Yes, yes, yes -- I know Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven is the epitome of epochal epicness, and as a band, Zeppelin has a veritable cornucopia of truly great epic songs:
Ten Years Gone
Achilles Last Stand
But let us move further athwart the wide spectrum of rock for other bands who exhibited an epic quality in their songs. First, let us define the word 'epic': very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); "an epic voyage"; "of heroic proportions". So, an 'epic rock song' is one of imposing structure, one in which the proportions of the song are in size and scale greater than the average 2:30 minute rock tune. In particular, the compositions include movements with variations and coloration in the composition. An 'epic' rock song must have both a powerful and memorable hard rock chord structure and an equally stunning reflective and quiescent section -- it is not simply rattling off a blinding lead in the middle of an up-tempo rock tune. A brilliant example is by Pink Floyd:
Here we have both a variation in vocals as well as instrumentation. Roger Water's manic and tense asides are interspersed with David Gilmour's ethereal dream-invoked balladeering as the song fades in and out of reality. And then the dream is gone and we have Gilmour's towering lead to finish off the song. In my estimation, that piece of music, so full of emotion and epic intensity, ranks as one of the greatest solos in rock history (which goes back to what I mentioned about guitarists not necessarily needing to come up with a hyper-fast lead to create a masterful and memorable solo).
Yet another superb example of an epic rock song is by Derek and the Dominos:
The composition is brilliant, with its two separate movements, the first featuring Clapton's signature guitar riff, and the second with Jim Gordon's piano coda, interspersed with the improvisational duetting of Duane Allman's slide and Clapton's slowhand bent notes. Couple this remarkable melding of elements with Clapton's languishing lyrics of unrequited love, and Derek and the Dominos produced one of the iconic songs in rock and roll history. As opposed to other remarkable rock compositions like Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' or Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb', 'Layla' becomes quieter and more introspective as the song reaches outro (Whereas Stairway and Numb start out quietly and build to lengthy jams).
Now that we are on the same page as far as the definition of an epic rock song, here is a fairly comprehensive list of 50 compositions (including the songs noted above) which take us on just such an epic voyage, categorized from Alice to Zappa. If you happen to have a recliner and a good pair of headphones, I suggest you take the day off work and listen. No, really. I'm sure your boss won't mind.
One more thing, I will be offering neither Bruce Springsteen nor Bob Dylan songs in this compendium of great songs (although they are certainly deserving) because SONY MUSIC CORP. will not allow the original studio versions of their songs on YouTube. The greedy bastards can keep their songs and use them as MP3 suppositories (a digital download of sorts), which may someday loosen their cash-compacted colons.
P.S. I've added more to the list! Find them here: 50 More Great Epic Rock Songs
Sorry for the interruption:
Halo of Flies
-- Imagine a spy movie where the entire cast and crew is on psilocybin mushrooms. Then imagine Alice Cooper composing the soundtrack. And there you have it.
Second Coming/Ballad of Dwight Fry
-- A magnum opus of madness. Dwight Frye was, of course, the wonderfully creepy, fly-eating, spider-loving Renfield character in the Bela Lugosi version of 'Dracula', and this song (even with the last name misspelled) was written in his honor (or the characters he played, rather).
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
-- It isn't very often that a song about the Civil War becomes a hit, but this tale of a man trying to live through the great conflict is an important piece of musical Americana. I am sure it's still big within the Civil War reenactors demographic.
A Day in the Life
-- What can be written that has not already been copiously reiterated about this remarkable composition? Not much, so I won't compound the effusive praise, except to mention that this song has the most epic single piano chord in the history of music. Oh, and that final, booming chord was E major, if you weren't aware.
-- Not many bands could get away with releasing a seven minute-long single back in 1968, but hey, they were The Beatles, and 'Hey Jude' became the biggest selling single of all time (up until the saccharine, vomit-inducing 'You Light Up My Life' by Debby Boone in 1977).
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
-- Perhaps Ozzy Osbourne's best vocal performance, if shrieking at the top of one's lungs can be defined as a 'vocal performance'. Nevertheless, no one in rock can shriek like the helium-lunged singer of Sabbath. Castratos couldn't hit some of those notes. This song is the crowning achievement of Sabbath, with a bludgeoning, downright satanic beat and the harrowing vocals of Ozzy shrieking above the fray. Malevolent, inherently evil -- it overshadows previous attempts at such imagery and is truly frightening in its conjuration of the demons from within.
-- 'War Pigs' is like a frayed old bathrobe and comfy slippers. It seems to have always been around the house, warning us of impending war and nuclear destruction, with dear old Satan flapping his wings and kindly inviting us to tea in a quaint sitting room with murals by Hieronymus Bosch.
-- 'Diamond Dogs' is without a doubt David Bowie's most underrated album, and 'Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise' is a great example of why this is a phenomenal album. Listen to Bowie's vocal at the start of 'Sweet Thing': He goes from the lower ranges of baritone to high tenor in the matter of a minute. The feverish cabaret -- almost Brechtian -- vocal delivery and the bitingly raw guitar are sublime.
