No. 26: ‘Sky Pilot’ by Eric Burdon

eric burdon sky pilot record coverIn 1968, Eric Burdon had completed his transition from white R&B shouter to long-haired leaping gnome.

The English singer disbanded the original Animals (of “House of the Rising Sun Fame”) in 1966 and enthusiastically turned to lysergically inspired music.

The sprawling single “Sky Pilot,” released at the dawn of that war-torn year, proved to be a game changer, one of rock’s first cinematic songs.

At more than seven minutes, the number annexed both sides of the 45 record, its many sonic effects captured in true stereo. Even at that length, Eric Burdon’s song was a hit single, reaching No. 14 in the U.S. and remaining an FM radio staple over the decades.

While the song’s subtle anti-war message surely concerned the Vietnam War, its shadowing invoked the two world wars. The millieu reportedly as witnessed by Burdon’s grandfather in WWI.

The titular sky pilot is a military chaplain, charged with comforting soldiers headed off to the battlefield. Burdon begins his profile a cappella against a black silence:

He blesses the boys as they stand in line
The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine
He’s there to help them all that he can
To make them feel wanted he’s a good holy man

sky pilot single eric burdon animalsThe song picks up the pace with the entry of a rock band, lean and muscular. Moments later, “Sky Pilot” takes off on a sonic adventure incorporating bagpipes, gunfire, the screech of dive-bombers, distorted guitars and reverb-drenched vocals, flanged-out drums, horns, woodwinds and even piccolos.

Musically and conceptually, the song brings to mind the Doors’ “The Unknown Soldier” (recorded a month after “Sky Pilot’s” release), the Who’s early mini-rock operas and the Beatles’ orchestrated character studies of 1966 and 1967.

Emotionally, “Sky Pilot” recalls “Eleanor Rigby,” another song about death, religion and loneliness released in 1966. After mumbling a prayer, the “so tired” chaplin returns to his bunk as the lads march off to their fates. “He’ll meditate/but it won’t stop the bleeding/or ease the hate.” The functionary sky pilot, we’re told, will “never reach the sky.”

At the climax of the song’s combat sequence, we hear military bagpipes play “All the Bluebonnets Are Over the Border.” Then, a string quartet provides sweet contrast to the singer’s invocation of the “stench of death” and the bleak hopes for our sky pilot. More orchestral instruments join in, freestyle, the resulting sonic swirls reflecting the absurdities of war.

Burdon shared writing credit with his “new” Animals: Vic Briggs (guitar), John Weider (guitar and electric violin), Danny McCulloch (bass), and Barry Jenkins (drums). Briggs arranged and orchestrated the song, which was produced by Tom Wilson (Bob Dylan, the Mothers of Invention). It appeared on the album “The Twain Shall Meet.”

Burdon would successfully repeat the psychedelic cinematic style a few years later with the fantasy “Spill the Wine,” another strong entry on our list of the Best Psychedelic Songs.

“Sky Pilot” lyrics:

He blesses the boys as they stand in line
The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine
He’s there to help them all that he can
To make them feel wanted he’s a good holy man
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

He smiles at the young soldiers
Tells them it’s all right
He knows of their fear in the forthcoming fight
Soon there’ll be blood and many will die
Mothers and fathers back home they will cry
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

He mumbles a prayer and it ends with a smile
The order is given
They move down the line
But he’ll stay behind and he’ll meditate
But it won’t stop the bleeding or ease the hate

As the young men move out into the battle zone
He feels good, with God you’re never alone
He feels tired and he lays on his bed
Hopes the men will find courage
in the words that he said
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

You’re soldiers of God, you must understand
The fate of your country is in your young hands
May God give you strength
Do your job real well
If it all was worth it
Only time it will tell

In the morning they return
With tears in their eyes
The stench of death drifts up to the skies
A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot
Remembers the words
“Thou shalt not kill”
Sky pilot,
Sky pilot,
How high can you fly?
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky.

Comments

  1. Doug Nielsen says:

    I’m a Vietnam vet USMC ’68-’69. The lyrics in the verses of this song — I am not ashamed to say — brings me to tears every time I hear them. The imagery is so powerful. I’ll never forget that time and those boys.

    • Raymond Baldwin Jr says:

      Amen to that. I too was a Marine and served as a radio operator in Vietnam 68′-69′. That song is haunting.

Speak Your Mind

*

Psychedelic Sight via email

Be sure to respond to confirmation message!

Click here to SUBSCRIBE TO PSYCHEDELIC SIGHT