aka “The White Album”.
Where do I even begin with this record?
First off, an admission of sorts: I am a huge sucker when it comes to big, bombastic, self-indulgent classic albums. Whenever the artist or band has decided to take control of their music and explore their creative boundaries, despite the maddening pleas of their managers, producers, or label, I’m totally in. Songs In The Key Of Life, Exile On Main St., Bitches Brew, Sign O’ The Times, Something/Anything?, Tusk… these albums are journeys, often taking detours into some truly strange, offbeat, off-color, or just plain quizzical neighborhoods.
Albums like those listed above don’t often provide the perfectly concise, lean and mean presentation that many expect. They’re often bloated, meandering, or even pointless. Therein lies the charm, for me at least. It’s an invitation into the creative process. We’re going behind the curtain and allowed to watch them tinker about between the so-called “real” songs. Except that these tinkerings are often as good as those real songs. Sometimes, even better.
The Beatles is a magnificent bastard of a double album, a disparate, chaotic masterpiece of four people who want little-to-nothing to do with each other, recorded (for the most part) separately from the entire band unit as whole, filled with self-indulgent nonsense and non-sequiturs and filler and yet somehow becomes greater because of it.
It is just as much (if not more) a statement ABOUT The Beatles as it is a statement FROM The Beatles. Perhaps more than any other album in their catalog, The White Album demands an understanding of the context in which it was recorded in order to fully understand and appreciate it. That sounds pretentious and obnoxious as hell, and it is, but it’s entirely true; this album is the culmination of the loss of Brian Epstein, the failure of the Magical Mystery Tour movie, and their dalliances with the Maharishi. It’s the energy and creative anarchy of Mom & Dad screaming at each other at the dinner table months before the separation, the trial reconciliation, and the eventual divorce.
Many people will claim somewhere inside this bloated double album is The Beatles’s finest single album. While I empathize, I heartily disagree. The White Album is showcasing The Beatles lack of a single unifying vision, and that deficiency ends up being their single unifying vision.
There’s a song for anyone and everyone here. Almost every pop/rock genre is covered: straight out rock, acoustic folk, infectious pop trifles, vintage throwbacks, singalongs, country/western, grand orchestrated lullabies, personal exhibitionism, some McCartney wankisms, a testament to Ringo’s burgeoning songwriting attempts , and perhaps their biggest WTF moment on a studio album ever.
Heck, even the transitions between songs have character of their own: the jet noise outro from Back in the USSR flowing into the simple acoustic fingerpicking of Dear Prudence, the Bungalow Bill epilogue that “hails” right into While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the backward messaging between I’m So Tired and Blackbird (“Paul is dead man, miss him…”), and so forth.
OK that’s all fine and splendid, but what about the actual songs themselves?
Well, quite frankly, most of them are superb. Let’s start off with the acknowledged radio classics. Back in the USSR is the perfect album opener, a barnstormer blows the doors out from Paul with a cheeky nod to the Beach Boys during the bridge. Paul continued to mine the harder rock vein with the loud, dirty Helter Skelter, a overdriven rock classic that has been covered by everyone from U2, Motley Crue, Aerosmith, and countless others. George has an undeniable masterpiece with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a song that silences me every time I hear it. And I’ve heard it a lot.
Paul’s acoustic shout-out to the civil rights movement has driven many a fan to their acoustic guitars, trying to learn for themselves that beautifully perfect fingerpicking accompaniment; Blackbird is a total gem. It only needs Paul’s voice and his guitar to achieve that level; nothing more. Birthday is your basic karaoke party favorite, and no one’s going to argue that it is somehow a sublime expression of creative derring-do or what-have-you. Take it for whatever it is: catchy, goofy, rockin’ fun from a band trying to keep their spirits elevated, despite the fact that they’re falling apart anyhow.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a polarizing tune. Many people absolutely adore it, while a sizable contingent despises it as a piece of fluff nonsense. Lennon himself referred to it as a “Granny song”. Put me in the former group. I find it impossible not to love. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
But those are the commonly known songs. The ones that get the most radio play and public acknowledgement. There are a host of other tracks on the album that are just as good, if not better, which makes The Beatles such an enjoyable discovery. Dear Prudence is my personal favorite of all the album tracks. Inspired by Mia Farrow’s sister’s reluctance to join everyone one morning during their India retreat, Lennon penned the tune and turned it into an instant classic. It builds simply, just Lennon and his acoustic guitar, slowly adding drums and bass on the next verse, until George’s lead guitar joins in and elevates the tune into the stratosphere. A favorite of Lennon’s, this song is utterly transcendent.
Happiness Is A Warm gun has been the subject of much debate. Is it about sex? Heroin? Money? All of the above, none, or does it really matter? Probably not, as the song itself — really three smaller songs united together — just cooks. I love John’s soulful vocals right before the outro. Continuing with John’s underrated/under-recognized album tracks, I love Yer Blues to death. It’s the nascent edge of a musical trend that will continue to grow until it explodes with brilliant confidence on his Plastic Ono Band solo LP, his first release after the breakup of the band. It’s literally screaming with anger, confusion, and insecurity, a raw emotional honesty from John that throws away the pop-oriented restraint he showed 3-4 years earlier with similar songs like Help, I’m A Loser, etc. Another album track that continued this emotion is I’m So Tired, a slow, sleepy, almost mournful dredge of a beast that erupts into screams of frustration.
Glass Onion is an irresistible transition between Dear Prudence and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da… between his callbacks to other Beatles songs and attempt at buddying-up with Paul, John crafted a compelling musical kaleidoscope of thoughts, ideas, and other such nonsense that popped through his head. John brought the hard rock back again with Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey, featuring the album’s most convoluted song title and probably its most quizzically pointless lyrics, but still this song just cooks.
