312. ‘Amazing Grace’, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

So, um… Our next number one single, from the spring of 1972, is… *checks notes*… a bagpipe instrumental.

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Amazing Grace, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 9th April – 14th May 1972

I really don’t think I can write anything interesting about the record itself. It is literally just the well-known hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, played by a military band. There have been plenty of outliers hit the top of the charts before this – singers and styles that have stood out like a sore thumb against the sounds of the time – Russ Conway’s piano, Frank Ifield’s yodelling, traditional ballads from the likes of Ken Dodd and Des O’Connor. None, though, have stood out as much as this.

Why was this a huge, five-week #1 single? There must be a story behind it. ‘Amazing Grace’ had been recorded in a popular version by American folk singer Judy Collins in 1969, whose arrangement the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard copied. Hers was a statement against the Vietnam War, part of the late sixties counter-culture that gave us ‘Woodstock’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin all recorded their own versions of the hymn in the early to mid-seventies.

Is it that simple, then? A record by some soldiers – albeit not ones directly involved in any conflict – appealing to a public that were seeing images of war on their TV sets every night? I’m not a religious person, but ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spectacular piece of music, one that touches somewhere deep within. It’s one of the best known songs in the English language, and so for it to appear at the top of the charts in some form seems apt, though it was apparently much more popular in American churches than in the UK.

The-Pipes-And-Drums-And-The-Military-Band

A bit of history: ‘Amazing Grace’ dates from the 1790s, instantly making it one of the very ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. Its writer, John Newton, had been a slave trader whose ship ran aground in a storm. This caused him to reassess his life, become a clergyman, and write this hymn about his experiences: Amazing grace, How great thou art, That saved a wretch like me… In the 1800s it became an abolitionist anthem and then very popular in African-American churches.

My problem with this record lies not in the religious-ness of it, or that it’s old-fashioned… My problem is with the bagpipes. I am Scottish. Yet I hate the sound of bagpipes. Something went wrong, somewhere, and I malfunctioned. It’s like being a cat that has no interest in pieces of string. Where most people hear a heart-tugging call from the misty glens and shimmering lochs; I just hear a shrill banshee-shriek. Listen to the first five seconds of this record: the drone and then the shriek. It’s not pleasant.

I enjoy it more when the brass section takes over in the second half of the song. But by the end we’re back to the lone piper. Except pipers are never really ‘lone’: they’re ten-a-penny on Edinburgh’s street corners in summer, quite often blasting out dirges like this. In conclusion, then, I’m with the stuffy old Director of Bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle who, when this record hit the charts, summoned the Pipe Major of the Royal Scots for a dressing down. How dare he demean the venerable bagpipe by featuring it on a pop record! Sadly for him, and all bagpipe haters around the world, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not even the biggest hit record of the 1970s to feature the instrument… Sigh.

15 thoughts on “312. ‘Amazing Grace’, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    I love Amazing Grace…it’s a beautiful song…very inspiring. I could hear it acapella or almost any way it comes. Slide guitar is a great format for it. Bagpipes do depress me though so I agree…change the instrument.

    The religious aspect is fine in fact it adds to the power of it. It might be old but the melody is beautiful and timeless.

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        Oh yea I agree…for that long at #1 is crazy….the more I listen the more those damn things get on my nerves…I am part Scottish so it didn’t work for me either.

  2. I didn’t love the Judy Collins version, which hung around the UK charts forever and a day, and I didn’t love this version either, which did the same. Oddly, I don’t mind bagpipes (and I rather liked their version of Little Drummer Boy) 🙂 Nostalgia is an odd thing though, tracks which form a large part of your youth, even unintended like this one, can get a second-wind later in life. I ended up really liking it after the scene in Wrath Of Khan at Spocks funeral. And then it became a movie cliche being used at every bloody funeral, real and fictional! 🙂

    The main reason it became a UK hit was it appealed to older people, a version of a song that they knew that was pushed by the news media as an oddity of interest, and that led to big sales and more interest and more TV shows, including Top Of The Pops, an era when that got big viewer numbers. The bigger it got the more it annoyed me! 🙂

    1. Interesting that this was before charity singles were a thing… I can see this record doing well in those circumstances. For it just to catch on organically – a bagpipe instrumental of a two centuries old hymn – just seems really bizarre. Hey ho. Variety is the spice of life…

  3. A Scotsman that doesn’t like the pipes…OH, the irony. LOL! You’re a trip, Stewart.

    The recording of this has way too much noise in it, meaning, like noise in a picture. This piece is a victim of flat, analog recording with no control over background “chatter.” The hum of the pipe is higher than the tune, itself, in the beginning…much higher than if you were actually listening to a piper in front of you. That, alone, will make your teeth hurt.

    I’ve heard many a piper (at way too many military funerals) and the hum is nowhere near as loud as that recording. Piping outside equalizes that hum.

    It is sad music…beautiful but, sad. How it became a pop #1 escapes me…for five weeks, no less. That’s like Taps being a pop #1. I would never figure mournful dirges as “pop music.” Pipe Major J. Pryde deserved the ass-chewing, if for nothing else but the poor recording distortion.

    1. Excellent point, yes. Bagpipes are definitely outdoor instruments. At a wedding, in the distance, I can live with it… On record it sounds way too shrill and aggressive.

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