Music

George Harrison's "Savoy Truffle": Holiday Reflections on Sweets and the Beatles

George Harrison knew that in the time and space that get between us and our food, there's a sense of longing.


George Harrison

The Beatles (The White Album)

Song: Savoy Truffle
Label: Apple Records
US Release Date: 1968-11
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"You know that what you eat you are."

-- George Harrison, "Savoy Truffle"

If you ask those who know me pretty well, they will tell you my favorite Beatle was John Lennon. This is incorrect. My wife will tell you true: it’s George Harrison. Lennon is widely credited as the band’s conscience in the face of Paul McCartney’s more instinctively capitalist pop music impulses, and this is just one more way that Harrison’s songwriting contributions have been disregarded over the years. His post-Beatlemania solo work was often criticized for its preachiness, but if one goes back to his Beatles material, Harrison never pretended to be more pop star than preacher.

There was a great tribute paid to his entire body of work in 2014, the George Fest charity concert organized by his son, Dhani Harrison. A standout track toward the end of the first disc is "Savoy Truffle", which I confess to not having heard before. It’s one of the deeper cuts from the Beatles catalogue, not completely obscure but hardly Top 40 material. As the holiday spirit takes over and I begin to devote many minutes to consideration of pies, eggnogs and sweets generally, I feel myself turning toward “Savoy Truffle” as the best possible type of wintry instruction.

Harrison wrote the song as a cautionary reminder to his pal, Eric Clapton. Clapton apparently has a massive sweet tooth. The refrain, focused on tooth decay, is “you’ll have to have them all pulled out / after the Savoy truffle”. But for Harrison, as a burgeoning practitioner of Eastern spirituality assembled a la carte, tooth decay was unquestionably a symptom of a deeper moral decay.

The chorus is an examination of the cumulative effects of candy consumption, which highlights a clearly incrementalist approach to indulgence that wards off hedonism. One piece of candy doesn’t do much damage, and the benefit seems to outweigh the cost. At some point, however, one gives in to eating the whole box. At that point, satisfaction is minimal, reaching for the next candy is a compulsive behavior, and a stack of tiny decisions has accumulated into an ultimate lack of judgment that now has to be managed as a painful crisis. Any holiday dieting listicle with tips on how to manage your winter weight will tell you as much, that one bite is happier than 40 bites and you’ve got to take life one bite at a time.

“You know that what you eat you are”, reminds Harrison at the beginning of the second to last verse. He actually consumes most of the candy in the box one line at a time. This is a very specific candy: the Good News box from Mackintosh. Alas, it’s not available anymore, except in song. In the course of the first two verses, Harrison drew heavily from the titles and descriptions of the specific candies in this box. “Creme tangerine and Montelimar / A ginger sling with a pineapple heart / A coffee dessert” and “Cool cherry cream, nice apple tart / […] Coconut fudge”. It’s worth noting that Montelimar also rhymes with the apple tart. Instead of building a couplet out of that, however, Harrison used this as the end of the first line in two different verses. This calls attention to the fact that rhymes of the first two verses are entirely interchangeable: Montelimar / heart / news and tart / apart / blues.

That’s not simple cleverness; it makes the same argument that's made by the surrealism of the listing of candies. Namely, that all candy is candy -- there's no specialness, no “there” there. Does one really have strong opinions about the merits of one flavor over another? Only the second verse contains an I-statement, and that's a clue to the matter: “I feel your taste all the time we’re apart”. There's much to unpack here, including the one use of first person. Harrison has shifted from criticizing a generic other inspired by Clapton to addressing his subject in a way that could be construed as either a love song or a devotional; he was prone to sliding back and forth between the idea of his wife and his god. So this introduces an element of the spiritual and a longing for the divine, in contrast to the earthbound, gluttonous delights in the chocolate box.

