When “In-Jokes” Come “Out” In Records

beatles live

Before most bands unravel, they mirror close-knit families. As John Lennon noted in a 1980 interview about his fellow Beatles: “We spent more time together in the early days than John and Yoko. The four of us sleeping in the same room, practically in the same bed, in the same truck, living together night and day.”

But before familiarity bred contempt, the Beatles and many other groups were like bands of brothers, which included unleashing inside jokes that an outsider could only hope to comprehend. The Liverpudlian lads were notorious inside jokesters, with some of their put-downs and asides being recorded for their considerable posterity. George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” was a warning to Eric Clapton to lay off the sweets or he’ll have to get his teeth “all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle.”

Harrison recalled, “At that time Eric had a lot of cavities in his teeth and needed dental work. He always had a toothache but he ate a lot of chocolates—he couldn’t resist them, and once he saw a box he had to eat them all.”

Paul McCartney remembered using a one-word in-joke while recording “Girl.” “So we were looking around for another phrase, so it was ‘dit dit dit,’ which we decided to change in our waggishness to ‘tit tit tit.’ (Producer) George Martin might say, ‘Was that ‘dit dit’ or ‘tit tit’ you were singing?’ ‘Oh, ‘dit dit’ George, but it does sound a bit like that, doesn’t it?’ Then we’d get in the car and break down laughing.”

Lennon’s penchant for a well-placed in-joke can be found in “Dig a Pony,” where he mini-disses the Stones for copying the Beatles’ songs: “I roll a stoney. You can imitate everyone you know.”

But there was a marked difference between these two bands that once battled for rock supremacy. The Beatles put in-jokes in their records while the Stones put an in-joke called “Nanker-Phelge” on their record label.  Nanker-Phelge, a pseudonym for the band, was the composer of fifteen songs and the name of their first publishing company. In bassist Bill Wyman’s book, Rolling with the Stones, he defined “Nanker” as a “revolting face that band members, Brian in particular, would pull.” A “Nanker face” consists of two fingers pulling two nostrils upward while simultaneously tugging the cheekbones below both eyes downward; making the Nankerer look like Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera.

“Phelge” derived from one Jimmy Phelge who, in 1962, shared 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea with Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. Keith recalled their starving artists’ days in his memoir, Life: “We’d get back from a gig and Phelge would be standing at the top of the stairs saying, ‘Welcome home,’ stark naked with his s**ty underpants on his head or p**sing on you.”

That wasn’t the only trick up Jimmy’s filthy sleeve. Phelge cited the time “Keith was talking and mentioned that he’d been to art college. I turned around and gobbed on the wall and said, ‘Oh yeah? What else do you do?’ And that stopped them (Brian, Mick, and Keith) completely dead.  I said, ‘Oh, that painting on the wall there, that’s called ‘Yellow Humphrey.’” Amazingly, the Stones have never tried to sell or market a reproduction of the fledging artist’s phlegm; although they did recreate their squalid flat in 2016 at the Saatchi Gallery in London as part of the exhibit Exhibitionism – The Rolling Stones.

Not-so-amazingly, Keith called Phelge “the most disgusting person ever.” For that reason, perhaps the Stones should have never named their publishing company Nanker-Phelge Music because the joke wound up on them. They had signed a contract in New York that they believed would channel all of their publishing rights in America through a company called Nanker-Phelge USA. The Stones believed it to be the same company as Nanker-Phelge Music, only with an American name. They discovered way too late that Allen Klein, their co-manager, had created and owned Nanker-Phelge USA and slyly stole the copyrights to their 1960s work. After the case was settled in court, Jagger noted, “They have the right to repackage all our old material between 1963 and 1969.” It’s a wonder Jagger, who studied at the London School of Economics, wasn’t left permanently speechless after Klein took him to the proverbial cleaners.

Gary Bachman must’ve wished he was born speechless after being teased for his stutter by his older brother who happened to be Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner-Overdrive. Randy said in Fred Bronson’s book, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits: “Gary had a speech impediment. We thought just for fun we’d take this song and I’d stutter and we’d send it to him. He’ll have the only copy in the world of this song. I wrote the lyrics, out of the blue and stuttered them through. Then for the chorus, I copied the way Gary’d say ‘You ain’t seen n-n-nothing yet’ and also the way he stumbled on ‘f-f-forget’ and the way he said ‘b-b-b baby.’ I liked it as an idea but I was never going to finish it off. I sang the storyline off the cuff.”

Charlie Fach, Executive VP of Mercury (BTO’s label), loved this brotherly diss track, put it on BTO’s Not Fragile album then released the off-the-cuff goof in 1974. It stayed on the charts for seventeen weeks and gave the group their only #1 song.

Arguably, the tune is the most successful in-joke ever recorded. However, the oft-cantankerous Elton John might beg to differ, for he can cite the time Bernie Taupin’s wife, Maxine, saw the singer approaching their house and joked, “Uh-oh. The bitch is back.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Getty Images

Other Posts You Might Like

2 comments on “When “In-Jokes” Come “Out” In Records

  1. ofbpWalt

    ask Macca what “fish and finger pies” really meant in Penny Lane…

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)