The Beatles, “Piggies” from The White Album (1968): Deep Beatles

Share this:

As politics continues to dominate the news in this U.S. election season, the Beatles’ “Piggies” resonates stronger than ever. A George Harrison composition, the track stems from the same writing period as “Taxman” from 1966’s Revolver; the acerbic lyrics certainly confirm that fact. The harpsichord-dominated arrangement juxtaposed with the revolting lead characters effectively satirizes greed and class distinctions. Harrison’s straightforward vocals correctly place the emphasis where it belongs: on the biting words. While not as frequently discussed as other White Album songs, “Piggies” deserves closer examination for its sound, subject, and its impact on future artists.

Harrison intended “Piggies” as social commentary, and later explained that he collaborated with John Lennon and an unlikely source — Harrison’s mother Louise. In 1980, Lennon stated that he contributed the line “clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.” Louise Harrison, however, devised the song’s most memorable line: “What they need is a damn good whacking.” In his autobiography I, Me, Mine, George Harrison explained he was stuck on a rhyme for “backing” and “lacking.” His mother contributed the iconic line, another way of stressing that the nasty characters in the song need a good hiding or throttling. The line had no other connotations despite claims to the contrary: “[It] had absolutely nothing to do with American policemen or Californian shagnasties!” he wrote. He also revealed an extra verse that was ultimately excised from the final version, excerpted here as it appeared in I, Me, Mine:

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies
Playing piggie pranks
You can see them on their trotters
At the piggy banks
Paying piggy banks
To thee pig brother.

While the verse may have been excised from the White Album version, Harrison would restore the lines to the track during solo concerts.

In May 1968, Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney first cut a demo of “Piggies” at Harrison’s Esher bungalow; obviously the strings were missing at this point, and in one section Harrison whistles as if envisioning a future instrumental solo. Most of the same lines from the final version appear here, except Lennon had yet to suggest the “clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon” lyric. Instead, Harrison sang “to eat their pork chops.” This early rendition did not surface until the Anthology 3 compilation.

The Beatles finally recorded “Piggies” at Abbey Road Studios on September 19, 1968. George Harrison played guitar and sang all vocals; McCartney performed bass; Lennon provided tape loops; and Ringo Starr played tambourine. Another figure assumed a prominent role during the session: Chris Thomas, who was co-producing along with George Martin.

In Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Thomas explains that he had stumbled upon a harpsichord which had been set up for a classical recording in Studio One. Since the Beatles were recording in Studio Two, Thomas suggested wheeling in the instrument. Engineer Ken Scott nixed the idea, feeling they would be disrupting another musician’s setup. Harrison liked Thomas’ suggestion of the harpsichord, however, so the Beatles immediately relocated to Studio One. Thomas played the instrument, which became crucial in establishing the song’s satirical meaning.

Another point of interest occurred during this Beatles session. At one point, Harrison played Thomas a new song he was working on. “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?’” Thomas told Lewisohn. That track, “Something,” would become a centerpiece of Abbey Road and a modern standard.

The Beatles completed 11 takes of the backing track; the next day Harrison returned to the studio to lay down his lead vocals. They were artificially double tracked on the key lines “play around in” and “damn good whacking,” presumable two phrases Harrison felt deserved special emphasis. Lennon and McCartney sang with Harrison on the final verse. According to engineer Ken Townshend, the microphone was altered to make it sound as if Harrison was singing while pinching his nose (parodying an upper class accent). In the meantime, Lennon created a tape loop of pigs snorting, assembled from Abbey Road’s collection of special effects recordings.

On October 10, George Martin added the final touch to “Piggies”: an eight-piece string section. Martin arranged the piece for violins, violas, and cellos, and conducted the session.

The harpsichord and string arrangement are placed in opposition to the biting lyrics and pig snorting sounds, an ingenious move for setting the scene. Sounding Baroque, the introduction at first suggests a salon featuring royalty in their finery, watching a skilled musician. But Harrison’s sharp vocals instantly cuts through the scene, tearing down these figures. “Have you seen the little piggies / Crawling in the dirt?” he asks.

The first verse refers to the “little piggies”: Could he be speaking in the voice of the royals, dismissing the peasants? The second verse instead turns the focus on the upper crust or the “bigger piggies / In their starched white shirts.” While the peasants may be “crawling in the dirt,” the upper class is “stirring up the dirt,” watching the lower class and never dirtying their clothes. George Harrison turns away from the so-called “little people” and instead examines the upper class, stating they live in “sties” and “don’t care what goes on around.” Then comes the climax of the track, “What they need’s a damn good whacking,” expressing the anger and disgust that Harrison — and now the listener — is experiencing.

After the instrumental break, Lennon and McCartney join in on the final verse, their voices taking on an affected tone. “Everywhere there’s lots of piggies / Living piggy lives,” they carefully enunciate. The three Beatles paint a grotesque picture of these unnamed foes with their “piggy wives,” with the couples curiously eating bacon. Is Harrison suggesting that the upper class devours its own, disregarding all humanity? Earlier, he pointed out that “in their eyes there’s something lacking,” suggesting these evil people lack empathy.

Wisely, “Piggies” does not name any particular political figures, thus ensuring its enduring resonance. George Harrison later said the lyrics were intended to satirize greed and class differences, two themes that will always exist. By keeping the specific targets vague, Harrison allows listeners to draw their own conclusions and apply its damning language to the subjects of their choosing. In an unfortunate postscript to this otherwise stellar Beatles song, Charles Manson used “Piggies” as fuel for his and his followers’ murderous rampage. His deranged fantasies and warped misinterpretation of the lyrics should not detract from this amusing and sardonic Harrison composition.

Other artists took a cue from the tonal juxtaposition of music and words in “Piggies,” most notably Steve Wonder. His Songs in the Key of Life track “Village Ghetto Land” bears remarkably similar landmarks, namely painting a dreary picture of inner city life over a synthesizer’s string-like arrangement. While not as well known as other George Harrison compositions, “Piggies” stands out for its political subject, pointed lyrics, and oppositional elements. Indeed, the White Album track represents another step in Harrison’s remarkably rapid growth as a composer.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Kit O'Toole
Share this: