These go to 11: The best “whistle” songs of all timeBy W. Paul Smith | August 9th, 2011 | 4 comments
The old adage suggests that all you have to do is put your lips together and blow — but, the truth is, some people blow much better than others.
One such blower is the great Andrew Bird, who plays the Arvada Center tonight and Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on Wednesday. Bird is known for his quirky, introspective and wildly creative indie-rock, as well as being a virtuoso on the violin.
And, like the name “Bird” suggests, the man is also a master of the whistle, often producing beautiful, high-pitched melodies or strange, warbling, Theremin-like sounds with only the expulsion of air through his pursed lips.
So, in honor of Bird’s two Colorado shows, we thought we’d count down some other great tunes that employ the art of the whistle.
These 11 songs don’t suck; they blow.
11. “Masterfade” by Andrew Bird
While practically every song by Bird could reasonably place somewhere on this list, perhaps his best, most pitch-perfect whistle solo belongs to the beautiful track “Masterfade” from his phenomenal 2005 album “The Mysterious Production of Eggs.” Bird demonstrates on this song just what makes him one of the truly great masters of the whistling arts.
10. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle (Monty Python)
Eric Idle wrote this song for the last scene of Monty Python’s cult classic film “The Life of Brian.” The scene features Idle signing the merry tune while the film’s protagonist, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), is being crucified — only to be followed by dozens of others crucifixion victims in an old-fashioned musical sing-along complete with dancing crosses.
9. “Young Folks” by Peter, Bjorn and John
This infectious indie-pop single from Peter, Bjorn and John’s third record, “Writer’s Block,” is perhaps best remembered for its whistle riff. The song got some play on the corporate radio dials, climbed the charts in the UK, and showed up in numerous TV shows, movies, and commercials. However, listen to the riff closely and you’ll catch its striking similarity to the so-called “oriental riff” — the stereotypic, borderline offensive trope often used by Western media to depict Asian culture.
8. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
Though he will forever be known for this smash-hit whistle-along classic, McFerrin is actually world-renowned as both a vocal virtuoso capable of polyphonic and multiphonic singing (operatic throat techniques of rapidly switching between registers) and a talented conductor who has worked with the New York Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic orchestras. But all people really remember is that video with Robin Williams.
7. “Games Without Frontiers” by Peter Gabriel
Named after the European game show “Jeux Sans Frontières,” this 1980 hit single released on Gabriel’s third self-titled album had Kate Bush on backing vocals and featured bizarre, obscure name-referencing lyrics that ruminated poignantly on European war and nationalism. But the uplifting whistle riff turned the song from a melancholy downer into something feeling grander and optimistic.
6. “Tighten Up” by The Black Keys
This single became the Black Keys’ most successful to date, taking the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in 2010. And for what it’s worth, the video for the track also won the “Best Breakthough Video” on MTV’s VMAs. However, in a moment of surreal irony, when the Akron, Ohio duo were handed the trophy, it accidentally read “Black Eyed Peas.”
5. “Jealous Guy” by John Lennon
This widely-covered song from Lennon’s essential album “Imagine” was originally an unreleased Beatles track called “Child of Nature” (a quick YouTube search will turn up the track with ease). The original lyrics were inspired by a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but Lennon eventually replaced the lyrics in 1970 to make this hauntingly beautiful apology for hurting a woman (presumably Yoko).
4. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon
This 1971 hit featured on Simon’s 1972 self-titled album (his first LP after splitting from Garfunkle) has been the subject of much debate as to the track’s meaning. At question is what exactly is the crime or incident that “Mama saw?” Simon finally set the record straight in a Rolling Stone interview when he said he had no idea what Mama saw and it didn’t even matter.
3. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (theme)” by Ennio Morricone
Morricone ranks as one of great film composers of all time, but when it comes to Spaghetti Westerns he is the undisputed champion. And no score better epitomizes the desert landscapes and rugged gunfighters of the genre than his main theme to Sergio Leone’s classic “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The whistling in the song was actually performed by English musician John O’Neill, who is also rumored to be the whistler from the 1967 hit novelty song “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” by Whistling Jack Smith (a pseudonym).
2. “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair
Professor Longhair is largely credited with inventing the signature New Orleans’ style of piano-playing, a style Allen Toussaint called “that mambo-rhumba boogie thing.” Originally written by Earl King, “Big Chief” went on the become Longhair’s most famous song and ranks right up there with “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a staple of the New Orleans music scene. King himself provided the now-legendary whistling.
1. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
This song, Redding’s biggest hit, was recording only a few days before his tragic untimely death in a plane crash at age 26 and released posthumously. The story goes that Redding wrote this song while staying on a houseboat at Waldo Point in Sausalito, Calif. after listening to the Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” over and over again. The ending whistle riff is one of the most recognizable tunes in history, and practically taught many people to whistle themselves.
W. Paul Smith is a Denver Post Online intern and a new contributor to Reverb.