What are your memories of the Beatles ‘White Album’ when it first came out? Did you think it was good? Which tracks were your favourite, or least liked? Did you buy it? Where were you when you first heard it? How has it played a part in the ‘soundtrack of your life’?
Please add your own thoughts and memories below in the ‘Reply’ section. Meanwhile here are a few to get started with:
“I remember going down to our local record store at lunchtime on the day it came out to buy my copy, as I had with Sgt Pepper. My mother said to keep good care of the cover as it would probably become a collector’s item one day. I’ve still got it somewhere, though sadly not the actual records which got borrowed and not returned. As for the music my immediate favourites were Glass Onion, Dear Prudence, Julia, I’m So Tired, Happiness is a Warm Gun and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I wasn’t that keen on Yer Blues, You Say It’s Your Birthday and Mother Nature’s Son – and detested Good Night, which I don’t think I’ve played since the first time I heard it. I was playing in a band at the time and remember that we did ‘Obli-di, Obla-da’. The last line is ‘If you want some fun sing Obli-di Obla-dah’, but our vocalist changed the words slightly to include his phone number, so it became ‘If you want some fun, ring 82356…’ TS
“I was living in the US at the time it came out. The Americans weren’t quite sure what to make of the White album. Some of the tracks, such as Obla-di, Obli-dah, Julia, While My Guitar Gently Weeps were played frequently on the radio, as was Back to the USSR, even though it was considered by many older Americans as being supportive of communism.” PS
“I was quite young, not quite 13. I remember the boy up the road having a copy, some time later (maybe 1970), and thinking that his possession of the album was a bit dangerous because by then I had heard about the Manson murders and his use of the White album as ‘inspiration’. I did think that the cover looked odd, compared to all the other album covers I had ever seen at the time. I bought the album quite a few years later and only then listened to it. I was surprised to see that Obla-di, Oibla-da was there, as I’d heard this many times on the radio and that track didn’t seem in the least bit dangerous. That is probably my least favourite. Most of the others I like more and more, although there is such a curious mix of lyrical acoustic, bluesy guitar and modernist. It doesn’t hang together as an album as Sgt Pepper does.” DH
“I know exactly where I was when I first heard it, hanging out over supper at the house of family friends with three daughters and enlightened parents. I thought the music was great, but then everything the Beatles did seemed to be since Love Me Do on Radio Luxembourg (crystal set under the bed clothes first time). They had it on in their Dad’s little study (he was a solicitor) and all the doors open and LOUDLY and repeatedly playing all afternoon & evening. So many good things on the album and hard to remembered which made the biggest impact on first hearing. Back in the USSR rang out, Prudence definitely, and certainly that piano in Martha to which their Mum danced around. Loved the album design at the time, so radical to be plain white with the four simple pics. Definitely popular with all in that household.” DM
“I was 10 at the time and in top juniors at primary school and popular music had not penetrated my life in any significant way. The 22nd of Nov would have been my Dad’s birthday, so I expect we would’ve gone out for a steak, chips peas ‘n black forest gateaux meal at the local Beafeater that evening – is that helpful? So I just googled ‘White album’ to check out the songs. Surprisingly I recognise most of the tracks on side 1, but hardly any on the other 3 sides, except Blackbird. I thought Blackbird was a Wings track. I hate Wings, but on somedays (a very few) Blackbird might make it to my desert island list (if I could pretend it wasn’t Wings) and it isn’t – so I can – so that’s alright. The youtube visuals showed a shot of the lyrics laid out white on black in the shape of a bird – very nice. I guess from the album artwork – I do miss gatefold artwork.” TW
“I never had a copy of the White Album but strangely I know most of the songs. I can only imagine I picked them up on radio or TV. There are a few I just don’t know. A couple of chums and I performed a live Beatles night at the golf club a couple of weeks ago. We had a room limit of 110 and we could have sold it out twice. Not for our efforts but it’s a testament to the continuing popularity of Beatles’ tunes. We did about 32 songs including some from the White Album; Ob-la, USSR and Revolution – all crowd pleasers and good dancers. We had Blackbird in reserve but didn’t use it.” PB
