Saturday 11 February 2012

AAA Songs Featuring Bagpipes (News, Views and Music Issue 133)

This week, we’ve finally said ‘och, aye’ to a column I’ve been trying to get made for some months now (I’ve been hunting for that last fifth song for ages!) Yes, this week it’s a whole article devoted to the sue of bagpipes in AAA songs: some of them obvious accompaniments to songs as Scottish as tartan or shortbread (oh wait...neither of those are actually Scottish are they? Whoops...), some of them are really odd choices, chosen for the sound of the instrument more than their associations. So, were these AAA musicians true sons and daughters of pipers? Erm, hardly – of all the groups on this list only Belle and Sebastian could be considered in any way Scottish (and even then it’s only part of the band), whereas our ‘other’ Scots bands on this list (Lulu and part of Pentangle) never used the bagpipes themselves. Then again, even Swedish pop group Abba wrote a song featuring bag pipes so I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised to find a load of Sassenachs and Americans on this list, rather than true-born Scots. Hoots mon! Oh and while I’m talking about Scottish music I just have to ask – along with all the other horrid schoolboy mistakes during the making of Mel Gibson Scots film ‘Braveheart’ (the battle of Bannock Bridge, shot without a bridge?!?) why the hell did the film-makers decide to make their musical soundtrack using Irish instruments?! That surely must be one of the biggest howlers in the history of Hollywood! Erm, anyway, here are our top five in order of performance date:

1) The Hollies “Heading For A Fall” (a track from the album ‘Evolution’, 1967):
Hmm, The Hollies at their psychedelic zenith, on an album full of scatterbrained production effects and a whole host of wild and wacky instruments that push the logical extension of Merseybeat-era music as far as they will go into cloud-scudding solar flared flower power genius. But what’s that I hear playing on track eight, the middle of a melancholy three-song sequence designed to take this spinning disc back to earth? Erm, I hear bagpipes. Even for this list of entries this song is unique, using the bagpipes as a splash of bass-heavy sadness that washes over this song about how the narrator knows things are going too well, that his relationships are changing beyond his control and ‘I know that I’m heading for a fall’. Despite the classy Hollies harmonies on the switch to major key in the middle eight (‘Or am I just wasting my ti-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-me?’) this is a ‘heavy’ song for the period, with the slow hapless helpless wailing opf the bagpipes giving the song a real edge and colour, with the guesting piper (un-named on the sleeve) only really getting a chance to use his bagpipes in a ‘normal’ way on the song’s fade. @I seem to be hypnotised b y this song’s beauty, a subject to its beck and call, its arms magnetise me when I’m here beside it, I know that I’m heading for a fall’.

2) Grace Slick with Paul Kantner and David Freiberg “Epic #38” (a track from the album ‘Manhole’, 1973):
Just exactly what were this San Franciscan trio, late of the Jefferson Airplane and soon to be founding members of the Jefferson Starship, up to with this album? Grace Slick barely gets a look in on her own (first) solo album and this, well, epic closing song has more false endings than the Labour Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In there somewhere is the sound of bagpipes, sounding like they’re being played in joy and feverish splendour before the start of a big battle that, like life, keeps being suppressed under-foot before slowly, cautiously making its way back into the song and taking flight again. It’s a very Jeffersony song this, full of unexpected sweeps and fizzling fades, more organic than most carefully controlled songs and ending up somewhere completely different to where it started. The bagpipes are a key part of this song’s exotic texture, sounding like both the distant cries of nostalgia and battle (for Americans, anyway) and the exotic sounds of a future war still to be fought.