Tales of Brave Ulysses
-- At 2:53 this is the shortest song on the list, but all the qualities of an epic are there, including allusions to Homer's Odyssey, itself an epic.
-- See 'When the Music's Over'.
The Soft Parade
-- This song is so over-the-top and Jim Morrison is so stoned, one can't possibly help but find it endearing. There are so many bizarre lines ('The monk bought lunch', 'This is the best part of the trip', 'love your neighbor 'til his wife gets home', etc.) that one wonders how Morrison managed to remain standing, let alone sing in the studio.
When The Music's Over
-- See 'The End'.
EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER
Karn Evil #9, 1st Impression (Part I)
-- I am well aware that it is fashionable to denigrate ELP for their arrogance and ambition. I know, for instance, that if ELP were a species of dinosaur, scientists would likely name them Pompousaurus Rex. Really, I get the aversion. However, most of the negative reviews neither take the band's work in context to the time period their albums were released, nor do they appreciate the audacity of the band. And they were certainly audacious. And that is the fatal flaw in ELP: they were simply too ambitious and too immersed in the classical form to adequately maintain an equilibrium within the rock vernacular. What the hell am I actually saying, you ask? Their attempts to graft classical and jazz forms onto a simpler form like rock always seem to border on the grandiloquent and bloated. But this is one song that works.
The Firth of Fifth
-- Of course, you geography nuts will be interested to know that the 'Firth of Fifth' is a pun on Scotland's estuary of the river Forth, the 'Firth of Forth'. Otherwise, it is not much of a pun (except maybe in Edinburgh). But the song is great. One of my favorites from Genesis.
Supper's Ready, Part I
Supper's Ready, Part II
Supper's Ready, Part III
-- 'Supper's Ready is Genesis' vision of the Apocalypse, full of allusions to St. John's Book of Revelations. And at nearly 23 minutes, it might last until the end of the world. The ending movements 'Apocalypse in 9/8' and "As Sure as Eggs is Eggs' are brilliant and borrow heavily from the composer Franz Liszt and St. John's scripture.
Can-Utility and the Coastliners
-- A song based on the legend of King Canute commanding the waters of the sea to recede in mockery of his fawningly flattering followers. And if the actual legend was as interesting and well-made as this beautifully composed rendition, we'd be talking a lot more about old Canute.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (In the Garden Of Eden)
-- I chose this version of the psychedelic epic (whittled down to ten minutes from its original 17 minutes) simply because it was the best sounding version on YouTube. Simply put, they sang the line 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' merely because they were too stoned to sing 'In the Garden of Eden'. So pull out your water bong or hash pipe and waste some time you won't remember losing.
-- The title song 'Aqualung' is a microcosmic mini-epic of the album itself, containing bits and pieces of the album's philosophy and irreverence (the lyric 'snot is running down his nose' made all middle school boys giggle with glee in '71 -- no one referred to snot on an album prior to this!). The poetic allusiveness of the lyrics is exceptionally strong and reminds us that the death of the homeless beggar, who snatches his last rattling breath with 'deep-sea diver sounds', is the reason the album is called 'Aqualung' in the first place (an 'aqualung' is a breathing apparatus used by deep-sea divers, consisting of a mouthpiece attached to air cylinders, causing the distinctive echoed gasping sounds as oxygen is breathed in). An epic bit of flute madness from the same album can be found on this video gem from the Isle Of Wight concert in 1970: My God.
Minstrel in the Gallery
-- The song literally starts with minstrels in the gallery: musicians in a balcony perch newly announced for the amusement of the bored lord and lady of the house (complete with rather snide spoken comments and some unenthusiastic golf claps).
In the Court of the Crimson King
-- One of the great rock compositions featuring the mellotron. Greg Lake had the singing duties on this, King Crimson's first album, and seems in his later work with ELP to have borrowed all of King Crimson's grandiosity and pomposity but none of the band's creativity, nuance and energy.
-- Okay, sit down, as this may get confusing. The title of the album and song 'Starless and Bible Black' are based on a Dylan Thomas poem 'Under Milk Wood' ('It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black'), but the song 'Starless and Bible Black' is an instrumental. The Song 'Starless' is from the album 'Red' and contains lyrical allusions to Dylan's poem. Got it? Good.
-- Hey! The song from 'Forrest Gump' where Jenny almost commits suicide by jumping off a balcony! I love you, Jenny! 'Free Bird' is the national anthem of every trailer park in America.
-- I once had all the lyrics memorized for this song. And there are a lot of lyrics! But, since I haven't played 'American Pie' for several years, I can only recall half of the song. Or a piece of 'Pie', as it were.
Paradise by the Dashboard Lights
-- The rock opera to young lust. What I am wondering is, how did the grossly obese Meatloaf fit in the front seat of any car to make out with a young woman? Must be artistic license, as 'Paradise by the Winnebago Lights' just doesn't have the same ring.
