Music

The White Album: Side Four

The potential breakthrough and the impending breakup, the final side celebrates the Beatles' artistic experimentation -- and the creative contradictions that signaled their eventual end.

Savoy Truffle, Cry Baby Cry

27. Savoy Truffle

Primary Songwriter: Harrison

Recorded: October 3 and 5, 1968 at Trident Studios, and October 11 and 14, 1968 at Abbey Road

Harrison's fourth and last contribution to The Beatles, "Savoy Truffle" is probably the closest he ever came to writing a stupid song, or a song about a stupid, absurd topic in the same vein that his peers had long been doing, especially Lennon. Using a similar writing technique as Lennon did when penning the lyrics to "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (that is, copying names from a circus line-up of acts), Harrison effectively decided to write about his dear friend Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate. And in order to do so, he copied the ingredients information from a box of Mackintosh Good News chocolates.

Apparently, the chorus "But you'll have to have them all pulled after the savoy truffle" is a direct reference to the deterioration of the teeth because of eating so much chocolate. From this idea, I extract two direct consequences:

1. Amongst other things, Clapton should be eternally grateful to Harrison for not having to expend thousands on dentistry bills.

2. Monty Python surely got their inspiration for Mr. Creosote's sketch in The Meaning of Life from this song. It has to be so, given the friendship between Harrison and the sextet of comedians (Is it necessary to remember that Harrison produced Life of Brian?) and taking into account that the last thing Mr. Creosote eats before vomiting and exploding is, yes, a tablet of chocolate.

Musically, it's interesting to notice that "Savoy Truffle" is the last rock song on The Beatles. After it, there's only time for the melancholy of "Cry Baby Cry", the artsiness of "Revolution 9", and the tenderness of "Good Night".

And although Lennon did not participate in the recording, Harrison's song sounds like a band effort, with McCartney's bass and Starr's drums resounding in full force. The sound the trio achieved on that occasion seems to make sense as a direct precedent to Harrison's solo material: "Savoy Truffle" is closer to any of the rock numbers in the Phil Spector-produced All Things Must Pass than to anything Harrison ever did with the Beatles. "Savoy Truffle" is more "Wah Wah" than "Taxman", much more "What Is Life" than "I Want to Tell You". No wonder that Harrison stuck with Starr on drums for his solo albums, 'cos part of the vibe in his last songs within the Beatles clearly comes from the genius of the underrated drummer. In "Savoy Truffle", Starr gives a master class of his art, with the help of a bit of delay in the snare microphone (this is something that's pretty obvious at the start of the song, and in the middle break).

Indeed this song has a groove like no other on The Beatles, a cadence closer to bossa nova, jazz-funk, and/or acid jazz, thanks to the importance and adherence of the syncopated melody line that the saxophone sextet draws. This is even more palpable in the cover version that Ella Fitzgerald recorded just a year later, in 1969. But the rhythm pattern sustained by saxophones, bass, and drums is so integral to the song, that it persists not only in that one, but in absolutely all the cover versions of "Savoy Truffle" that I have listened to, including the most improbable of them all, one by They Might Be Giants. It's funny, though, taking into account that Harrison decided to distort the sound of the saxophones, to great displeasure of the original players.

It's not just the saxes, but the falsettos, too, the way some of the guitars double the vocal melody, and the knife-like guitars -- with that one that howls at a very high pitch rate during the second chorus acting as a farewell to rock -- always made me think that this was one of the songs with the most modern vibe in all the Beatles' repertoire, second only to "Tomorrow Never Knows". And now that I revisit it again and listen to it more closely, it strikes me as having some kind of Franz Ferdinand-ish quality, to look for some modern reference. Would they ever dare to cover it?

-- Pablo Amor

 

28. Cry Baby Cry

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: July 15-16 and 18, 1968 at Abbey Road

"Cry Baby Cry" is the kind of song Beatles fans love to pick apart. Its cryptic singsong lyrics reflect an absence, like the blank canvas adorning The Beatles' album cover. The characters and actions of its verses beg to be deconstructed, but defy certainty of explication. It is pluralistic and discursive, a cryptographic cipher and addlepated collection of gibberish all at once. Lennon himself, in one his final interviews, called the song "rubbish" and disowned it to McCartney. Yet, it remains on many fans' favorites lists and has been revered enough to garner a handful of reverent covers by artists as diverse as Ramsey Lewis, Throwing Muses, Phish, and Bardo Pond.

