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Sure, the cat has sparked songs such as “The Cat Came Back” and “Stray Cat Strut.” And the horse has had his moments, from “Tennessee Stud” to “Wildfire.” Even the rat crept into the charts with Michael Jackson’s “Ben.” But for decades-spanning musical inspiration—from “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” to “Atomic Dog” and “Death of a Martian”—the dog is number one.
In our first look at dogs and popular music (“Pop Goes the Dog,” Feb. ’08), we sniffed out 10 classics from the 1950s to the 1970s. In this sequel, we dig up some treasures from the post-punk and contemporary eras. Reflecting the openness and candor of music in recent decades, many of these tunes go deeper than mere canine tributes. From the Stanislavski-like explorations of a pooch’s psyche to the dynamics of sexual attraction between dogs, here are the stories behind 10 modern all-breed favorites.
Composed by George Clinton
Performed by Parliament–Funkadelic
“Harmonic dogs, house dogs, street dogs … dogs of the world unite!” begins this supremely funky ode to the link between dog and man.
“I needed that heavy vibe,” George Clinton once said, “and I knew that the dog was the king of vibe from the old days of Rufus Thomas [“Walking the Dog”]. But I think ‘atomic’ had more to do with it than ‘dog.’ It was all this computer-age stuff and high technology. I wanted to get the two vibes, one futuristic and the other primal. That seems to be what the magic in the song is—that technology in the synthesizer, then that raw vibe of the woof. ‘I’m chasing the cat’ and lines like that, I was just doing that symbolically, like chasing a woman or whatever—those instinctive things, the automatic muscles.”
The song was later sampled by Snoop Dogg in his 1993 hit, “Who Am I (What’s My Name?)”
Composed by Tom Waits
Recorded by Tom Waits
What’s a rain dog? Tom Waits has an idea: “You know, dogs in the rain lose their way back home. They even seem to look up at you and ask if you can help them get back home. Because after it rains, every place they peed on has been washed out. It’s like “Mission Impossible.” They go to sleep thinking the world is one way and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture.”
Waits, once a vagabond who made fleabag hotels his home, identifies with these hounds, singing: “Taxi, we’d rather walk, huddle in a doorway with the rain dogs/For I am a rain dog too.”
Not only has Waits put canine themes to work on other songs—“Dog Door” and “Puttin’ on the Dog”—but as he once mused, “My career is like a dog. Sometimes it comes when you call. Sometimes it gets up in your lap. Sometimes it rolls over. Sometimes it just won’t do anything.”
Composed by John Linnell and John Flansburgh
Recorded by They Might Be Giants
While researching the digestive system back in the early 1900s, Russian physician Ivan Pavlov discovered that he could condition dogs to salivate by announcing meals with some external stimuli—a whistle, a metronome and, most famously, a bell.
A heady subject for a pop song? Not in the hands of the quirky Brooklyn duo They Might Be Giants, who honored Pavlov’s pooch in “Dinner Bell.” With its bouncy counterpoint vocals pitting “salivating dog” against a list of victuals (chowder, egg, garlic bread), the song transcends its humorous tone to address the modern human dilemma of having too many choices.
“We’ve often had this problem of people considering our songs to be novelties or jokes,” Linnell observes. “To us, our songs are very meaningful, and the whole point is that they’re saying something. But they sometimes have the structure of a joke. Part of the effect is that it lightens the song up so it’s not pretentious.”
Classical conditioning never sounded so fun.
Dixie the Tiny Dog
Composed by Peter Himmelman
Recorded by Peter Himmelman
A dog who dances like Fred Astaire in the moonlight, revels in a Germanic background and boasts about a Houdini-like ability to escape, Dixie may be tiny, but she’s proud. Or is it “he”? Peter Himmelman will only say that “Dixie is a very soulful animal, able to find joy in the minutiae of life.”
A composite of a several Dachshunds Himmelman has known, “Dixie” trots along with nimble phrasing, “mimicking a dog’s thought patterns.” Though it was released online only, it’s one of Himmelman’s most-requested live songs.
“When I perform it, I really feel dog-like,” Himmelman confesses. “Like this small, brown, coarse-haired dog who’s very sharp, very observant. I’m channeling what this dog might be seeing and thinking.”
When he’s not method acting, Himmelman makes music for both adults and children (the Grammy-nominated kids’ album My Green Kite is his latest), and scores the TV shows Men in Trees and Bones. He’s penned two other canine-inspired tunes, “Willa” and “Theo,” but it’s “Dixie” that touches the underdog in all of us. “It’s a song for everyone who feels like they’re not as good as other people,” Himmelman says.
Composed by Neil Finn
Recorded by Neil Finn
“It was written in honor of our family dog,” New Zealander Neil Finn says. “Lester was a Dalmatian, and when he was a year old, he was hit by a car. He nearly didn’t make it. I got home from the vet’s that day and wrote this song.”
In this plaintive acoustic ballad, which is featured on Afterglow, a Crowded House rarities collection, Finn promises to be a better person if Lester is allowed to live, while expressing thanks for the dog’s “good luck and strong bones inside and behind him.”
