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“The Beatles” (aka the “White Album”) is arguably the fab four’s best album, or at least their most famous. Part of its initial charm lies in its sweet tooth. The lyrics of songs like “Honey Pie” and “Savoy Truffle” portray sugary worlds yet they leave a distinctly despondent aftertaste. Meanwhile songs like “Glass Onion” and “Piggies” have downright precious melodies accompanied by lyrics rife with onions, bacon, strawberry fields, and tulips, yet their messages are less whimsical.
Despite it being a cornucopia of overzealous imagery and taste, it’s hard to leave the album without feeling a nebulous yet strong sense of melancholy, disguised by the abundance of saccharine elements.
George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” is the most obvious confectionary number, filled with crème tangerines, ginger slings, coconut fudge, apple tarts, and coffee desserts. The melody is peppy and sassy. But then comes the warning “you might not feel it now, but when the pain cuts through, you’re going to know and how,” and, “you’ll have to have them all pulled out.”
The song, Harrison’s warning about eating too much chocolate and ruining your teeth, has all the elements of Dr. Seuss or Roald Dahl: lively and upbeat with an accompanying life lesson dripping in cynicism and creepy imagery about pain.
“Honey Pie,” meanwhile, is less of a dentist’s wet dream but no less depressing. The love interest, Honey Pie herself, has gone away and become famous, leaving the besotted working boy to pine away. It’s hard to sympathize with him, however, when he tells her “I love you but I’m lazy.” What a charmer.
Mike Johnson is the co-founder and guitarist for Thinking Plague, a Denver-based alternative rock group that sounds nothing like the Beatles. He’s ardently disinterested in pop music but for him, like so many others, the Beatles are an exception, to the extent that he also plays in a Beatles cover band called The Rubber Soles.
On the subject of “The Beatles,” Johnson tells BTRtoday that, “everybody writes songs about love and sex and romance and everything. Pop songs have always been about that. The Beatles exploited that to the nth degree,” and even when they experimented and forged new musical territory, “they also always kept one foot in it.”
This was the band’s ninth studio album and came after the acid-tripping, cultural mind-fuck that was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and amidst intra-band turmoil that included Ringo Starr’s brief hiatus and sour notes between the other three. This becomes clear in songs such as “Savoy Truffle” and “Honey Pie,” when the listener gets the distinct impression that the band is over singing about romance, at least on any serious level. So they’re keeping one foot in it.
They want to fuck with your brain like they did previously but they, like Honey Pie’s working boy, are just a little bit lazy.
Then we get to Lennon’s utter nonsense in the savory “Glass Onion.” He sings about walruses, strawberry fields, and the fool on the hill who may or may not be Paul McCartney. This song, filled with references to other Beatles fan favorites, is Lennon’s whimsical response to fans desperately looking for cosmic meaning in Beatles tunes.
Case in point: what the hell is a glass onion? The answer is that it’s a bunch of layers that transparently mean nothing.
David Quantick, in his book “Revolution: The Making Of The Beatles’ White Album (2002)” suggests that in writing the lyrics, “Lennon scatters imaginary clues to a nonexistent riddle all over the place and invites us all to make fools of ourselves trying to work it out.”
Quantick is referring to the tendency of Beatles fans to look for meaning in every word of their music and even beyond, creating elaborate conspiracy theories about the band’s music and the members themselves.
“‘Glass Onion’ is an extremely aptly-named song,” Quantick argues. “Peel away the layers of an onion and there is, of course, nothing there, but with a glass onion, you don’t even have to peel. The essential nothingness of it is on display for all to see.”
Its melody is bright and its tone is chipper, and yet here is Lennon, mocking his fans by filling their appetites for deeper meaning with red herrings.
One of the most memorable tracks is the catchy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” The song conjures up a scene of overly sweet domesticity in a nuclear family.
It’s “fluff,” as Johnson puts it. McCartney sings about the sickeningly cute love story between Desmond and Molly, filled with trips to the market place and their “home sweet home.” Lennon was apparently off in a corner throwing up from loathing the song so much.
Do the Beatles even like us by this point? The cuter the tracks get on this album, the more they are filled with honeyed metaphors about domestic bliss and true love, the more it becomes clear that the album isn’t happy and the metaphors aren’t bright. That melancholic feeling returns but with guilt, because how can you feel melancholy in the face of true love and an apple tart?