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When examining The Beatles catalog, you begin to see patterns in relation to the time period the songs were written. Some are very easy to determine, such as identifying the time period John Lennon wrote "I Should Have Known Better" as compared to "Revolution." Equally easy would be determining when Paul McCartney wrote "And I Love Her" as compared to "Penny Lane."
As The Beatles were maturing, as well as dabbling with various life experiences, their compositions reflected the state of mind they were in at the time. Sometimes, however, something stands out as being out of character for the year it was delivered to the masses. For instance, George Harrison went through a cynical phase in his songwriting output in 1966, evidenced in his open attack on the British government on his song “Taxman” as well as authority in general in lines such as “There's people standing 'round who'll screw you in the ground” from his song “Love You To.”
However, George tamed his lyrical approach noticeably after his acquaintance with the culture and spirituality of India. Shortly thereafter, his compositions focused more on spreading his newly found philosophy (“Within You Without You”) and deep love for God (“Long Long Long”). He may have touched on more mundane subjects (such as in “Blue Jay Way” and “Savoy Truffle”) but the biting and accusational tone of his lyrics were gone.
Why, then, would a song with such a scathing political bent like “Piggies” emerge from the pen of George Harrison in 1968? Hadn't that phase of his thinking been replaced by more virtuous and spiritual attitudes by then? Did the Maharishi inspire such vitriolic sentiments? Wouldn't this song have fit better on the 1966 album “Revolver” instead of the “White Album”?
Original handwritten lyrics
George himself can answer these questions with this quote from 1968: "That one I wrote about two-and-a-half or three years ago, but I never finished it...I had put the lyrics in a book at home and I had completely forgotten about it until last summer when I dug them out." So it can be established that "Piggies" did indeed mostly get written in 1966 sometime near the time that he had composed the equally biting "Taxman."
In 1980, George elaborated further about the writing of the song. “'Piggies' is a social comment. I was stuck for one line in the middle until my mother came up with the lyric, 'What they need's a damn good whacking' which is a nice simple way of saying they need a good hiding. It needed to rhyme with 'backing,' 'lacking.'”
George warmly credits his mother Louise Harrison for the above mentioned lyric to complete the song, he eliciting her help no doubt at the time he discovered his original written lyrics at his parents home. George also added another verse to the song in 1968 consisting of the lyrics, “Everywhere there's lots of piggies/ playing piggy pranks/ you can see them on their trotters/ at their piggy banks/ paying piggy thanks/ to thee pig brother.”
The writings of author George Orwell were definitely playing a big part in the lyrics of “Piggies,” most noteworthy being his 1945 classic “Animal Farm” which similarly infused political views into the storyline. And as evidenced in George's newly written verse, his inclusion of the lyric “pig brother” was undoubtedly a sly reference to the “big brother” theme of George Orwell's final masterpiece “1984,” which Harrison even mentioned in his 1971 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. George, however, decided to omit this extra verse when the song was recorded, premiering it on stage during his December, 1991 Japan tour.
Someone else appears to have had a small part in writing the lyrics as well. “I gave George a couple of lines about forks and knives and eating bacon,” stated John Lennon in 1980. George appeared to be a little hesitant about the “bacon” reference for some reason, he awkwardly replacing the phrase with “clutching forks and knives to cut their pork chops” when he recorded the initial demo version in mid 1968.
George's “social comment” in the lyric is summed up nicely by David Quantick in his book “Revolution: The Making Of The Beatles' White Album”: “Harrison's piggies are seemingly divided into two types: the little piggies, who are presumably most of us, in the dirt and with ever-worsening lives, and the big piggies, who wear shirts and take their wives to dinner, and who go around 'stirring up the dirt.'” Although the term “pig” had become a derogatory term aimed at the police around that time, George clarifies that the song “had absolutely nothing to do with American policemen.” His arrows were instead aimed at the upper class and/or big politics who “don't care what goes on around” with the plight of the lower class.
