Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Oho! Well, you were warned that this was coming, but the oft-maligned bagpipes have a surprisingly fertile life in coverland. As with the banjo, it isn’t a genre per se, even if usually most associated with the folk and indiginous musics of the Celtic nations. Luckily(?!) for you, it has leaked into any number of unexpected other genres, which, by and large is where we are going today.
But first, some context. Bagpipes have existed since the dawn of time, the ingredients of their manufacture largely available to mankind from very early on, usually in the form of the body parts of an otherwise eaten animal. All you need is a stomach and a pair of lungs–the stomach from your kill, the lungs your own. Apply lips and blow. At the other end of the “bag” is the chanter, a bit like a whistle. By maintaining a constant input of air into the bag, as it flows out and through the chanter, the sounds produced can be altered.
As sophistication advanced, further “pipes” were added, giving a constant tone, as background. This provides the drone, or drones, suddenly a texture so beloved in modern post-rock circles. If you can’t be blethered to blow, bellows devices bypassed the need for the musicians own lung power, these filling the bag by under-arm pumping action, pushing air into the bag that way. The Scottish highland bagpipes are the prime example of the former, the Irish uillean pipes of the latter, but there area host of other models, some lungs driven, some bellows. So we have the Scottish small pipes, Northumbrian pipes, probably the next best known, ahead crossing the channel to the many and varied European varieties.
As “civilization” advanced, so the pipes tended to move outward, towards the edges of any world known at that time, partly as pianos and violins swept in to classier society, in the hubs of nations and empires, and partly through pipes being exported to the “colonies”, the savages taking their primitive instrument of choice to the very fringes of the world.
Enough natter, let’s groove!
Red Hot Chilli Pipers – Insomnia (Faithless cover)
First up and out, if only to remove the novelty and/or spoof aspect out the ring, we have the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. They’re a huge draw in their own country, making also significant waves across Hadrian’s Wall into England. Formed in 2002, their thing is to replicate the hits of the day, the conceit being three sets of highland pipes, military drums and Scottish dancers, behind which an orthodox rhythm section, plus brass, can lay down the groundwork. Not really my bag, but they’re broadly good fun nonetheless, with nine albums behind them. Frankly, if nothing else, they deserve maximum kudos for the “prodigious” name, SWIDT, of their 4th recording, Music For The Kilted Generation. (I have just read that record hit 2 on the Amazon US chart in 2010!!)
Rufus Harley – Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (Traditional cover)
Now this guy was something! Quite how the why or how this African American jazzman, already accomplished on flutes and saxophones, should have decided what the world of bebop needed was bagpipes, beats me. But he did, and I for one am glad he did. His inspiration was, it seems, seeing the band of the Black Watch, a British army regiment, play at the funeral of JFK. Between 1965 and his death in 2006, he put out about a dozen LPs of jazz-pipe fusions, as beguiling as they are bewildering.
Dropkick Murphys – It’s a Long Way to the Top (AC/DC cover)
Lulling you in gently, here’s a cover of a song that already had pipes, from the Scotland to Sydney rockers AC/DC. In their version, it was more a novelty, to give recognition to their Celtic roots. Dropkick Murphys, hardcore Celtic punk merchants from Boston, already have a piper in their line-up, so it was second nature for them to blast out a version of this unsubtle banger. The DMs have become gradually more nuanced over the years, and are now quite a classy outfit. Their 2022 release This Machine Still Kills Fascists saluted Woody Guthrie, often using unused lyrics rather than necessarily reprising songs, the similar Okemah Rising issued this month.
Glen Campbell – Amazing Grace (John Newton cover)
OK, yes, it is that “Amazing Grace” and that Glen Campbell. Chartwise it has had a few iterations, with versions from the Dixie Hummingbirds through Elvis Presley, each bagpipe-free, let alone Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart. UK readers may well remember how in 1972 it held the top of the charts, for what seemed like forever, in an all-instrumental bagpipe version by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. But that’s too obvious, so how about a weird country fusion version by Glen Campbell, better known for his guitar-picking than his bag-blowing?
Kate Bush – Sexual Healing (Marvin Gaye cover)
Seeing as we seemed to have slipped into the wackier bywaters, before we lose the plot entirely, here is an absolute belter of a version of the Marvin Gaye smooch session regular, “Sexual Healing.” Kate Bush was, at this time, in the peak of her popularity, and was already testing the horizons of where she could cast her net, searching for inspirations and opportunities. Of Irish lineage, she had long flirted with Irish music, and had appeared on a couple of Irish compilations, notably Donal Lunny’s Common Ground – Voices of Modern Irish Music. So who better to team up with than Davy Spillane, an extraordinary uillean pipe player, always up for a slide away from the purely traditional. Actually recorded for one of his solo recordings, it failed to make the cut, staying unwrapped until Bush put it out herself, as the b-side of a single. Kicking in after about a minute, the pipes give such a spine-tingling wail as to underpin all the passion inherent in the song. Wonderful version.
The Bad Shepherds – The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
Let’s stick with the glorious tones of the uillean pipes, perfect for this faux-folk cover of Germany’s finest. We have featured these guys before, but it is such as beauty as to demand this song a reprise. Piper Troy Donockley (actually an Englishman) has had quite a journeyman career, from the Bad Shepherds through to work with Midge Ure, reprising his solo and Ultravox work in a Celtic setting, as well as playing in a Nordic metal band.
Battlefield Band – Bad Moon Rising (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
We’re actually spoilt for choice by the Battlefield Band, an establishment and institution in Scotland. They had a well-oiled revolving door of virtuoso members “going forward with Scotland’s past” between 1976 and 2015, last playing live as a unit in 2017. As celebrated for their traditional and folk material, these guys were amongst the first to introduce more modern instrumentation, like synthesizers, into centuries-old music. But bagpipes were always an integral part of what you could expect. This isn’t actually their best cover, chosen more for the song, but Charlie Rich, Richard Thompson or Sting could have equally well had their songs chosen.
The Snakecharmer – Zombie (The Cranberries cover)
One thing I have become aware of is an ascendant of female pipers. YouTube is awash with them, belting out all sorts of covers. By and large I am not so keen, it smacking a tad of gimmick. Sometimes, though, they are so good as to warrant some praise and attention. One such is Archie Jay, India’s first professional female piper, who performs under the Snakecharmer name. I confess to liking this a lot, not least as it captures, as one of the comments on her channel remarks, and reflects the unique skirl inherent in Dolores O’Riordan’s voice.
Alpha Blondy – Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd cover)
Held until last, this version of “Wish You Were Here” is a longtime favorite. Arguably, it takes little imagination as to how bagpipes found their way to Africa, as the sun never set on the British Empire. But the Ivory Coast was a French colony, so how come? Let’s disregard, for a moment, the fine Breton tradition of bagpipes (cornmuse), mainly as I couldn’t find any cover exemplars, as these are Scottish pipes on this intriguing version (played by a Frenchman, Mickael Cozien). Alpha Blondy is a Paris-based reggae singer from, to give it the proper name, Côte d’Ivoire. I think he is great, but why this song, why reggae, and why pipes? Who cares? Just enjoy.