British-Irish singer Chris de Burgh is probably best known for his wildly popular single, “Lady In Red” (1986). But fans of moody or dark rock-pop might have first heard de Burgh in 1982 via a song called “Don’t Pay the Ferryman.”
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman” opened audiences’ worlds to that of a death tradition that predated their lifetimes. Certainly mortality as a topic in popular music was not unheard of. But the unique qualities of the song, especially in the early 1980s make it stand it out.
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman” succeeds because of its rock grounding, its dark content, and de Burgh’s delivery.
Chris de Burgh and the sound of early 1980s rock-pop
The popularity of UK rock and pop during the 1980s is a well-established fact for most fans of popular music. Thanks to MTV and other factors, including college radio stations, the era was sometimes called the second British Invasion due to the plethora of bands from that country.
The range of styles was broad. Synth pop was extremely popular, as was heavy metal and post-punk.
As a result, there was no shortage of bands singing songs of political unrest (early U2, for example), emotional and interpersonal anxiety (Duran Duran, Thomas Dolby and others). So in the scheme of things, a song about a presumably dead man needing to pay the ferryman, only after he’s been safely delivered to his destination somehow sounds right.
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman” by Chris de Burgh
A fast-paced, high-pitched keyboard motif opens the song. Far from sounding bright and happy, the tone is ominous and builds suspense. It is not unlike the theme for Michael, the villain in “Halloween.” Heavy electric bass drops in rumbling chords and the drums are clear and heavy. After a few measures, the keyboards become almost stratospherically high. The song moves toward the soundscape that will back the lyrical portion of the song. An acoustic guitar adds texture and the bass grows a bit more nimble.
The narrator never says that the man is dead, which is clever. The lyrics refer to “a lifetime spent preparing for the journey.” The mystical or mythological elements are all there: the boat, the hill, the man and the river. The man has a map of the mind that tells him everything is as it should be. He is not out of danger. He has to remember not to pay the ferryman too soon. He also has to remember to pay, because that would be detrimental to his soul. According to the lyrics, the would-be passengers should not even agree on a price until they are safely delivered.
By the time de Burgh arrives at the chorus, his almost tremulous voice is shouty and full. It is clear the song is a warning. However, the hooded old man at the rudder (grim reaper) and the ferryman are not in the business of helping the newly dead. The title character says “there is trouble ahead/you must pay me now.” There are background voices calling “Don’t do it!” The singer as narrator reminds listeners that too many men have failed before.
For the chorus the keyboards ramp up in pitch and volume and all of the bass seems even more present. The background singers act like Greek choruses. In the album version of the song, available on Spotify, eight lines of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” is recited by an actor. All of which adds to the song’s story and mood, and makes “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” a classic for some listeners.
“Don’t Pay the Ferryman” reached as high as No. 5 on Australian charts and No. 34 on US Billboard charts.