As for the interpretation of the song made by Charles Manson, which I refuse to elaborate on, George was very clear in a 1980 interview that the song had absolutely nothing to do with what he calls “Californian shagnasties!” You can look elsewhere for the gruesome details on that if you must.
George Harrison's "Kinfauns" house in Esher, Surrey
On May 29th, 1968, The Beatles met at George's 'Kinfauns' home in Esher, Surrey, to record demos of the songs they were planning on officially recording for their next album. While the vast majority of the demos they recorded were written while they were in India earlier in the year, "Piggies" was culled from George's backlog of song ideas that, in this case, dated back to early 1966 (as detailed above).
This demo is quite similar in structure to the finished product and consists of George double-tracked on acoustic guitar and, in most places, vocals as well. An instrumental section had already been put in place, George whistling where a harpsichord solo would eventually be. The final verse, as mentioned above, includes George hesitantly singing about “pork chops” instead of “bacon,” seemingly because he hadn't yet decided which lyric to go with yet. The demo ends somewhat awkwardly, George not as yet concocting a suitable conclusion to the song. Nonetheless, the song already displays the charm heard on the finished product.
George brought “Piggies” into EMI Studios on September 19th, 1968, this being the third of five Harrison composition to be recorded for the “White Album,” the first two being “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Not Guilty” (the latter song eventually being dropped from the album's lineup). The Beatles entered EMI Studio Two at around 7:15 pm, although plans changed sometime after they arrived.
George Martin was on vacation at this time, Chris Thomas filling the producer position in his absence. Chris Thomas recalls about this day: “All four Beatles were there for the session and we were working in (EMI Studio) number two. I wandered into number one and found a harpsichord, not knowing that it had been set up overnight for a classical recording. So we discussed wheeling the thing into number two but (engineer) Ken Scott said, 'No, we can't, it's there for another session!' So we moved our session into number one instead.”
As found in the book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” Chris Thomas continues about this session: “George Harrison agreed that my harpsichord idea was a good one and suggested that I play it. (Thomas had studied part-time at the Royal Academy of Music as a child.) This I did, but while George and I were tinkling away on this harpsichord he starting playing another new song to me, which later turned out to be 'Something.' I said, 'That's great! Why don't we do that one instead?' and he replied, 'Do you like it, do you really think it's good?' When I said yes he said 'Oh, maybe I'll give it to Jackie Lomax then, he can do it as a single!” This, of course, never happened, “Something” being recorded by The Beatles the following year and becoming the first and only George Harrison song to be released as a Beatles A-sided single and one of his most famous compositions.
After much deliberation and rehearsal, the group took to recording the rhythm track to “Piggies,” eleven takes being put to tape. This rhythm track consisted of Chris Thomas on harpsichord, George on acoustic guitar, Ringo on tambourine and Paul on bass, described by Mark Lewisohn as “individual string plucking managing to evoke the sound of a pig grunting.” The last take, 'take 11,' was deemed suitable for overdubs, these being held off for another day. This session is noted as concluding at 5:30 am the following morning.
Sometime during this session, however, another new Beatles song was taking shape. “There were a couple of other songs around at this time,” Chris Thomas recalls. “Paul was running through 'Let It Be' between takes.” Although other McCartney compositions were yet to be recorded for the "White Album" at this point, Paul decided to wait another three-and-a-half months before he readied this song for the studio.
Possibly on this day, yet another big McCartney tune was premiered. Technical engineer Alan Brown distinctly remembers assisting Paul to quickly tape a demo version of “The Long And Winding Road” on the grand piano that was located in EMI Studio One. The tape was given over to Paul after this demo was recorded, undoubtedly for him to review and refine the song for proper recording in January of 1969.
