Thursday, 10 July 2008

A Pig's Ear

Helter Skelter , the Beatles song from the 1968 White album, will forever be associated with the Charles Manson murders. Piggies, too. I almost always feel instinctively inclined to stick up for songs that get blamed for inciting sociopathic acts of violence and hatred, but I have to admit that I’m not a fan of either of these two. In fact, I really don’t like Piggies, and while I'd never suggest that it deserves to be held to account for the horrific crimes perpetrated in its name, it does betray a deeply unpleasant misanthropic streak.

Here’s a brief extract from the book, taken from a section in which I look at the content of songs that have been used as scapegoats for real life acts of murder. (Yes, of course Marilyn Manson and Eminem show up.)

“Musically, Helter Skelter is what can only be described as Macca Metal, a terribly tame attempt to ape the growing trend for “maximum heaviosity”, as Woody Allen once put it, that was thundering into popular music courtesy of bands like The Who, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It fails rather miserably. As Ian MacDonald points out in Revolution In The Head, the Beatles were “the quintessential Sixties four-piece, their natural inclinations were for balance, form, and attention to detail, and in straining to transcend these obsolete values in Helter Skelter they comically overreached themselves.” It is a tendency that marred a few of their later songs. Helter Skelter wasn’t so much dark and threatening as ersatz-heavy rock punching well above its weight.

Piggies, meanwhile, is bad but not quite criminal. It is smug, sour, and pious, but on the surface – which is all jangling harpsichord and the bitter scratch of strings - it contains the combined threat and menace of a wet sponge applied to the shins. In many ways the sentiments sum up all that went wrong with the hippie movement as it travelled from its original come-all-ye ethos to a holier-than-thou misanthropy which was rather spiteful. It’s not an anti-police song, despite the popular counter-culture coinage of ‘pigs’ as a derogatory term for the boys in blue. The mention of piggies in “their starched white shirts” suggests Harrison’s blunderbuss is instead aimed at the mythical Man, the be-suited pillar of the British establishment, in which case such Beatle-friendly types as George Martin are presumably among the number being sneered at.

Piggies has the sing-song, edge-of-violence tone of a dark old nursery rhyme. It displays very little evidence of any belief in the redeeming qualities of humanity, which makes it a far less palatable piece of music than the more rowdy Helter Skelter. In the end, it is an example of the worst kind of anti-all-life song that Will Oldham talks about. But aside from the mildly interesting denouement which shows the piggies consuming themselves – “Clutching forks and knives/ To eat their bacon” - this is hardly revolutionary satire. There is vitriol, but it’s hard to really know or care who it is directed towards, so muffled and unlovable is the song, while there is only one couplet that could in any way be interpreted as a call to arms: “In their eyes there’s something lacking/ What they need’s a damn good whacking.” In the context of the song, only a madman like Manson, or perhaps a devout Sopranos watcher, would interpret ‘whacking’ – part of a line written by Harrison’s mother Louise, a middle-aged housewife from Liverpool who occasionally taught ballroom dancing – as denoting anything other than a brisk slap on the back of the legs with a wooden spoon. No, there's no murder in here. But it is certainly a nasty little song.”

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