The line also contains an element of synesthesia, to “feel” a “taste”. Could one reasonably feel the taste of the chocolates, besides the tastes of the lover or the divinity? I think most people do indeed have taste-specific sense memories, of their grandmother’s chicken soup, or their dad’s marinara sauce, and yes, even a favorite candy associated with some holiday or other. Harrison was a staunch practitioner of meditation, which surely included some mindfulness toward his food. In the exercise of eating a piece of chocolate, you can think about many things: the origins of the cocoa, the places that grow sugarcane, what it smells like when it’s all cooking, the people and machines that made the candy, the flavor and texture of the candy itself, the words and colors in the design of the packaging, the aftertaste. There's a lot of work that can be done in one bite, and this is a large part of why Harrison need not reach for another piece of candy to feel satisfied.

Then there’s the matter of “all the time we’re apart”. A favorite holiday candy is a reason to look forward to that holiday. We need not delve into pumpkin spice’s vast network of philosophical underpinnings; to simply invoke the two words “pumpkin spice” is somehow enough. So food is also associative, whether it’s attached to your grandmother or to Thanksgiving, or whatever else. In the time and space that get between us and our food, there's a sense of longing. In verse three, he cautions, “You might not know it now / When the pain cuts through / You’re going to know and how”. Harrison obviously recommends some effort at detachment from this longing, as it’s the longing that transforms into our desire to consume even more of the candy once we have bridged time and space to get to it.

More explicitly, “What is sweet now turns to sour” in the second to last stanza, and finally, his exhortation: “We all know Ob-la-di-bla-da / But can you show me where you are?” The first half is a direct and pointed dismissal of the Beatles’ song “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, which was one of Paul McCartney’s contributions to the White Album. Lennon and Harrison both despised the song, and “Savoy Truffle” was written during the same 1968 recording sessions when the clash was quite fresh and ongoing. Harrison appears to have deliberately, flippantly skewed the title of the song in his reference, and then there’s that “but” of objection right after it. McCartney and Harrison were in a very different place from one another by then, and within two years’ time, the Beatles would be over.

They had all just come back from studying Transcendental Meditation in India, and Harrison felt that McCartney’s ability to channel these new influences into their work was extremely weak. Comparatively, Harrison had spent the last two years or so working on the sitar with Ravi Shankar and had only just returned to the guitar as his main instrument. Yet the pop nonsense of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” went to number one on the charts in several countries, while the comparatively complex composition of “Savoy Truffle” was buried in all its E-minor glory on side four of the double album and never charted at all, though many critics praised it. When we think of Harrison’s contributions to the White Album today, “Savoy Truffle” remains in the long shadow of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

One thing has always bothered me about “Savoy Truffle”, and that’s the title itself. What’s so special about the Savoy truffle, compared to the rest of what’s in the box? Why save that one for the title? Mackintosh’s candy box was titled “Good News”. To likewise title the song as such would have been very much in keeping with Harrison’s sense of irony, as the lyrics warn of the consequences of tooth decay and scary dentist visits. He did work “good news” into the verses almost like a pun, which is mildly clever, but Harrison usually offered song titles that were like subject headings, straight punches to his themes, and the obliqueness of “Savoy Truffle” at first glance doesn’t sit well in that category. As I sought in vain for a box of the long ago discontinued Good News, and then for any oldsters amongst my British friends who might recall the taste of its ingredients, it finally occurred to me that I was in some ways indulging in precisely the obsession Harrison was cautioning against.

I learned a lot about the house of Savoy, founded in the 11th Century and becoming the oldest reigning monarchy in Europe by the 18th century. I looked at a lot of pictures of the Alps and the southeast of France. I acquired numerous recipes for coconut fudge or something like a homemade Almond Joy, and shopped around looking for the right kind of brandy. All this, in search of one moment of concrete, authentic connection with the Savoy truffle itself that might have satiated me. But as Harrison knew, all that’s down in the rabbit hole is more rabbit hole. So I have not tasted the Savoy truffle, but I have felt its taste in Harrison’s song. During the holidays, I’ll try to bear this in mind.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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