The following day (that is, later that day), September 20th, 1968, The Beatles reconvened in EMI Studio Two at around 7 pm to perform overdubs on “Piggies.” Being that the rhythm track for the song was recorded in EMI Studio One, it was recorded on four-track tape. Therefore, the first order of business was to make a tape copy of the rhythm track onto eight-track tape to allow for four open tracks for overdubbing, in the process turning 'take 11' into 'take 12.'
The first overdub recorded was George's lead vocal, which was left single-tracked throughout with ADT (“Artificial Double Tracking”) added to the lines “play around in” (heard twice in the song) and “damn good whacking” (heard once in the song). George requested something unique for the vocals in the bridge of the song, this being a nasal sound as if he was pinching his nose. Technical engineer Ken Townsend relates how he accomplished this effect: “We fed the microphone signal through a very sharp echo chamber filter, an RS106, so that it chopped off everything above and below the 3.5 kilohertz level, creating a very narrow band of sound.”
The final verse of the song was sung in a very “butch” voice in harmony with John and Paul. At the end of the vocal track, George requested another try at perfecting it, saying “One more time” which was caught on tape and actually made it onto the finished product.
As you may have noticed, John Lennon hadn't been involved in the recording of the song very much. However, he found a very interesting way of contributing to the track: He busied himself in the control room of EMI Studio Two compiling snorting pig sound effects and having them recorded on a tape loop for inserting onto the recording. He was very familiar with this process having done similar extensive work in compiling sound effects for “Revolution 9” back in June. He once again raided the EMI sound effects collection. “There's a tape called 'Animals and Bees (volume 35) which includes pigs,” recalls Stuart Eltham. “It's from an old EMI 78rpm record and The Beatles may have used a combination of that and their own voices. That always works well – the new voices hide the 78rpm scratchiness, the original record hides the fact that some of the sounds are man-made.”
With these overdubs complete, the session ended only four hours later, at 11 pm. This completed The Beatles contribution to “Piggies,” but more was to come before the song was deemed complete.
With the deadline for the completion of the “White Album” coming up quickly, all loose ends needed to be tightened up. On October 10th, 1968, with the vacationing George Martin back in the producers' chair, the final session for “Piggies” was held in EMI Studio Two beginning around 7 pm. George Martin had written orchestral scores for both “Piggies” and John's song “Glass Onion,” these being recorded on this day. Eight classical string instrumentalists were present, these undoubtedly performing their parts for both songs quickly before being dismissed, approximately around 11 pm. After numerous mixes of other “White Album” songs were created by the engineering team, as well as Paul finishing up his song “Why Don't We Do It In The Road” in Studio Three, the session finally ended at 7:15 am the following morning.
The mono and stereo mixes of “Piggies” were created the following day, October 11th, 1968, in the control room of EMI Studio Two between 6 pm and midnight by George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith. Four tries of the mono mix were made and three of the stereo, the only noticeable difference between the mono and stereo mixes being the different placements of the pig sound effects and a louder acoustic guitar in the mono mix.
George Martin and his son Giles Martin included segments of "Piggies" on two selections found on the 2006 album "Love." On the track "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!/I Want You (She's So Heavy)/Helter Skelter," laughing sounds on the original recording of "Piggies" is included. The track "Strawberry Fields Forever" includes a bit of the cello and harpsichord of "Piggies" as well, these composite tracks being constructed sometime between 2004 and 2006 in Abbey Road Studios.
One final recording of “Piggies” was done sometime between December 1st and 17th, 1991 during George's brief Japanese tour, this being released on his album “Live In Japan.” As mentioned above, George premiered the lost extra verse during this tour as he had done with other songs in the set list, such as “Taxman.”
Song Structure and Style
The structure of "Piggies" is quite simple and entirely in 4/4 time, unlike the previous four "White Album" tracks that contained time signatures that frequently jumped around. This structure consists of 'verse/ verse/ bridge/ verse (instrumental)/ verse' (or aabaa). A simple introduction and conclusion is tacked on as well to round out the composition.
