Jan 292014

The calliope, that strange carnival organ that only seems to play goofy, off-kilter, slightly menacing “carnival music.” Truth be told, I know nothing about the instrument, such as what makes a calliope a calliope. To be even more truthful, if you can handle it, I wasn’t even sure if a calliope was an instrument or a style of music. A 12-second scan of YouTube results for the search term calliope tells me it’s an instrument.

Rather than investigate the inner workings of a calliope, I prefer to follow what got me thinking about this thing in the first place. I was listening to a favorite song from childhood that involves a brief, carnival-sounding, calliope-like instrumental break. I’m not sure if an actual calliope was used in the recording of this instrumental break, but it has that sound, that rhythm, and those clusters of notes that suggest clowns; rickety amusement rides; the smell of sawdust, animal droppings, and cotton candy; and parents looking like they’re questioning whether they did the right thing by bringing the kids to this place.

Along with the song that came on my iPod tonight, I thought of one other song that features a definite carnival-style, calliope-like break. It’s also a song I was fascinated by as a kid, yet it doesn’t hold up as well as the first one I thought of tonight. Beside those two songs, I strongly doubt that there are more than two or three other examples of this device. BEWARE:

I will not accept any old Doors song. I know Ray Manzarek’s organ parts are often played in “carnival style” (eg, “Love Her Madly”), but that’s just his style, it’s not something he cooks up for a particular part of a particular song. BEWARE, too, of throwing out any old Tom Waits song. Again, that’s the guy’s go-to trick.

This is one of those exclusive Last Man Standing competitions, one seeking quality over quantity. I’m looking for songs with a distinct, deliberate calliope-style break, one meant to evoke all the regrettable sensations of attending an actual carnival. If I could tell you the most obvious of the two I have in mind, you would see the difference between these distinct calliope breaks and the natural style of an artist’s body of work. But I cannot provide an example, because that might dry up a shallow pool of eligible entrants.

Send in the clowns!


  46 Responses to “Last Man Standing: Songs With Brief, Carnival-Sounding, Calliope-Like Instrumental Breaks”

  1. Suburban kid

    I can hear it, I just can’t I.D. it.

    All I got so far is the Kinks, All of My Friends Were There, which has a carnival organ thing going on, but not an actual calliope instrumental break.

  2. misterioso

    I am going to pass over a certain obvious choice from the act we’ve know for all these years and invite you to enjoy “The Show Must Go On,” either as popularized by Three Dog Night or as performed by its author Leo Sayer. Excellent entertainment value in both clips, trust me! But only one deploys a calliope-like break.


  3. The intro to When I Paint My Masterpiece by the Band

  4. Suburban kid

    Having now Wiki’d the term, I recuse myself from suggesting what must be one of the two examples you thought of. It mentions another one that might be the other, but I’m not familiar with it.

  5. Beautiful! And yes, is Suburban Kid needs a hint to unlock his entries, the other song I had in mind, the most obvious one, is by that band you’ve known for all these years.

  6. I hadn’t thought of that one. There can’t be more than 2 or 3 examples left, other than the 2 I initially had in mind.

  7. Suburban kid

    OK here’s one I did NOT get by Googling. I think it qualifies?

    Palisades Park – Freddy Cannon


  8. alexmagic

    I, too, will waltz right past the obvious one just to show off and throw “Life” by Sly & The Family Stone into the mix, as another one that opens with circus pipes, if not an actual calliope.

    I challenge the world to come up with another one.

  9. Aside from the obvious one and the one no one has mentioned that came up on my iPod yesterday, I’m sure we’ve drained the available pool of songs with a carnival-style calliope-like break. Right? I mean, should I just close the Comments and spare us further embarrassment?

  10. misterioso

    So impatient, Mr. Mod, so impatient! What about the calliope-like break in Broken Arrow by The Buffalo Springfield? About 1:55 in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uW_ND105WfE

    I have no doubt this is what you have in mind.

  11. I’m so thankful I resisted the urge to close the comments!

  12. misterioso

    It was just suddenly so obvious. A strange song, compelling it its own way, to be sure. About Vietnam, Native Americans, both, neither?

  13. hrrundivbakshi

    Does the circus organ at 1:15 in the Beach Boys’ “Amusement Park, USA” count?


  14. hrrundivbakshi

    This one is definitely a calliope — the intro to “Funhouse” by Danny Gatton:



  15. No, I’m not hearing the distinctive rhythm and melodies of carnival music. Am I missing something? That part with the carnival barker was really hard for me to listen to:)

  16. Yes, and now I’m thinking there’s yet another song to throw into the pot – not to mention the obvious one and the one that came up on my iPod. I can “hear” this other song, but now I have to identify which song I’m actually hearing. Thank you, and enjoy your post while it lasts.