“I didn’t buy the album and hadn’t really heard much of it at the time. We were playing at the Blue Angel in Liverpool one night and in the usual mayhem as we were packing up, I picked up disc 1 which had been left on a table by the DJ!! 0ops! So when I played it at home that was the first time I had heard most of it. (Disc 1 anyway). Eventually I must of got the rest of the album ‘cos I know it well. Prefer Disc 1 though. Best tracks for me, Bungalow Bill, Happiness is a Warm Gun, While my Guitar, Revolution, Long Long Long, Savoy Truffle, Glass Onion.” MW
“I did own a copy of the album, but I have a feeling that I only acquired it a few years later. I remember being very disappointed by the cover – I thought it was a gimmick. When I heard the tracks, I thought it was obvious they didn’t have enough good stuff for a double album, but were determined to release one to match other bands. I still think that, whilst there are some gems on there, there is also a lot of dross (some of it embarrassing dross, like ‘Honey Pie’). However, I do remember being very taken (and disturbed) by ‘Revolution 9’ – I’m sure this was also intended to be a filler, but it actually works at quite a deep level, despite one or two idiocies (like Harrison’s interventions). I remember there being great debate amongst my friends at school about Lennon’s stance on the ambiguous ‘Revolution 1’, and this sparked debate about the relative merits of violent and non-violent protest.” AJ Continue reading “In My Life: The White Album”→
After the extraordinary success of ‘Sgt Pepper’ in the summer of 1967, the Beatles’ follow-up album was always going to be difficult. The feeling was that something different was needed, and that after the iconic, and in a sense ultimate, psychedelic ‘Sgt Pepper’ cover, the next album cover was going to need to be very different too. Rather than trying, and probably failing, to improve on the perfection of Pepper, the approach they adopted with their selection of songs was to do something completely different, while at the same time building on the expertise and sophistication they had gained in emerging recording technologies and techniques.
The idea of issuing a major-selling follow-up album in a plain white sleeve might not seem very revolutionary today, but at the time – on Friday 22nd November 1968 – it certainly was. Back then, although the design of album covers had evolved to include brightly-coloured photographs, psychedelic imagery and eye-catching typography, it was still assumed, almost without any question, that an image of the recording artist or band would in some way be prominently featured on the front.
The initial working title for the new album had been ‘A Doll’s House’, after Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play: Yoko Ono had recently introduced John to Ibsen’s work. A painting of the band by John Byrne was under consideration to be used as the album’s cover. However in July 1968 British prog group ‘Family’ released their debut album ‘Music In A Doll’s House’, so the name had to be changed.
It is often assumed that the stark white cover was John Lennon or Yoko Ono’s idea – and indeed Lennon himself had utilised both a white canvas and 365 white balloons in their ‘You Are Here’ exhibition held July of that year at the Robert Fraser Gallery. However it was Paul McCartney who appears to have taken the lead in commissioning the final cover design and, instead of Pop artist Peter Blake who had designed the Sgt Pepper cover, approached artist Richard Hamilton whose work he had seen at the Tate Gallery the previous year.
Richard Hamilton is often referred to as the father of Pop Art, having produced the ground-breaking ‘Just What Is it…’ collage in 1956, but always worked in a more austere, less colourful manner that Blake and the other Pop artists of the time. Indeed Hamilton’s approach proved to be more a reflection of the largely parallel art movement of ‘Minimalism’. At the time Minimalist art represented such qualities as truth (because it did not pretend to be anything other than what it was), order, simplicity and harmony. In the Western world white is associated with purity, perfection, honesty and cleanliness.
In terms of the White Album cover, Hamilton suggested that: “It should be treated like a very small edition publication of poems or something!” From 1960 to 1966, Hamilton had produced a series of monographs, each with a plain white cover just featuring the name of the artist in a style virtually identical to what became the White Album cover. Monographs often consist of individual chapters or articles written by different authors on a single subject, thus echoing the sense that the album was in many ways a collection of tracks written separately by the different members of the band.
