We continue our theme of all things canine with a one-hit wonder’s one hit: Henry Gross*, and “Shannon.”
Gross was all of 25 when he released “Shannon,” but already a music-industry vet, having been a founding member of Sha-na-na, of all things. (I still find it hard to get my mind around the fact that Sha-na-ha 1) existed in 1969 and 2) appeared at Woodstock.) But he set out on his own very shortly thereafter, and recorded a number of albums, which I have not researched but which I presume were generally of the insufferable-weenie school of pop that plagued radio in the early to mid-’70s.
1976 was a little bit late for this level of drippiness, but nonetheless, “Shannon” rolled quickly up the charts, reaching number six in the U.S., and number one in Canada. And here’s what Henry sang in his big hit:
Another day is at end
Mama says she’s tired again
No one can even begin to tell her
I hardly know what to say
But maybe it’s better that way
If papa were here, I’m sure he’d tell her
Hmm. The arrangement’s twee and the vocal is intensely smarmy, but there’s a bit of mystery, a hint of loss and strong emotion. Could be something to this. And then it’s time for the chorus:
Shannon is gone,
I hope she’s drifting out to sea
She always loved to swim away
Maybe she’ll find an island with a shady tree
Just like the one in our backyard
What a strange wish for a lost loved one — “I hope she’s drifting out to sea.” And “She always loved to swim away”? What could that mean? Away from what? Why? And why does he want her to find an island? With a tree?
Because Shannon is a dog, is why. Which doesn’t make “I hope she’s drifting out to sea” any less weird, exactly, but it does perhaps explain why the tree is particularly meaningful. “Shannon” was written as a tribute to Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s deceased Irish setter, which presumably explains the faux Beach Boys ooohing and aaahing in the chorus.
Now as a general rule, I am not one to put down tributes to pets in song and literature at all. I do understand how much the beasties can mean to people, and I live with and am very fond of Enid, 15 pounds of elderly feline terror.
But look back at those first two verses. Those evocative, almost-but-not-quite powerful words are in reference to an Irish setter.
Honestly, I think about 90 percent of the reason this was a hit is because people didn’t realize it was about a dog until they’d already bought the single. But OK, maybe you don’t think the verses seem out of proportion to the situation, not even when Henry sings:
Mama tries hard to pretend
Things will get better again
Somehow she’s keeping it all inside her
Then the mind-boggling cheesiness of the chorus has still got to offset that, as Henry expresses his eccentric sentiments (it is really hard to get past that tree) in a Beach Boys-style falsetto that he doesn’t even do terribly well — listen to how he flubs the last lines as he tries to throw in a little ’70s vocal styling. And the backup dudes don’t sound at all persuaded, do they? When the Beach Boys did their multipart harmony it was exhilarating, but these guys just sound exhausted. You can practically hear them sigh.
So, to any younger reader who may have wondered why all the earnest singer-songwriters got blasted off the radio seemingly overnight in the Great Disco Panic of the late 1970s: Now you know. If it comes to a showdown between “Shannon” and, say, this:
Which would you choose?
*To Henry’s credit, he did name a later-life album One Hit Wanderer.