  17. Please Wake Me Up in My Dreams – Tom Waits This is probably his most pure use of it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67jc9XDHmrk

    Go to 2:35 if you need to cut to the chase.

  18. Tangentially: I recently told my wife I was thinking about taking a crack at writing some merry go round music and she said something to the effect of “Yeah, that sounds like a big money maker…”

  19. The Beach Boys sing like a carnival in Heroes and Villains but I don’t hear the instrument. BTW, I never saw this video of the song from the Smile Sessions.


  20. Tommy’s Holiday Camp – The Who

  21. oops! not trying to Bogart. In the Recent Comments, Funoka’s Heroes and Villains comment look like it trumped me. Now I’ve squandered an answer.

  22. bostonhistorian

    What about the break at the 2:15 mark in Jona Lewie’s “You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTns_N9NcMg

  23. I think that’s more of an English take on boogie-woogie, like something that old Squeeze guy would have done, the guy who now hosts a music show.

  24. H. Munster

    “Goodbye Cruel World” — James Darren

  25. Carnival of Sorts/Boxcars by REM

  26. H. Munster

    The intro to “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

  27. hrrundivbakshi

    No, that’s an organ and bassoon.

  28. hrrundivbakshi

    Sorry, I meant flute/piccolo and bassoon.

  29. H. Munster

    True, but is still might qualify as “calliope-like.”

  30. Stringent definition for this one! What do you call the effect at 1:39 in Wilco’s “Summer Teeth”?

  31. I don’t think that counts but if it does then so should the intro to Jesus Christ by Big Star.

  32. H. Munster, first of all, I never considered that part in “Tears of a Clown” as representing “clown” music, but I think you’re right. It does qualify, and as you rightly point out the entire reason I used “calliope-like” is to allow for songs with such passages that do not use an actual calliope to achieve this effect. The most obvious example, from the band you’ve known for all these years, for instance, uses cut-up recordings of carnival organs, but not an actual calliope, that is, a calliope played live in the studio. funoka’s “Heroes and Villains” vocal break is an awesome example of a calliope-like break that doesn’t use a calliope.

  33. I will allow BOTH “Summer Teeth” and the intro to “Jesus Christ,” although the latter has more of a ’70s boardwalk arcade sound. I still think both parts evoke the feeling of being spun around on a hazardous amusement ride and feeling nauseous in the company of a bunch of hot, sweaty strangers.

  34. As delighted I am at being the Last Man Standing, I can’t help but wonder how much time, if any, you spent in the arcades down the shore in the 70s.

  35. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” There! No use dancing around that entry any longer, especially when cdm questions my Jersey Shore Cred, which admittedly is nowhere near as strong as my Philly Street Cred.

    LAST MAN STANDING! Unless you can guess the song that came up on my iPod I’m almost certain there is no way anyone can knock me off this perch.

  36. misterioso

    Are you saying it wasn’t “Broken Arrow”?

  37. misterioso

    That’s a good one!

  38. That’s right, it wasn’t “Broken Arrow,” a song I own but don’t have loaded on my iPod. While we’re talking about Buffalo Springfield, however, the 10 songs I do keep handy on that device are excellent. I always liked a few of their songs, but they have escalated over the last few years among their ’60s peers. Surprisingly, for CSN not-liking me, the best songs are as likely to be led by Stephen Stills and the Poco guy, Richie Furay (?) as they are to be Neil Young songs.

  39. H. Munster

    “Carnival Song” — Tim Buckley

  40. Sunday’s Best – Elvis & The Attractions

  41. Verlaines – Death and the Maiden (at 2:10)

  42. ladymisskirroyale

    Ha ha ha ha : “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat and Tears

    (around the 3:25 mark) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qi9sLkyhhlE

  43. BigSteve

    Someone just pointed me to this psych classic;


    It opens with a calliope sound and circus sound effects, and the track is even called The American Metaphysical Circus. I guess I’ve heard of a band called The United States of America, but I don’t really know much about them.

    I believe I am the Last Man Standing.

  44. How bizarre – the first song (one I haven’t thought about or heard for forty years) that came into my mind was Patrick Moraz’ Cachaca, but upon listening to it again it’s obviously not a calliope (at 2’15 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Rj8j57hLcg ) but sounds like a steam fair organ! I obviously mixed up my circus fairground memories…

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