It also just so happens that the term ‘album’ comes from the Latin word ‘albus’, which means white. It was also apparently Hamilton who asked whether there had ever been an album simply called ‘The Beatles’, and when it was confirmed that there hadn’t, said, “Let’s call it that”.
Concerned that the cover was perhaps too austere for a popular record album, Hamilton proposed printing a ring of brown stain to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it, or use an apple to create a very light green smear with a little bit of pulp: both these ideas were rejected, partly due to the problem of ensuring print quality in pressing plants abroad. Something that was taken on board though was his suggestion that ‘The Beatles’, set in Helvetica and placed slightly below the centre right, should be embossed. Since then, as they decay, many of the original covers have acquired real stains and drawings added by their owners.
Hamilton also came up with the idea of adding individual serial numbers, printed slightly crookedly. Initially EMI claimed it couldn’t be done, but eventually managed to come up with a solution. While The Beatles themselves were given the first four – Ringo managed to get the first – there is no definitive number of such copies as there were often duplicates made in different countries. It is thought there are over three million vinyl copies in circulation. However, the lower numbers remain the most collectable, with those below 2000 worth at least several thousand pounds. On 5 December 2015, Ringo Starr‘s personal copy of The Beatles, serial number 0000001, was Continue reading “Don’t You Know It’s Going To Be All White?”→
“I think Vera Lynn should sing this” said my Mum when she first heard Good Night. “Well he is called John Winston Lennon” I replied. Ringo’s Good Night is number 30 in the chocolate box smorgasbord that is the White Album and it completes the dazzling set of segues from the Savoy Truffle chocolate selection of Side 4 and really does take us back after the critical post-war homage of #9. It is the “and breathe” release moment after Revolution 9 which signifies that our epic journey is nearing completion…
When the authors of this blog were (foolishly) discussing what combination of tracks a single White Album would consist of it was agreed that it needed a Ringo song and that this would be the one. Don’t Pass Me By was where John and Paul took their Apple responsibilities seriously and showed Ringo how to develop the skills he needed to have a successful solo career, but Good Night is the classic Ringo track on the album. It was written for him and all he had to do was turn up, relax, act naturally and deliver his fine vocal performance. Quite an original vocal performance too as he is not playing a sea-going cheeky chappie, or lovable rogue actor, just dolefully singing his choice offering in order to produce the customary mix of tracks we expect on a Beatles album. They’ve raced around their childhood in 87 minutes and yet are still back home in time for bed. Vocally Ringo plays it quite straight and captures just the right tone for his slumber-inducing song.
Good Night is also John’s song for his son Julian so the epic White Album journey which started with Paul’s song for Julian, Hey Jude, is resolved for us all with an “up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire” night time lullaby. So John has not only written his first song about love with Julia but has composed a gentle and loving lullaby for his boy child. And a dreamy wonder this song is too, full of sweet illusions to childhood.
Like Mark 1 which became Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver, Good Night was recorded very early in the White Album recording sessions. An earlier version (link above) recorded on 28th June 1968, and the Anthology 3 version, were initially band recordings driven by Pauls bass, with orchestration used as colour to expand the song and lots of whispered encouragment for children to “toddle off to bed.” George Martin wrote a detailed score for 26 musicians after John said “arrange it like Hollywood, yeah corny!”and the full orchestral version was recorded on 22nd July
Geoff Emerick is on record as saying that John’s lost solo demo on guitar was beautiful and he performed it magically. However the final recorded version is a sumptuous orchestral piece where George Martin builds on his Yellow Submarine orchestrations and also pre-figures Octopuses Garden; oh that Ringo and his rewriting B-sides as songwriting! The Mike Sammes singers were brought in after the orchestral recording to reprise their Choral work on I Am The Walrus! One of their members was Ken Barrie who Continue reading “Good Night”→
I used to teach a songwriting course at Christchurch University in Canterbury. I would sometimes play Steve Reich’s “Come Out” to the unsuspecting students as a way of provoking a discussion about Music. What is Music? What is not Music? “Come Out” was more than some students could take and was definitely not music as far as they were concerned! John Cage, when asked what music he listened to at home replied, “I just open the window of my apartment and listen to the street noise on Sixth Avenue”.