A two-measure introduction starts things off, which is a preview of the last two measures of the first and third verse. This introduction is entirely played by Chris Thomas on harpsichord, this instrument becoming the most dominant element of the entire song.
The first verse then begins which is eight measures in length. George appears with single-tracked lead vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar along with Paul playing snorting staccato bass notes on the one- and three-beats of each measure alternating with Ringo playing tambourine beats on every two- and four-beats. These are the only elements heard in the first five measures, apart from John's snorting pig which is first heard strategically after the lyric “life is getting worse” (in the stereo version). For the sixth measure, George's guitar, Paul's bass and Ringo's tambourine stop to allow the harpsichord to come in with a simple ascending quarter-note scale underpinning George's double-tracked lyric “play around in.” The last two measures are actually a repeat of the introduction, the instruments being George and Paul resuming their guitar and bass roles along with Ringo on tambourine playing a steady rhythmic beat. Chris Thomas's harpsichord reprises his introductory part here as well along with a backdrop of strings.
This moves smoothly into the second verse which is also eight measures long. George goes back to single-tracked vocals along with the same Beatles instrumentation of guitar, bass and tambourine as heard in the final two measures of the previous verse. One additional feature here is the cellos playing a background counter-melody line for the entire verse. The sixth measure break mimics the first verse, the only difference being that the cellos follow the ascending harpsichord notes. The seventh measure is virtually identical to what was played in the first verse, apart from Ringo hesitating to come in with the tambourine on the downbeat as if he wasn't sure if he was supposed to play or not. The eighth measure includes a sharp 16th note ascending scale which is used as a transition for the key change that appears in the bridge that follows.
This bridge is seven measures long and is accented throughout with anticipatory eighth notes from the strings. George's vocals are sung through the effect outlined above which sound like the result of having his nose pinched. George continues his acoustic guitar and Paul changes to eighth note bass playing while Ringo continues his steady tambourine rhythm. The harpsichord plays flowing chords on the one- and three-beats of the first two measures and plays a bluesy line in the fourth measure which is shadowed by the cellos. In the fifth through seventh measures, the harpsichord plays eighth note chords along with the strings while George's “damn good whacking” vocal line is double-tracked for added emphasis.
The instrumental verse is next which is also eight measures long and features an interesting interplay between the harpsichord and the intricate string arrangement. This is directly followed by the final verse which is ten measures long this time, the two additional measures facilitating what listeners initially view as the the conclusion of the song. The only harmonies of the song are in this final verse, The Beatles comically singing about “piggies living piggy lives” immediately followed by more pig snorts (stereo version). The elements included here are identical to the second verse and are performed nearly the same as well. The eighth and ninth measures, however, transcend into minor chords but then make their way back to a final major chord in the tenth measure.
But just when you think the song is done, we hear George saying “One more time” which is spliced into a corny two chord 'Amen'-like conclusion tacked on by George Martin's orchestral score, lest we think the song's finale is too somber. And as usual, John Lennon gets the last word with his swine grunts that fade into the sunset.
After George guided Chris Thomas through the structure of the song, he sang and played a simple rhythm guitar and was treated to the expertise of those around him, watching his political commentary develop into something unique. Even though John, Paul and Ringo played rather slight roles in the proceedings, their performances were appropriately silly (John) and steady (Paul and Ringo). Both Chris Thomas and George Martin should get a good deal of credit in portraying this less-than-serious composition in the way that it should have been. It's what we could expect from George Martin after all, with his prior extensive work in producing comedy records for Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and many others.
The highly anticipated new Beatles album entitled "The Beatles," affectionately known as the "White Album," was released in the U.S. on November 25th, 1968. "Piggies" was strategically placed between "Blackbird" and "Rocky Raccoon" to facilitate a theme of animal songs on side two of the double-album, possibly in tribute to The Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds" which The Beatles site as an influence on their music. The "White Album" was first released on compact disc on August 24th, 1987, then as a 30th Anniversary CD release on November 23rd, 1998, and then as a re-mastered CD on September 9th, 2009. The first appearance of the album as a mono vinyl set was on November 9th, 2014.
