By Stuart Letford
The great highland bagpipe never really had a place in popular music until the early 1970s, and, other than in German hard rock music, it’s still not heard very much. It’s fair to say that the pìob mhòr divides opinion when it comes to its inclusion in rock and pop music.
Our instrument may not be capable of subtlety but it has been used in more pop and rock songs that we may realise, and with varying degrees of success.
Here’s 10 to check out:
Mull Of Kintyre by Wings. It was 1977 and Paul McCartney was ensconced at his Kintyre farm when he came up with this average (admit it) ditty which he thought needed a full pipe band to complete it. Cue a phone call to the local pipe band, the Campbeltown Pipe Band. At the time it was the best-selling single in UK history and became the Christmas number one single that year. Seemingly, it’s still the bestselling non-charity single in the UK’s history. Gulp.
It’s A Long Way To The Top by AC/DC. How many of us have piped at a wedding and been approached by smiling guest thus: “Can ye play any AC/DC? on the pipes?” We’ve Gordon Duncan to thank for putting Thunder on the pipes, of course, and, being a huge fan of the Aussie rockers, perhaps Gordon was inspired by this track. Knowing that as a youngster singer Bon Scott had played in the Fremantle Scots Pipe Band, producer George Young (Angus and Malcolm’s brother) suggested the Scots-born rocker dig them out for this track from the band’s 1975 album If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll. Quite superb. This, children, is rock and roll:
Anthem by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. A cousin of my wife, the charismatic Alex Harvey was a typical 1970s Glaswegian: he’d exude charm one moment and snarling enmity the next. If you’re under 30 years of age the chances are you’ve never heard this band, but its legacy of theatrical rock is worth checking out. Anthem appeared on the band’s 1974 album, The Impossible Dream. Stick with it: the pipes don’t kick in till just after the six minute mark:
The Cutter by Echo & The Bunnymen – (Porcupine, 1983). Tear for Fears’ – see below – fellow Scousers came to mainstream attention with this song. The band utilised the ghb to add another level of grandiosity to this song although when I first heard this song back in the day – which was a Tuesday – I thought the sound was an E-bowed guitar:
You’re The Voice by John Farnham – (Whispering Jack, 1986). A typical 1980s production, this song features Farnham, an Australian singer, singing a song that already contained just about every 1980s soft rock cliche before the ghb cranked in. I remember watching Farnham and his band mine this on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1987. The band included a piper resplendent in No. 1 dress miming along – which was just as well because when he struck up to play his pipe chanter came out the stock! The song was remixed a few years ago and inspired the recent phenomenon of flash mob playing of pipes in shopping malls. Here’s a decent live version – accompanied by an orchestra – from a decade ago:
Stingin’ Belle by Biffy Clyro (Opposites, 2013). Admittedly not everyone’s cup of chai but somehow, the pipe seems to go naturally with this song from the Ayrshire duo. The riff ‘bookends’ the song. Titanic piper, Eric Rigler, is the piper who played on the record although I can’t help thinking it would’ve been easier logistically to ask Brian Mulhearn … Here’s the band playing the song at T in the Park in 2014 – the piper is Finlay MacDonald:
Are You Ready to Rock by Wizzard (1974). For younger readers, this is the band you hear every Christmas with I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. Roy Wood formed the band whose songs – and performances – had an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. The ghb closes out this eccentric UK Top 10 hit. Yes, this got into the top 10!:
The Silent Boatman by Parliament (Osmium’, 1970). Staying with all things over-the-top, we come to funk giants, Parliament. Main man, George Clinton injected a snatch of the Skye Boat Song played on the pipes to this the album’s closing song, something that can only be described as a psychedelic-soul-folk-rock ballad:
Shout by Tears for Fears (Songs From The Big Chair, 1985). Listen very carefully because you barely notice the pipes. In fact, it was only in the mid-1990s when the pipes’ inclusion in this great song were pointed out to me by a piper I was sharing driving duties to the Northern Meeting with. He shall remain nameless but his incessant chat about the Glasgow buy-to-let market prompted the ramming into the CD slot of the Liverpool duo’s seminal album from the mid-1980s. “Can you hear the pipes?” he asked, prompting a serious listen … and peace for a few minutes at least:
Bonaparte’s Retreat by Glen Campbell. Glen played pipes on this single released in July 1974. Glen was apparently way into his adult years when he took piping lessons. He couldn’t resist including the instrument on this old country song written in the 1930s:
Sky Pilot by The Animals – (The Twain Shall Meet, 1968). By 1968, singer Eric Burdon was settled in California with Janis Joplin and enjoying the hippy vibe there. This anti-war epic of his features the pipes, apparently taken from a surreptitious recording Burdon made of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border:
There are plenty more examples, of course, and it’s surprising to find out that the ghb has not featured on albums by certain bands. One would’ve though the ghb was ripe for inclusion on just about any of Led Zepellin’s albums, but it wasn’t to be. I don’t think it would’ve been out if place on the band’s classic from 1971, Stairway to Heaven, although the song does at least have Robert Plant’s lyric:
And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
Yes indeed, Percy!