After World War 2 several European composers embraced the idea that, if the highly organised, tonal music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and particularly Brahms and Wagner had created a society capable of the atrocities of the Twentieth Century, then the music of the future must be something “other”. Pierre Boulez in Paris, Luciano Berio in Milan and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne each worked on pieces using the electronic equipment at the radio stations in their respective cities during the 1950’s and 60’s. The BBC had its Radiophonic Workshop of course and various luminaries in Europe produced works that were conceptually interesting even if actually listening to them seemed superfluous.
Karlheinz Stockhausen appears, coincidently (or not), on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and produced the most striking and durable pieces of that era. Paul McCartney was apparently interested in “Gesange der Jünglinge”, but the pieces that have most affinity with Revolution 9 are “Telemusik” from 1966 and “Hymnen” from 1966-67. Both use recordings of music from outside sources; what we now call World Music in “Telemusik” and National Anthems in “Hymnen”. Processed and mixed with electronic sounds, they create soundscapes by turns intriguing and brutal.
I think it is very likely that John Lennon had heard “Hymnen”. Coincidentally (or not), at about 7 minutes in, a croupier’s voice intones, “Neuf… the nine”. Comparing it to Revolution 9, “Hymnen” has a similar mix of spoken word, recordings of music and a pulverising miasma of electronic sounds. Barely audible conversations take place and in the first section a voice, maybe Stockhausen’s, reads a list of shades of red from the list of Windsor and Newton Artists’ Water Colours. Why? In a piece using the National Anthems of the world, presented with all the mathematical rigor of a young German composer? Why indeed. Stockhausen’s piece has all the apocalyptic intensity, that John may have wanted for his own vision of what a revolution might sound like. He may also have intuitively picked up how to arrange non-harmonic sounds in such a way that there is a thread of design holding things together even though that is not immediately obvious to the casual listener.
Take 20 of “Revolution 1” reveals the 10 minute version of the song. The recording I have sounds like a playback in the studio control room. One hears “Revolution 1” essentially, without some of its overdubs (the “Johnny B. Goode” guitar at the beginning, for example). It extends the coda for some 6 minutes with John singing “Alright” over chords l and lV and he sings the tortured “Riiiiiiiiiiiight” that shows up on Revolution 9 at one point. The recording is somewhat obscured by Yoko having a telephone conversation in the foreground, so the recording of the song is difficult to hear. But, her voice and the track in the background were perhaps the starting point for John’s ideas.
The conventional wisdom is that John cut the six minute end section of Take 20 and used it as the “ground” to overlay the various tape loops. If this was the case we would hear drums and guitars playing the coda section of “Revolution 1” but in the finished version that is not audible. When the word “Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight” is shouted solo at 2.16 can you faintly hear some bass overspill on the vocal track. This is the only time when there is any presence of the the original “ground”. It is possible that John began with the backing track on perhaps two tracks of his 4-track tape machine and then “flew in” the various loops from another machine, just as they had done on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. For the first 2 minutes there are only 2 loops playing simultaneously at any given time so it is possible that John was layering 2 tracks of loops against the other 2 tracks containing Take 20. It is around 2.20 when the sample from Sibelius 7th Symphony arrives that things become more complex. Perhaps at this stage he erased the band playing the “Revolution 1” coda, keeping only the vocal track for that one “Riiiiiiiiiiiight” section. Or perhaps he started from scratch, flying in the “Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight” where he needed it. It sounds as if it has been played back at a faster speed (vari-sped) to make it sound as it does… endless speculation is all one has when it comes to trying to figure out how the piece was made, but, in essence it is not that complicated as a piece of construction. Merely a matter of overlaying various loops on a 4-track tape machine and keeping a sense of economy about what is used.
