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Music

The White Album: Side One

It's all guitars and good times as the Fab Four rediscover the joys of jamming -- as well as the hidden pain and problems poised to tear them apart.

5. Wild Honey Pie

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: August 20, 1968 at Abbey Road

At first, it sounds like notes selected at random, a near-atonal haywire melody that might come from plucking a rubber band around a lidless cigar box. It's like a surging swarm of Jew's harps sounding each of the metronomically alternating notes. Then we settle uneasily into the song's fumbling staccato rhythm, which could only have been discovered by accident, a plodding stomp with no hint of backbeat that works itself out awkwardly and improbably in seven measures rather than the eight you'd expect. A hobo chorus of ragged falsetto voices sing the phrase "honey pie" as a derelict war cry rather than a term of endearment; when one of them warbles "I love you" at the end of the track's minute of maundering, it sounds more lecherous than sincere. Then almost before we have a chance to process all that we've heard, a florid flamenco guitar figure ushers us into the world of "Bungalow Bill". So it goes with McCartney's "Wild Honey Pie".

As a mid-album-side palate cleanser (especially necessary after the inane "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" -- dismissed by Lennon as "granny shit"), "Wild Honey Pie" is peculiarly aggressive, about as far from the syrupy ballads on which he's made his fortune. On the track, McCartney works as a one-man band, and it's palpable how much this suits and pleases him at this point in the Beatles' disintegration. The amount of fun he seems to be having with himself is almost antisocial, and it's plain that McCartney no longer needs collaboration to stoke his creativity.

"Wild Honey Pie" presents McCartney at virtually his most unfettered; nothing else he would make for the Beatles would be as strange (assuming you don't count the Magical Mystery Tour film). In Barry Miles's biography, McCartney remembers the song as "a little experimental piece":

It was very homemade; it wasn't a big production at all. I just made up this short piece and I multitracked a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally.

As a kind of deliberately arty aural sculpture, "Wild Honey Pie" functions as the dialectical response to his nostalgic, music-hall ditty "Honey Pie", illustrating the two McCartneys that were beginning to diverge at this point in his career. One is the Mr. Mellow who is stolidly wedded to traditional forms and continually sought to outdo himself in mawkishness -- the evil McCartney that would spew out "The Long and Winding Road" and "My Love" and ultimately "Ebony and Ivory". The other McCartney, though, is a restless artiste heedlessly chasing his muse into playful self-referentiality and an odd, madcap minimalism. This McCartney would give us the sublime Ram (1971) and the 1990s techno experiments of "the Fireman".

Unlike Lennon, whose experimentalism manifests in the arbitrary tape-loop cacophony of "Revolution 9", McCartney seems more interested in testing the limits of hookiness than testing listeners' patience and freaking them out. The freakiest thing that happens during "Wild Honey Pie" is hearing how the incongruous elements gel in 52 seconds flat to become coherent and memorable, a sui generic minor McCartney miracle. His first solo album would end up being full of these homespun throwaway scraps that defy you to forget them.

-- Rob Horning

6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: October 8, 1968 at Abbey Road

Even on the most spiritual of journeys, whenever there's a crowd involved, you are guaranteed to have at least one asshole in the mix.

That, in perfectly blunt terms, is the general crux of "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill". As legend has it, when the Beatles were on their much-publicized stay with the recently-departed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for a transcendental meditation retreat at his ashram, one of their fellow students was a wealthy American woman by the name of Nancy Cooke de Herrera, whose son, Richard A. Cooke III, made a most controversial visit to the camp to see his mother. Apparently both were big fans of the Beatles, and were said to have had friendly relations with all of them but Lennon, who maintained a cynical and distant rapport with them, because they were rich white Americans at an Indian transcendental meditation camp, and apparently doubted that the intentions of their presence were wholly sincere.

Well, as is interpreted by Nancy Cooke de Herrera in her book about her experiences with the Maharishi, Beyond Gurus, Cooke III, who also went by the name Rik, and his mother joined a group from the camp on a tiger hunting excursion on elephant. However, when one of the tigers charged at the herd of elephants, it was Rik who shot it dead in a kneejerk reaction and got all puffed up over it, going so far as to take a photograph of him standing over his trophy kill to brag over with his frat buddies back in the U.S.

When the party returned from their adventure, Lennon quickly called out Rik on his decision. "Wouldn't you call that slightly life-destructive?" he quizzed sardonically, mindful of his surroundings at the ashram. To be publicly lambasted by a Beatle, on a spiritual journey no less, surely must have been a low point in the life of Richard A. Cooke III. Meanwhile, Lennon chose to write this silly campfire sing-along in response to the situation, a song that certainly appealed more to children than the adults actually going out to their local Korvette's and picking up The Beatles back on Thanksgiving week in 1968.

"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill", at 3:05, recounts the story of the tiger hunt in Lennon's own scathingly English way. "It was written about a guy in Maharishi's meditation camp who took a short break to shoot a few poor tigers, and then came back to commune with God," he told Playboy magazine.

"Bungalow Bill" -- also the only Beatles track to feature a female lead vocal, with Ono squeaking out the line, "Not when he looked so fierce", the sheepish call to Lennon's snide response, "His mummy butted in" -- might not be the most beloved Beatles song. Critic Clark Collis took a swipe at it in a review of the new Oasis album in Entertainment Weekly just recently, calling Dig Out Your Soul "more 'Bungalow Bill' than 'Eleanor Rigby'". But if you were a little kid born between 1968 and 1975, there's a pretty sporting chance you know the lyrics to "Bill" better than "Ba Ba Black Sheep".

-- Ron Hart

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