10 ways you love your organ

Nice organ.

You love your organ — perhaps more than you know. Despite its churchy and/or grandma’s-living-room reputation, rock is replete with classic songs that rely heavily on the dramatic tones only a good organ can deliver.

The organ, be it of the Vox Continental, Hammond or Wurlitzer variety, is a staple of rock. It predates the advent of the electric piano, the Mellotron and the now ubiquitous synthesizer. The organ provides alternatively, doom, melody, menace, humor, counterpoint and sweet-or-sad harmony. Whereas rock is primarily guitar-based, keyboards have always had a prominent place in the composition, arrangements and final mix of many rock staples. The organ carved out a place in rock history early on.

Here are 10 rock classics that prominently feature the organ. They just wouldn’t be classics without it.

Don’t Bring Me Down

The Animals, 1966

“Don’t Bring Me Down” rose near the top of the international charts in 1966 with its psychedelic fuzz-guitar slashing over a tense staccato organ melody and bouncy bass line. Animals lead singer Eric Burdon set the stage by easing in with a soft-sung verse, before punching into high gear on the chorus.

The song was written by Brill Building hit-makers Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and was one of several of their compositions the band covered at the behest of producer Mickie Most. The song pierced the top 10 in the United Kingdom and just missed the U.S. top 10 by peaking at #12 on the Billboard charts.

Dave Rowberry played the organ on “Don’t Bring Me Down” and on a number of Animals classics during his short stint with the band after he replaced founding member Alan Price in 1965. The original Animals fractured and broke up about six months after this song’s May 1966 release.

Light My Fire

The Doors, 1967

Try to make a list about the organ and not include Ray Manzarek and The Doors. Manzarek’s distinctive composition and arrangements are as much a prominent part of The Doors’ sound as Jim Morrison’s serpentine baritone.

This classic is almost all organ, from the opening arpeggio melody to the extended organ solo. The second single off of The Doors’ debut album, it reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Although credited to the entire band, guitarist Robby Krieger claims to have written the music and lyrics, which were then finished by the band. According to Manzarek, the iconic organ intro was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Time of the Season

The Zombies, 1968

Ah! This haunting, psychedelic classic from Rod Argent’s Zombies band didn’t make its commercial breakthrough until 1969, many months after the band had already broken up. It went as high at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March, but failed to make much of a dent in the band’s native Britain.

Argent’s showy, quick-fingered organ solos highlighted the song’s dreamy, psychedelic vibe, in addition to the melodic bed carried by the organ throughout the verses.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The Beatles, 1968

A timeless classic, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is renowned as a guitar song, punctuated brilliantly throughout by the uncredited (but everybody knows it) guitar fills and solos of Eric Clapton at his string-bending and vibrato best. For my money, however, the moody Hammond organ accompaniment makes this song.

One of George Harrison’s greatest compositions, the organ part is sometimes credited to Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. The song took many forms and was scrapped entirely on September 4, 1968 and started anew the same day. The “second” version is the classic we all know now. Lennon’s organ contributions are said to be in the first version; Harrison and McCartney may have both played on the final version that appeared on The Beatles (The White Album).

Thank You

Led Zeppelin, 1969

OK, technically, this is not a rock song, but rather a poignant, soaring ballad composed by singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page. Multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones (or rather, “and John Paul Jones” — somehow JPJ always gets listed fourth when naming the members of Led Zeppelin) takes the song to rock heaven with his organ performance that dominates and completes one of the prettiest odes to love ever performed in popular music. The song comes from Led Zeppelin II and was not released as a single.

Evil Ways

Santana, 1969

This FM radio staple is remarkable for the amount of restraint shown by guitarist and band leader Carlos Santana. He is mostly content to play rhythm along side the organ-heavy verses and solos that dominate Santana’s first top 40 hit song. Gregg Rolie, later of Journey, sings the lead vocals and plays the Hammond organ solo in the middle section. While not as successful as Santana’s bigger hit, “Black Magic Woman,” it gets the nod on this list because the latter song abandons the introductory organ for a bed consisting of electric piano throughout the verses and chorus.

Smoke on the Water

Deep Purple, 1972

One of the most iconic rock guitar licks, keyboardist Jon Lord’s organ part quickly doubles the chunka-chunka chords and adds a fitting degree of heft and menace. Probably Deep Purple’s best-known song, the distorted Hammond organ part proves that organs can rock as hard as electric guitars.

Lord matches guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s simplistic but catchy four-note blues scale melody and closes out the song with an organ solo. “Smoke” went to No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 21 in the U.K. It is one of three rock classics (including the organ-centric “Space Truckin’” and “Highway Star”) on Deep Purple’s Machine Head album.

Hold Your Head Up

Argent, 1972

Rod Argent makes the list twice for helming this rock classic with former Zombie Chris White. (Quick — name another Argent song. No Googling!) In truth, I love this song for its guitar riff, courtesy of expert songsmith Russ Ballard. However, Argent is all over this heavy rock staple that features ominous, dreamy organ instrumentation intertwined with its uplifting lyrics.

The six-minute-plus song made it to No. 5 in both the U.S. and Britain.

Foreplay/Long Time

Boston, 1976

Boston mastermind/brainiac Tom Scholz claims “Foreplay” is the first song he ever recorded. Not too shabby. Scholz delivers the organ front and center from the first note, punctuated by his trademark crisp, uniquely distorted guitar tones. “Foreplay/Long Time” was the second single released off of Boston’s monster eponymous debut — the highest selling debut album of all time.

Known primarily as a hard rock guitar band, Scholz’ devotion to the organ is obvious throughout the early Boston discography. Check out Scholz’ organ solo on “Smokin’.”

Lights Out

UFO, 1977

“Lights Out,” from UFO’s album of the same name, gets credit for being the angriest organ performance on this list. Keyboardist/guitarist Paul Raymond either cannot come up with some satisfactory chords or just lets loose with his frustration at not being able to do cool rock poses with an organ. Instead, he slashes down the keys three times in rapid succession in a show of perfectly timed aggression on this hard-driving rocker.

Vocalist Phil Mogg does his best Paul Rodgers-esque singing over the top of the organ-infused verses and chorus, before Michael Schenker launches into a trademark blistering solo. All together, a perfect combination of voice, guitar, organ, bass and drums in thumping nirvana. Raymond is the only member of the band that did not receive writing credit for the song but for my money, his organ makes the song stand out.

Honorable mentions:

  • I’ve Seen All Good People and Roundabout, Yes
  • Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
  • Dirty Work, Steely Dan
  • I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know, Blood Sweat and Tears
  • Walks Like a Lady, Journey
  • Can’t Let You Go, Rainbow
  • In The Flesh, Pink Floyd
  • Blue Collar Man, Styx

© Julian Rogers

Julian Rogers is a freelance writer, communications consultant, owner of Juju Eye Communications and publisher of The Hit Job. Follow on Twitter (@thejujueye).

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Surely, I have offended by leaving off your favorite organtastic song. Let me know in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this article, please help share the love by giving the recommend heart a pop.