Here’s to drinking songs, they’re true blue…
It was when the Captain Matchbox Whoopie Band let fly with its dated fart joke interlude that I started thinking about drinking. Overcome by nostalgia, I went to see the Captain and his mates (they had amused many of us back in the 70s) in a far-flung tent at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest, which is now held on an old Tea Tree farm at Tyagarah near Mullumbimby.
It had been a very good Bluesfest, although a few standout disappointments (a clearly past it B.B. King, a headed towards past it Blind Boys of Alabama and Bob Dylan and his band sounding like week-old soup) took some shine off the event. But there was enough really great music – hunt down Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his band, Avenue Orleans for starters – to make the five day a revelation and confirmation of the power of music.
Back to drinking. Sad Song Junkie, a new album by Boston singer-songwriter Dan Baker is a delight, bringing together a superb collection of tunes, including a love song to the martini – “When I was young/Just a boy/I’d eat my cereal/Juts for the toy/Not much has changed/For my little treat’s the olive/Way down at the bottom/Of my favourite drink”. It’s such a louche, sweet surrender that I found it hard to stop playing it, despite the power and beauty of the other sad and sorry songs.
Drinking has been a constant theme of song writing, sitting proudly next to love, lust and loss. So, with this new entrant at hand, let’s dive in and nominate the top 25 drinking/drunk songs.
25: Little Old Wine Drinker, Me by Dean Martin is for the devotee of wine (“I’m praying for rain in California/So the grapes can grow and they can make more wine”) by a man with a big reputation as a drinking enthusiast – helped no doubt by his vanity number plate DRUNKY. Martin also had a fabulous crooning voice.
24: I’m At Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Getting Nailed by Banjo and Sullivan, a fictional country duo from the 1970s who pushed the limits of taste. This was a parody of country and western so good it sounded real.
23: Bubbles In My Beer by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills was the maestro of Texan band leaders in the early part of last century, selling millions of records with his Waco-based band, the most famous being Take Me Back To Tulsa. This was a mournful, crying in my beer tune that touched cowboy hearts.
22: There’s A Tear In My Beer by Hank Williams. This was a stunning Hank song, recorded with just the man and is guitar. Probably the best crying in my beer tune, it was famously reworked as a duet by Hank Junior in 1989 using what was then revolutionary technology to make it look like he was playing with his late, great father.
21: The Ballad of Ira Hayes by Johnny Cash. This combines a couple of Cash’s pet topics, the unfairness of war and discrimination in prisons. Ira Hayes was a Native Indian Vietnam veteran who couldn’t handle the aftermath, leading to a life of dissolute drunkenness. A classic.
20: Gin House Blues by Bessie Smith. Wonder blues woman Smith recorded two songs which became known as Gin House Blues – the first, about drowning sorrows straight after “the whistle blows”, is usually credited as being the genuine article while the other was a more powerful blues drinking number (“Stay away from me because I’m in my sin”) although its real title was Me And My Gin.
19: Bar Room Drinking by John Lee Hooker. One of Hooker’s great blues songs, this is a story of redemption by a man who only ever passed his time in a neighbourhood bar drinking until he met his sweet love. He doesn’t say he’s giving up drinking, though.
18: Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced by The Dropkick Murphys. It’s an Irish drinking song, no less, even though the band is from Boston. It’s loud and rude and full of piss and wind - a story of drunken bravado replaced by maudlin pleading that’s known to late night bar-hoppers.
17: The Irish Drinking Song by Flogging Molly. Perhaps the ultimate Irish drinking song which contains the promise that “We drink and drink and drink and drink and drink and drink and fight”. Enough said.
16: Too Drunk To Fuck by the Dead Kennedys. A brilliantly offensive tune that should never be played to your girlfriend’s mother (trust me). Jello Biafra and friends from San Francisco had this as an anthem, loved by fans often in the same state.
