10 Very British References in Beatles Songs
This week sees the 50th anniversary of the Beatles era-defining first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. If one moment could be said to illustrate how completely they managed to up-end popular culture, it is this one.
And of course, they are directly responsible for creating and feeding Anglophile sensibilities, without which this blog would not exist. People didn’t just want to know about the four boys in the band, they wanted to be from Britain, would affect Liverpudlian accents, and seize upon any clues about British culture from Beatles lyrics to help feed their passion (and sometimes misinterpreting the clues and drawing strange conclusions).
Here are 10 of those clues, thrown into Beatles songs as if by happenstance:
“A Day in the Life”
It’s only when you hear a common phrase in the middle of a psychedelic masterpiece that you realize how much of your language is similar to that of fantasy novels and science fiction. “A Day In The Life” references a couple of institutions—the House of Lords, the Albert Hall—that must sound thrilling and strange to anyone who has no idea of their fusty stature in British society. And that’s before you hear about the curious story of “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.” Is Blackburn the site of an subterranean invasion? Has someone been shooting at Lancashire from space?
Well, no, John Lennon took the image from a newspaper story about potholes in the road. There was clearly not a lot going on in Lancashire on that day.
George’s attempt to match John’s impressionist wordplay is less rooted in his abiding passion for banging words together. In actual fact, he’s just reading the names from a box of Good News chocolates belonging to his friend Eric Clapton, and then warning him that his sweet tooth will lead to nothing but dental misery.
“Mean Mr Mustard”/”Polythene Pam”
Let’s segue these two together, just as they are on the latter half of Abbey Road.
So, the ten-bob note that Mr. Mustard keeps “up his nose” refers to 10 shillings, in British money, pre-decimalization (which happened in 1971). Ten shillings was half a pound, although both shilling and bob have fallen out common use now.
And Pam’s predilection is for the all-purpose plastic Americans call polyethylene. While nicely alliterative and referencing the ’60s vogue for plasticated clothing, the name isn’t a total fabrication on John Lennon’s part. In the early ’60s, back in the Cavern Club in Liverpool, one of the Beatles’ fans was a girl called Pat Hodgett who had a compulsive need to eat cling-film (Saran Wrap) and shopping bags. She was duly dubbed Polythene Pat. Not that any of this would have made the News of the World (a recently-closed British tabloid paper) without John’s involvement.
The last of John’s great gibberish lampoons of starchy society—and stuffed with ripe British slang.
A wonky finger, for example, is one that has a kink or a bend in it, or, (at worst) one that’s ceased to function properly. Gumboots (as in “he got walrus gumboot”) are wellies, and wellies are galoshes. The sideboard could be a piece of dining room furniture, commonly used to keep the best glasses or good silver in, or used as malapropistic slang for sideburns. The cracker in “spinal cracker” is probably an osteopath.
One last unpleasant one: toe-jam (as in “toe-jam football”) is a macabre reference to the deposits of grime that build up around the toes if you don’t wash your feet often enough.
Shut up Charles Manson, it’s a fairground ride. It looks like a traffic cone with a slide spiraling down from the top. If the song suggests a more wild and terrifying ride, that’s because Paul was trying to top the Who’s “I Can See For Miles” when they recorded it.
“Good Morning, Good Morning”
John’s most psychedelic period of songwriting coincided with an enormous urge to lie down and do very little except watch TV. So this tiny psychodrama, in which he has to come up with a song but has nothing to say, contains a couple of references to humdrum domesticity amid the general air of suffocating boredom.
Most notably, there’s the double whammy of “it’s time for tea and Meet The Wife.” There’s a north/south divide over terms for meals in English culture. Broadly (and with strong regional variations) breakfast, lunch and dinner is southern; breakfast, dinner and tea is northern. So in this case, tea means the evening meal. And Meet The Wife was a popular TV comedy show that would simply have been on in the background while John put the song together.
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun”
Amid a lot of artful, brutal nonsense, John mentions the National Trust; an august institution devoted to maintaining British heritage. It’s interesting to note that both John and Paul’s childhood homes now belong to the National Trust.
Paul managed to cram more cultural references into this one song than any of the rest of his Beatles output. Penny Lane itself is a district in Liverpool that has Penny Lane, the road, running through it. There’s the nurse raising funds for war veteran’s charities by selling paper and plastic poppies for the annual armistice day parade (usually held on the second Sunday in November); the banker’s macintosh raincoat; and the portrait of the Queen in the fireman’s pocket, probably a playful recasting of the kind of official portraits most fire stations (and other public buildings) will have had on display.
The richest seam of slang comes from the seemingly innocent phrase “four of fish and finger pie.”
Four of chips during Paul’s childhood would have been a fourpenny portion of french fries, bought as a late night snack. Changing it to fish allows the possibility of a phonetic bridge between this and finger pie, via fish fingers, which you can’t even get at the chip shop. But it’s an artful construction, designed to draw attention away from the fact that finger pie is a smutty reference to a sexual act involving girls and hands. And this from saintly Paul, the housewives’ favorite Beatle.
“I’m So Tired”
A lovely moment, where the self-pitying John, who can’t sleep, lights a cigarette and wishes he didn’t smoke, calling Sir Walter Raleigh—the man who, according to popular myth, brought tobacco back to Europe from America—a stupid get. “Get” being a Liverpudlian variant on git, both just being general terms of abuse.
We’re back with old money again for this song, which decries the top rate of taxation, directly applicable to rich young pop stars. “One for you, nineteen for me” is a description of the 95 percent taxation bracket the Beatles found themselves in, or 19 out of the 20 shillings in a pound.
Small wonder that the leaders of both leading political parties—Mr. Harold Wilson and Mr. Edward Heath—found themselves playfully chided in the latter third of the song.
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