Friday, November 22, 2013

The White Album at 45

Every time someone invents a new technology, I have one friend who says, “Oh, no! I have to buy the White Album again!

Said “White Album,” of course, is the 2 disc 1968 album by the Fab Four technically entitled simply “The Beatles.”  It was released 45 years ago this week.

But...why THAT album? Many fans argue that it’s their weakest release. Out of 30 official tracks (at a time when most US albums had only about 11), only 4 could be said to be genuine classics but even then not arguably up to the group’s own admittedly high standards.

I bought the LP in the seventies and later the CD in the nineties. That’s it. Well no, I also bought a cassette of it in its very different Mono version as well as one where the whole thing is played backwards!

Personally I find The White Album to be a mish-mash of styles, influences, tributes and parodies. As a Beatles release, I’m one of those who’ve long felt it could have been best-served by being a single disc only, concentrating on the stronger material.

Recorded at a time after Brian’s death and while all four lads (still in their 20’s, remember!) were all feeling a tad full of themselves and yet having no concrete direction creatively, it often seems like a collection of solo material by each Beatle. Much of what makes each individual song interesting can be credited, as always really, to George Martin. It’s not like he could have done it without them but then they couldn’t have done it without him either.

Let’s take a look at each cut, shall we?

BACK IN THE USSR-The album starts strong with this heavy rocker from Paul that features a Beach Boys tribute. Most of the songs here were written while the group was in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Beach Boy Mike Love had been there with them.

DEAR PRUDENCE-A sleepy song with a consistent beat from John but nothing all that special.

GLASS ONION-Self-referential lyrics and a driving beat but doesn’t really go anywhere.

OB-LA-DI-OB-LA-DA-It’s aged better than some of the songs but it’s still just a fun little bit of Paulie fluff. Lennon is said to have considered this the worst Beatles recording.

WILD HONEY PIE-Seriously? Name one other group who could have gotten this unfinished goofiness on an album in the first place.

THE CONTNUING STORY OF BUNGALOW BILL-Notorious for featuring Yoko’s voice on a Beatles record, it’s a catchy John tune but pretty light both lyrically and musically for what was expected from him in that period.

WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS-One of George’s masterpieces but he had to bring Eric Clapton in on guitar to make it so.

HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN-This one seems to be John just putting words together to see how they sound. The middle section is clearly from another unfinished song entirely.

MARTHA MY DEAR-Macca’s charming little ode to his sheepdog.

I’M SO TIRED-John trying hard to be deep and almost succeeding. But it’s like he has to work at what used to come simply.

BLACKBIRD-Nobody’s definition of rock music, this beautiful piece has legitimately become a classic that’s been covered by scores of other singers and groups.

PIGGIES-Infamous for allegedly inspiring Charles Manson’s nightmarish killing spree, it’s really just a heavy-handed Harrison song about social issues of the day.

ROCKY RACCOON-Paul goes country-western with this old-fashioned story ballad, badly sung but with a few good lyrical moments.

DON’T PASS ME BY-Ringo wrote it and sings it with his voice seemingly speeded up a tad. More country music and not particularly good country music.

WHY DON’T WE DO IT IN THE ROAD?-Nothing but a little bit of naughtiness but with a great bass and drum track.

I WILL-One of Paul’s smoothest vocal jobs ever, it’s a pretty but inconsequential little love song.

JULIA-John’s equally beautiful tribute to his mother and his new love, Yoko.

BIRTHDAY-Not just a perennial favorite for birthdays and McCartney concerts through the years, this has some of the best instrumental work the Beatles ever did.

YER BLUES-John again trying to be deep and again nearly succeeding, this time in a bluesy number. It’s essentially a preview of the TMI songs to come on most of his solo records.

MOTHER NATURE’S SON-John Denver sort of adopted this Paul song as his theme song years later and it fit him more than it fit Paul.


SEXY SADIE-John making fun of Maharishi with whom he was by then disillusioned.

HELTER SKELTER- Although also associated with the Manson murders, this one’s rep has grown through the years. A solid rocker about a playground slide, there exist some versions that are more than 10 minutes long!

LONG ,LONG, LONG-This time it’s George putting the listener to sleep.

REVOLUTION 1-There are two versions of this that were released—the wonderful rock version on the single and this sing-song version. Sigh...

HONEY PIE-Not as bad as HONEY PIE but a million miles from rock music. Music hall silliness.

SAVOY TRUFFLE-Lyrically, this is a song about Eric Clapton eating so much candy he might rot his teeth but it’s musically a strong piece.

CRY BABY CRY-John again with the sleepytime stuff—a dirge-like fairy tale song. Attached to the end of this and leading into the next piece is a brief bit of a longer McCartney song entitled CAN YOU TAKE ME BACK which can be found in its entirety on some bootlegs.