15: Somebody Put Something In My Drink by The Ramones. A tommy-gun attack song from the masters of short and sharp, this was an early exploration of drink spiking. It also featured the brilliant couplet – “Tanqueray and tonic’s my favourite drink/I don’t like anything coloured pink”.
14: Roadhouse Blues by The Doors. Here for its lines “Woke up this morning, I got myself a beer/The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near” and its powerhouse blues rock sound.
13: One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. From the best blues band Delaware ever produced, the debut album by big-time singer and guitar gunslinger George featured a medley of Hooker’s House Rent Boogie and this song by Rudy Toombs. It became the band’s signature tune.
12: Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett. The southern singer-songwriter found the drink in Austin, Texas and made it famous around the world. He also cashed in by setting up an eponymous chain of bars/restaurants across the USA. Buffett, who took one too many steps towards the audience in Sydney early this year, also had a rollicking number, God’s Own Drunk.
11: Red, Red Wine by The Replacements. Often a candidate for the drunk’s drinking band, the Replacements loved their booze, as this tongue-in-cheek dismissal of “anything white” shows. Memorable for the lines “I ain’t no connoisseur cat – the conno-sewer/kinda sewer rat/Red, red wine on Sunday/Always tastes so good”. Not to be confused with Neil Diamond’s song of the same name made famous by Bob Marley and UB40.
10: The Drinking Song by LoudonWainwright III. An early tune from this troubadour which was brutally honest and frank about the downside of loving a sip, everything from behaving like a dog to having broken blood vessels on your nose.
9: The Bottle Let Me Down by Merle Haggard. A country classic about a man who was so heart broken he couldn’t drink enough to cure his pain. Protesting that the bottle let him down, Haggard says he “Couldn’t drink enough to keep you off my mind”.
8: The Last Shot by Lou Reed. This was never going to be a happy tune. It’s the New York punk-master’s poem to the final shot, whatever it might be. “Whisky, bourbon, vodka and scotch/I don’t care what it is I’ve got/I just want to know it’s my last shot,” he sings. It’s a raw song of addiction and one of the most underrated by Reed, from his overlooked 1983 album Legendary Hearts.
7: Sunday Morning Coming Down by Kris Kristofferson. Apparently this was one of the songs Kristofferson had on a tape when he landed a helicopter (drunk?) on Cash’s lawn one morning, trying to get his hero’s attention. It has a brilliant opening: “Well, I woke up Sunday morning/ With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.”
6: Whisky Bottle by Uncle Tupelo. A sad, alt-country tune from the Chicago band’s No Depression classic album. Kicking off with the line “Persuaded, paraded, inebriated, and down”, it’s the feel of this tune that speaks of drink and drinking.
5: Honky Tonk Woman by The Rolling Stones. Written during and inspired by a Brazilian holiday, this started life as a very country tune (Country Honk on the Let It Bleed record) but ended up as a hit which still prompts singing and dancing. The tone of the tune is there from the start, “I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis”. One of Keith and Mick’s very best.
4: The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) by Tom Waits. Waits always looked like he was drinking and this song from his 1976 record Small Change didn’t change that. He said the song – along with others on the album – was meant to deal with the “cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image” he had.
3: Alcohol by The Kinks. From the fabulous 1971 record Muswell Hillbillies, this was one of Ray Davies’s many exposes of suburban life, about the downward spiral of drinking and its corrosive effect on relationships with women. It’s surprisingly up-beat sung in a charge-ahead, music hall style.
2: Drunk by Vic Chesnutt. 1993 was a big year for Chesnutt - he made a third record, Drunk, and had a documentary Speed Racer made about him by film-maker Peter Sillen. This title track from the album s, like most of the record, soaked in booze and sometimes hard to connect with, unless you happen to be in that state. Has been likened to a Tennessee Williams play.
1: Tequila by The Champs. The best drinking song should be a two saxophone, two guitar and drums, 1958 instrumental by a Californian surf band. Find it, play it and drink – and then dance.
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