As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their 1967 ditty, there’s a lot we can learn from studying the behaviors of zoo animals and their brethren in the wild. Paul Simon was mostly being whimsical in his observations: “The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb, orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages, and the zookeeper is very fond of rum, zebras are reactionaries, antelopes are missionaries, pigeons plot in secrecy and hamsters turn on frequently…”
The Beatles sang nearly a dozen songs about animals, from “Octopus’s Garden” and “Rocky Raccoon” to “Piggies” and “I Dig a Pony.” Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson is a famous animal lover who has written often about members of the animal kingdom, from “Moths” and “Salamander” to “Heavy Horses” and “Steel Monkey,” not to mention the silly hit single “Bungle in the Jungle.”
I found nearly 100 songs from the classic rock era that mention animals in the titles (and another 100 or so in more recent times), and it seemed like a fun playlist to compile. Enjoy!
“Coyote,” Joni Mitchell, 1976
In less than cryptic terms, Mitchell described a strange encounter she had with a restless loner type she called Coyote. Mitchell was the city girl working all night on songs in the studio while Coyote was up early working on his ranch, and because “we just come from such different sets of circumstance,” there are no regrets that their time together was doomed to be brief. “Coyote” was the leadoff song on Joni’s brilliant 1976 LP “Hejira,” and she also performed it in The Band’s farewell film/concert “The Last Waltz.”
“Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones, 1971
Keith Richards recalls coming up with the riff and chorus line as he was preparing to say goodbye to his newborn son Marlon as he was heading out on tour. “It’s the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, having to be a billion miles from where you want to be.” Mick Jagger remembers, “Everyone always says this was written about Marianne Faithful but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.” “Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away…
“Grey Seal,” Elton John, 1973
Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin has said he really hadn’t a clue what he was writing about (“just random images and thoughts”) in this great track from the 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album. Others say the grey seal is a metaphor for wisdom, and how education comes from life experiences more than traditional schooling. Still others speculate that the title is not about a sea mammal but the Great Seal of the US, and how the country isn’t as wise as it claims. “And tell me grey seal, how does it feel to be so wise, to see through eyes that only see what’s real, tell me, grey seal …”
“Year of the Cat,” Al Stewart, 1976
This song’s roots come from a piece Stewart wrote in 1966 called “Foot of the Stage,” but in late 1975, during what the Vietnamese zodiac identifies as the Year of the Cat, he used the same music but entirely re-wrote the lyrics to spin a tale about a tourist who meets an exotic woman in a foreign land and loses his ticket home. The song became the title track to Stewart’s 1976 LP, and a #8 hit single in early 1977.
“I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles, 1967
In writing this monumental piece of word salad to confound the pundits, John Lennon drew from the 1871 Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Later, he realized the walrus was the villain. “Oh shit, I picked the wrong guy,” he said. “I should have said ‘I am the carpenter,’ but that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?” It appears in The Beatles’ 1967 film and album “Magical Mystery Tour.”
“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967
Grace Slick was also a fan of Lewis Carroll’s work, and her Jefferson Airplane hit “White Rabbit” uses imagery from “Alice in Wonderland” in which she takes various pills and potions to grow or shrink, much as her ’60s peers in the counterculture were doing with their mind-expanding experiments. Slick said the song represented a not-so-subtle dig at parents (including her own) who read their children such novels and then wondered why their children later used drugs. “The White Rabbit symbolized curiosity,” she said, “and while it’s okay to be curious, in can sometimes get you into trouble.”
“Muskrat Love,” America, 1973
Written and first recorded by singer/songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey in 1972, the song (originally titled “Muskrat Candlelight”) depicts a romantic liaison between two anthropomorphic muskrats named Susie and Sam. Soft rock band America decided to cover it on their third LP, 1973’s “Hat Trick,” which did nothing for their credibility as hipsters. Said Dewey Bunnell years later, “It’s a polarizing little number. After concerts, some people told us they can’t believe we didn’t play it, while others went out of their way to thank us for not performing it.” Finally in 1976, the pop duo The Captain and Tennille made it into a #4 hit, complete with sound effects approximating the sound of muskrats doin’ it.
“Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat, 1973
Lowell George’s California band took on a decidedly more New Orleans R&B/funk style beginning with this album and song. The tune’s lyrics explore a once promising romantic relationship (“If you be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb”) that eventually fails. Here’s a fantastic band that absolutely should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
“See You Later, Alligator,” Bill Haley and His Comets, 1956
Bill Haley’s recording of “See You Later, Alligator” popularized a hip catchphrase already in use at the time among the beatnik crowd, complete with “After a while, crocodile.” Following the game-changing hit “Rock Around the Clock” and his cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Haley had his final top 10 hit with this song, originally titled “Later, Alligator” and written by Louisiana bluesman Robert Guidry.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961
Written in 1920 as “Mbube” (Zulu for “lion”) by South African composer/singer Solomon Linda, it was brought to the US in the late 1940s, where it was made into a folk hit by The Weavers, who misheard the chorus “Uyimbube” as “Wimoweh.” By 1961, lyricist/arranger George Weiss conceived the doo-wop arrangement and sax solo, and added the English words, and the result was a huge #1 hit for The Tokens: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight, hush my darling, don’t fear, my darling the lion sleeps tonight…”
“Wolf,” Joe Walsh, 1973
Walsh’s signature LP ‘The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get,” one of the great guitar album of all time, includes this rather spooky album track that perpetuates the stereotype of the wolf as predator who sneaks in to feast on the sheep when there’s no one looking: “It’s raining in the meadow, shepherd’s gone to town, wolf has finished breakfast, no one else around…”
“Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” Traveling Wilburys, 1988
This Wilburys tune, written largely by Bob Dylan, is regarded as a playful homage to Bruce Springsteen, with lyrics that refer to specific Springsteen songs (“Thunder Road,” “Factory,” “The River,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Stolen Car,” “State Trooper”) and New Jersey locales. Is the Monkey Man meant to be The Boss? Dylan, of course, isn’t saying for sure.
“Sheep,” Pink Floyd, 1977
Pink Floyd’s hugely successful “Animals” album is loosely based on George Orwell’s iconic political fable Animal Farm, in which the dogs are combative, the pigs are despotic and the sheep are the mindless, unquestioning herd. In the “Sheeps” track, Roger Waters takes Psalm 23 a grisly step further: “He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and converteth me to lamb cutlets…”
“Kiss That Frog,” Peter Gabriel, 1992
In the wake of the playful sexual entendres Gabriel used in his big 1986 hit “Sledgehammer,” it wasn’t all that surprising he would continue that approach on the 1992 album track “Kiss That Frog,” which is perhaps more obvious in its allusions to oral intimacies: “Sweet little princess, let me introduce his frogness, you alone can get him singing, he’s all puffed up, wanna be your king, oh you can do it, c’mon lady, kiss that frog… He’s gonna dive down in the deep end, he’s gonna be just like your best friend…”
“Dead Skunk,” Loudon Wainwright, 1972
Wainwright, part of the singer-songwriter movement of the early ’70s, wrote and recorded this amusing little novelty track one day after having an unfortunate encounter with a skunk. “The car in front of me killed it, but I drove over it too, and I think I got the brunt of the odor,” he said. “He didn’t see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed, and there you are, you got your dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven…”
“Chestnut Mare,” The Byrds, 1970; “Peace Frog,” The Doors, 1970; “Barracuda,” Heart, 1978; “Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” U2, 1991; “Mama Lion,” Crosby and Nash, 1975; “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1971; “Cat Scratch Fever,” Ted Nugent, 1976; “Flight of the Rat,” Deep Purple, 1970; “Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo),” Thin Lizzy, 1980; “The Fox,” Elton John, 1981; “Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor, 1982; “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club, 1983; “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1982; “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin, 1974; “A Horse With No Name,” America, 1971; “Crocodile Rock,” Elton John, 1972; “Penguin in Bondage,” Frank Zappa, 1974.