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The French Horn in Popular Music: A Playlist

The Beatles Revolver

The French horn, as its name suggests, evolved from humans blowing into actual animal horns, like the Jewish shofar. The modern French horn is a convoluted looking instrument, that produces a haunting and gentle sound. The horn is mostly used in orchestral music, but it’s found its way into a few pop songs too.

My father-in-law requested some CDs for his birthday, and one item he particularly wanted was an album featuring the French horn. I ordered an orchestral CD for him, but my order was randomly cancelled a month after it was placed. So with some help from Google, I collated a mix CD of pop songs featuring the French horn that my father-in-law will hopefully enjoy. Thankfully the playlist concentrates on the 1960s and early 1970s – he also requested albums by Neil Diamond and Cat Stevens.

Here’s a CD of French horn tunes:

The Shining by Badly Drawn Boy
from The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, 2000
I’m worried whether my father-in-law will enjoy some of the more adventurous 21st century pieces later in the track list. But ‘The Shining’ is a safe opening, unfolding gently with a duet between a cello and a French horn. I haven’t made a mix CD for a while, and I forgot one of my rules – never open a mix CD with a song that opens its parent album.

For No One by The Beatles
from Revolver, 1966
Revolver is one of the best pop albums of all time, given diversity by Paul McCartney’s excursions into orchestrated pieces like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and this song. McCartney’s clavichord is accompanied by horn player Alan Civil, who, according to engineer Geoff Emerick, gave the “performance of his life.”

God Only Knows by The Beach Boys
from Pet Sounds, 1966
‘God Only Knows’ is a beautiful, celebrated ballad, with a gorgeous vocal from Carl Wilson. The French horn is just one component of an eclectic backing ensemble, which also features Jim Gordon on plastic orange juice cups and Larry Knechtel on harpsichord, but there are some beautiful horn lines.

Shades of Gray by The Monkees
from Headquarters, 1967
The Monkees were starting to push against the label of manufactured band and assert some control by their third album, Headquarters, and ‘Shades of Gray’ was mostly played by the group themselves. The recently passed Peter Tork played piano and shared the lead vocals, but the French horn was played by legendary horn player Vincent DeRosa, who also played with Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and Barry Manilow (but presumably not on the same recording session….).

I Go To Sleep by The Pretenders
from Pretenders II, 1981
The Pretenders’ second album is often regarded as an artistic lull between the peaks of their 1980 debut and 1984’s Learning To Crawl. But this song is lovely, a cover of an old Ray Davies song that The Kinks never recorded.

Turn On Your Radio by Harry Nilsson
from Son of Schmilsson, 1972
I’ve always enjoyed Harry Nilsson’s low-key and eccentric follow-up to the his 1971 breakthrough Nilsson Schmilsson. The horror-themed cover, the swearing, and the personal songs all conspired to limit his career to a loyal cult following, after he’d threatened to break out as a huge star.

After The Gold Rush by Neil Young
from After The Gold Rush, 1970
In his liner notes for Decade, Young wrote: “My house was on a steep hill overlooking the canyon. The French horn player ran out of breath on my steep driveway.”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones
from Let It Bleed, 1969
Like ‘God Only Knows’, another famous 1960s pop ballad with some beautiful French horn lines in the introduction.

The Man With The Child In His Eyes by Kate Bush
from The Kick Inside, 1978
Bush was only 13 when she wrote this song, with the lyrics reportedly written in hot pink felt tip pen. She recorded it when she was 16, and later reported that she was terrified working with a large orchestra for the first time.

Putting The Damage On by Tori Amos
from Boys For Pele, 1996
Amos’ 1996 album Boys For Pele is a deep, fascinating record that I haven’t yet fully absorbed, but this song is one of its less confrontational moments, a beautiful piano and French horn piece.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967
This inclusion breaks another rule of mix-CD making – one song per artist. The title track for The Beatles’ celebrated 1967 masterpiece features four French horns. The horns are used differently than on most pop songs – it’s an uptempo piece with multiple horns used.

Overture by The Who
from Tommy, 1969
The Who were a rare rock band with an in-house horn player. Bassist John Entwistle was originally trained as a trumpet and French horn player, playing with the Middlesex School’s Symphony Orchestra. But sometimes the band utilised his orchestral skills, like on the opening suite to 1969’s rock opera Tommy.

Holocene by Bon Iver
from Bon Iver, 2011
I forgot about the “f-bomb” on this track from the falsetto indie folk Grammy award winning (alternative album of the year) – hope my father-in-law doesn’t mind…..

All Of The Lights by Kanye West
from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
There’s a certain perverse pleasure in sticking a Kanye West track onto a mix tape for my retirement age father-in-law. I asked my wife what he thinks of West – she says that he probably hasn’t heard of him.

Horns Surrounding Me by Julia Holter
from Loud City Song, 2013
Julia Holter was born in Wisconsin, and has tracked an independent path in a largely uncompromising career. Holter’s the most avant-garde artist on the list, and this song is challenging chamber-pop.

At The End Of The Day by Spock’s Beard
from V, 2000
I’m not completely convinced by Spock’s Beard yet – Neal Morse has a fine voice, but their sound is too close to classic 1970s progressive rock to allow them their own identity. But this sixteen minute song features pretty French horn interludes. Note – on my spotify playlist, there’s only a live version – they didn’t have the studio version.

Did I include your favourite moment of French horn? Do you enjoy the instrument’s soothing tones?

19 thoughts on “The French Horn in Popular Music: A Playlist Leave a comment

  1. Great assortment of songs…The song I thought of was Pictures of Lily…but not even Entwistle like what he did with a French Horn on that one.

    My son has been trying to get me to listen to Bon Iver…He saw him last year on tour.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good stuff. First thing I thought about was ‘My Wife’ and then various cuts off ‘Quadrophenia’. Love The Who’s use of it. John was more than a pretty face and a bass player.
    (Same vibe. Just listened to harry Nilsson today)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a pretty incredible playlist there… and my favourite french horn tune would be God Only Knows. Pretty much one of the best songs ever written and recorded.

    Liked by 1 person

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