THE MOODY BLUES
-- As a guitarist, I can tell you that the acoustic guitar parts by Justin Hayward are damned difficult. Your wrist goes numb strumming. Aside from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome, this is one beautiful song.
Green Grass and High Tides
-- Many reviewers castigate 'Green Grass' as a 'Free Bird' clone simply because the song has two lead guitar parts, long, drawn-out soloing to end the song, was written by a southern band who were friends with Lynyrd Skynryd, and was released three months after 'Free Bird'. Pffft! Mere fortuitous coincidence.
-- This Orwellian tune, from the vastly underrated 'Animals' album, follows the life of your usual alpha business-type, who thinks nothing of stabbing fellow-workers in the back as he climbs over the bodies that pave the road to his success (and practices his character assassinations to precision). You'll be happy to know that Pink Floyd has him eventually old, alone and dying of cancer. Poetic justice, at least.
-- This titanic overture on the album 'Meddle' clocks in at a leviathan 23:31 minutes, and supposedly, like the 'Dark Side of the Rainbow' rumor, it is said that if you synchronize 'Echoes' to the final segment of '2001: A Space Odyssey', they mesh together perfectly. I've never tried it. I lack the patience.
A Salty Dog
-- Feel the sea spray in your face. Hoist your missen masts and tie down your yard arms. Then sing the 'Spongebob Squarepants' theme and batten your hatches, matie. One of the best sea songs ever written. Not Spongebob's song, but Procol Harum's, silly.
-- One of my favorite songs of all time; hence, it is featured on this list.
March of the Black Queen
-- 'The Bohemian Rhapsody' is not the end-all, be-all epic Queen song. On the contrary, I prefer 'March of the Black Queen' from the manically musical 'Queen II' album, which exchanged the term 'prog-rock' for 'progressive insanity'.
-- You can't help head-banging, a la Wayne and Garth, to this song. And it does actually adhere (somewhat) to the compositional rules of a classical rhapsody! That's drummer Roger Taylor singing all the falsetto parts, by the way.
THE ROLLING STONES
You Can't Always Get What You Want
-- One of my favorite Rolling Stones' tunes. Probably because it is so un-Stone-like. The choir is what really sets this song apart from your usual Stone tune. Read the lyrics sometime -- they make no sense. Although they apparently refer to the three major issues of the 60's, at least according to the Stones: love, politics and drugs. I suppose that makes the song just that much deeper and insightful. The Stones, ever in The Beatles wake, supposedly wrote this song in answer to 'Hey Jude', just as the album 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' was released to counter 'Sgt. Peppers'. As if.
Sympathy for the Devil
-- So, let me get this straight: Lucifer witnessed Christ's agony and crucifixion, killed the czar and his ministers, rode a Nazi tank, killed the Kennedys, and all sorts of other vile things -- and I am supposed to show him sympathy? And if I don't he'll 'lay my soul to waste'? To hell with that!
Overture/Temples of Syrinx (from 2112)
-- I really like the 'Overture' and 'Temples of Syrinx' movements of '2112'. The other movements? Not so much. I love Neal Peart's drumming, but Geddy Lee's voice can really wear on you after awhile.
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
-- A jazzy, hypnotic Traffic tune with a funky, syncopated groove and memorable downbeat. One of the best rock-fusion compositions of the 70's.
Won't Get Fooled Again
-- 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'...aint that the truth? This songs features one of the great primal screams in all rock & roll on one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.
-- As a matter of fact, this is another song from 'Who's Next' which is just as epic as 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. I could probably throw in 'Bargain' and 'Behind Blue Eyes' as well. What the hell, the whole album is epic!
-- The song with the longest outro in rock history. It keeps building and building, layer upon layer, wave upon wave of sound. As far as I know, it's still going on, currently orbiting somewhere over Toledo, Ohio.
Heart of the Sunrise
-- 'Heart of the Sunrise' has one of the wickedest bass lines and drum beats in all of rock, supplied with virtuosic intensity by Chris Squire and Bill Bruford.
Cortez the Killer
-- A great Neil Young song, suffused with buzzing, distorted guitar, but with Young's penchant for glorifying the 'noble savage' (in this case, the Aztec Montezuma). He never mentions the Aztec propensity for blood sacrifice and enslaving enemies. But, Cortez and the Conquistadors did manage to decimate much of the Indian population through disease and war, and then forced Christianity on the survivors, so I guess Neil's indignance is warranted.
Don't Eat The Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It/St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfeast/Father O'Blivion
-- An interconnected melange of rock, jazz, blues, doo-wop and bizarre narrative that centers on a journey by an Eskimo named Nanook, from the dangerous Northern ice (and deadly yellow snow) down to a parish social hosted by a lecherous, pancake-making priest, who is having an affair with a masturbating leprachaun. What more could one ask for from a rock song? Say 'Great Googly Moogly!' if you agree.