10 iconic uses of bagpipes on recordings

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10 iconic uses of bagpipes on recordings

Words by By Christie Eliezer

From classic rock to modern pop, we explore the use of the mystical drone of the Scottish bagpipe on recordings throughout the decades.

Bagpipes have a misty, mystical sound that can truly enhance the beauty of a song.

“They a very sombre instrument, very beautiful in the right context,” said Jack White.

Read more gear features, artist interviews and how-to columns here.

They can be ear blistering, producing 95 to 110 decibels of sound, aligning them with a jackhammer (95 dbs), French horn (90 to 120 dbs) or trumpet (80 to 110 dbs), as opposed to a violin (78 dbs) or piano (60 to 70 dbs).

They can be horror-inducing to work on a guitar track.

“It’s a hard instrument to time to guitars, because you’re pumping them and they kind of kick in when the bag’s full – very difficult to time to guitars,” remembered early AC/DC manager Michael Browning.

Nevertheless, the pipes have made some remarkable appearances on many beloved records, from classic rock to modern pop.

AC/DC – ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock And Roll)’

While AC/DC were at Albert Studios in Sydney working on the TNT album in 1975, co-producer George Young suggested that an extended jam, which he was set to trim down to 5 minutes and 02 seconds, needed bagpipes to give it a zing.

Bon Scott mouthed off that he’d been in a piper band in his younger days and could do the job.

“So we let Bon put his mouth where his mouth was,” Angus chuckled to this writer.

Bon popped out and bought one for $479 ($2,613 in today’s money) – a lot of dosh for a penniless band… and even more so when it turned out that while Scott had been in a pipe band, it was as a drummer.

Malcolm Young recounted the recording in Billboard: 

“Bon actually could play flute, not bagpipes. So he played the melody, and then we did the drones separate and put it on and it sounded fantastic.”

On the recording, the pipes were played by band piper Charlie Williams.

ABC-TV’s Countdown’s director Paul Drane made the clip, featuring the band on a flatbed truck driving up Melbourne’s Swanston Street on February 23, 1976.

Total cost:  $200 ($1,051.55 today). By 2010, it had 7 million YouTube views.

Joining them were Les Kenfield, Kevin Conlon and Alan Butterworth of the Rats of Tobruk Pipe Band.

Scott had contacted them for lessons. He was told it would take 12 months to play a tune, but they’d give enough lessons to bluff his way through.

Before the shoot, the pipers were nervous, so Bon took them to a pub for some fortifying shots.

Afterwards, they were invited to AC/DC’s hotel for lunch, and then spent the afternoon in Bon’s room playing traditional Scottish tunes.

The Church – ‘Under The Milky Way’

When Steve Kilbey first wrote ‘Under The Milky Way’, he didn’t think much of it, and threw in a bagpipe solo on the demo more as a joke.

He and then-partner, Swedish feminist punk musician Karin Jansson, wrote it in Smiths Lake, a tiny village on the NSW Mid North Coast, 274 kms from Sydney, on a visit to his mum Joyce.

At night Smiths Lake was dark and mystical, starry sky reflecting on the lagoon’s black water.

It inspired lines like “This place gets kind of empty” and “Something shimmering and white/ 

Leads you here despite your destination.”

Doodling on the family’s out-of-tune piano after rolling a joint, Kilbey started with an A-minor chord with a bass note an octave down.

“Being stoned, I could hear a world of possibilities in that chord,” he recalled.

“Under The Milky Way” was shelved until a year later when The Church were recording Starfish in Los Angeles and their manager Mike Lembo pushed for its inclusion.

The track was built up via integrated synthesizer, sampler and sequencer, the Synclavier, which also provided the backward African bagpipes sound for the solo. 

At one point, the band experimented with Peter Koppes substituting the solo with an e-bow and wah-wah, but everyone realised the pipes were too essential for the song’s melancholy spirit, and Koppes’ sequence was moved to the end.

U2 – ‘Tomorrow’

When Bono wrote ‘Tomorrow’, he didn’t realise it was about his mother Iris’ funeral in 1974 when he was 14.

She had collapsed of a brain aneurysm at her father’s funeral and later died at the hospital.

So Uilleann pipes (performed by Vincent Kilduff) displayed the singer’s grief before hard guitar entered to denote anger.

Korn – ‘Dead’

As a child, Korn’s Jonathan Davis experienced his grandmother playing pipe records.

But the moving scene in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with Montgomery Scott playing ‘Amazing Grace’ during Spock’s funeral led him to join the school pipe band.

