Miniatures

The best-selling song in Britain in 2022 was Harry Styles’s ‘As It Was’. It runs for two minutes and 47 seconds. In a recent piece in iNews, Adam Sherwin argues that that popular music is getting shorter because of the attention spans of the TikTok generation. In the mobile world, a song needs to capture the attention rapidly, or else the listener will move on to the next song. Keep things simple, and get to the chorus as quickly as you can, seems to be the message.

Sherwin says that things are closer to popular music of the 1950s, when Elvis Presley’s ‘All Shook Up’ was able to make the world reverberate in a mere one minute and 57 seconds. Longer songs became more of a feature in the 60s and 70s, as the artistic ambitions of some performers led to epics that were also generally popular (‘McArthur Park’ at 7.24, ‘Hotel California’ at 6:30, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘I Feel Love’ both at 5:55), before songs slid down in recent times to what is thought of as the regulation three minutes. And now they may be getting shorter than that.

Of course this is all quite simplistic, with longer songs still finding their public, as they always have since there was enough vinyl on the disc to contain them. But how long should a song be? Duration is not a part of the definition of a song, but there is an understanding that if a song goes on beyond a certain length then it is an indulgence that is not going to get much airplay, while if it is too short, then it is not around long enough to contain those familiar elements such as verse, chorus, repeated chorus because that’s the catchy bit, and ending or fade, which satisfy the general listener. And three minutes, at least in Western popular culture, is what seems to do the job.

So what about the one-minute song? What to make of a song that does not, on the face of it, have the space in which to function as a song? There are many of them, from artists obscure and celebrated – The Beatles produced three (‘Wild Honey Pie’, ‘Maggie Mae’, ‘Her Majesty’). They are often throwaway jests, or fillers, or reprises of earlier songs, or in the hands of musical experimentalists they can be tests of novel ideas or a challenge to conventionality. The one-minute song is a commentary on the idea of song itself. It quite literally undercuts the expected functions of a song. It defies what is normal, upsetting the listener though its failure to conform (though it can never upset the listener for long). Whether flippant or serious, it is always a disruptive act.

Miniatures (1980)

For this post I have put together a list of some notable, or beguiling, or peculiar songs that are one minute long, or less (begging the question of just how short a song can be and still be a song). Before getting to that list it is necessary to pay tribute to the masterpiece that is the 1980 compilation album Miniatures.

Miniatures was the brainchild of Morgan Fisher (aka Morgan-Fisher), one-time keyboard player with 70s rock band Mott the Hoople (of blessed memory). Inspired by a 1955 Pete Seeger album of short versions of popular songs and classical pieces, The Goofing-Off Suite, Fisher produced an album of fifty-one recordings. Fifty were commissioned from an extraordinary variety of artists, each of whom were given the simple instruction to come up with something that was no more than one minute long. A fifty-first was added by a member of the public, after an appeal for contributions was made on the radio.

I can hardly describe the delight I felt when I first came across Miniatures, back in 1980. It was not only the most singularly imaginative compilation imaginable, but it introduced me to so many artists, or types of music, thanks not least to the wealth of information squeezed onto the back of the album sleeve. It opened the ear wide, just as Ralph Steadman’s album cover design illustrates. Fisher knew many in the experimental music world, but he made sure that Miniatures was not simply a collection of the avant garde. Its contributors included Neil Innes (and son), Martin Chambers (drummer with The Pretenders), Ivor Cutler, Michel Nyman, Kevin Coyne, Andy Partridge (of XTC), John Otway, the poet Roger McGough, Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman (of ‘Something’s in the Air’ fame), psychiatrist R.D. Laing (and son), Quentin Crisp and George Melly. I was drawn to the experimentalists nonetheless, and through Miniatures discovered such rare treats as Joseph Racaille, Patrick Portella, Hector Zazou, Metabolist, Half Japanese and the wild delight that was Etron Fou Leloublan.

