Mark, My Words: why rock needs to have more ‘quickies’

As indie legends Magnetic Fields release their 'Quickies' album, columnist Mark Beaumont celebrates the new age of the instant pop hit

It sits there, as unavoidable as death itself. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the album, like a rail replacement bus service, sometimes it’s at the end, like an after-dinner speech by Toby Young. Its 8.23 minute run-time glares at you from the tracklisting like a dentist’s appointment, ruining all the songs before it with anticipatory dread and all the songs after it with numb, post-traumatic boredom. It’s the ‘long song’ that so many bands write purely to validate their artistic intentions, to declare that they have Made An Album. And it needs to stop.

Last week the mighty chamber indie collective Magnetic Fields announced that their new album, ‘Quickies’, will consist of 28 songs; the longest of which clocks in at 2.35 and the shortest runs to just 17 seconds. If it wasn’t packed with frankly unbroadcastable track titles – ‘The Biggest Tits In History’, ‘Kill A Man A Week’, ‘I Wish I Were A Prostitute Again’ – it’d be a sign that indie pop was finally clocking on that we’ve entered the age of hit-and-run pop. Chart Tinder, if you will.

Mainstream artists have been whamming, bamming and thank you ma’aming for some years now. I suspect Bono has a hand in it, because our chart system has been realigned so that the shorter you are, the better you do. Not only does whacking your chorus upfront to keep the casual listener hooked for the 30 seconds it takes to count as one ‘play’ help your individual songs chart when it comes to streaming, but packing your album with dozens of short songs also means that you’ll reach the 1250 streams needed to count as one album sale quicker than acts putting out the old school standard of 12 tracks.

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It’s worked wonders for Drake, but has also crammed our charts with the musical equivalent of digital dick pics – it doesn’t matter if you’re interested as long as they grab your attention.

It’s a new paradigm I’d love to see alternative music embrace again. Most of the best albums in history are full of quickies. ‘Revolver’ clocks in at 35 minutes and the Abbey Road mixing desk appears to have been programmed to self-destruct if any song hits three minutes. Of The Magnetic Fields’ utterly magnificent 1999 triple album ’69 Love Songs’ only two venture into the dark hinterland of the fifth minute.

Pixies producer Gil Norton tells a story of when he encouraged Black Francis to pad out some of the songs on ‘Doolittle’ – he took Gil to the nearest record shop, picked up a Buddy Holly greatest hits and pointed down the sub-two-minute running times. Records that direct and divert culture tend to be lean, hungry creatures – The Ramones, The Strokes, ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines’ – whereas most albums on which the majority of songs top five minutes generally mark the onset of post-peak drug indulgence and drag like a RuPaul race. Three words; Be. Here. Now.

Somewhere between The Beatles’ ‘Help!’ and the first few They Might Be Giants albums – which is packed with such urgent and direct 90-seconders that you suspect they’d been fitted with exploding neck braces primed to go off at 1.53 – I became a devotee of the instant pop hit. It’s an addict’s mentality; no sooner have you finished Pixies’ ‘Crackity Jones’ before you’re craving Elvis Costello’s ‘King Horse’. If you’re regularly venturing over six minutes, you’d damn well better be Suede.

My own extensive research has proved that shorter songs are best. Decades of DJ sets have scientifically ascertained that playing ‘A-Punk’ followed by ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ could get a morgue dancing. Countless Cure gigs have determined that their songs under five minutes are fantastic while their songs over five minutes make you want to chew your own nipples off to alleviate the boredom. In the all-access age of song sharing, shorter songs are more polite too. Sending someone a link to Wire’s ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ (1.23) might quickly enrich their lives, while expecting them to plough through The Mars Volta’s ‘Frances The Mute’ is robbing them of fifteen minutes they could otherwise have shorn off their life expectancy by taking a weekend’s worth of very hard drugs. Which, ironically, might have helped them enjoy ‘Frances The Mute’.

The longer songs that I do love tend to be quickies disguised as epics. They’ll go nowhere for four minutes, then segue into a couple of minutes of snappy pop brilliance at the end – imagine a musical equivalent of The Irishman: The Kimmy Schmidt Cut. We’re talking Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Come On! Feel The Illinoise!’ and Spiritualized’s ‘So Long You Pretty Thing’.

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Bands: a simple rule. If you ever hum a tune and think to yourself ‘this will only be good over a solid seven minutes’, look at your passport. If it doesn’t read ‘Jason Pierce’, don’t finish the song. Because your more ponderous inclinations only serve to root you in an indulgent, cliched, out-of-touch rock past. As the great poets and thinkers Roxette opined: don’t bore us, get to the chorus.

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