Cheeky references to their contemporaries occasionally popped up in the work of The Beatles. The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band includes a doll wearing a fan-made sweater for The Rolling Stones, while ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ makes a direct reference to the band’s personal assistant, Peter Brown.
Direct shoutouts were rare, however, and more often the band opted to include little references that only the people around them would recognise. Of course, once these references were made in Beatles songs they would become widely known. How else would we have learned that Eric Clapton had a major sweet tooth if not for ‘Savoy Truffle’?
“‘Savoy Truffle’ on the White Album was written for Eric,” Harrison confirmed in 1977. “He’s got this real sweet tooth and he’d just had his mouth worked on. His dentist said he was through with candy. So as a tribute I wrote, ‘You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle’. The truffle was some kind of sweet, just like all the rest – cream tangerine, ginger sling – just candy, to tease Eric.”
One of the more playful moments on The White Album, along with songs like ‘Rocky Raccoon’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, ‘Savoy Truffle’ saw Harrison experimenting with brassy R&B and skittering funk rhythms. He even devised a particularly metallic sound for the brass featured on the track, something that helped Harrison carve out independence from producer George Martin.
“‘Savoy Truffle’ is a funny one written whilst hanging out with Eric Clapton in the sixties,” Harrison reiterated in 1979. “He always had a toothache but he ate a lot of chocolates … 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. I got stuck with the two bridges for a while and Derek Taylor wrote some of the words in the middle – ‘You know that what you eat you are.’”
The White Album proved to be a rich time for Harrison to show what he could do as a songwriter. On the band’s previous projects, including Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, and the initial recordings of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, Harrison had sought a greater separation from his pop stardom. He travelled to India, took up serious sitar training with Ravi Shankar, and largely shunned the guitar as his main songwriting instrument, using keyboards to compose songs like ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘It’s All Too Much’.
By the time The Beatles had reconvened for The White Album, Harrison had come back to the guitar and, for the first time since Revolver, was able to contribute more ideas to the rapidly-growing list of songs that were being considered for the album. That’s how tracks like ‘Piggie’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’ came to be included, and Harrison would have had another song on the album had the band not rejected ‘Not Guilty’ after trying over 100 takes of the song.
Harrison and Clapton were close during this time, with Harrison often hanging out with Clapton and even occasionally playing hooky from board meetings to be with his friend. One of those excursions would later inspire ‘Here Comes the Sun’, with Harrison writing the tune in Clapton’s garden during a particularly sunny spring day when he should have been in a meeting.
Clapton had a direct influence on the White Album sessions as well. The Beatles had been struggling through one of Harrison’s newest songs, and Harrison himself didn’t believe that his bandmates were putting forth their best effort. The new track infused Harrison’s spiritual side with his recent return to the guitar as his primary instrument, but without the enthusiasm of his bandmates, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was going nowhere fast.
“Paul and John were so used to just cranking out their own tunes that it was very difficult at times to get serious and record one of mine,” Harrison recalled in The Beatles Anthology book. “It wasn’t happening … so I went home that night thinking ‘Well, that’s a shame’, because I knew the song was pretty good.” The solution came from Clapton’s appearance, which caused the rest of the band to focus and, in Harrison’s words, “try a little harder”.
While The Beatles were quickly deteriorating in the late-’60s, Harrison and Clapton continued to have a strong bond. Clapton was one of the main contributors to Harrison’s solo debut All Things Must Pass and was one of the first people called when Harrison was organising The Concert for Bangladesh. Not even Clapton’s love for Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, could come between them, and when Harrison embarked on his final series of live performances throughout Japan in late 1991, Clapton was right by his side as a co-headliner.