When disco fever hit the masses, rock ‘n’ roll faced an identity crisis. The 1970s were a time of experimentation in rock, a sort of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” decade. If the genre wasn’t leaning towards psychedelia or jumping on the dance bandwagon, what remained became a bluesy, rootsy, blue-eyed boogie, pseudo-soul, funk-infused amalgam of hard step, soft step , but rather an average rock. The band that embodies it all: Three Dog Night.
Three Dog Night was an anomaly, creating a tight but fluid tangle of sounds. They made music with force, electrifying the piano, rounding out their rhythms and singing with the conviction of a church choir. Probably best known for their loneliest number, “One”, or for their amphibian and sommelier friend, Jeremiah, in “Joy to the World”, the group had so much more genre-defining success in an era when genre was so hard to define.
The obvious picks aside, here are 10 must-have Three Dog Night songs.
From their first album, “Nobody” is a mush of sounds and voices, the perfect introduction to the band for listeners. It’s a fast, hard, moaning track that showcases the band’s most unique quality: three very different rock singers – Danny Hutton, Cory Wells and Chuck Negron – harmonizing as one.
9. “An Old Fashioned Love Song”
Written by Paul Williams, the haunting melody is made even stronger by the group’s ghostly three-part harmony.
Playing mostly covers, Three Dog Night were responsible for bringing recognition to many incredible songwriters, introducing mainstream audiences to Harry Nilsson with their chart-topping rendition of “One”, Randy Newman with the funky “Mama Told Me Not to Come “,” and Hoyt Axton with their mega-hits “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain.”
8. “Heavy Church”
Have mercy, mercy on the defenders of love / Have mercy on the suitors / A little help from all of life’s losers / A little truth from the abusers of the mind / Ooh I need them to play in the heavy church.
Not a single vocalist shines on “Heavy Church” as they harness the power and celebrate the uniqueness of each other’s voices. A fiery groove adds texture to their layered harmonies.
7. “It’s Not Easy”
In “It Ain’t Easy”, the band dabble in the blues, adopting more southern rock sentiments with the stripped down, hollow melody. Thick with swampy sounds, only penetrated by a sharp, sporadic harmonica, the song offers another side to the band and highlights their unparalleled range.
6. “Turn off the light”
Why should I care / When I know you love me / Why should I care when / Joy is everywhere.
Gospel-tinged “Put Out the Light” is another harmonic masterpiece. Opening with a stern, raspy vocal, the song has a warmth as it explodes into a fiery chorus of words and wailing guitar.
5. “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”
A New Orleans track composed by rhythm and blues legend Allen Toussaint, “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)” has been covered over and over again, but no version quite like Three Dog Night’s.
Their multi-harmony adds a unique character to the already one-of-a-kind lyrics: Play something sweet, play something sweet / Play something I can bite my teeth into like Jello and Play something sweet and make it funky / Just let me lay back and smile like a monkey
Three Dog Night rolls out of left field with the deeply moving, guttural bluesy rock explosion that is “Woman.” The dark, lustful track is a far cry from the sweet, pop-tinged “An Old Fashioned Love Song.” Once you think you have the group anchored, they drop a banger like the one below.
The group adds a gospel touch to a song loaded with Tibetan Buddhist themes. The subtle “Shambala” grooving refers to the mythical Shambhala, a kingdom mentioned in ancient texts that is said to be hidden in the Himalayas.
In the song, Shambhala takes the form of a metaphor rather than an actual place, illustrating a spiritual path on which one might find joy and enlightenment.
2. “I’ve never been to Spain”
Well I’ve never been to heaven / But I’ve been to Oklahoma
“Never Been To Spain” is a Three Dog Night classic. Written by Hoyt Axton, who also wrote “Joy to the World”, the humorous, sometimes absurd and timeless tune earned the band a hit and further cemented their rock legacy.
1. “Mom told me (not to come)”
A song written by Randy Newman, “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” was first cut by Eric Burdon & The Animals. It was Three Dog Night who popularized the tune, making it a longer number and giving it a funky fusion. The exaggerated vocals on the track also gave it an edge and made it essential to the Three Dog Night catalog.
(Photo by Jim McCrary/Redferns)