Thursday, July 12, 2018

The White Album 50 Project: "Piggies"

Beatles fans who say that John Lennon's satirical and social commentary lyrics drew blood fail to appreciate how biting George Harrison could be when the situation called for it.  George's "Piggies" is a particularly nasty dig at capitalist consumerism and the false promises of a profit-driven system.  But the biggest source of inspiration for "Piggies" was a classic novel satirizing not capitalism but communism.
"Piggies" was partly based on George Orwell's satirical novel "Animal Farm," in which the pigs on a farm lead an animal revolt for their freedom against humans and win the fight. Early pledges toward working for a better future devolve into authoritarianism, however, when the pig Napoleon chases away his former ally, another pig named Snowball, and commits the animals to hard labor for a promised outcome of a better life.  When the animals try to build a windmill that was Snowball's idea and it gets destroyed in a storm, Napoleon insists that Snowball is trying to sabotage the project and has the animals turn against him.
Orwell's novel (which would also inspire Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals) is a parable of the rise of Stalin and the banishment of his arch-rival Trotsky, but George Harrison saw how leaders of a capitalist society could just as easily manipulate the system by encouraging the masses to indulge in greed in order to have control over them.  While the pigs in John's "I Am the Walrus" fled from a gun, George's pigs are too complacent to do little more than crawl in the dirt.  Meanwhile, the bigger pigs - the upper classes - display their dominance by stirring things up and walking around in clean white shirts.  "With 'Piggies,'" Nicholas Schaffner, one of the best writers on the subject of British rock, wrote in 1977, "Harrison turns from the spirit to the flesh, to sling some caustic barbs at a greedy and materialistic Establishment." 
"Piggies" is as biting as George's earlier song about the British tax system, "Taxman" - and, as Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn noted, was similarly lacking in subtlety.  George pulls no punches as he snidely expresses disgust over the pigs' apathy and their cannibalistic appetites as they sit to "eat their bacon."  The only thing to do to wake them up is to give them a "damn good whacking."  The dismay George sees in the pigs' inability or lack of desire to better themselves and mend their porcine ways suggests comparisons with Bing Crosby's 1944 hit song "Swinging On a Star," written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for the Crosby movie Going My Way. Playing a Catholic priest, Crosby sings this song in the movie to a bunch of unruly boys about how they could better themselves and enjoy the best life has to offer, or become a foolish animal that acts rude or lives a life of sloth, such as a fish, a mule . . . or a pig.  Since the Beatles were influenced by old standards as much as by rock and roll, it's not inconceivable that George had "Swinging On a Star" in mind when he wrote "Piggies."
The music, though, is in a way more subversive than the lyrics.  The melody is carried by a gentle harpsichord, an instrument not widely used in pop (although it features prominently in Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair / Canticle") but common in classical recordings.  The idea to use a harpsichord was literally a last-minute decision when assistant White Album producer Chris Thomas came across it in EMI Abbey Road's Studio One and suggested to George that it could be used in the song.  (Thomas plays it on the record.)  The lilting, baroque sound is a decidedly stark contrast to George's snide vocal and acerbic lyrics, much like how Family's "Hung Up Down," from their 1969 album Family Entertainment, would juxtapose a madrigal melody driven by a flute with Roger Chapman's angrily raw vocal spewing out hatred against war and thievery.  But the use of a harpsichord in "Piggies" is also meant to be ironic; several Beatles authors have seized on how the elegant, refined music symbolizes the upper classes who perpetuate the misery of the lower classes, the upper classes' own snobbish highbrow culture being used against them.  Tim Riley, in his Beatles book "Tell Me Why," noted how the harpsichord is a superlatively inappropriate instrument for the music of "Piggies," focusing on the blue notes in the song.  "It's twisted," he writes, "the wrong instrument playing in the wrong style."  The string section later scored by George Martin only adds to the mockery, as do the sounds of pigs grunting.
"Piggies" took on a new meaning in America, though, as young people turned virulently against the war in Vietnam and leaders of the American establishment.  Anti-war demonstrators regularly clashed with law enforcement in the United States and were growing disillusioned following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  The increasingly inflamed tensions between the cops and the anti-war movement ultimately led to the violent, brutal reaction by Chicago's supposedly finest to the demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  The police had become the "pigs."
This was a point not lost on Schaffner in his thoughts about George Harrison's song.  "1968 - the year of [the Chicago Democratic] convention, Nixon's election, and unprecedented numbers of student anti-Vietnam War demonstrations - was a time when any representative of 'the system,' particularly a politician or a policeman," he wrote, "was fated to automatically take on the guise of a 'pig' in the view of much of the counterculture."  George may have been thinking of the stuffiness of the British upper class when he wrote "Piggies," but in the U.S., it was heard as a slight against the provincial, uptight, socially conservative Middle America that produced leaders such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as their pedestrian, plastic-jive values.  After all, they were the sort of folks who listened to Liberace and ate surf-and-turf entrĂ©es at buffet restaurants and thought they were a pretty classy bunch.  They were happy to support a foreign war meant to preserve "the American way of life" and showed indifference to what went on around.  The Beatles proved to be more in tune with the times than anyone could have possibly imagined.
"Piggies" ends with a strident string coda, suggesting that the piggies are on their way to the abattoir.
One more time . . . ;-)

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