He’s used it on a number of Korn cuts, but doesn’t “wanna milk the motherfuckers to death.”

‘Dead’ is an effective use, the brief opener of 1999’s Issues, with the small pipes adding to the ethereal chanting by Davis (who worked as a mortuary assistance in his teens) “All I want in life is to be happy/ It seems funny to me / How fucked things can be/ Every time I get ahead/  I feel more dead.”

All that considered, it’s now often requested as a funeral song.

The White Stripes – ‘Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn’ /‘St. Andrew (The Battle Is In The Air)’

Jack and Meg pay tribute to their Scottish ancestry with these linked songs from final album, 2007’s Icky Thump. 

The first was about the thistle, the national flower of Scotland, and the other its patron saint.

“Through Nova Scotia, a lot of Scottish families moved to Detroit to work at the car factories. 

“I hope Scottish people take this song as my gift to them,” Jack said.

The Whites used 52-year-old, London-born, Tennessee-based bagpiper, Jim Drury, pipe major of the Tennessee Scots Pipe Band.

Drury said of their three-hour encounter: 

“I was impressed by how musical he was and how agreeable he was to changing things on the fly.” 

Eric Burdon & The Animals – “Sky Pilot”

For Eric Burdon & the Animals’ seven minute antiwar ‘Sky Pilot’ (slang for priests who served in the military) – released in 1968 as the Vietnam War raged – Burdon sneakily taped the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing ‘All the Bluebonnets Are Over the Border.’

That was mixed with effects of fighter planes, gunfire and explosions – and got him a furious reprimand from the Royal Family for being a thieving commoner.

Caroline Polacheck – ‘Blood And Butter’

The most recent track on this list is by ambient experimentalist Caroline Polacheck, a US-born avant-pop star described as Gen Z’s Kate Bush.

Beyonce, who got her to write songs for her, Dua Lipa who took her on tour – Lorde and Haim are among her ardent fans.

‘Blood and Butter’ Caroline described the track to The Guardian as being about “spiralling upward.” 

“The upward spiral is maybe the closest thing we can experience to heaven – a kind of heaven on earth, which we feel in moments of total selflessness and falling in love.

“They’re really the moments where you feel yourself turning into something else.”

The track emphasised that feeling with the pipes, played by Brìghde Chaimbeul, an award winning prodigy whose arrangement focused on the rich textural drones of the instrument.

Paul McCartney & Wings – ‘Mull Of Kintyre’

“Fab Macca” bought a farm in Scotland in 1966 as a hideaway, and wanted to pen something about why he loved returning to Mull of Kintyre.

Over a bottle of whisky, he and Wings guitarist Denny Laine finished the song on the farmhouse steps in an afternoon in the summer of 1977.

He got in touch with the local Campbeltown Pipe Band. “Aye, very good, very good”, replied its leader Tony Wilson.

There was a problem. The song had been written and recorded in the key of A, but pipes can only play in B flat or E flat.

Laine said: “I don’t remember how we did it, whether we slowed it down or sped it up. But we got the key the same as the pipers’ B flat.

“Then we had to transpose one section to E flat when they came in for the second part of the song which was great because it made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

“It gave it that boost, a change of key when they came in, that was the selling point really.”

It was the best selling single in the UK for a long time, and the first to sell 2 million copies there.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor –  ‘East Hastings’

An interesting and innovative use of bagpipes, among other sounds, the 17-minute opus from the Canadian art-rocker’s 1997 debut album was in huge demand in film and TV circles.

Film maker Danny Boyle had Godspeed in his head when creating 28 Days Later.

“The whole film was cut to Godspeed in my head,” he recalled.

John Farnham – ‘You’re The Voice’

Farnesy loved ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’ so much he did it in concert.

So when it came to recording his career-defining song in 1986, he wanted the bass solo on the demo to be replaced by bagpipes.

Farnham and his team tapped award winning pipe major Ross Campbell, a teacher for 32 years at Scotch College, Melbourne, to write the score and wrangle a team of pipers to play on it.

Campbell had begun piping in 1953 at age 10, and was so skilled that when the singer’s music director David Hirschfelder went around to his house and sang him the song, he could write out the notation.

Manager Glenn Wheatley said:

“Bagpipes are always slightly out of tune. It’s hard to make them work, but they did.”

The first time Campbell heard the completed song was in Scotland.

He was visiting a friend, whose daughter was celebrating her birthday and been given a copy of Whispering Jack.

As he walked into the house, his solo was blaring out of the speakers.

Still curious? Find more information about the history of the bagpipe here.