Mar 07


FT + Popular42 comments • 9,166 views

#312, 15th April 1972

I don’t know exactly what the market for “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes was, but I’d hazard a guess there’s not much crossover between it and its surrounding hits. To state the obvious, it sounds more than a little out of place – a sudden incursion of solemnity, but also in its way the most extreme sound to reach Number One in 1972.

I have rather a soft spot for the keening, buzzing, stringent sound that bagpipes make. If you’re a southern English pop fan,  you don’t get to hear them a lot outside televised ceremonials, but I’ve never understood their position as comedy instrumental whipping boy. I also don’t know what use the artier end of drone-making has made of them: surely some, as what “Amazing Grace” reminds me of are the minimalist CDs I own by the likes of Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine*. The Dragoon Guards’ drones never become the focus of the record – there’s a tune to play, and a well-known and comforting one at that – but even so the thick overtones and piercing sweetness of the sound can’t quite be overcome by contextual frumpiness. I’m sure that if you were there, the pipes would have become intolerable, but I think they’re an attractive palate cleanser at the very least.

*My recreational drone use has become a minor casualty of getting married: Isabel can’t stand extreme monotony or repetition, whereas I find both of them touch and soothe something quite deep in me. I can get roughly the same effect through an engrossing computer game or a hot bath, though, and without causing her extreme mental torment. Not a sacrifice I particularly regret, but I’ve kept most of the CDs for some happy day when I have a study of my own and can keep out the kids with a bit of Angus Maclise. For the record, I think what this track most reminds me of is Jim O’Rourke’s harmonium drone album Happy Days, though I seem to recall Keiji Haino did some bagpipe material too – so perhaps I’m thinking of that.




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  1. 1
    Rosie on 17 Mar 2007 #

    To give this a score seems about as meaningful in the context of Popular as giving a score to Brünnhilde’s farewell (which I shall be indulging in on BBC2 somewhere in the small hours of tomorrow morning, as it happens.)

    Brünnhilde is guaranteed to give me a frisson to make Harry Nilsson seem like a nursery rhyme, even tough I’ve heard it zillions of times. Military bands, on the other hand leave me cold. I’m sure it’s a very good military band though, and the sort of people who like that sort of thing will find Amazing Grace the sort of thing they like.

    On the other hand, I have nothing against pipes as such, and where they are pumped from under the arm rather than filled by the lungs they are perfectly respectable (think Kathryn Tickell on Late Junction)

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    jeff w on 17 Mar 2007 #

    I won’t be waxing lyrical (or at all) about this one. But bagpipes have their place in pop: I will have positive things to say about a future #1 that features them.

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    alext on 18 Mar 2007 #

    Best bagpipes in pop = surely AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top’. Which I’m guessing is not coming up on popular.

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    Billy Smart on 18 Mar 2007 #

    The bagpipes in ‘Goin’ Down the Road’ by Roy Wood are also rather thrilling, as is their appearance in the surprise ending of ‘Are you Ready to Rock’, his subsequent single. Both songs are constructed around sprightlier tempos than ‘Amazing Grace’, however.

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    Marcello Carlin on 19 Mar 2007 #

    I’m going to refrain from commenting on this one since the memories it engenders are far too personal (Glasgow, 1972, eight years old), so much so that I’m not sure how, or if, I should “mark” it.

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    Erithian on 19 Mar 2007 #

    I can’t match Jeff’s touching tale of being deeply affected by Nilsson at the age of six, but I did have an unusual reaction to this one. It consisted of getting my mum to buy it for me then listening to it over and over while lying back on the sofa and just letting the pipes transport me to the glens, the mists and all that – I’d never been to Scotland and wouldn’t for another decade or so, but this was a good substitute. Ambient chillout, if you will – I was nine, nearly ten. Loved it and still do.

    Channel 4’s all-time top 100 rundown pointed out that this was almost certainly the greatest number of trained killers ever to feature on a number 1 single.

  7. 7
    Erithian on 19 Mar 2007 #

    Oh yes, obscure quiz question – what does this track have in common with “Groovejet”?

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    Marcello Carlin on 19 Mar 2007 #

    Worth noting (statistically) that the Judy Collins “original,” though only peaking at #5, notched up 67 weeks on the singles chart. At that time, in terms of cumulative chart runs, it was second only to Sinatra’s “My Way” (122 weeks, and curiously its peak position was also #5).

