Dream pipes: 16 songs that are actually improved by bagpipes

Dream pipes: 16 songs that are actually improved by bagpipes

Does this guy rock or what? (Photo: Getty Images)
Does this guy rock or what? (Photo: Getty Images)

1. Flogging Molly, “The Worst Day Since Yesterday”

Bagpipes often conjure images of kilted Scots in tam o’ shanters, but one shouldn’t overlook Ireland’s devotion to the age-old instrument. Irish taverns have basked in the sweet trill of bagpipes since the late 1500s, and even lay claim to one of the most popular types of bagpipes: the uilleann pipes, which ring with a sweeter, quieter sound than Scotland’s signature Great Highland Bagpipes. That soft, mournful drone lends itself to the melancholy at the center of so many Irish ballads, but you’ll also find it fortifying the fiery songs of Flogging Molly. Dave King’s raucous band of Celtic punks are known for incorporating traditional instruments into their music, and you’ll hear a bounty of them—including the uilleann pipes—at the center of “The Worst Day Since Yesterday,” a mournful track from 2000’s Swagger that, like so many of its forebears, transcends life’s gut-punches with the joyful catharsis of community. Emotionally intimate yet sonically expansive, the song’s pipes work in tandem with mandolin, fiddle, and piano to evoke the soul-warming image of players crowded on a tiny pub stage and the overflowing beer steins that sway beneath them. [Randall Colburn]

2. Rilo Kiley, “A Better Son/Daughter”

On the surface, much of Rilo Kiley’s The Execution Of All Things is disarmingly sweet, the darkness of breakups, shitty parents, and environmental doom rearing its head only if you pay close enough attention to the lyrics. “A Better Son/Daughter” starts off this way, too, with organ-like keys underscoring Jenny Lewis’ hesitant coo as she sings about the struggles of depression. But at the 1:40 mark, the music catches up to the anger found in the words. The tinny effect disappears from the vocals, Jason Boesel’s military drumroll becomes more deliberate, and bagpipes give even more strength to a couple of F-bombs spat out by Lewis, as if she’s leading a Scottish army in a charge against mental illness, her face streaked with blue warpaint. The battle doesn’t last long, however, as the arrangement slowly fades back to the lonely intro with Lewis once more stuck in bed. But for a few brief minutes, those bagpipes give her a triumphant respite from her demons. [Dan Caffrey]

3. AC/DC, “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna to Rock ‘N’ Roll)”

If there’s one sound associated with AC/DC, it would be Angus Young’s maniacal guitar. But “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ’N’ Roll)” counteracts that with bagpipes, played by lead singer Bon Scott, no less. The first track off of T.N.T. is about a band that is “Gettin’ robbed / Gettin’ stoned / Gettin’ beat up / Broken-boned” on their way to fame and fortune. The idea to include the bagpipes came from Malcolm and Angus’ brother George, who produced the song. Scott had never played the bagpipes before, he was a drummer in a pipe band instead, but he takes up his new task with the same intensity he had as a vocalist. The song’s best aspect, and what makes it an inherently unique song is the call and response between Young’s signature guitar sound and Scott’s blaring bagpipes, as if these two musicians are talking to each other through their instruments, goading each other on and pushing forward. The music fades out the end as if the conversation is continuing, even when the song is over.[Molly Eichel]

4-5. Neutral Milk Hotel, “Untitled” and “Two Headed Boy, Part 2”

“Untitled,” the penultimate song on Neutral Milk Hotel’s infinitely discussed and celebrated In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, initially presents itself as a fairly standard Elephant 6 romp, something that would be right at home on Of Montreal’s Cherry Peel or The Apples In Stereo’s Science Faire. This fuzzed-out foundation of analog synths and sloppy drums pushed deep into the red gives way to a triumphant uilleann pipe solo that creates one of the most purely joyous moments on an emotionally exhausting record. Michelle Anderson’s ripping two-minute solo overtakes, as if by lens flare, snapshots of “faces filled with flies” and “fathers making fetuses with flesh licking ladies.” She seeks to release the pent up catharsis laid out over the previous nine tracks, urging the record to end on a celebratory note. But the record finishes with the solitary, impossibly intimate “Two Headed Boy, Part 2,” a gut ripping ode that ends with the sound of Jeff Mangum literally getting out of an old creaky chair and out of recorded music forever. [Andrew Morgan]

