Saturday, 10 January 2015

My Top Ten Dead Pet Songs

The death of a beloved pet is no laughing matter. It can be a genuinely traumatic experience - for some people, even more devastating than the death of a relative. I'm not making light of that, and neither are any of the songwriters featured below... although some of these songs, when heard through cynical 21st Century ears, might be the source of derision for some... especially our unfortunate Number One.

10. Pinback - Penelope

Penelope was a goldfish belonging to Pinback mainman Armistead Burwell Smith IV. The fish apparently died of dropsy and he wrote this, one of the band's most successful tunes, in tribute.

9. The Byrds - Bugler

One of three Byrds songs about beloved pets - see also Old Blue, who ends up in Pet Heaven alongside Bugler... and Fido (I kid you not) who manages to survive. Although, considering the song in question was written back in 1969...

8. Okkervil River - Dead Dog Song

A pretty blunt title from the Okkervil lads, but this is more emotional than you might expect. Unlike The Byrds, however, Will Sheff doesn't appear to believe in doggy heaven...
He'd never been to church, so he doesn't have a soul
He isn't waiting at the place where all of us will go
But the woodchucks wouldn't run so wild
The bushes wouldn't be so overgrown if we were not alone
7. Amy Winehouse - October Song

Dedicated to Amy's pet canary Ava (after Ava Gardner) who flew away to live "in paradise". Will she be reborn like Sarah Vaughan?

6. Queen - All Dead, All Dead

Written about the death of Bryan May's childhood cat, and how terrible he felt at her passing. Freddie was also a cat lover - the song Delilah was written about one of his own furry feline friends.

5. Joni Mitchell - Man From Mars

Joni's cat wasn't actually dead when she wrote this - she just thought he was. They'd had a bit of a falling out after Nietzsche (only Joni Mitchell would have a cat called Nietzsche) kept pissing outside its litter tray (Joni: I hear your pain) and when she chucked him out, he didn't return until after she'd written this tearful lament.
I call and call
The silence is so full of sounds
You're in them all
I hear you in the water
And the wiring in the walls
Man from Mars
This time you went too far
4. Paul Simon - Mother & Child Reunion

Apparently written about the death of Simon's favourite childhood pet - which puts an entirely different light on those familiar lyrics. The title, however, was allegedly the name of a dish at his local Chinese restaurant. That could be apocryphal interweb nonsense, but I hope it isn't. 

3. Elvis Presley - Old Shep

Probably popular culture's most famous ode to a deceased pet, it's been mercilessly mocked over the years and has lost much of its bite. If you can put that aside though, it's bloody heartbreaking.

Old Shep has historical importance too - it was the first song Elvis ever performed live, aged 10, at a country show. He came fifth and won $5. Happy 80th, Elvis. 

And speaking of Elvis...

2. Neil Young - Old King

Undoubtedly the best song in this list... but it doesn't make Number One for reasons explained below. Neil's dog was actually called Elvis, but he changed its name when he wrote this tribute "to avoid confusion". Elvis used to go on tour with Neil but he's "riding on Jimi Hendrix's bus now".
Then I thought about the times we had
Once when I kicked him when he was bad
Old King sure meant a lot to me
But that hound dog is history
I actually find the above verse tremendously affecting, though I can see how others might find its basic rhyme scheme rather mawkish. It reminds me of my first dog, Fly, and how devastated I was as a child when she died. All I could think about was the time I'd smacked her because she wouldn't stop barking. I cried for days. In the end, my dad gave me a hammer and stone chisel and let me carve her name into the dry stone wall near where he'd buried her. It worked: it helped me say goodbye

1. Jim Reeves - Old Tige

Many years ago, when I used to work in hospital radio, Jim Reeves was our most requested artist. Perhaps there's something about being close to death that makes people turn to big Jim. To be fair though, his most popular tune was I Love You Because... Old Tige was only requested once and it took me quite a while to find it in the station's badly organised record library. When I finally did, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Old Tige takes the dead dog premise that was arguably perfected on Old Shep to a whole other level. It's the sort of song that, if it was recorded nowadays, could only be a piss-take. Yet Jimbo plays it perfectly straight... hilariously so. I'd forgotten all about Old Tige until Guy Garvey played it recently on his 6Music show... and I'd forgotten just how much I "love" it.

The song is a classic recitative - a story told (not sung) with backing harmonies laying out a haunting chorus. It follows a young man's return from the army and a lonely walk across misty moorland with his faithful dog who's come to greet him. Along the way, he remembers all the good times they had together, such as the time "he saved me from the charging bull that... gored my dad to death". Tige once again saves his master's life on the foggy journey home (basically, he stops him falling into a reservoir), but there's a tragic and heartbreaking twist to the tail when Jim finally rolls on home... see if you can guess what it is.

What's your favourite (dead) pet sound? Surely it can't beat Old Tige...



  2. Good call. I should have recalled that. Except it appears to be on one of the few Tindersticks records I don't actually own.

  3. The only one in my record collection is the merciless pisstake version of Old Tige by Half Man Half Biscuit whose ending makes me chuckle every time. I guess I just don't have a heart.

    1. Ashamed to say I've never heard it... Just checked and it's on the Peel Sessions album, currently going for £35 on Amazon! Think I'll have to go on a hunt...

  4. Also just recalled the dead pet on Tom Waits' amazing Frank's Wild Years... although Frank never did like that dog.

  5. The most gut wrenching song for me is "Gulliver," written by Bernie Taupin, Elton's music and singing. It's from their first album "Empty Sky" so not many know about it. Gulliver was Bernie's dog. The yelling in devastation at the end is something everyone can relate to.

  6. The list of samples is too classic. I choose the song of Tears in Heaven while we're watching her video of my beloved Shakira and while the pet cremation in houston helping my sister to Shakira's arrangement.

  7. "If I Ever Leave This World Alive" -Flogging Molly


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