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    jeff w on 19 Mar 2007 #

    Here’s a nice bit of serendipity: on Friday, the movie Amazing Grace about slave-trade-abolitionsist William Wilberforce, opens in the UK – the climax of which, apparently, is a funeral scene scored to a rendition of the tune on the bagpipes.

    IMDB doesn’t seem to have the OST credits, so I’m not sure whether its the Royal Scots version on the soundtrack.

    Here’s a random review found with google:

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    Marcello Carlin on 19 Mar 2007 #

    The RSDG version does turn up at the end of Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.

    My personal favourite rendition, however, is the Jonathan Richman one, wherein he appears to make his own words up as he goes along.

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    xyzzzz__ on 19 Mar 2007 #

    Tom, if you’re interested in more minimalist type things w/ bagpipes (;-)) you might wanna try Yoshi Wada – a cpl of LPs are available if you go this link:


    Keiji Haino plays Hurdy-gurdy, innit, don’t know if he ever played bagpipes? youtube had a 10 min clip but couldn’t find it.

    I’ve heard another version of “Amazing Grace” recently, on Ben Johnson’s “String Quartet no4” (composed around the same time too, in 1973) and Kronos (who were featured on Lollards a cpl of weeks ago) played that. I have the Kepler quartet’s version (on New World).

    This did not chart.

  12. 12
    Marcello Carlin on 19 Mar 2007 #

    There’s a very nice version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” by Sonny Rollins featuring some soulful bagpipe improvising from the recently-deceased Rufus Harley.

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    Lena on 19 Mar 2007 #

    When I was in grade school in 1974 we learned the song from this version. It seemed to go on forever and didn’t have any singing and it seemed tortuous to me. The teacher, Mr. Guthrie, was very serious about us learning it. We also learned “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which is odd as we were in Canada, but I was too young to know…

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    Erithian on 19 Mar 2007 #

    The connection with the movie and the slave trade being, for anyone who doesn’t know, that “Amazing Grace” was written in 1772 by a priest and former slave trader, John Newton. Intriguingly, Newton didn’t give up the slave trade for some years after becoming a Christian, and didn’t express regrets about his part in the slave trade until several years after writing the hymn! This passed through my mind while watching Katherine Jenkins perform the song at Live 8…

    Nobody has come back on my quiz question earlier, so here goes: just as “Groovejet” denied the Spice Girls the distinction of all their former members having solo No 1 hits, so “Amazing Grace” denied the Beatles – Ringo’s “Back Off Boogaloo” stopping at 2, as did Vicky Leandros’ Eurovision winner “Come What May”.

    One last thing about the RSDG: the NME enjoyed the quote from their Pipe Major, Jimmy Pride. On being asked how many takes they’d required to record the song, he said: “One. We’re not pop stars, we’re professionals”.

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    Marcello Carlin on 19 Mar 2007 #

    As I recall this was actually 1972’s biggest-selling single (confirm/correct please).

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    Tobim on 19 Mar 2007 #

    This still strikes terror into me 35 years later. I was 2 and a half, I went into my granny’s pantry and the door shut on me. As there was a step down from the door I couldn’t reach the handle to get out. I shouted and shouted but all I and anyone else could hear were the bagpipes and drums of the military band of the Royal Scots Dragoon guards belting out ‘Amazing Grace’ and my grandpa singing along basso profundo as he peeled spuds in the kitchen. I was only rescued when he came to the pantry for more potatoes… I hadn’t heard it for years until it was on ‘Pick of the Pops’ on Radio 2 not long ago. Pipes, pantries and potatoes – you can keep ’em.

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    Mark Grout on 20 Mar 2007 #

    I’m here to confirm Marcello’s recollection.

    I had Tom Browne’s “end of year” chart on cassette until I managed to persuade my mother to let me have the cassette to record something more worthwile on it.

    I think Stavely Makepeace a.k.a was number two.

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    Marcello Carlin on 20 Mar 2007 #

    I have the vague notion that “Big Six” ended up in the end-of-year top ten sellers despite never actually making the top ten but I might be wrong.