Finn wrote with such compassion that his producer, Mitchell Froom, mistook Lester for a human. “I didn’t tell him it was about my dog, and he thought I was talking about my manservant,” Finn says with a chuckle. Lester went on to star in several Crowded House and Finn Brothers videos, and was reportedly the inspiration for another Finn song, “Black and White Boy.”
Gimme Back My Dog
Composed by Brent Best
Recorded by Slobberbone
“It was mine before I met you,” sings Brent Best about the dog who’s the unwitting rope in a breakup tug-of-war.
“I remember writing it in my head while I was mowing my parent’s lot in Lucas, Texas,” Best says. “We had recently lost our family dog. Scooter was an old Dachshund and thought he was much bigger than he was. One night, he went after some coyotes. They made short work of him. I’d also been through a really bad breakup, so somehow, it all meshed together as one thing. The dog ended up representing all the things that you have in place before you enter a relationship, and then you don’t have in place when things go wrong.”
The song, one of the now-defunct Slobberbone’s most popular, grabbed the ear of novelist Stephen King, who name-checked it in Black House, and later called it one of the “three greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.” (The group took their name from a doggie chew toy.)
Best, who now fronts alt-country band The Drams, recalls, “A friend once said, ‘This will be the song that will end up driving you mad because people will want to hear it all the time.’ And he was right.”
Composed by China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale
Recorded by Pink Martini
Girl and boy dog pass on the street. Eyes meet. Hearts and tails flutter. They go their separate ways, and boy dog is stricken forever. That’s the story in this playful salsa number.
Singer China Forbes says, “Lilly was inspired by my dog Foxy, and the male suitor was inspired by Thomas’s dog Heinz. Basically, they had this really cute flirtation. Foxy is a Corgi/Papillon mix, so she looks like a little red fox. Heinz is this enormous yellow Lab mixed with St. Bernard. He had one of those enormous bones that was bigger than Foxy’s entire body. But Foxy would always get it away from him immediately when she came to visit, then totally terrorize him. So she became this femme fatale every time she saw Heinz, and had him wrapped around her tiny paw.”
Forbes and Lauderdale thought their song was “a jokey little throwaway,” but their producer convinced them to put it on their Hang On Little Tomato album. “It’s become really popular with the fans,” says Forbes, adding with a laugh, “especially our fans who are under 12.”
The Dog Song
Composed by Nellie McKay
Performed by Nellie McKay
McKay’s childhood dog Joey inspired her jaunty sing-along tune.
“I named him after Joey Buttafuoco,” the Brooklyn-based songstress and animal activist reveals. “It just seemed to fit. He was a mix of all kinds of crazy and contrary breeds. And he was my brother. I always remember how he wore his scarves, and he would jump like a deer when he was chasing a stick. He was the best dog.”
But not the best audience, even for songs written in his honor. “Joey always hated my music,” she sighs. “He’d put his paws over ears and start yelping.” Fortunately, McKay’s fans have had a much more positive response to her signature tune.
“It’s optimistic and joyful, and people respond to that,” says McKay, who’s currently scoring a stage version of the film Election. “What I really love is how people have used the song for video footage of their own dogs. On YouTube, there’s one called Annie who is just the happiest dog. I can’t imagine my music being put to any better purpose than showcasing those lovely, happy canines.”
My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found
Composed by Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger
Recorded by The Fiery Furnaces
Matthew Friedberger knows there’s nothing’s worse than the feeling you get after you lose your temper with your dog.
His rousing song starts with a confession—“I kicked my dog/I was mean to him before/I guess that’s why he walked out my door”—then leaps into a desperate search for the fugitive pup.
“The lyrics were inspired by my dog Jargon,” Matthew has said. “When you adopt a dog, you’re excited. But then you also have frustrations because maybe you don’t realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. And so it’s about the kind of remorse you feel at sometimes being annoyed at walking your dog at 6:30 in the morning when it’s 15 degrees below zero. Not that he wanted to go out then either. But sometimes, just like anyone you’re living with, you get frustrated with them.”
Happily, the song ends with a reunion. Friedberger reckoned, “Adopting a dog is really an opportunity to restructure your life in a way that is very rewarding. I think as long as you think of it like that, then it’s a great thing to do.”
Death of a Martian
Composed by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Performed by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Self-enlightened, perfect in conduct, a teacher of humans—is it coincidence that the three essential characteristics of the Buddha also happen to be those of the dog who inspired this song?
“She was kind of a weird pillar of love and happiness and strength,” singer Anthony Kiedis says. “I was coming out of some dark times, and Flea [the Chili Peppers’ bass player] was going through a difficult period. And here was this 200-pound dog who was just very chill and very calm and very loving who was there every day, crashed out in front of the garage while we were rehearsing. Martian was sort of like our little spirit guide.”
Sadly, as the Chili Peppers neared completion of their Stadium Arcadium album, Martian fell ill. Kiedis recalls, “When it became clear that she was dying, I felt a huge sense of loss. But this beautiful energy. This little angel, it was time for her to be on her way.”
Of the band’s heartfelt tribute, Flea says, “She was such a great dog. I’m glad that she’s going to be immortalized in history.”