6. Korn, “Dead”

It’s easy to lump Korn in with every other nu-metal act that gummed up late-’90s airwaves, but while frontman Jonathan Davis and his merry band of dreadlocked misfits shared the same riffage and bro-barks as the band’s progeny, Korn would occasionally surprise by building a song around a set of Northumbrian Smallpipes played by Davis himself. Sure, it was a rarity, and the bagpipes were mostly used as nothing more than a novelty (Listen to Korn’s awful cover of “Lowrider” on 1996’s Life Is Peachy for proof.), but then there’s a song like “Dead,” the opening track from the band’s 1999 chart-climber Issues. Little more than the Smallpipes and some ceremonial percussion, the song’s got no power chords, no posturing, and, most blessedly, no rapping. Rather, “Dead” underscores the bagpipes—no doubt the centerpiece of the song—with a hypnotic chant from Davis and the strikingly pretty strains of a funereal choir. The song lasts just a minute and some change, unfortunately, before segueing into the hit single “Falling Away From Me.” The bagpipes aren’t heard again. And after listening to the 15 subsequent tracks, each rife with numbskull riffs and hyper-masculine self-loathing, you have to wonder why. [Randall Colburn]

7. GWAR, “The Horror Of Yig”

Bagpipes in rock music are often relegated to a prologue or epilogue, a way to give a song weight or cast a melancholy tone. And at first, GWAR’s “The Horror Of Yig,” a Lovecraft-inspired stomper from 1990’s Scumdogs Of the Universe, is exactly that, with a traditional bagpipe refrain kicking things off alongside a soundbite from Apocalypse Now’s ever-rambling Col. Kurtz. The snarl of some Lovecraftian beast signals GWAR’s signature onslaught of guitars, but not, thankfully, the departure of those bagpipes. They take on a spastic, shivering quality beneath the bark of Oderus Urungus, conjuring the hilarious image of some kilted gentile frantically trying to blow in rhythm with Pustulus Maximus’ breakneck pace. Couple the bagpipes with the out-of-context soundbite and bizarre Lovecraftian influence and you’ve got one of the weirdest songs from one of music’s weirdest bands. [Randall Colburn]

8. Titus Andronicus, “The Battle Of Hampton Roads”

Before the bagpipes even enter the picture, “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” is already one of the best songs on one of the best rock records of this decade: Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. They don’t skirl until about nine and a half minutes in, after Patrick Stickles articulately self-eviscerates over mournful horns, thunderous percussion, and the kind of Springsteenian rollicking that can’t help but breed rock star dreams. But when they arrive we’re whisked in another direction entirely, one that launches us out of Stickles’ tumultuous mind and onto the battlefield promised by the song’s lofty title. There’s nothing mournful or pastoral about these bagpipes. No, these are Braveheart bagpipes—triumphant, evocative of a general’s rallying cry and a military march that can only end in self-sacrifice. The Monitor is described as a loose concept album about the American Civil War, but it isn’t until those bagpipes hit that we feel as if we’re heading into battle. [Randall Colburn]

9. Van Morrison, “Celtic Ray”

“Celtic Ray” originally appeared on Van Morrison’s 1982 album Beautiful Vision, but it was later re-recorded with The Chieftains for their collaborative LP, 1988’s Irish Heartbeat. And while you’ll find bagpipes in that original version, they clash uncomfortably with the song’s languid, New Age aura, feeling as if their part was originally written for saxophone. Van Morrison himself is Irish, and “Celtic Ray” is essentially his riff on a traditional Irish pub song, so it’s no surprise that he would opt to re-record it with a band of authentic Irish folkies. It’s a good thing he did, too, because the revamped version is brash and rousing in all the ways the original isn’t. Here, the uilleann bagpipes assert themselves as the foremost instrument, the sun around which the fiddle, harp, and flute orbit. Unlike the original, this version is much more fit for the riotous tavern crowd than the massage parlor. As such, it’s gone on to serve as the definitive version of “Celtic Ray.” [Randall Colburn]

10-11. The White Stripes, “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrew (The Battle Is In The Air)“

Jack White’s first and best band was known for its minimalism: With The White Stripes, Jack White played guitar, Meg White played drums, and that was that. But on some of the duo’s later records in particular, other sounds, often from non-traditional rock instruments like the marimba, bled in. On a pair of Icky Thump tracks, they bust out the bagpipes—or rather, Jim Drury does, at the band’s service. “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” is one of the group’s folkier and more potentially lilting numbers, and the bagpipes, along with White’s wonderfully yowling voice, actually add some welcome harshness to the mix. The bagpipes lead an immediate segue into “St. Andrew (The Battle Is In The Air),” which functions as a more stomping coda to the previous song. As the bagpipes speed up and the drums thump, Meg delivers spoken-word lyric fragments (“I’m not in my home”; “Where are the angels?”) with plainspoken creepiness that allows the pipes to dominate the track. Folk, eccentricity, dissonance, Jack, and Meg: Even working with bagpipes, The White Stripes can convey their essence in just a couple of songs. [Jesse Hassenger]