3) Paul McCartney and Wings “Mull Of Kintyre” (a single, 1977):
The most traditional song on this list, many people are surprised to hear how traditional and, well, heartfelt that this McCartney/Denny Laine song is, considering it was written by two blokes from the most English of cities Liverpool and Birmingham. The answer is that, for Macca at least, Scotland represented home in the 1970s. When the taxman were breathing down the Beatle’s neck in the 60s Paul was convinced that he should buy into real estate and chose a farmhouse and land in Scotland simply because it was available (he became landlord and never really visited his property). When Paul met Linda and wanted to get as far away from London and the Beatles break-up as possible she convinced him to take up residence in the ramshackle building and the two musicians and their growing brood quickly took to the Scottish mountains and ‘got back’ to the nature that surrounded them. The Scots don’t always take kindly to new neighbours but Paul quickly befriended a local Pipers band who wanted to know when he’d write a song for them (because they were tired of having to play ‘Amazing Grace’ all the time). The end result, with Macca having to work his half-written acoustic song round the fact that bagpipes only have a five-note range, ended up being the best-selling UK song of all up to that time (It held that record until ‘Band Aid’ in 1985 in fact and is still firmly in the top 10 selling records though there’s debate as to just how many copies it sold). Most fans seem to hate this song, putting it in a bin of ‘twee hit songs that we hate’ along with ‘We All Stand Together’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’, but in this case I think that’s just because of overkill and the fact that record buyers don’t really forgive a song that spends more than three weeks at number one. Heard occasionally, this song is a gem, with Wings striking just the right balance between cosyness and tweeness, sounding heartfelt enough for the Scots to embrace and everyman enough to appeal to the rest of the world (except America, strangely, where this single was never released – to this day ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ is missed out of Macca compilations in that country and fans are much more likely to know rocky B-side ‘Girl’s School’, this song’s polar opposite). Far have we travelled, much have we seen, but few songs echo this song’s tales of valleys of green.

4) Grateful Dead “Amazing Grace” (as performed first by Bob Weir and Ratdog during late 1970s tours and in 1995 by the band at Jerry Garcia’s funeral):
I’m not sure if this one really counts, seeing as there isn’t an officially released recording of it. But seeing as virtually every performance by any member of the Grateful Dead is for sale somewhere by somebody (as part of perhaps the world’s biggest archive series of concert re-issues now sitting at 300-odd releases) no doubt performances of ‘Amazing Grace’ with bagpipes will be someday too. Everyone knows Amazing Grace and AAA musicians are no exception – despite never being released in their lifetimes there are Hollies and Byrds a capella versions of the song around now for collectors to enjoy – though quite why the Dead of all bands should choose to sing it is anybody’s guess. It seems even stranger that of all the music Jerry Garcia loved it was this traditional number that was chosen to be sung at his grave-side, but then there were so many sides to Jerrys’ immense creativity that even with his dozens of side-groups we fans never quite got to hear them all. We Dead fans once were lost, but now we’re found, were blind but now we see...dancing skeletons.

5) Belle and Sebastian “Sleep The Clock Around” (a track from the album ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap”, 1998):
The one true use of this Scottish sound on a song by a Scottish band, it’s still somehow odd that this song doesn’t sound more...erm..Scottish. ‘Sleep The Clock Around’ is one of a number of paeans by Stuart Murdoch to escaping the relentless grind of the capitalist system and finding some breathing time for yourself to think about what’s really going on in the world. On this song the verses are sung at a rattling, garbled pace only for the single line title-phrase choruses to burst forth with a glinting feel of sunlight and freedom, best signified by the wailing chimes of a bagpiper. In fact, this song is the polar opposite of the first song on our list, using the bagpipes as a sense of pride and optimism rather than growing concern and pessimism, as the release of all that pent up frustration and anger. I’m especially fond of this songs about walking down the local ‘Liberty Hill’, once a key part of Scottish pride in their fight against oppressors – now filled with American capitalist shops and scary peers staring at you for being brave enough not to follow the latest fashions. Interestingly, this is the only mention of Scotland in the whole song. Now the trouble is over and everyone got paid, we can sleep the clock around. Zzzzzzzzzz.

And that’s it for another week. Be sure to join us next time to see which unlikely country is going to be laughed at via irresponsible national stereotypes the next time we play ‘News, Views and Music’. Doo-dooo-doo-dooo-doo----ddddooooooooo....
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