As always on The White Album, the context of any given track is important. The placing of Revolution 9 as the penultimate track on the album is important, coming as it does after a series of songs that seem to be increasingly wayward in their content. Side 4 has “Revolution 1”, “Honey Pie” (the widest contrast of songs on the entire album), “Savoy Truffle” with it’s lyric derived from the menu of a cheap box of chocolates. Then “Cry Baby Cry” which transposes John’s songs of fantasy worlds, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Nowhere Man” into a gothic fairytale dream… it reminds me, in a way, of the very end of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” where Dr. Dave Bowman finds himself in the ice-cold, silent bedroom. And Revolution 9 could be read as an analogue of the seething abstract vortex sequence that leads to that scene – another instance of confronting a mainstream audience with a style of Art normally reserved for people with more specialised interests. 1968 was a time of powerful change and we are right to talk of war, riots and social unrest being the inspiration for “Revolution”, “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9”. But we should remember that the Space Race was at full throttle with the moon landing in the following year. Who knew what might be found on another world at that time?
Like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’ seems to have been inspired by a snippet of media output that tickled Lennon’s imagination, in this case an advert with the strapline “Cry Baby Cry, Make Your Mother Buy”. Also, as with the earlier track, there’s a sense of both startled outrage (that you would use a child to sell a product through parental guilt) and delight (at the astonishing, surreal crassness of the American media). However, it’s what happens next that is interesting. Lennon takes us on a journey of quasi-Freudian free association, but one structured by the passing of a day in some kind of loosely imagined aristocratic setting and an oblique reference to ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, the nursery rhyme having (possibly) been suggested by McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’.
The chorus, appearing at the start and, with additions, five or six times in the rest of the lyric, picks up the idea which Lennon sees buried in the advert itself – that children ‘should know better’ than to cry pointlessly or deceptively as they grow older, but don’t, and also that adults/parents should know better than to be persuaded by crass appeals to their guilt, but don’t. It sparks off in the rest of the lyric a blurred distinction between childhood and adult worlds, a faintly disturbing mixture of innocence and corruption. Also perhaps, behind all this (as so often in the lyrics on this album), there is the situation at Rishikesh with the manipulative Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his attendant ‘court’.
We begin in the morning, with breakfast cooked by the king for the queen, his ‘Marigold’ gloves presumably giving rise to the name of his kingdom, and a piano being played by the queen for ‘the children of the king’. We should be wary of reading too much into this, but it’s interesting that this is both mould-breaking and patriarchal – the children are the king’s children and the queen the willing vessel from which they came, but the gender roles are somewhat reversed at the same time – she leading the music, he doing the cooking.
This mild form of gender role ambiguity continues in the next verse, the king picking flowers whilst the queen paints pictures. The king’s flowers are, interestingly, picked for ‘a friend who came to play’. This might well be a reference to Donovan, another visitor to Rishikesh, who pretty much embodied the ‘flower-power’ idea and who influenced some of the playing and songwriting techniques of the Beatles themselves, including the chord progression of this song.
In the next verse, set in the afternoon, a duke and duchess arrive, she demanding attention through arch, calculated lateness, he ‘having problems/With a message at the local bird and bee’. The reference to Kirkaldy, Steve Turner tells us, goes back in Lennon’s mind to a gig at the Carlton Theatre in that town five years before, as Beatlemania was exploding. The word is, likely as not, chosen for its sound and scansion rather than its personal association, but it’s also the past intruding upon the present, as it so often does in lyrics on this album. Similarly, the phrase ‘bird and bee’ conveniently rhymes with ‘tea’ and is there mainly to do just that. However, it’s hard to overlook the idea of ‘the birds and the bees’ here and the subtle suggestion that this duke is playing away, just as, of course, Lennon was about to do with Yoko.
