Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Honey Pie

So, I've decided that I need to listen to songs like "Honey Pie" right after I've listened to songs like "Lucille," in order to remind myself that, despite today's evidence to the contrary, PAUL MCCARTNEY IS COOL. And he really is, kids. Yes, he's made some bad decisions. Yes, his solo career is chock-full of songs that he should have just left as lullabies for his kids and skipped recording, to say nothing of certain dubious duets, but, no, forget his solo career. We're not here to talk about it. NONE of the Beatles had satisfying solo careers, so there's no use bringing any of it up here.

Okay, point is that sometimes, despite the fact that Paul is wicked cool (see "Lucille," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," "Let It Be", and about a thousand others), he sometimes indulges that very uncool part of his brain that likes to whistle songs like "Honey Pie" to itself. But who's to say what's cool or uncool anyway? My understanding is that this song is a straight-up homage to the English music hall scene of the 1920s (I say it's my understanding because I have no real personal experience with this music), and that was most certainly cool to a particular generation, no doubt. And anyway, who am I to hint that something is uncool for being old?-- I, who consider Little Richard the arbiter of cool about 50 years after his prime, I whose mp3 player consists almost entirely of classical choral music and old-school rock and roll, I who write a daily blog about the Beatles at the ripe old age of 29?

Frankly, I am the last person on earth who should be judging anyone for coolness. So maybe you should just listen to "Honey Pie" and judge for yourself.

Among cool people, "Honey Pie" has been almost universally vilified. My July 2006 issue of MOJO, an all-Beatles theme issue, constantly references this song as one of the worst, and JBev at JamsBio names it the second-worst Beatles song ever, calling only "Revolution #9" more painful. Ouch. Ian MacDonald, normally a committed a-PAUL-o-gist, begrudgingly notes the accuracy of the parody before writing off its "air of faintly smarmy pointlessness." (He truly has a way with words, MacDonald does, which is why his book is a must-have in any Beatles library.)

I guess it's MacDonald who nails down my main problem with "Honey Pie"-- I just can't figure out what it's doing on the White Album except as a vehicle for Paul to be adorable. Now, this is the WHITE ALBUM, with its notorious stylistic incongruity, and yet "Honey Pie" still makes me wonder what the heck Paul was thinking. Paul, we KNOW you're adorable! It's a solid song, actually-- very singable-- and unlike a lot of White Album songs, the other Beatles are playing on it. Playing WELL. Check out George on the bass! It's a great line he has, actually. You can tell that the rest of the band has followed Paul down this dementedly uncool path through his brain, because they're totally nailing the parody of the sound Paul's going for. And I really do appreciate a good parody, which this sounds like to my untrained ear, so I want to acknowledge that the art of parody is alive and well on this track. Despite all this, though, it sounds absolutely perfect to give to someone else. Paul gave a lot of songs away, and why not this one? I don't know.

All that said, well, I might be uncool (and in fact I deeply, deeply am) but I sing along when "Honey Pie" is playing. Yeah, that's right. So shoot me. I also like silent movies and Angela Carter's Wise Children, so maybe there's something about the era being parodied that speaks to me. Whatever else it is, "Honey Pie" is an anomaly in the Beatles canon, and it's OK to hate it, though I don't particularly. I love hard-rocking Paul and foxtrotting Paul alike, myself-- even if I do prefer the former most days.

"Honey Pie," released in the U.K. side D track 2 of The Beatles a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.
I am indebted for all discography information to the tremendous


  1. "NONE of the Beatles had satisfying solo careers..." well that's a bit subjective. I know it's easy to peg me as a guy that would celebrate the man's work, from organizing a concert for Bangladesh to keeping the various egos in check within the Travelling Willburys, but George did fairly well for a guy that was automatically labeled "the 3rd Beatle" or "the quiet one". Stack George's solo work up against Paul's solo attempts and you have the beginnings of a lively 5 pint conversation at any local pub.
    Difficulty: No dismissing Paul for selling out to Jacko, no sneering at "Set on You." George's obvious but often unacknowledged contributions to getting Eric Clapton to actually have a career again is open, but so too is Paul's work with Badfinger. Both had fairly atrocious hair (hey, I grew up in the 80s, I notice this stuff) in their respective solo careers, but I think Paul's, especially when he had that awful mustache and mullet, might have been worse, so he'll start with a negative half point because I'm arbitrary and capricious like that.

