Many Beatles songs contain two key elements: wordplay and nods to their R&B roots. George Harrison is no stranger to either aspect, and few songs encapsulate these qualities like “Savoy Truffle,” the White Album track that salutes the sweet tooth. It also represents one of many times Eric Clapton influenced his songwriting.
In his autobiography I Me Mine, Harrison recalled writing the song as a good-natured jab at Clapton’s penchant for sweets. Apparently Clapton suffered from multiple cavities, yet continued eating chocolate. “Once he saw a box he had to eat them all. He was over at my house, and I had a box of ‘Good News’ chocolates on the table and wrote the song from the names inside the lid,” Harrison wrote. He added that the song features an unlikely collaborator: press officer Derek Taylor. After experiencing difficulties with the bridge, Harrison said, Taylor suggested the line “you know that what you eat you are.” Overall, Harrison wrote the song to tease pal Clapton, whose dentist had warned him off of eating any more candy.
The “Savoy Truffle” sessions commenced at Trident Studios on October 3, 1968, minus John Lennon. According to the Beatles Bible, they recorded the basic track for lead guitar, bass, and drums in one take (it is possible that previous rehearsal footage may have been erased). Harrison returned to Trident on October 5 to lay down his lead vocal, with Paul McCartney on harmonies. Six days later, George Martin arranged and conducted the horn section (two baritone saxophones and four tenor saxophones) at Abbey Road. All seemed well until Harrison decided he wanted distortion added to the horns. Engineer Brian Gibson labeled the process “a real chore.” He explained to Mark Lewisohn that the brass section played their parts perfectly; then Harrison told engineer Ken Scott that he wanted the horns to have a distorted sound. “So I had to plug-up two high-gain amplifiers which overloaded and deliberately introduced a lot of distortion, completely tearing the sound to pieces and making it dirty,” Gibson said. According to the Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Harrison apologized to the session musicians when they heard the playback: “Before you listen I’ve got to apologize for what I’ve done to your beautiful sound. Please forgive me — but it’s the way I want it!”
More overdubs occurred on October 14; returning to Abbey Road, they recorded the second electric guitar, organ, bongos, and tambourine parts. This time Ringo Starr was absent as he had left for a family vacation. One debate still rages: did coproducer Chris Thomas play the organ — since he is not credited on the album — or did Harrison? Some reports have Harrison originally playing the electric piano, which was eventually replaced by Thomas’s organ and piano parts. After the overdubbing, Martin and Scott completed the mono and stereo mixes. Audiophiles may note that the mono version (embedded below) differs slightly from its stereo counterpart; the mono features additional sound effects during the solo, and the guitar solo bleeds into the next chorus.
Internal strife aside, most of the group managed to produce a roaring tribute to rhythm and blues. The horn section sounds straight out of a New Orleans club, while the rollicking beat and piano pay homage to Fats Domino. Harrison made no secret of his love for soul music — he recruited Billy Preston to play with the Beatles and produced his Apple solo albums, and later penned “Pure Smokey,” a tribute to idol Smokey Robinson. Yes, the horns sound filtered, but the distortion adds a harder rocking edge to a soul number. Starr also turns in a bravado performance with his furious, typically hard-charging drumming.
Like Lennon, Harrison loved playing with language and injecting humorous images into his lyrics; as mentioned earlier, Harrison begins by listing the contents of the Good News chocolate box: “Creme tangerine and montelimar, a ginger sling with a pineapple heart; a coffee dessert, yes, you know it’s good news,” he sings, slyly referring to the chocolate brand.
One can imagine the fun Harrison experienced tweaking Clapton’s penchant for sweets:
Cool cherry cream, nice apple tart
I feel your taste all the time we’re apart
Coconut fudge really blows down those blues
But you’ll have to have them all pulled out
After the Savoy truffle
Interestingly Harrison uses imagery more appropriate for drug withdrawal rather than simply giving up candy. “You might not feel it now, but when the pain cuts through, you’re going to know and how,” he warns, which probably refers to Clapton’s toothaches but definitely has a double meaning. “The sweat is going to fill your head, when it becomes too much — you’ll shout aloud,” Harrison sings, the words sounding eerily reminiscent of Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.”
The bridge at first seems serious with the lines “You know that what you eat you are, but what is sweet now turns so sour,” referring to Clapton’s candy addiction but possibly addressing many other bad habits. In a particularly humorous turn, Harrison references another White Album song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” then adds the mysterious line “but can you show me where you are?” The last verse faintly echoes the “what you eat you are” line, but is otherwise intentionally vague.
“Savoy Truffle” encapsulates Harrison’s apparent glee in playing with language — his description of various candy immediately creates vivid images in the listener’s head. At the same time, Harrison leaves room for interpretation, and double meanings invite speculation: Just why did he mention “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” a McCartney track Lennon openly detested? Regardless of meaning, “Savoy Truffle” stands a memorable, fun track that recalls the Beatles’ R&B beginnings.