Easter is probably best remembered as the album that finally got Patti Smith on the radio. Smith’s recording of “Because the Night,” which she co-wrote with her fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen, was a Top-20 hit. But the rest of Easter stays true to the kind of anti-authoritarian critique that has made Smith a central figure in punk rock. The bagpipes, which surface at the tail end of the very last track, cap off a record in which Smith rails against social sanction, proclaiming that “outside of society / that’s where I want to be.” And at the close of the title track “Easter,” the bagpipes sound a final, rebellious note against a wall of church bells and organ, symbols of institutionalized religion. The resulting dissonance is intentional on Smith’s part: The bagpipes can only play in one key, B-flat, whereas Smith’s “Easter” is in the key of C. That there’s a whole step of interval separation between Smith’s guitar and the bagpipes amounts to pure sacrilege in the eyes of music theory.
In this way, the bagpipes have earned a reputation for being impolite. The B-flat key setting means that they just don’t play nice with other instruments, and, with their range limited to only nine notes, that key setting is not negotiable. This is why AC/DC, on what is probably the most famous rock single featuring bagpipes, opts to meet the instrument on its own terms. 1975’s “Long Way to the Top” was written and recorded in the key of B-flat to accommodate Bon Scott’s bagpipe breakdown, which appears mid-song and features a kind of “call and response” between the pipes and the guitar.
Scott, being Scottish-born and Australian-bred, had grown up playing in Scottish pipe bands (though as a drummer), and his inexpert performance on the pipes forms the core of “Long Way to the Top.” In the bagpipe world, the lawnmower-like entrance of the bagpipes’ drones would mark the player as an amateur, but this song seems engineered to complement Scott’s vocals. After all, we’re talking about a track that celebrates the virtues of the hard-rock lifestyle in all its demented, self-destructive glory. To commemorate Scott, his hometown of Kirriemuir in Scotland erected a statue of him this year—grinning widely, with a set of bagpipes tucked under his left arm.
Renegade aesthetics also prove par for the course with Tom Waits, a singer who has staked his career on probing the boundaries of musical acceptability. Scottish bagpipes crop up halfway through Waits’ album Swordfishtrombones (1983), where they seem to ooze out of a sonic blackness and then to loop and overlap, the result of double-tracking. Here, as elsewhere in rock history, a bagpipe intro sets the tone for the song which, in the case of “Town with No Cheer,” is about a small Australian town that has run out of alcohol. Waits, though, has admitted his frustrations about working with the instrument. “It’s hard to play with a bagpipe player,” he explained in a 1983 interview with Rock Bill Magazine. “It’s like an exotic bird.”