12. Parliament, “The Silent Boatman”

Bagpipes and funk aren’t historically known as bosom buddies. Granted, “The Silent Boatman,” the closing track of Parliament’s 1970 debut album Osmium, isn’t the funkiest specimen ever captured in the studio by George Clinton’s sprawling collective of musicians. At the time, the band was in a psychedelic phase that, on “The Silent Boatman,” bordered on folk-rock. Which is why the song is bolstered by some well-placed bagpipe playing in the intro and during a sumptuous solo—a haunting, pastoral, almost mythic bleat that turns one of Parliament’s gentlest tracks into something that might have echoed down from the Scottish Highlands. [Jason Heller]

13. U2, “Tomorrow”

Bono told Rolling Stone in 2005 that the U2 song “Tomorrow” was “a detailed account of my mother’s funeral. But I had no idea when I was writing it.” His subconscious preoccupation very obviously also infiltrated the song’s music: “Tomorrow” begins with a burst of uilleann pipes (performed by Vincent Kilduff) which sound like the kind of somber musical accompaniment heard at a funeral service. After this tone-setting opening, the pipes function as background anguish for the first two-thirds of the song—although they take center stage occasionally to comfort and empathize with Bono’s obvious grief—before retreating once “Tomorrow” explodes into an angry rock song. Because the uilleann pipes contrast so sharply with this electrified outburst, it actually exacerbates their sorrowful tone—creating a scenario where in less than five minutes, “Tomorrow” runs through the stages of mourning. [Annie Zaleski]

14. Wings, “Mull Of Kintyre”

Although it was never a massive hit in America, Wings’ “Mull Of Kintyre” holds a place in British pop music history for being the first single to sell 2 million copies in the U.K. In regards to the reason why, it would not be inappropriate to blame it on the bagpipes. While the song starts out as a simple acoustic folk ditty, with Paul McCartney delivering his tribute to the area of Scotland in which he and his wife Linda had made a home for their family, Kintyre’s own Campbeltown Pipe Band enter the proceedings right around the minute and a half mark and turn the track into a full-fledged Scottish anthem. [Will Harris]

15. Marty Willson-Piper, “Forever” (1989)

As a former member of The Church, guitarist Marty Willson-Piper has participated the recording of a song which has often been falsely accused of featuring bagpipes—for the record, the sound you hear on “Under The Milky Way” is actually a Synclavier—but he’s also used the real thing during the course of his solo career. In the case of “Forever,” which appears on Willson-Piper’s 1989 album, Rhyme, the bagpipes add further musical depth to a song that’s already rather complex to begin with (it’s just over six minutes long and features three key changes), but the story behind them being in the mix at all is rather remarkable. In an interview with the Australian magazine On the Street, Willson-Piper discussed how Andy Mason, his co-producer on the album, laughed at the idea that he’d be able to find a piper in Stockholm, Sweden, where they were recording Rhyme. “Believe it or not, I walked out of the studio for a break about an hour later, and suddenly I heard bagpipes,” said Willson-Piper. “There was a guy busking, in the middle of January in his kilt. I couldn’t believe it, so I sat and watched him for a while. Eventually I thought, ‘I’ve got to ask him,’ [so] I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, I’m making a record…’ It came out great. The guy was really good.” [Will Harris]

16. Peter Gabriel, “Come Talk To Me”

No stranger to blurring the lines of genre or geography, Peter Gabriel first used the sound of bagpipes—albeit created on a synthesizer—on his anti-apartheid classic “Biko,” marrying them to a polyrhythmic African beat to create something that was anthemic and slightly militaristic in keeping with the song’s tale of murdered activist Steve Biko. He would revisit the effect more than a decade later, this time with actual bagpipes, on “Come Talk To Me”—a song that was decidedly more personal than political, but no less stirring. Placed once again atop African rhythms (in this case, a loop of Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose), the blare of bagpipes is the first sound to cut through the speakers on Gabriel’s 1992 album Us, lending a sense of urgency and melancholy to his titular plea to a loved one. [Sean O’Neal]