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    intothefireuk on 21 Mar 2007 #

    No, I’ve tried and I just can’t like the bagpipes at all. To my ears they make an excrutiatingly irritating sound and hence any ‘tune’ they porport to play is immediately rendered void (please see ‘the Mull song’ by Macca). I prefer the JC ‘original’ if I have to listen to it but even that is a trial. I have heard the Blind Boys Of Alabama do it and that is a far more enlightening version.

    Bagpipes aren’t even funny.

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    Marcello Carlin on 21 Mar 2007 #

    Why more enlightening? Did someone set fire to them and they didn’t notice?

    Abysmal, I know, but sometimes one can’t resist.

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    o sobek! on 23 Mar 2007 #

    I’m trying to decide if this falls more in line w/ Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” ie. hoary monolith made fresh thru a spare, dissonant rendition or if it’s more akin to the charting (stateside at least, no idea how it did in the UK) of “the Lord’s Prayer” in a couple of years. How did people hear it at the time – as bizarre/shocking or as comforting? How do people hear it now? Was it maybe even more similar to “Man of Constant Sorrow” ie. century(s) old pre-pop foundation somehow rising up out of the maw and forcing a place for itself on the charts/radio, pulling off the rare feat of being simultaneously solemn/untouchable ‘authentic/real’ while also being clearly a novelty record.

    Bagpipes are gorgeous and awesome.

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    Andrew Farrell on 23 Mar 2007 #

    Other nomination for best bagpipes on pop = Luv’s Trojan Horse.

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    Erithian on 27 Mar 2007 #

    Well, I remember the shock it created going straight in at number 3, but I don’t think it was seen as bizarre, certainly not as shocking in a socio-political sense as Hendrix’s reworking of “Star Spangled Banner”. (Even Brian May’s guitar version of “God Save The Queen” was considered more shocking than this in its day!)

    As we were discussing in the “Spirit in the Sky” thread a while back, this was a time when hymns made the chart: Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” was a hymn, and Les Crane’s “Desiderata” also reached the top ten. “Stars on Sunday” was at its peak and Malcolm Muggeridge was a TV regular. The RSDG’s was a sincere and elegant reworking of a hymn tune, and they later had a minor hit with “The Day is Ended” (as in “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended…”)

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    Marcello Carlin on 27 Mar 2007 #

    Point of order: didn’t go straight in at three, climbed from previous week’s 31.

    Brian May’s version of “God Save The Queen” was shocking, but for all the wrong reasons.

    STV were at the time inclined to use as a time filler between programmes a film of a gymnast exercising, using the record as a soundtrack.

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    Erithian on 27 Mar 2007 #

    You’re right MC, but at the time and for many years afterwards the chart rundown was limited to the top 30, and that was what was printed in the papers other then the music press. Anything below that was (in the time-honoured phrase) bubbling under!

    I remember that gymnast clip, it wasn’t just STV. He was doing a routine on the rings, and as it ended the camera focused on the word “ARMY” on his vest – wasn’t it a recruitment film?

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    Marcello Carlin on 28 Mar 2007 #

    It may well have been.

    Yes, the era of what Blackburn and several others irritatingly and repeatedly referred to as the “Fun Thirty” is easy to forget since we’ve got so used to the Top 40 being the “public” chart; as I recall it expanded in May 1978 when the full Top 50 expanded to a Top 75 but in retrospect it’s difficult not to think in Top 40 terms.

    There wasn’t the same element of frisson when the first Jive Bunny single climbed from 31 to 3…

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    Erithian on 28 Mar 2007 #

    Frisson, but for all the wrong reasons.

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    Waldo on 28 Mar 2007 #

    I wonder how many of the “pipers and drummers” responsible for this Caledonian train wreck are still at large dining out on having had a Number One hit in the 1970s. Ditto The Simon Park Orchestra a year later, of course.

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    Russell on 24 May 2008 #

    I remember this record most as it stopped my all time favourite singer VICKY LEANDROS from reaching number one . I remember one week after the top 20 countdown when the number one was always played to close they played COME WHAT MAY instead though it was number two . Amazing Grace was number one for so many weeks I guess they felt like a vocal change ! Of course trooping into the school hall at 1 o’clock and hearing that we all thought VICKY was number one and it was a disappointment . The week it dropped from number one so did she !! Long forgotten here of course VICKY is a huge star elsewhere and I have 500 LP’s of her and even more singles from all over the world in many languages .

  30. 30
    Taylor on 16 Jul 2009 #

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