When rockers want to convey rage, frustration, pain or ecstasy, nothing works like an ear-splitting scream. Some rockers’ shrieks are so outrageous that they’ve been banned from the radio, parodied on Saturday Night Live, even earned their own Facebook page. Often the howls are the most memorable part of the song.
So keep your earplugs handy; here are Rock Cellar Magazine’s Top 11 Rock Screams.
With a Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker has made iconic songs his own with inventive arrangements, wild stage performances and his Ray Charles-style gravelly voice. Cocker’s 1968 interpretation of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends has been called better than the original, a Lennon-McCartney tune from Sgt. Pepper written for Ringo Starr. “I think that was probably the best of the songs we wrote for Ringo actually,” Paul McCartney said in the book Many Years From Now. “We actually had to write in a key for Ringo and you had to be a little tongue in cheek.”
Cocker drastically slowed the song’s pace to give it a bluesy feel. Midway in, Cocker begins his trademark howls; in one call-and-response to the chorus “Do you need anybody?” Cocker’s ear-splitting reply is the epic “Whooaahh! Yeah Yeah Yeah!” Cocker would perform With a Little Help at Woodstock in 1969; John Belushi would later hilariously spoof Cocker’s air guitar moves and garbled vocals on Saturday Night Live.
Joe Cocker at Woodstock:
Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin
Rock fans were bummed to read the 2010 headline: “My Screaming Led Zep Days Are Over.” “I’m trying to sing with more restraint,” said Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, Robert Plant. “But that’s a challenge for me, as it has always been easier to scream, ‘whoa, baby, baby!’” The most triumphant of Plant’s howls was from Immigrant Song, a tale of ancient Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia to conquer new lands. Plant was inspired to write about “the land of the ice and snow” during a concert tour of the Land of the Midnight Sun. “We went to Iceland, and it made you think of Vikings and big ships,” Plant said. “And bang, there it was – Immigrant Song.”
The classic rocker opens with what has been called an “anguished cry” and a “Tarzan holler”; Plant’s chilling Viking war cry, followed by a hammering riff by guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham. Though the song was used to open Led Zep shows for years, Plant’s call may never be heard live again. “I don’t want to scream Immigrant Song every night for the rest of my life,” Plant said. “And I’m not sure I could.”
Land of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett
The Wicked Wilson Pickett was the rawest and funkiest of the 1960’s soul shouters; hits like In the Midnight Hour and Mustang Sally were energized by grunts, hollers and shouts. Land of 1000 Dances was Pickett at his wildest; it featured an ear-splitting, high-pitched scream leading into the instrumental break. “The thing about Wilson was he was just a great screamer, but he did it with control,” Pickett’s producer, Jerry Wexler, told the Los Angeles Times. “James Brown would scream and it was a scream, but Wilson could scream notes. His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn’t ever out of his control, it was always melodic.”
Written and first recorded in 1962 by Chris Kenner (I Like It Like That, Part 1), it was East LA’s Cannibal & the Headhunters who added the famous “na na na na na” hook and first scored a hit with Land of 1000 Dances in 1965. A year later, Pickett and Wexler recorded the blistering track in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Land of 1000 Dances made the Top 10 and became Pickett’s biggest hit. “There was something about those records and Wilson’s voice,” said Wexler. “Those were some of the funkiest, deepest-grooving, in-the-pocket recordings I ever heard.”
Cannibal & the Headhunters:
Highway Star by Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s Highway Star begins with vocalist Ian Gillan’s extended high-pitched falsetto shriek. A perennial show-opener, Highway Star is the tale of a car that no one can beat. The song quickly came together on a tour bus during a press interview in 1971. Asked how the band composed their songs, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore grabbed an acoustic guitar and began to play a repeated riff. Gillan chimed in, improvising lyrics. By the concert that night, the song was ready to perform. Today Highway Star is considered one of the earliest speed metal songs.
After 40 years on the road, Gillan still reaches the high notes of Highway Star on stage. “I try to sing as naturally as I can, and not overstress myself,” Gillan told the Mid-Day newspaper. “I’ve also become enormously spiritual over the past decade or so, unlike my younger days… I could scream a lot – and still do so today – but it was always a struggle to get the mid-range right. Now, it’s effortless. I think all this has got to do with spirit. My spirit sort of makes up for any other gap that’s caused by age. My spirit keeps me going.”
Piece of My Heart by Big Brother & the Holding Company
When San Francisco’s Big Brother & the Holding Company released Piece of My Heart in 1967, the song’s highlights were Sam Andrew’s wailing, distorted guitar solos, which would help define acid rock, and blues belter Janis Joplin’s spine-chilling wail. Though Joplin made the song her trademark, Piece of My Heart was first recorded in 1967 by Aretha Franklin’s older sister, Erma. Franklin’s soulful take became a Top 10 R&B hit that year and would be her biggest success. Joplin’s version was so much more intense that Franklin said that when she first heard Janis on the radio, she didn’t recognize the tune.
Joplin’s energy builds throughout the song until it raises the roof with the powerful “Whoa, whoa take it!” “When I first heard the primal scream in Piece Of My Heart, I was hooked,” said Joan Jett. “I couldn’t help but go to the mirror and pretend I was a wild woman like Janis, in a rock band.” Melissa Etheridge told Rolling Stone, “She would just kinda sing and scream and cry and she’d sound like an old black woman — which is exactly what she was trying to sound like.”
Dream On by Aerosmith
Despite rampant drug abuse, migraine headaches and throat surgery, Steven Tyler has rattled windows with his voice since Aerosmith’s 1973 debut album, which featured power ballad Dream On. Tyler wrote Dream On about “the hunger to be somebody: Dream until your dreams come true.” It would become Aerosmith’s first hit. “Dream On came of me playing the piano when I was about 17 or 18, and I didn’t know anything about writing a song,” Tyler said in Aerosmith: The Fall and Rise of Rock’s Greatest Band. “It was just this little sonnet that I started playing one day. I never thought that it would end up being a real song.”
Dream On gave many fans their first listen to the “Demon of Screamin’. More than halfway in, Tyler builds to a climax, then lets loose: “Dream on, dream on, dream on, aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” Incredibly, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry resisted playing the song live. “To me rock ‘n’ roll’s all about energy and putting on a show. Those were the things that attracted me to rock ‘n’ roll, but Dream On was a ballad,” Perry told Classic Rock. “I didn’t really appreciate the musicality of it until later, but I did know it was a great song, so we put it in our set.”
I Put A Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
No list of rock’s greatest screamers would be complete without the original, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the inspiration for shock rockers like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osbourne. Hawkins, dressed as a vampire, who would be carried on stage in a blazing coffin. In his hand was Henry, a cigarette-smoking skull at the end of a walking stick.
Like most of his songs, Hawkins’ signature I Put a Spell on You was punctuated by a demented mix of screams, grunts, howls and groans, some so sexual that they had to be edited for radio. Hawkins maintained that he was so drunk during the recording of Spell that he blacked out and couldn’t remember anything of the session; Hawkins had to re-learn the song from his own record. Hawkins told Radio London that he earned his moniker during a performance. “There was a big, big, huge fat lady,” Hawkins said, “And she was so happy. She was downing Black & White scotch and Jack Daniels at the same time, and she kept looking at me and she said, ‘Scream baby, scream, Jay!’ And I kept saying to myself, you wanted a name, there it is – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins!”