Oh, Gross

We continue our theme of all things canine with a one-hit wonder’s one hit: Henry Gross*, and “Shannon.”

Gross link for the happy e-mailites.

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:

Boogie fever!

Which would you choose?

*To Henry’s credit, he did name a later-life album One Hit Wanderer.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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3 Responses to Oh, Gross

  1. Michele says:

    Without listening to either song I would have said “Shannon”, basically because Disco was shoved down my throat in Junior High, but I gave both a listen. Guess what? “Boogie Fever” won hands down. Looking back not all Disco was that awful, just a few songs played daily by the driver. I liked the energy and just plain fun of “Boogie Fever”. My cats though, they’re snobs, they ran out of the room, go figure.

    Thanks for this one Bridey ♫

  2. Jen says:

    I think you’re comparing apples to oranges and trying to make one out to be better than the other. The Sylvers are discussing the up beat get off your feet rhythms of being with a sexual partner, verses someone sharing their mellow (laid-back) way of dealing with death of a loved-one…. in this case the “family” pet (Irish Setter – dog), and how each person deals with it differently. Gross mentions that his mother is depressed about losing “Shannon” -maybe the dog has been apart of the household for along time, or a gift when her husband died (yes I read that it’s a tribute to Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s dog – and maybe, Henry Gross and Carl Wilson are related, which is why he wrote about the dog). The matter is is that both songs are very fitting of the 1970′s. Had you looked past the fact that “Shannon” is a tribute to a dog, and understood that it was an easy to express the feeling of ( or not of) coping with death, you might have been able to sway me or others like me that there is something just wrong about the song in comparison to “Boogey Fever” which is about sex.
    You could have chosen to compare Metallica’s song Enter Sandman to Sarah McLachlan’s song “Angel” Both are talking about life and death, but one is now being used as a TRIBUTE to all animals being abused and to stop it, even though there isn’t a mention of a dog, cat, any animal in the song at all. That is called comparing apples to apples, and allowing your readers to decide which is better of the two.

  3. Bridey says:

    Hi, Jen — I am entirely aware of what “Shannon” is trying to convey, I simply believe it conveys it badly. Whether Gross was related to the dog’s owner (something I’m also well aware of), whether he or his mom felt strongly about the dog, and whether dogs are fine animals worthy of tribute has absolutely nothing to do with whether “Shannon” is a good record.

    It is perfectly possible to take a great, heartfelt, and important topic and write a terrible song about it. It happens all the time. Indeed, it’s a bit difficult for me to take a commenter seriously when that commenter tries to extrapolate anything at all about my understanding of death, loss, and finer feelings from the fact that I think this song is ridiculous. I am not trying to “sway” you or anybody else. You are perfectly free to enjoy “Shannon” with my blessing.

    But I nonetheless have absolutely no compunction about saying “Boogie Fever,” while not a masterpiece, is a vastly better record on every level than “Shannon.” Apples, oranges, apricots, mangoes, and bananas notwithstanding.