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The pop history of the flute

How pop music, from Jethro Tull to the Beastie Boys, has brought the woodwind to the masses

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Back when rock was a combination weapon and utensil, Stone Age cavemen blew on an early version of the flute — a hollowed-out bone — to make music. In 1994, evolution finds the Beastie Boys sampling the Blues Project’s 1966 FM-radio hit “Flute Thing” for “Flute Loop,” a cut off Ill Communication. In the years in between, this woodwind has blown through pop history. Here’s a sample:

It’s a highbrow rock instrument! For those musicians who thought rock & roll too primitive (see: cavemen), the classical bloat of progressive rock was the ideal way to wipe the dust off the flute. In the ’60s and ’70s, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues, and Chris Wood of Traffic put down their bongs long enough to exhale flute-fueled hits like “Living in the Past,” “Nights in White Satin,” and “Paper Sun,” respectively.

It’s a bird! Little Michael Jackson “tweedle-dee-deed” with a tweeting flute in “Rockin’ Robin” (1972). In 1989, the fluttery flauting on Soul II Soul’s “Get a Life” kicked serious dance feather atop the song’s thumping tempo.

It’s long and hard and full of sexual innuendo! Jazz-pop deity Herbie Mann blew on his metal rod on the instrumental make-out record Push Push (1971) — and even posed sans polyester shirt on its album cover. Likewise, Van Morrison waxed romantic on “Moondance” (1970) as a flute panted furiously in the background.

It sounds good in an elevator! Sappy flute-ified soothers like Chicago’s “Colour My World” (1970), the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” (1966), and Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg’s “The Power of Gold” (1978) made us sweat with dentist-office anxiety.

It hung out at Studio 54! In 1975, Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” trapped monotonous flute blips in the brains of bumping discotequies. The next year, Vicki Sue Robinson implored the “flute player play your flute” in her dance-floor anthem “Turn the Beat Around.”

It tranquilized metalheads! Late at night, channel-surfing rock dudes flipped past Zamfir on their way to MTV’s “Headbangers Ball.” There, they caught Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” (1991), where spurts of — you guessed it — flute tamed Slash’s guitar tsunami.

It’s a rap weapon of choice! Dr. Dre sprayed flute samples liberally throughout his solo album The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle (which he produced). Then Domino followed, slathering his current single, “Sweet Potatoe Pie,” with the instrument’s fluid tones. Marching-band flutists everywhere can stand proud at their next homecoming!

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