Julia, his ode to the mother who abandoned him as a child and was killed in an auto wreck during his teen years, is a beautiful, yearning piece, especially when contrasted with his scream-therapy induced “Mother” two years later, which shattered the tragic tranquility of Julia with unadorned rage and resentfulness.
George excels at two other deep album tracks. The first is the phenomenal Long, Long, Long, a spiritual longing set to music. The vocals are low, the feeling mournful or perhaps melancholic, and it remains one of Harrison’s finest songs as a Beatle. It took time to grow on me, but once it did, it became indispensable. Savoy Truffle, on the other hand, has been a favorite since first listen. It’s a wonderful pop confection, sweetened by a rich horn section and sprinkled with those wacky electric keyboard riffs. Allegedly inspired by a friend’s candy addiction, it can probably be viewed as an ode against drug addiction or some such profundities. Whatever the case may be, it’s one of Harrison’s best pop songs.
Paul’s best deep tracks include the aw-shucks sing-along goodtime of Mother Nature’s Son. With a ridiculously catchy melody, you can picture an entire Tom Sawyer milieu around the song: overalls, bare feet, sitting by a lazy stream with straw hanging between the teeth, the whole nine yards. Another evocative song that maintains this quality is Martha My Dear, a bouncy music-hall number anchored by Paul’s piano and an infectious horn section.
I also love the soft earnestness of I Will; the vocal basslines and percussion work, along with the guitar accompaniment, make this one of the album’s more simple pleasures. The old-timey feel of Honey Pie might be Paul indulging his love of standards a bit too much on the nose, but I enjoy the feel of it nonetheless.
The album does have some cute throwaway tracks in Paul’s folksy/country/western Rocky Raccoon and John’s children’s singalong The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, both of which give the album flavor and eclecticism, and are pleasant enough but not all that important or essential.
Cry Baby Cry fares OK overall, but it really seems like a lazy effort from John. The strange transition into Paul’s “Can You Take Me Back” segment is off-putting, but somehow appealing in an oddball way. Then of course you have Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, which is the very definition of “throwaway”, but I’ll be damned if you’re not singing along with Paul’s scratchy vocals and that simple, driving 12-bar-blues arrangement.
Now we get to the real filler: Sexy Sadie, Piggies, and Revolution 1. These are the “ehh” songs, ones that don’t offend enough to cause outrage but do nothing to keep my interest. Sexy Sadie, John’s angry exposé revealing the Maharashi’s all-too-human foibles, leaves me flat. Piggies is mildly interesting for its orchestral arrangements, but forgettable in regards to its lyrics or entirely-too-obvious message about greed. Revolution 1 is a boring alt-take on Lennon’s more uptempo and better-known hit single “Revolution”. Slower, bluesier, more acoustic, it meanders capriciously when it needs to deliver with intensity.
Finally, there are the tracks that are, perhaps, outright flaws. Maybe even stinkers. You almost want to give Don’t Pass Me By a pass; it’s Ringo’s first songwriting attempt on a Beatles album. It’s charming in a slight way; almost a little too cornpone earnest. It’s also not a very good song, but you just want to like it because, well, it’s Ringo’s first songwriting attempt on a Beatles album. Wild Honey Pie is utterly pointless. A bit of flavor to the album, maybe, but an utter waste of time nonetheless.
And then… there’s Revolution 9, where The Beatles go completely avant-garde and present a collage of sound: snippets of conversation, radio, studio chatter, stock audio, and the weaving in and out of the creepy “Number nine!” throughout the entire tapestry. While it is easily the band’s most self-indulgent moment during their tenure as a living organism, as a track it rather succinctly sums up the entire White Album affair. It’s peculiar, droning, trite, and goes on for far too long, true. But it’s strangely appealing, wildly chaotic, often silly, and keeps you hooked along for the ride, wondering where it might take you, to find out what the entire journey might be about, daring you to love it for whatever it’s trying to be.
That said, I barely ever listen to the damn thing anymore. It’s annoying as hell.
Ringo returns to send us off in grand style with Good Night. I love that he is providing the album’s send-off. During the White Album sessions, he up and quit the band for a short while. Paul plays drums on several of the album’s tracks in his place. Vocally, he is only otherwise represented by his sole creation Don’t Pass Me By, so it is perhaps fitting that the most under-represented Beatle delivers the album’s final farewell. With lullabye-esque lyrics provided by John, the track features Ringo’s vocals over a lush George Martin-scored orchestral arrangement. After the nightmarish Revolution 9, Good Night is a warm, reassuring tuck back into bed with a kiss on the forehead. The splintering chaos of our musical journey is at an end, even though when we wake up the next morning The Beatles’s world would pretty much become fractured forever.
The Beatles, as a creative work, is without question all over the place. It’s often described as three solo albums fused uncomfortably into one double-album package. That assessment wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It’s almost as if the band is deconstructing themselves: a testament to the Magical Mystery Tour wizards, those who came down from Olympus and brought us Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band like Promethean fire, who have now taken human form and want to put their mortal foibles on display, to show us their urges, vulnerability, lusts, insecurities, anger, and longings. Prick them, they will bleed, and like from the platelets of a Gorgon, monstrous wonders will emerge.
Despite all the chaos, The White Album holds together so entirely well. It doesn’t care one whit whether or not you like it or get it, and because of its liberation from expectations there’s a distinct lack of self-consciousness throughout the entire album. Even moreso than Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles is a wholly realized conceptual listening experience simply because it doesn’t set out to be one.