The back cover of Miniatures

Miniatures was inspirational and tremendous fun. It made you think afresh, in its content and in its concept. Not all of the contributions were outstanding, but several were, and the idea always was. Others were as excited as I was, making Miniatures a cult album that was followed by a second compilation, edited by Fisher, in 2000, and a third version put together by others in 2021. But it’s the first album that had the originality and a charming homespun quality to it (several of the numbers were recorded in the artists’ homes). It was also a radical art statement, as witty as it was serious (Fisher begins his sleeve notes with an acknowledgment to Marcel Duchamp). Miniatures undercut the expectations of song, and so tripped up the normal.

I wrote what I think was the only fan letter I have ever composed, to Morgan Fisher, being thrilled – though somewhat surprised – to get a reply to this from Robert Wyatt. But that’s a story for another time. The album is available on CD and is being made progressively available online via Fisher’s blog. Listen to it if you can, with open ears.

Miniatures on Spotify, with the songs bunched up into ten tracks

And so to a list of one-minute songs. I have picked twenty instead of my usual ten, because they are so interesting and at one minute there is more listening space available. I don’t have any particular reason for preference, any more than I can state with certainty what a one-minute song should be, but I do prefer those that stand up as realised, complete works in themselves, rather than being cast off ideas or fragments, however charming these might sometimes be. As in previous such lists, I have listed them in descending order, purely for amusement’s sake. The timing is given for each song. All but one are from the artists’s or publisher’s official YouTube channels.

20. Dean Jones, ‘One Minute Song’ (1.01)

Dean Jones plays with New York band Dog on Fleas and produces solo recordings which are homely and quirky. His ‘One Minute Song’, a cheery single from 2016, is the only way to start this list. It sets up the challenge, it questions it along the way (children call out how many second are left before the song has to end), and then fails. It’s one minute and one second long. But I’m in a forgiving mood.

19. Pete Seeger, ‘Bach, J.S.: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (0.57)

Folk singer Peter Seeger’s 1955 album Goofing-off Suite was the inspiration for Miniatures, so from that album here is his charming take on Bach (with banjo). Few of the songs on the album are any longer than this.

18. Sufjan Stevens, ‘A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons’ (0.47)

Sufjan Stevens’s entrancing mixture of the whimsical and the philosophical is best illustrated by his 2005 concept album Illinois, which has twenty-one tracks, a number of which run for less than minute (one is six seconds long), and have titles that almost take longer to read than it takes to listen to the song they describe. This 47-second piece is a beautiful musical pause, a relaxing of the mind before the story must move on.

17. L. Voag, ‘Franco’s Prayer’ (0.41)

L. Voag (Jim Welton) played bass with new wave experimentalists The Homosexuals. His 1979 solo album The Way Out is pure avant garde, packed full of original ideas, expressed in condensed form. It’s music designed to make you think, what the hell was that? But catchy also.

16. Owl City, ‘January 28, 1986’ (0.38)

Owl City is an American electronic music outfit that is in reality one person, Adam Young. From 2011, this graceful piece is set to the famous words uttered by President Ronald Reagan following the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle, on 28 January 1986.

15. The Monkees, ‘Ditty Diego-War Chant’ (0.50)

The Monkees gleefully deconstructed their manufactured image in the 1968 film Head, from whose soundtrack this sarcastic ditty comes. “Hey, hey, we are the Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies…’ They undermine not only song but themselves. It was co-written by Jack Nicholson, by the way.

14. Josephine Foster, ‘Your Thoughts Don’t Have Words Every Day’ (0.53)

American singer-songwriter Josephine Foster has imaginative ideas to go alongside her slightly off-kilter voice. Her 2010 album Graphic as a Star, is a set of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Many, as here, are sung acapella. Poetry and song seldom work together so well as she demonstrates.

13. Radiohead, ‘Untitled’ (0.52)

Ah, one of those hidden tracks that larky musicians like to includes as extras at the end of albums. This one has something magical about it, like a musical sigh.

12. Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, ‘Presents’ (1.00)

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 feature film One from the Heart was a famous flop, rescued only by its romantic cinematography and equally romantic soundtrack songs, sung by the unlikely pairing of Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle. Neither sings here, but it is among the sweetest of Waits’s bittersweet tunes.

