Uh oh, look out — St. Patrick’s Day has fallen on a Friday this year!
It never seems to matter whether or not you’re of Irish descent. People of all stripes seem to love to use St. Paddy’s Day as an excuse to wear green, eat corned beef and cabbage and, most of all, drink Guinness beer and Jameson’s whiskey to excess — and SING!
Full confession: I don’t drink anymore. The time had come, after 40-plus years, when it just seemed like the right thing for me to do.
But that doesn’t mean, as a music addict, that I can’t enjoy great drinking songs every now and then. Lord knows there are plenty of them out there…
Every genre has drinking songs. Country music is rife with probably hundreds of tunes of woe in which people drink to forget their wife left them or their dog got run over. Many of the old torch songs from the ’30s and ’40s put a poignant spin on cocktails and nightcaps. Blues music catalogs have dozens of tracks devoted to both the fun and the folly of drinking.
And classic rock certainly has its share of tunes, both whimsical and…um…sobering. Some of them are downright depressing, with their lyrics of how damaging alcohol can be to those who can’t control it:
Infamous drug abuser Ozzy Osbourne is pretty much the poster boy for the negative consequences of destructive drinking, and he wrote about it in 1988 on “Demon Alcohol“: (“I’ll share your life of shame, I think you know my name, I’ll introduce myself today, I’m the demon alcohol, I’ll get you…”)
The Kinks’ Ray Davies came up with a mordant set of lyrics bizarrely juxtaposed with a cheery melody when he wrote “Alcohol” in 1972: (“Sad memories I cannot recall, who thought I would fall a slave to demon alcohol…”)
The Who’s Pete Townshend was well on his way as an alcoholic by the time he wrote “However Much I Booze” in 1975: (“Have to drench myself in brandy, in sleep I’ll hide, but however much I booze, there ain’t no way out…”)
Hard rock band AC/DC’s original lead singer Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning in 1979, and yet, on their next LP, they had the audacity to finish and release his song “Have a Drink on Me” (Sample lyrics: “My glass is getting shorter on whiskey, ice and water, so c’mon, have a good time, and get blinded out of your mind…”)
Bare Naked Ladies also came up with a song called “Alcohol,” a 1998 tune that uses a somewhat sarcastic undertone to look at both moderate and abusive use of booze: “Now I know that there’s a time and there’s a place where I can choose to walk the fine line between self-control and self-abuse…”
A slam-dunk warning sign of serious problems is when people prefer to isolate and drink by themselves, and yet George Thorogood chose to write about that in the seriously bleak “I Drink Alone,” which curiously became a #14 hit single in 1985: “The other day I got invited to a party, but I stayed home instead, just me and my pal Johnnie Walker….”
On the flipside of all this stuff are many dozens of songs that revel in the camaraderie and fun of “tying one on” in a more responsible, occasional manner. Let’s focus on those, shall we? I’ve selected 20 tracks — some famous, some obscure — that touch on both the “let’s raise a glass” and the “drown our sorrows” nature of drinking. The Spotify setlist at the end will give you samples of each.
“Elderberry Wine,” Elton John, 1972
“Drunk all the time, feelin’ fine on elderberry wine, those were the days we’d lay in the haze, forget depressing times…”
Happy, upbeat music full of horns and a pounding piano mask lyrics that feature loneliness and pining for an ex-wife who used to make him his favorite wine. The song was part of the retro rock material Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin were writing in the 1972-1973 period.
“John Barleycorn (Must Die),” Traffic, 1970
This ancient English folk song, dating back to the 1600s, personifies barley, the important cereal crop that produces beer and whiskey. Various versions of the song discuss how men have been laid low through the centuries by “John Barleycorn.” Steve Winwood’s band Traffic recorded the most popular version, naming its iconic 1970 album after the song.
“Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” Jimmy Buffett, 1973
“Barmaid, bring a pitcher, another round of brew, well honey, why don’t we get drunk and screw…”
Buffett had been hearing country songs with suggestive lyrics and thought it would be funny to write a sort of parody that made it explicitly clear what he was singing about. It was released as the B-side of a single and became hugely popular in bars and then during concerts among the imbibing “parrotheads” in the audience.
“Hey Bartender,” The Blues Brothers, 1978
“Draw one, draw two, draw three full glasses of beer…”
Pianist/singer/songwriter Floyd Dixon, a disciple of blues great Charles Brown, wrote and recorded this jump blues classic in 1954. When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd took their “Saturday Night Live” Blues Brothers act to the stage, they included this tune in their repertoire, which appeared on their #1 debut LP, “Briefcase Full of Blues.”
“Tequila,” The Champs, 1958
Saxophonist/songwriter Danny Flores and his trio were invited to participate in a 1958 recording session in Hollywood with rockabilly singer Dave Burgess for “Train to Nowhere,” but a Cuban mambo jam session slated for the B-side evolved into “Tequila,” which DJs instantly preferred, and the track rocketed to #1. “Tequila” is the only word of lyric, sung/spoken three times.
“Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me),” Paul McCartney, 1973
McCartney and his wife were dining with Dustin Hoffman and his wife one night, and Hoffman asked Paul if he could write a song on the spot about Picasso, who had died the previous evening. Sure enough McCartney astounded Hoffman by coming up with this multi-part ditty, with a chorus that raises a glass in memory of the late painter.
“Alabama Song (Whisky Bar),” The Doors, 1967
“If we don’t find the next whisky bar, I tell you we must die…”
Amidst the dark, moody lyrics of Jim Morrison and the mysterious music The Doors cut on their amazing debut LP is this whimsical little ditty, written as a poem by German author Bertolt Brecht in 1925 and set to cabaret music by Kurt Weill for the 1927 play “Little Mahagonny.” A very strange but memorable departure for the boys from Venice Beach.
“Bartender’s Blues,” James Taylor, 1977
“Now I’m just a bartender and I don’t like my work, but I don’t mind the money at all…”
Taylor took a stab at writing a straight country song on his “JT” album, focusing on the bartender’s view of life in a honky-tonk bar, and the result is pretty great, with Linda Ronstadt singing harmony. George Jones and others also did cover versions of the tune.
“One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” Amos Milburn, 1953
“My baby she gone, she been gone two nights…I wanna get drunk ’til I’m off of my mind, one scotch, one bourbon, one beer…”
A guy named Rudy Toombs wrote this, one of several drinking songs by R&B artist Amos Milburn in the ’50s. It was later covered by blues legend John Lee Hooker in 1966, and then expanded to a longer version by George Thorogood and the Destroyers in 1977.
“Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers,” ZZ Top, 1973
The crowd gets loud when the band gets right, steel guitar playing through the night, tryin’ to cover up the corner fight, but everything’s cool ’cause they’s just tight…”
From their popular third album “Tres Hombres” in 1973, ZZ Top has fun with this strong rocker about listening to great bands and throwing back beers in a honky tonk while avoiding fights in the back of the bar.
“Tequila Sunrise,” The Eagles, 1973
“Take another shot of courage, wonderin’ why the right words never come, you just get numb…”
This is not about the popular drink but about a guy who’s been drinking straight tequila all night and now the sun’s coming up,” said Don Henley. He and Glenn Frey wrote this together for their “Desperado” LP, noting that they used to refer to shots of tequila as “liquid courage” that gave them the strength to approach women in bars.
“Wine,” The Electric Flag, 1968
Blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s band The Electric Flag was the first to incorporate horns in a rock band, pre-dating Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago by a full year, and the debut LP, “A Long Time Comin’,” offered a compelling mix of soul, R&B and jazz numbers. The album closer, the rollicking New Orleans-style “Wine,” is credited to “Traditional; arranged by Bloomfield.”