In the final verse, before the repetition of the chorus, the lyric takes on a darker tone. The children are up way past their bedtime, apparently at midnight, terrifying the adults with the voices of the dead in a rigged séance ‘for a lark’. These are ‘voices out of nowhere’, perhaps an early pre-echo of the snatches of song, expostulations and dialogue in ‘Revolution 9’. Indeed, we can now see how the whole of this lyric is preparing us for the experimental penultimate track of the album. McCartney’s short, unlisted ‘Can You Take Me Back’ lyric, rescued from elsewhere in the source material for this album, asks ‘Rama’, the Hindu Supreme Being, to Continue reading “Cry, Baby, Cry”→
There are two types of boxes of chocolates. One contains multiples of the same single chocolate, while the other contains a mixed selection, usually of hard and soft centres enrobed with milk, dark or white chocolate. Most bands produce (often commercially successful) albums that use very similar instrumentation and musical sounds and ideas on each track, largely made using the same repeatable formula. But occasionally an album comes along that’s a rich mixture of different light and dark shapes and forms, fillings and flavours, and everyone has their own favourites and dislikes. Sometimes they even spend hours discussing whether there should have been one layer or two and which items should perhaps have been left out? The Beatles’ ‘White Selection Box’ album is rather like that…
“Savoy Truffle is a classic, gourmet Rocky Road and Pecan Fudge Roll of a Beatles recording”
Apparently the starting point for George Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’ was actually Eric Clapton, with whom he had been increasingly spending time. While initially ‘Savoy Truffle’ comes across as just a simple description of the contents of a box of chocolates that George just happened to have, there is more to it than that. It seems Clapton found it difficult to resist chocolates, and could eat a whole box. He was visiting George’s house after a visit to the dentist who had told him that they were the cause of his dental problems – thus the song is a warning against eating too many chocolates: ‘But you’ll have to have them all pulled out after the savoy truffle’. It is also worth considering that Clapton was thought to have been taking heroin at the time, and this can cause a craving for chocolate.
“Once he saw a box he had to eat them all. He was over at my house, and I had a box of ‘Good News’ chocolates on the table and wrote the song from the names inside the lid.” Harrison wrote in his ‘I Me Mine’ autobiography.
They Say It’s Good News… A box of Mackintosh’s ‘Good News’ Chocolates, first introduced in the late 1950s, was a popular gift in 1960s Britain. Although a box of chocolates was still considered a special treat in those days, ‘Good News’ was one of the less expensive on offer. The Mackintosh company (nothing to do with the Scottish architect or Apple computers), was founded in 1890 and quickly became one of the leading UK toffee manufacturers. In 1932, following a lunchtime meeting at the Savoy Hotel, the owners purchased a chocolate company in order to give them increased access to chocolate production and the rapidly expanding market for the popular and increasingly affordable confectionery.
What is a Savoy Truffle? The name of each chocolate in the ‘Good News’ box gave some indication of its flavour, except for the mysterious and extravagant-sounding Savoy Truffle. So what exactly is a Savoy Truffle? And what, if anything, does it have to do with George Harrison and Eric Clapton?
To begin at the beginning, a ‘truffle’ is a type of mushroom, some species of which have been highly sought-after savoury delicacies for many centuries. Meanwhile the ‘House of Savoy’ is a Royal Family established in the early 11th Century in the Savoy region of France. Over time the region greatly increased its importance and wealth. In 1559 the then Duke of Savoy was the first to introduce the region to the delights of chocolate. In 1895 a French patisserie in the Savoy region created a rich, creamy dark chocolate mixture, shaped into small spheres and covered in cocoa powder to make them easier to pick up. As a result these chocolates somewhat resembled the appearance of truffles and became known as Chocolate Truffles. However there is no evidence they were known as Savoy Truffles at this point.
So is there any connection to the famous ‘Savoy Hotel’ in London? In 1246 a wealthy Englishman married into the family of the House of Savoy and was granted land in London where the hotel now stands, where he built the Savoy Palace in 1263. It is not known for sure how the chocolate truffle in the ‘Good News’ selection ended up being called the Savoy Truffle, but it might have been a reference to Mackintosh’s business deal made at the Hotel in 1932, or possibly to the fact that chocolate truffles were created in the region of Savoy -or maybe it was even a clever double-meaning?
