Monday, 25 November 2013

10:25 Piggies (pt.1) The Once And Future George Martin

Chris Thomas and George Harrison - pork curry?

Piggies is a dark children's ditty, a social commentary about class difference, and a song that inspired the Manson murders.

George Harrison began working on the track in 1966 - the same time as Taxman. And it shares the same dour cynicism that seems to be in Harrison's DNA. The year after it was released Charles Manson took the song as an incitement to murder and his followers used “forks and knives” as murder weapons daubing "death to pigs" in victims' blood on the walls. Understandably for some people this has tarnished the song. Ian McDonald calls the track an “embarrassing blot on [Harrison's] discography” referring to “misanthropy” and “the song's uncharitable karma” (p.317-18).

Walter Everett points out the "Orwellian comparison of pigs to socially horrid though outwardly refined tyrants”. Which comes through in an unused verse -

Everywhere there's lots of piggies
Playing piggy pranks
You can see them on their trotters
Down at the piggy banks
Paying piggy thanks
To thee pig brother

Pig Brother is watching you? The harpsichord was played by co-producer Chris Thomas, Ringo played tambourine and tiny bit of bass drum. Lennon's only contribution was editing a tape loop of pigs grunting.

Lennon grapples with analogue sampling

It was thought that Harrison provided all the vocals including the full-on bass vocal in the last verse but the 50th Anniversary edition reveals that John sang bass and Paul helped out with BVs. (What's up with all the bass vocals recently? Previous song Happiness Is A Warm Gun and next-but-one track I Will feature John and Paul, respectively, doing their best Barry White impression).

George Martin, contributes the wonderful string octet arrangement using the same personnel as Glass Onion (which was tracked at the same overdub session).

We're Not In Esher Any More

The most interesting thing about the genesis of this track is that difference between demo and final recording. Whereas Paul's I Will is a note for note recreation of the demo (apart from the odd flubbed lyrics) almost every aspect that makes so distinctive Piggies was added in the studio.

The song, as originally conceived, is a rustic, chirpy 'down on the farm' folk song complete with asthmatic whistling solo. The White album version is a faux-baroque song whose harpsichord and strings hint at 'Orwellian' grotesque characters. And that is all down to George Martin and the man he was grooming to be his successor - Chris Thomas.

But it started with an accident –

We were working in [studio] number two. I wandered into number one and found a harpsichord...we discussed wheeling the thing in...but Ken Scott said, 'No, we can't, it's there for another session!' So we moved our session into number one instead. George Harrison agreed that my harpsichord idea was a good one and suggested that I play it.

Chris Thomas (in Beatles Complete Recording Session)

Other changes

  • The key changed from G (standard tuning), to Ab (played in D and capoed at 6th fret) - the high capo, along with the light vocal, gives it an innocent childish sound.
  • Countryside ambience (birds chirping), pig sound effects, grunting celli and bass, and fussy, staccato strings conjure up self important pigs.
  • The rising chromatic run before the III7 chord that leads into the bridge and the similar chromatic vocal line on “eat their bacon” that sounds like a hysterical dalek.
  • The jokey blues fill (0:56) that is a call back to the cello fill in Yesterday (1:25)
  • The pedal point solo that becomes celli/harpsichord duet
  • The minor cadence at 1:44 (the demo ends blandly and badly on a sloppy Ab Eb Ab)
  • The key change final coda (Eb Ebmaj7 Eb6 Bb).

The Beatles built a bridge between pop and classical music and you can see it in microcosm in the blues riffs played on a harpsichord and the laid back “one more time” followed by the uber classical cadence (and grunting pigs!).

We'll explore some of these great arrangement twist next time.

Background: thanks to Beatles Bible!


  1. Being a classical music aficionado, I always loved the sound of this song. It's also one of the first Beatles tunes I remember hearing as a kid - back then, I sat wondering who on earth would seriously write a song about "piggies". Then of course came the day, several years later, when I listened to it again, and the social commentary 'lightbulb' finally came on. I had to chuckle at myself.

  2. Justice I had the same experience - and I'm planning to explore that a little in the next post - thanks for commenting!