“Champagne Jam,” Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1978
“Don’t want no whiskey, give me some high class booze, champagne, thank you ma’am…”
This fun-spirited bunch of Southern rockers from Georgia enjoyed chart success in the late ’70s with a few singles (“So Into You,” “Imaginary Lover” and “I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight”), the latter two from their “Champagne Jam” LP in 1978.
“What’s the Use of Gettin’ Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again),” Joe Jackson, 1981
Bluesman Busby Meyers wrote this slow piece in 1942, and popular swing artist Louis Jordan recorded it that same year. British rocker Joe Jackson devoted an entire album (“Jumpin’ Jive”) to jump blues and swing in 1981, including this smoldering rendition of Meyers’ classic.
“I Got Loaded,” Los Lobos, 1984
“Last night I got loaded on a bottle of gin, but I feel all right, I feel all right…”
This high-spirited drinking song was written by Harrison “Peppermint” Nelson and topped the R&B charts in 1951. It was later recorded by Little Bob and the Lollipops (1965), blues guitarist Robert Cray (1983) and, finally, Tex-Mex band Los Lobos on their 1984 album “How Will the Wolf Survive?”
“Home For a Rest,” Spirit of the West, 1990
“These so-called vacations will soon be my death, I’m so sick from the drink, I need home for a rest…”
Recorded almost as an afterthought at the end of a 1990 recording session, this song by Canadian group Spirit of the West has emerged over the past 25 years as a rallying cry for college freshmen and others across the Great North. It describes the need to return home for a much-needed break after a week (or a month…or a year…) of heavy drinking in England.
“Red Red Wine,” UB40, 1988
“Red, red wine goes to my head, makes me forget that I need you so…”
Diamond was a Brill Building songwriter for a few years before establishing his own singing career, writing hit songs for The Monkees and others. He made his own recording of “Red Red Wine” in 1967, but it was UB40’s reggae-flavored cover — recorded in 1983 and then re-released in 1988 — that stormed up the charts and became the #1 song for a week.
“Partial to Drinkin’,” Emily Hackett, 2014
“I’m a mess, no easy clean-up, I confess I am the reason, ’cause while I could simply cry, I’m partial to drinkin’…”
My daughter’s songs lean toward Americana and indie pop, but as a Nashville girl since 2008, she certainly has country leanings as well. When I first heard this ode to drinking, I thought, “I can’t believe this title hasn’t been written before. This is an instant classic.” Surely one (or more) of the major country artists should record this song pronto!
“The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me),” Tom Waits, 1976
A true original, Waits and his raspy growl have been a stalwart presence on the underbelly of rock since the early ’70s. On this track, which can be found on Waits’ 1976 LP “Small Change,” Waits imitates a drunkard who slurs and stumbles along on a piano as he sings of characters and inanimate objects in a dive bar.
“One More For My Baby” (and One More For the Road),” Frank Sinatra, 1958
“We’re drinkin’, my friend, to the end of a brief episode, make it one for my baby and one more for the road…”
Composer Harold Arlen teamed up with the great lyricist Johnny Mercer to compose this moody beauty for the 1943 Fred Astaire musical “The Sky’s the Limit.” Sinatra recorded it multiple times, most notably in the 1958 recording for his #1 album “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” LP. In 1992, Bette Midler sang an emotional rendition to Johnny Carson on his second-to-last “Tonight Show” appearance.
“In Heaven There is No Beer,” Clean Living, 1972; “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Rupert Holmes, 1979; “Beer for Breakfast,” The Replacements, 1984; “Poison Whisky,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973; “Sweet Blindness,” The Fifth Dimension, 1968; “America Drinks and Goes Home,” The Mothers of Invention, 1967; “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” Billy Joel, 1977; “Chug All Night,” The Eagles, 1972; “Don’t Make Me Laugh While I’m Drinkin’,” Deadly Earnest & the Honky Tonk Heroes, 1978; “When the Hangover Strikes,” Squeeze, 1981.