Thursday, October 18, 2018

The White Album 50 Project: "Honey Pie"

You want retrograde?  It doesn't get more retrograde than this.
"Honey Pie" is the only song from Paul McCartney on the fourth side of the Beatles' White Album, excepting an unlisted, ad-libbed song excerpt, and it provides the only jovial moment on a side dedicated to tracks that are frankly quite harrowing.  It's a charming pastiche of both the lighter side of the early American jazz of the 1920s and the English music-hall sound of the same period.  Not so coincidentally, the twenties were the time when Jim McCartney, Paul's father, was in his own twenties. An accomplished musician himself, Jim McCartney (below, with Paul) had his own big band in his younger days - called Jim Mac's Band - and even wrote a few tunes himself.  Music was always a sideline for Jim, but his example inspired Paul to take his own musical talent seriously, so Jim clearly inspired "Honey Pie."  (Paul's younger brother Mike was also a professional musician for a time, calling himself Mike McGear to avoid looking like he was cashing in on his famous brother's success; ironically, his own records got great reviews but did not garner great sales.)
"Honey Pie" is an old-time love lament, and as a song that sounds forty years older than it actually is, it's pretty darn convincing.  Against the sweet, soothing backdrop of clarinets and saxophones, Paul's narrator sings about an old girlfriend, calling her "honey pie" as a term of endearment.  Despite John Lennon's apparent cringing over "Honey Pie" when discussing it ("I don't even want to think about that," he said of the song in 1980), he performs a guitar solo here in the style of Django Reinhardt that's more incredible than credible.  (That's a compliment, son.)  George Harrison shows equally astonishing dexterity on six-string bass, with Ringo Starr providing delicate but firm brush work in his drumming.  All of this is charming enough, but when it came time to record the vocal, Paul gave it the perfect finishing touches.  The first was cutting off the tape-machine signals at both ends of the frequency range with the sound of scratches from an old phonograph on the spoken lyric "Now she's the big time!" to make it sound like an old 78-rpm record.  The second was a music-hall-style lyrical improvisation in the middle eight.  I once thought Paul was singing, "I like this girl and her kind of music" - apparently, according to Mark Lewisohn, he was singing, "I like this kind of hot kind of music."  Either way, Paul shows a strong command for the feel and the rhythm of old-time jazz.
The lyrics of "Honey Pie" concern a young lad from the north of England, a lad not unlike our Paul, pining for an old flame who's become a movie star in Hollywood and wanting her to return to him.  In that sense, as I noted in my review of the White Album from May 2015, it's not unlike Fountains of Wayne's 2003 song "Hackensack," about a guy from New Jersey yearning for a girl he had a crush on back in school who's also become a famous actress.  Both songs are heartfelt valentines, and Fountains of Wayne must have been inspired by this song, especially Paul's penchant for the sort of strong bisyllabic rhymes one finds in "Honey Pie" - if Fountains of Wayne's lyric "I saw you talkin' to Christopher Walken" is any indication.  But while "Hackensack" addresses the girl directly, "Honey Pie," though ostensibly aimed toward a second party, is a summation of what this English lad wishes he could say to his old girlfriend, as he makes clear in the slow, muted introductory verse.  The sprightly tempo that carries "Honey Pie" thereafter is as much wishful thinking as the words.
"Honey Pie" was recorded at the same time as "Martha My Dear," and it's in the same vein musically, as it revisits the music of the period between the two world wars.  But there's another similarity.  As I already expressed my belief that "Martha My Dear" was a coded message from Paul to Jane Asher, I can't help but wonder if "Honey Pie" was also written as such a message.  Think about it; "Honey Pie" is about an estranged girlfriend who's an actress.  Does that sound like anyone you know?  True, Jane isn't from the north of England (she's from London), and no, she didn't go Hollywood (her brother Peter did, but that's another post), but Paul's narrator's insistence that his girl come home and leave her movie career behind sounds a lot like Paul insisting that Jane give up her acting career to please him.  And Paul's failure to give a little in order to get a little is reflected in the lyric "I'm in love but I'm lazy."  I'm not saying "Honey Pie" is about Jane Asher; I merely bring up the possibility.
"Hackensack" may be the more selfless of the two songs, as Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood's narrator is stuck in Hackensack and unable to see his old love interest but patiently waits for her unlikely return to New Jersey, but "Honey Pie" is the stronger song and the greater recording.  "Hackensack," with its low-keyed college-indie vibe, is inescapably an artifact of the two thousand zeroes, a decade in which rock and roll's fading relevance became all too obvious.  "Honey Pie," on the other hand, is a timeless, richly arranged and composed song that could fit the playlist of WNEW-AM, for many years New York's premier big-band radio station, as easily as it could fit the playlist of its sister station in New York, rock station WNEW-FM.  (Both stations are long since gone, victims of changing tastes and the decline of locally owned radio in America.)  That's because the Beatles - who loved the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein as much as those of Leiber and Stoller - were the greatest rock band ever and Fountains of Wayne were merely okay.  What other conclusion can you come to, as we're approaching the 2020s and considering a song that could have been a hit in the 1920s - but was composed and recorded in 1968?      

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