Finding the worst of The Beatles is surprisingly difficult. To the millions of people who have listened to The Beatles’ most challenging and protracted LP, each will come forward with a different answer as to what should have been kept and what should have been left on the cutting room floor. Some say ‘Revolution 9’ is a slog, while others can feel their blood boil as Paul McCartney dives into his twee music hall numbers. There are even those who think that ‘Helter Skelter’, one of the best songs on the album, is half-assed and cut-rate.
But when it comes to the album’s most unnecessary cut, there’s little argument to be had: ‘Wild Honey Pie’ is far and away the winner (or loser, depending on how you look at it). The Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, were just making up short nonsense songs in the studio all the time. When it worked, it was songs like ‘Her Majesty’ and ‘Can You Take Me Back’, the latter of which appears as the coda to ‘Cry Baby Cry’. When it didn’t, it was ‘Wild Honey Pie’.
So, what is it about this less-than one minute track that makes it so… disconcerting? Well, anyone who has heard the track can tell you: it’s obnoxious, it’s irritating, and it clangs around your brain with no sense of melody or hook. It sounds like a bunch of brain dead Hare Krishna chanters got stuck in a garbage compactor. It’s bizarre just for bizarreness’ sake, and it’s the number one example of why Paul McCartney should not have been left to his own devices. It’s also the number one example of why there should have been at least a little more discretion when it came to assembling The White Album: if a joke song could make the cut simply because Patti Boyd said she liked it, there needs to be a more strict vetting process.
That’s all well and good, but it’s still pretty surface level. What happens when we go deeper to find out just why ‘Wild Honey Pie’ is so skin-crawlingly abrasive? Well, McCartney can actually tell us some of that himself. “We were in an experimental mode, and so I said, ‘Can I just make something up?'” McCartney recalled in 1997.
“I started off with the guitar and did a multitracking experiment in the control room or maybe in the little room next door. It was very homemade; it wasn’t a big production at all,” he added. “I just made up this short piece and I multitracked a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally with a lot of vibrato on the strings, really pulling the strings madly. Hence, ‘Wild Honey Pie’, which was a reference to the other song I had written called ‘Honey Pie’.”
‘Wild Honey Pie’ has three basic elements: the guitars, the percussion, and the vocals. The percussion is hard to take issue with – it’s just a bass drum and a dull thwack, probably coming from a guitar case or a trash can. It’s repetitive, but nothing too bad. It’s in the other two that we really start to get to the “wild” part of ‘Wild Honey Pie’.
The main guitar progression is a descending pattern in G Major. All chords are major, and all chords are 7th chords. A 7th chord adds a dissonant whole tone between the root of the chord and a note. Basically, since the note doesn’t usually appear in the chord, it adds tension. Now imagine that tension is in every single chord, at all times. Additionally, to use non-musical language, major chords sound “happy”. But when you make everything sound happy, it takes on a certain demented circus quality.
How do you make that even more frightening? By adding in a three-part harmony that warbles in and out of tune using strange voices. McCartney could get a lot of different sounds out of his voice, with a wide range that could hit baritone lows and tenor highs. He could also shriek with the best of them, but usually, he kept his screams to a single part or to a raucous rocker. For ‘Wild Honey Pie’, it’s almost as if McCartney’s harmonic inspiration were nails on a chalkboard. The high D he hits would be impressive if he didn’t sing it like someone was hacking off one of his limbs.
With enough echo to make it sound as if 30 people were all chanting the same nightmare-induced mantra, ‘Wild Honey Pie’ is psychedelia at its utter nadir. Never before had a band so important put out a song so preposterously glib. And yet, that’s the eternal charm of The White Album: a cultural monolith that dares you to give equal weight to ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road’. ‘Wild Honey Pie’ would have been the first song cut from anyone else’s version of The White Album, but it’s actually more essential to the final product than most might think. Still, it rarely survives the skip button whenever it pops up.