“Sky Pilot” is a single from 1968 by Eric Burdon and the Animals, a British band who were part of the popular music movement called the “British Invasion” in America.
The Animals were innovative in creating a blend of blues and gritty rock, “topped off” with Burdon’s grainy voice, perfect for the band’s personal sound. A few other hits of theirs include “The House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” For the sake of setting this up, it is safe to say that this band really cut loose in their music, coming off as wild, creative, and hot.
Now, in the words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” “Sky Pilot” is quite different from the Animals’ style in that it is very poetic and powerful in its passive tone. Burdon was the kind of person to throw his opinion and throw it hard. In fact, the full song is almost eight minutes long; one would have to flip the record to hear the song in its entirety back in the day.
I have always thought that the term “sky pilot” was a non-canonical reference to a jet fighter guiding his squad wings to their destination. Rather, “sky pilot” is military jargon for a military clergyman – a pastor in the ranks. Of course, the song made a lot more sense and drove home the feeling of the song all the more.
This song was Burdon’s narrative way of waking up all the youth who listened to their music. The sky pilot comforts and reassures the soldiers (most of whom as old as we are) who are about to be inserted into the fray. For the next two minutes, the Animals vamp the tonic chord sequence as sounds of battle, helicopters, explosions, bagpipes (as used in the British army), and other sounds of war take over. The sounds of war die out and Burdon gives a final verse: “You’re soldiers of God, you must understand // The fate of your country is in your young hands // May God give you strength – do your job real well // If it all was worth it, only time will tell // In the morning they return with tears in their eyes // The stench of death drifts up to the skies // A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot // Remembers the words, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Thoughts that come to my mind: “Is this worth it? What are we gaining? How many of us has the sky pilot blessed?”
Last, but not least, the chorus is in a major tonic tone instead of minor; in other words, it technically sounds more pleasant than sad. As a composer myself, I have found that doing so (when done just right) heightens the tension of the true sad fact being expressed.
This song was a “hit,” for lack of a better term. It was mainly received well due to what was going on in 1968 – the Tet Offensive. Tet (the Vietnamese New Year on January 30) was going to be a cease-fire, but North Vietnam surprise attacked and started gaining ground in a series of three phases throughout the whole year. As far as morale was concerned, the war was far from over.
Phase 1 of the Tet Offensive (as mentioned above) began at the end of January, which was the month when “Sky Pilot” is released in the UK. Phase 2 of the Tet Offensive began in May, which is when the song was released in America. Altogether, with North Vietnam annihilating us and “Sky Pilot” released by the time America starts protesting, “Sky Pilot” climbed to #14 on U.S. Pop Charts.
So, some questions that I can think of: How would you react to this song given the setting? Would you be mad at President Johnson for saying, “Serve your country!” (as he quite often did) as you watch your peers returning home in body bags?