Capitol released four of the “White Album” songs sometime in 1969 in a unique format called “Playtapes,” this release called “The Beatles Vol. III.” “Piggies” was one of these four songs, many other songs from the album being included on four other volumes of “Playtapes” released this year. These tapes were made especially to be played on portable tape players and as standard equipment in certain models of Volkswagens at the time. These short-lived releases are quite the collectible today.
The compilation album “Anthology 3” was released on October 28th, 1996, this set including the original demo recording of “Piggies” from May 29th, 1968. This was one of the seven “Kinfauns” demos that appear on this album, all of the others recorded at the time available only on bootlegs that appeared through the years.
As mentioned above, the compilation album "Love," which was released on November 20th, 2006, contain slight elements of "Piggies" as found on the tracks "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!/I Want You (She's So Heavy)/Helter Skelter" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
The entire mono Beatles catalog appeared in compact disc form on September 9th, 2009 on the set “The Beatles In Mono.” This was the first time the “White Album” officially appeared in the U.S. in mono.
George Harrison's live album “Live In Japan” was released in the U.S. on July 14th, 1992. Nine Beatles songs appear on this nineteen track collection, the interesting live version of “Piggies” described above being one of them.
The Beatles, of course, never performed to song on stage, but George's brief tour of Japan did, this tour spanning from December 1st through 17th, 1991. A few months later, George played a concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, this being a benefit for the Natural Law Party. This concert, his final British stage performance, featured the same set list as his previous Japan tour, including “Piggies.”
While many critics and authors dismiss "Piggies" as a blight on George Harrison's otherwise commendable songwriting career for The Beatles, its appeal is praised by a sizable percentage of the group's fans. Younger audiences such as I (I was seven years old when I first heard the song) thought the song was funny and clever, obviously because I was oblivious to its political references. The presentation of the song, which prominently featured a baroque-style harpsichord and string arrangement along with camp vocal work and swine grunts, reveals the intent to display the subject matter in a humorous way. While the intent of the lyrics was dark and cutting, the 'fab four' sense of humor, as well displayed on their early Christmas messages, was chosen as the forum to reveal this message to the world.
Since there was deliberation among George Martin and The Beatles about whether they should have trimmed some of the extraneous tracks off of the “White Album” and just released a single album instead, many to this day debate about which of these thirty songs would have made the grade and which would have been left off. “Piggies” usually makes the 'cut' list. I disagree. George's humorous political statement adds a perfect touch of levity and character to a very well-rounded variety of musical styles. It just wouldn't be the “White Album” without “Piggies!”
Written by: George Harrison
- Song Written: April, 1966 to May, 1968
- Song Recorded: September 19 & 20, October 10, 1968
- First US Release Date: November 25, 1968
- First US Album Release: Apple #SWBO-101 “The Beatles”
- US Single Release: n/a
- Highest Chart Position: n/a
- British Album Release: Apple #PCS 7067-7068 “The Beatles”
- Length: 2:04
- Key: A major
- Producers: Chris Thomas, George Martin
- Engineers: Ken Scott, Mike Sheady, John Smith
Instrumentation (most likely):
- George Harrison - Lead and Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (1968 Gibson J-200)
- Paul McCartney - Bass (1964 Rickenbacker 4001 S), backing vocals
- John Lennon - Sound effects tape loops, backing vocals
- Ringo Starr - Tambourine
- Chris Thomas - Harpsichord
- Henry Datyner - violin
- Eric Bowie - violin
- Norman Lederman - violin
- Ronald Thomas - violin
- Eldon Fox - cello
- Reginald Kilbey - cello
- John Underwood - viola
- Keith Cummings - viola
Written and compiled by Dave Rybaczewski
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