11. Wire, ‘It’s So Obvious’ (0.54)

Wire were a post-punk band while there was still punk. They had an intellectual edge to their idealism, which included producing songs as short and un-self-indulgent as they could make them. Their 1977 album Pink Flag has twenty-one tracks, most not much more than two minutes long and six of them being under a minute. ‘It’s So Obvious’ is just a great punk song that doesn’t waste time.

10. JAY-Z, ‘Beach is Better’ (0.56)

Possibly I may have picked this simply to demonstrate to sceptics that I have heard of JAY-Z, but it is also a remarkably powerful and dense composition, musical ideas squeezed into the tightest space possible. It demands that you listen with the greatest care in the short time that you have.

9. The Mothers of Invention, ‘What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? – Reprise’ (0.58)

In the same year as The Monkees tore apart their pop facade with Head, Frank Zappa introduced a bewildered world to The Mothers of Invention’s album We’re Only In It for the Money (not that it was a huge seller, but Zappa’s satirical target was The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper). It’s most celebrated track runs for an indulgent one minute and three seconds, hence disqualifying it from this list. But the reprise makes it under the wire by two seconds, and though simpler it is no less funny (or bitter).

8. The Residents, ‘Amber’ (1.00)

In 1979, the year before Miniatures was released, conceptual rock oddballs The Residents released Commercial Album, each of whose forty tracks are one minute long. Here’s one of them, a wistful piece with a Japanese air to it. They also appeared on Miniatures, offering Fisher a priceless medley of The Ramones’ ‘We’re A Happy Family’ and ‘Bali Ha’i’ from the musical South Pacific. In one minute.

7. The Dillards, ‘Yesterday’ (1.00)

The Dillards are renowned American bluegrass outfit who have ventured into pop at various times in their career. No fiddles or banjos here, though. From their 1970 album Copperfields, this is a haunting acapella version of the Beatles’ classic. Listen to it with the clock ticking, and you wonder how they are going to fit it all in. But they do.

6. Stinky Winkles, ‘Opus’ (1.00)

Here’s a perfect expression of the wit of Miniatures. Stinky Winkles was an experimental jazz-rock group, a minor legend in their way, who never recorded before they broke up in 1980 – except for here. Their recording debut was their swansong, as Morgan Fisher noted. OK, so they reformed later, and recorded a live album in 1981, but at the time it was an exquisite gesture. It’s a great piece of music – packed full of ideas, as if they had to put in everything they knew into those precious sixty seconds. (The track comes from a later compilation, as Miniatures is not available – officially – on YouTube)

5. Soft Machine, ‘Hulloder’ (0.54)

Soft Machine, before they turned into a somewhat po-faced jazz group with rock trimmings (or vice versa), were a lot of fun, never more so than in their 1969 album Volume Two, which is full to the brim with off-the-wall ideas that are pure Dada. Here drummer-singer Robert Wyatt speculates on what he would do if he were a black American, only he isn’t.

4. The Bonzo Dog Band, ‘Cool Britannia’ (0.57)

The Bonzos sent up everyone and everything, brilliantly. They had a gift for sub-minute songs – see ‘Narcissus’, ‘(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco’, and ‘Kama Sutra’ – and here mock the swinging sixties in a swinging style. The late-lamented Neil Innes of the Bonzos appeared with his son Miles on Miniatures, the latter drumming and singing Slade’s ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’, with Dad on guitar. Miles was five years old.

3. The Ivor Cutler Trio, ‘Darling, Will You Marry Me Twice?’ (0.53)

Ivor Cutler was unique. A poet, songwriter, artist, singer, teacher and actor, his oblique view of life, delivered with deadpan, slow Scottish accent, appealed to all manner of audiences (he featured regularly on BBC Radio 3 and the John Peel programme on Radio 1) without belonging to anyone. In the same year (1967) as he appeared on the Beatles’ TV special Magical Mystery Tour, he recorded the cheery, quirky album Ludo, many of whose songs hover around one minute. It’s enough time to charm, disarm and bewilder anyone.