  2. I agree; give me Oh Darlilng any day, but, and i agree again, there is something a bit charming about Honey Pie. Maybe, as you say, it is the dead on perfect capture of something from the past. I imagine John considered this to be one of Paul's "granny songs." I wouldn't want to listen to an album full of this stuff, but it has become an integral part of the White Album and the many moods it can massage out of me. I'm trying to remember what we thought of it when i was sitting in a dorm room hearing this for the first time, but memory fails me. I think we just thought it was Paul being Paul, and that was somehow all right with us as long as there was plenty of rockers, too. And there was.

  3. Tom, fair points, and I should clarify: none of the Beatles had satisfying solo careers in light of the work they had done as Beatles. George, you can make the best case for, true. All Things Must Pass was a revelation, albeit a BLOATED revelation (I am firmly in the this-does-not-need-to-be-3-discs camp), but there's a pretty solid arc downhill from there-- I don't even remember the last time I listened to Extra Texture. And even though the quantity is there, in terms of quality I say there's nothing better than his two Abbey Road songs in his whole career. Just me, maybe. Still, your points about Clapton and the Wilburys are solid, and I might award him the best solo career prize, given the gargantuan unevenness of Paul's-- even the good Wings songs sound dated, and the bad ones sound worse than ever, ahem "Bluebird" (puke), though some of his recent work has been very interesting and might redeem him (as long as I can forget his regrettable forays into classical music, which, NO). And John's is perhaps the most disappointing-- after Plastic Ono Band (which I think is amazing), Imagine is only OK, and after that you're entering the realms of the unlistenable. Mind Games might be the very worst Beatles solo album ever (if there weren't Wild Life to compete with it, that is).

    Get beer in me and I'd be happy to get even more opinionated about it, of course...

    Frank, John did blast "Honey Pie" later and basically called Paul a huge loser for even putting it on the album, but he DID play on it-- which during the White Album sessions was no sure thing. And John himself could be a huge cheeseball too. I suspect he didn't always mean what he said, especially about Paul, especially in the 70s.

  4. Don't totally disagree about the solo careers, except i think Paul's first solo album, released as McCartney, is very strong. I love it. Consider: That Would Be Something, Every NIght, Junk, Man We Was Lonely, the little ditty - Lovely Linda, and the awesome Maybe I'm Amazed. And he played all the instruments. I seem to recall that some of these songs may have been hold-outs from the White Album session, BUT, they're still his songs, written by him and performed by him solo.

  5. Yeah, that's true, actually. McCartney and Ram are both pretty awesome. They hinted at true greatness. I think it's interesting, though, that the best solo work seems to have been done in the first couple albums after the Beatles split up-- the first albums of Paul, George, and John are all (arguably, at least) the best ones they ever did. And I don't think it's a coincidence-- I think those were started while the Beatles still together (and as you point out, there's audio evidence of that from the White Album and Get Back sessions, when Paul and George were both working on stuff) and the creativity was running high. But apart, they never equalled what they did together.

  6. Well, yes, you definitely have me there: No solo career would ever match what the fellas did together. I agree that for each of them it was, as you say, a solid downhill arc from where they started together to present day, and yes, George never could top "Something" anyway, but could anyone?
    (I may be motivated here by a lifelong ambition to have Tom Petty's career somehow; to pal around with (even in their 1980s flavors) George and Ringo and Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan and see what comes of late night seisuns seems a fine enough way of living to me)