin Station is the band’s only true epic song.

4) Genesis – Supper’s Ready

            Before Genesis became Phil Collins’ backing band, making comedic videos, and relying on schmaltzy pop ballads for radio play, they were a Progressive Rock band.  Before Peter Gabriel started making experimental music with Brian Eno and African artists, he was the resident weirdo in Genesis.  I have to mention that because most people associate Genesis with Land of Confusion or Invisible Touch, and Peter Gabriel with Shock the Monkey and In Your Eyes.

            Genesis created many masterpieces, but Supper’s Ready was Genesis’ magnum opus.  It was a sidelong song made up of various bits and pieces that starts as a love song and ends with an apocalypse.  The keyboardist, Tony Banks, is clearly the genius behind most of the bits, but it is actually a full band effort in composing this tour de force.  It is ambitious, beautiful, awkward, and weird all in one swipe.

3) Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody

I almost did not include this one, since it has been so overplayed in the last 20 years (thanks, Wayne’s World), but it truly is an epic.  Queen was often ambitious with their songwriting, but Bohemian Rhapsody was a step above anything else they have ever created.  And since the song actually follows the classical rules of a rhapsody, the title is not the least bit ironic.  This is the shortest song of my list, but it meets all the qualifications.

2)  Led Zeppelin – Kashmir

            Hah!  Bet you thought I was going to say Stairway to Heaven, didn’t ya?  No, Stairway to Heaven is way too obvious for my contrarian list, and besides, I could kind of go the rest of my life never hearing it again.  Kashmir, however, is the epic of my dreams.  There are plenty of other contenders that one could choose from Led Zeppelin, but Kashmir still stirs that same feeling in me that I had when I first heard the song back in my early teens.  I remember the exact moment that I first heard this epic, and I cannot say that about most of the other entries on this list.  Is it my favorite song ever? Not quite, but it definitely ranks in my top 10—maybe even my top 5.  This song is an epic journey in and of itself; sort of the rock and roll version of The Epic of Gilgamesh.  And it deserves to be overplayed on every Classic Rock station in the world!

1) Jane’s Addiction – Three Days

            Okay, I will admit; this song is the whole reason that I even thought of the list.  It has been kicking around in my head for about a month now.  This song is a true epic, with its multiple sections, its length, and its power.  If you have never heard this song, play it now!  Consider it a personal favor from me.  You are welcome.

The song starts with a recital of a letter from vocalist Perry Farrell to his friend, Xiola Bleu.  Back in 1986, the story goes, Perry, his girlfriend Casey, and Xiola spent three days in a drug-fueled sex romp.  A year later, Xiola would die of a heroin overdose.  As Perry recites his letter, a beautiful, yet powerful, bass riff starts, and then the drums and guitars come in softly.  The song builds from a soft, almost droning, ballad to a loud, raucous, and distorted powerhouse with peaks and valleys.  The charging highs of the song drops almost suddenly three times; first into a drum break, then a quiet and spacey bass break, and finally a loud and stampeding guitar break with Perry screaming and howling.  Then, as if all their energy was spent in that last breakdown, the song ends with a whisper.

Easily one of my top 5 favorite songs ever.

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