2. Van Dyke Parks, ‘Sweet Trinidad’ (0.56)

American musical genius Van Dyke Parks has worked with many notables in popular music (such as The Beach Boys’ album Smile) while being consistently off-beat (such as The Beach Boys’ album Smile). His taste for calypso music features strongly in his 1972 album of mostly covers, Discover America. From there, ‘Sweet Trinidad’ (a Parks composition) is a model of what can be done with a one-minute song. It has a richness that breaks free of its temporal boundaries.

1. Robert Wyatt, ‘Muddy Mouse (b)’ (0.51)

Robert Wyatt makes his second appearance at the top of this top 20, this time as a solo artist. His 1975 album Ruth is Stranger Than Richard is a curious mixture, after the cohesiveness of his 1974 masterpiece Rock Bottom, but its best ideas are among his most beautiful. ‘There are three versions of ‘Muddy Mouse’ on the album, all under a minute, though the third segues into a longer number (‘Muddy Mouth’). There’s just Wyatt singing with Fred Frith playing piano (both featured as separate performers on Miniatures). From the start the listener is caught by the song’s very oddness. Melodically it is like a piano scales exercise, thematically it is like a bleak nursery rhyme, with a sweet but forlorn finale. It is the perfect miniature, as haunting and exquisite as a Nicholas Hilliard portrait. Maybe one minute is all we should ever have, to say something that we need to say.

I have created a Spotify list of one-minute songs, to which I will continue to add new songs, and I welcome suggestions for additions. There is a remarkable range of artists who have produced songs that last for one minute or less, aside from those named above – Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, The Who, Yo La Tengo, Kraftwerk, The Stone Roses, Beck, Eels, Captain Beefheart. There are more than 100 tracks there, but embedded Spotify lists only give you the first 100. If you look at the timings on the Spotify list (or the YouTube clips above) you will see that some seem to edge over one minute by a second or two. Rest assured, I have listened to each one with a stop watch and all make the one-minute threshold, with the occasional bit of silence thereafter. All except Dean Jones, that is.

Links:

  • Morgan Fisher has produced the Miniatures blog, which has background information on the 1980 and 2000 albums and publishes their songs as individual blog posts, with full credits and sleeve notes.
  • The original Miniatures album can be found in all the usual places on CD, and via Knock’em Dead Records on vinyl. It’s also on Spotify. Details on Morgan Fisher’s blog. The artists featured are Ollie Halsall & John Halsey, The Residents, Roger McGough, Morgan Fisher, John Otway, Peter Challis & Phil Diplock, Robert Wyatt, Stinky Winkles. Mary Longford, Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, David Bedford, Fred Frith, Maggie Nicols, Joseph Racaille, The Work, Neil Innes & son, Herbert Distel, Lol Coxhill, Ken Ellis, Steve Miller, Norman Lovett, Patrick Portella, George Melly, Robert Fripp, Andy Partridge, Phantom Captain, Ron Geesin, Alejandro Viñao, Quentin Crisp, Simon Desorgher, Ralph Steadman, R.D. Laing & son, Trevor Wishart, John White, Ivor Cutler, Hector Zazou, Michael Bass & Ellen Tenenbaum, Martin Chambers, Dave Vanian, Metabolist, Gavin Bryars, Half Japanese, Simon Jeffes, Mark Perry, Michael Nyman, David Cunningham, Kevin Coyne, Etron Fou Leloublan, Neil Oram & Ken Campbell & the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, and Peter Seeger.
  • Miniatures 2, released in 2000, is available on CD singly and as a double-CD from Cherry Red Records of Miniatures 1 and 2. It is also available on Spotify. Contents and availability details from Morgan Fisher’s blog.
  • Miniatures 2020, which was not compiled by Morgan Fisher, is available from Recommended Records. It has 124 contributors.
  • A previous post of mine, Kurt’s Barn, includes jazz singer and writer George Melly’s memorable contribution to Miniatures, a reading of Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Ursonate’, with a very personal story behind it.

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