The verses, about the affairs of royalty (both perfunctory and extramarital), mime the old nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence", but with an explicit role reversal. In "Sing a Song of Sixpence", the extravagances of the lavish king and queen, counting their money and feasting, take their toll on the worker in garden (the maid), who has her nose pecked off by blackbirds that were baked into a royal pie. Lennon's verse imagines a royal family with fealty to the younger generation, who can command the mother to sigh, make the queen play them parlor songs and paint them pictures, and haunt their elders with séances of history repeating. With the '60s so focused on the incoming generation, the adult world was at their behest, awaiting each next step.

Lennon's "cry" is a privilege of the young (who are known here as "baby", a term of both puerility and endearment), but Lennon insists it be used tactically. The cry could be a mournful weep, a rejection of principles, a call for change, a spoilt whine, or a barter (Lennon took the line from an advertisement which implored children to "Cry baby cry / Make your mother buy"). In any of the above instances, it's enough to make your mother sigh. Mother is old enough that she should see in her young a kind of reciprocity of demand. The expectations instilled in the baby boom generation, the first generation of Beatles fans who were given to enough leisure time to decode their indoctrination, gave them over to cries for freedom, peace, equality, and revolution. Yet, mother is resigned to sigh. She begrudgingly accepts the world at face value, unwilling to peel back the layers of the glass onion for fear of disrupting the status quo.

In a sense, "Cry Baby Cry" is clearly representative of the ironies and the dualities of The Beatles as a whole. The Beatles is a cross-genre smattering of cultural, historical, and theoretical bricolage. “Cry Baby Cry” is a standout on that album only in its clever infusion of unconscious psychodrama, which masquerades under the subdued bathos of inconsequentiality. Much has been made of the double album's apparently arbitrary track placement, but it's no small mistake that "Cry Baby Cry" was placed directly before the musique concrète pop culture pastiche "Revolution 9", perhaps the most radically abstract song ever produced by a mainstream pop group. The nursery rhyme juvenilia lulls the listener into a false sense of security, the falseness perpetuated by the undergirding darkness of the seemingly innocent lyrics, which hint at bastard children, infidelity, and impotence.

The song ends with McCartney asking "Can you take me back where I came from? Can you take me home?" Having been shown childhood and the curdling tears of a weeping child in "Cry Baby Cry", McCartney begs to be taken even further back, back to birth, back to where it all started. It's fitting then that he should use a blues guitar, the very seed of rock 'n' roll, as a way of communicating this desire. He repeats the two lines, but upon repetition addresses his questioning to Brahma, god of creation (though some will dispute that he says "Brother" or "Robert", as in the Beatles' psychotropic pharmacologist "Doctor Robert", one of The Beatles' many self-reflexive references). "Brahma, can you take me back?"

The listener is then taken perhaps further back than anyone could have anticipated, back to the primordial ooze of "Revolution 9", an acid-soaked nightmare, preliterate, precognizant, and defiant of any solid perimeters or structure. America and Britain regressed back to Pangaea.

"At twelve o'clock a meeting 'round the table for a séance in the dark / With voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark", goes the last official verse of "Cry Baby Cry". The "voices out of nowhere" foreshadow the random spectral spoken-word snippets that float through "Revolution 9" like ghosts at a séance. But was it all a lark, the whole album, the whole Beatles catalogue, the whole decade?

Years later, when the jaded Lennon would look back and say "nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything" and singing "I don't believe in Beatles", he hinted at what he might have been insinuating with the whole lark that is The Beatles. It was a rejection of everything, not least of all the ultimate authority, that which had become an institution, a sacred idol even. The Beatles themselves. The "White Album" was the Beatles' anti-bible, an episteme of future thought forged through the purging of the past.

-- Timothy Gabriele

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