What makes a band want to record a Pop Epic? MGMT explains

by Mark Caro

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

18 June 2010


Midway through MGMT’s second album, “Congratulations,” comes a 12­minute suite called “Siberian Breaks,” described on the cover as “A Pop Surf Opera.”

This sweetly tuneful, melancholy, mostly acoustic journey through various settings provides the exclamation point on the “Huh?!” with which certain fans of the young Brooklyn band’s earlier electro­dance hits “Electric Feel” and “Kids” greeted the new album’s psychedelic pop.

But rock history buffs understand that although pop-oriented bands tend to make their reputations with catchy, compact songs, they often stake their claims to immortality with the Pop Epic.

This is not to be confused with the Prog Epic (Yes’ “Close to the Edge,” among others), the Jammy Epic (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” almost any live Grateful Dead track), the Funk Epic (James Brown’s “Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine”) or the Ballad Epic (Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” among others).

We’re talking about a grand suite with many shifting scenes, moving parts and bursts of melody. Think Queen’s career­defining “Bohemian Rhapsody”: almost six minutes in which mournful piano balladry gives way to operatic chanting followed by head-banging rock and a heavenly coda. Could you imagine Led Zeppelin without “Stairway to Heaven”?

Singer-guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden said on the phone earlier this week that the sprawl of “Siberian Breaks” happened more organically than consciously.

“We didn’t really sit down and think: Let’s write a huge multipart song,” he said. “We started with a progression for the first verse on guitar, I think, and it just led to another little area and kept going. For whatever reason it ended up being a 12-minute song.”

Still, VanWyngarden and MGMT partner Ben Goldwasser are conscious of the tradition that they’re updating. VanWyngarden cited the Beach Boys’ sublime, haunting “Surf’s Up” as an influence, as well as the powerhouse medley that comprises Side 2 of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” seen by some as rock’s crowning achievement.

He noted that although kids were crowd-surfing to it at a recent Salt Lake City concert, “Siberian Breaks” has become a lightning rod to those who are down on the new album.

“I guess we were a little confused by people being so offended by having a 12-minute song on an album,” he said, “and we were thinking about albums in the past that had really long songs, like (the Doors’) ‘Riders on the Storm’ or (Iron Butterfly’s) ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ “



—“A Quick One, While He’s Away,” The Who (1966), 9:10. Pete Townshend laid the groundwork for “Tommy” and many a Pop Epic with this sprawling six-part “mini-opera.”

—“You Set the Scene,” Love (1967), 6:56. Singer-songwriter Arthur Lee builds the capper to his band’s landmark acoustic-orchestral “Forever Changes” album, from finger-picking introspection to a rousing statement of purpose.

—“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (1971), 7:55. This Zep classic set the standard for tunes that baffle high school kids on the dance floor.

—“Band on the Run,” Paul McCartney (1973), 5:10. The Pop Epic’s spiritual godfather struck gold with this cinematically sweeping single.

—“O My Soul,” Big Star (1974), 5:40. One of the great album-openers, a blast of soul-scratching guitars and thrilling hairpin turns.

—“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen (1975), 5:55. Really, this is the craziest-ever top-10 hit, no, no, no, no, no, no, no?

—“Paranoid Android,” Radiohead (1997), 6:23. Haunting melancholy interspersed with spastic blasts of rock.

—“Jesus of Suburbia,” Green Day (2004), 9:08. This Punk-Pop Epic shows Green Day took notes as it listened to The Who.

Topics: mgmt
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