But does all this have any connection to George and Eric? Well, not a lot, except that it has been suggested that at the time they often used to meet at the Savoy Hotel! It’s not known exactly why Harrison chose the Savoy Truffle as the title and main reference for the song. Apart from the possible Savoy Hotel connection, The Savoy Truffle was probably the best chocolate in the ‘Good News’ box and thus quite possibly Eric’s favourite and the one he liked to save for last. And maybe George chose it as the title as the chocolate sounded the most mysterious and luxurious one, which he wanted to associate with his song. Or even less likely, perhaps in the back of his mind he had the similarly-sounding name ‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Bob and Earl (from 1963) which also happens to feature a great brass ensemble backing.
Side 4 of The Beatles begins with the laconic “Revolution 1” (as opposed to the iconic “Revolution”, B-side of the “Hey Jude” single). The fade-out takes the song away, but is cut just before it disappears entirely by the piano introduction to “Honey Pie”. Could there be a more extreme contrast than between the concerns of John’s “Revolution 1” and Paul’s “Honey Pie?” From the protests against the Vietnam War outside the American Embassy in London, to the Paris riots to… the lounge bar in Claridges some 40 years previously…?
As we have found in our exploration of The White Album, each of the Beatles is on a separate quest for identity and authenticity. The White Album is most definitely NOT the sound of the Beatles breaking up, but of them seeking to establish a new way of working that allows each of them freedom of expression. What is surprising is the width and depth of the polarity between Lennon and McCartney and nowhere on the album is it shown in such stark contrast as here.
Itracked down two “Kinfauns” demos of “Honey Pie”. They both contain the same performance as on Anthology 3, but one has an extra middle 8 and is more satisfying for it. The Beatles’ demos are always interesting and a great resource for observing their working methods, but the demo of “Honey Pie” has a lot of charm. Part of the charm is the way McCartney really explores the possibilities of the acoustic guitar once again. “Blackbird” and “Rocky Raccoon” both create a one-man-band on the guitar with bass line, chordal accompaniment and counter-melodies to accompany the vocal melody. “Honey Pie” is no less inventive with a superb progression of beautiful chord voicings through the middle 8 and out into the verse, a wide-spaced melodic bass part and a naturalness that only McCartney could pull off in this musically sophisticated song. The other Beatles hum along with a slightly Mad Dogs and Englishmen/Goon Show amiability, McCartney sings it without the affectations of the finished recording and the whole thing works beautifully.
The studio version goes all-out in pastiching 1920’s cocktail lounge style with 5 saxophones and 2 clarinets delivering tight period harmonies of impeccable authenticity. The edit, after the first phrase of the introduction into the scratchy ’78 recording effect, replete with appropriate vocal inflections, is neatly done and at the time would have required considerable technical flair. One has to give credit to George Martin for all this, but unfortunately in the context of the White Album, the period detail overshoots the attempt at nostalgic affection in the manner of “When I’m 64” and instead achieves, in the words of Ian McDonald, (Revolution in the Head: Fourth Estate, 1988)) an “air of faintly smarmy pointlessness”.
Wilfred Mellers in “Twilight of the Gods” (Faber and Faber; 1976) and Allan W. Pollack in his brilliant online notes on The Beatles songs are both charmed by the period details and the beautiful craftsmanship of McCartney’s writing. It really goes too far into kitsch for me, though I do admire the sheer musicality of McCartney’s conception on the extended demo. But once again I feel that the larger context of The White Album creates a totality that far exceeds the merits or otherwise of any individual song.
“Honey Pie” is in the key of G major, although the guitars are pitched down more towards Gb on the demo. The structure is a classic 32 bar form as used by all the great writers from the 20’s-50’s, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Poter etc. An introduction is followed by 8 bars in which the main theme is presented. Another 8 bars repeats the music with different lyrics, a contrasting section occupies the next 8 bars then back to the tune for a concluding 8 bars to complete the form. Another 32 bar section occurs, beginning with an 8 bar guitar break played by John Lennon, who later Continue reading “Honey Pie”→