In 1965 Bob Dylan released Like A Rolling Stone as a single in the 45 format. The song was 6 minutes long. This was shocking. No single…etc, etc. and many radio stations would fade it out at 3 minutes. A typical Beatles song would run 2 ½ or 3 minutes. 2 to 3 minutes was the accepted length of a 45 single.
Why? Well, just because.
Actually, no, not “just because.”
There were two reasons for the 3 minute recording limit. First was the fact that the Victrola phonograph was powered by a spring and it began to wind down after 3 minutes. Which was fine because the 10” shellac record (the standard record format prior to WW2) could only hold three minutes of music.
The recording process in that era was known as “hot wax.” The term relates to the fact that a platter of soft, warm wax was placed on a turntable. As a needle settled on the revolving platter, a red light went on in the recording studio, alerting the musicians and singers that recording had begun. As they played and sang, the needle grooved its way (the origin of the word “groovy”) for three minutes and the recording ended. So a recording session was laborious, intense, expensive, and carefully rehearsed: it was a case of get in, get it right, get out.
It’s noticeable on some old blues songs that the recording ends abruptly: there’s no fadeout. It was three minutes or bust. Not until after WWII, with the capture of German recording tape and tape recorders, the advent of vinyl records and the use of electric phonographs that it became possible to have a longer recording. A 12” album of music was possible. The nervous-making red recording light still stays in use in the recording studio but it’s more or less irrelevant in the age of inexpensive recording tape. An now recording tape is obsolete.
But the tradition of a 3 minute single remained..Like A Rolling Stone was the exception to the rule until The Beatles released Hey Jude–7 minutes long- in 1968.
More recording insights in Sidereal Days The History of Rock & Roll.