REVOLUTION 9-Let’s face it, love it or hate it, it’s this mega-length experimental tape loop mix, mostly from John, that shows that the Beatles really were still leading the way. And then there’s those backwards bits! Turn me on dead man, indeed!

GOOD NIGHT-And finally, Ringo’s turn to put everyone to sleep...literally. With its massive over-orchestration and production, this is often said to be a parody but I can’t help but think its just exactly the type of thing it’s said to be parodying.

Okay. Now. That said...I LOVE THIS ALBUM! The White Album’s actual greatest strength is in its overwhelming diversity. There is quite literally something for everyone. Very little of what’s on the album can be categorized as rock music and yet every bit of it, in the context of the career of the world’s most influential rock group, is amazing! ROCKY RACOON was covered by Benny Goodman’s Orchestra! BLACKBIRD became a harmony staple for CSN! Sheepdog Martha became world-famous! REVOLUTION became a Nike ad...controversially.

Listening to this album with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes obvious the Beatles were both growing up and growing apart. There were NO singles from this album when it was new. Had it been anyone but the Beatles, a large portion of the songs herein would be written off and forgotten—if they’d been recorded at all. But the Lads had the power to self-indulgently get anything they wanted recorded in 1968 and that’s exactly what they did. George Martin’s always impeccable production heightened every single piece to a level many probably didn’t even deserve. Through the years, every single cut on this album has been analyzed to death in books, articles, blogs and even classes! Simply because it was, as the record’s actual title so succinctly put it, The Beatles.

For the record, here’s my take on what might have been a great single disc release at the time.

Side 1

6-REVOLUTION (the single version)

Side 2



G O D said...

My favorite Beatles ,besides the Star Club live tapes and the unreleased What's the new maryjane. Most folks think this is their weakest album ,because most folks don't trip on acid.In the 70's my chums and I would often toss this on the turntable when we were tripping ,which I believe is what the Beatles meant the album to be.We also listened to lots of Pink Floyd,Led Zep,Black Sabbath,and other rock stuff.When punk hit ,I was ready for something new,while my pals all rejected the "new" music.I listen to everything,as long as it's not on commercial radio or mtv vh1 . I used to own a demo bootleg album of the Beatles,the cover all handstamped with the Beatles logo.The vinyl ,sadly,was virtually unplayable,tho' the material was just previous to Let It Be ,and some of those songs were on there in their earliest versions.I got it in a pile of records I bought while thrifting.But ,Yeah the White Album rules pretty hard.

david_b said...

Nice review, not totally agreeing with all your comments on this great album, but good comments nevertheless.

Revolution #9 was absolutely CRITICAL. This being one of the first double-albums (not being a 'greatest hits' album as well..), it was indeed more the concept album than Pepper. The album NEEDED something spectacular on Side 4.

Think about it. Without #9, it would have just been another side of nice tracks. Despite the diversity, 'How boring that would have been..?'. For the ebb and flow of the overall album, you needed to have a climatic track on side 4, to more or less anchor the entire experience.

#9 was it, and it served it's purpose well. As for 'Good Night' after it..., jeez, only Lennon would have followed a trip like #9 with a sappy, hollywood song like 'Good Night'.., and it was perfect for Ringo to sing it. Sort of taking the pressure off things. Perfect ending to 'a long entertaining journey'.

As for 'Wild Honey Pie', easily with Ringo's track on Side 2 always left off my custom recordings (and iPod), it was actually Patti Harrison's idea to keep it in. She said she liked it, for SOME GAWD-AWFUL reason..

I would have preferred George's 'Not Guilty' added somewhere.., but even that wouldn't have ranked with his other memorable tracks here.

Still my favorite Beatles album ever. Arguably, the last good one as well, not liking Abby Road as much.

Graham said...

Agree with your assessment 100%. It would have been a great single disc, but taken as it is, it's a vivid picture of where the band was at the time....each wanting to do their own thing and express themselves in their own way and starting to fray at the edges.

I appreciate that part of it, but it proves, as we've seen and heard for the past forty years, that the whole was so much greater than the sum of its parts.

I actually wrote a term paper on The White Album in college. Wish I could find it. :)

Steven Thompson said...

NOT GUILTY was recorded endlessly by George, trying to get it "right." I've probably heard 20 takes on bootlegs. And yet, any one of them is still worthy enough to have been included on the album. Never understood that. It's a great song.

BTW--I absolutely love WHAT'S THE NEW MARY JANE?, especially the long version!

billy said...

got it for xmas in 68 so it has always been special,i agree with most things you said eg the diversity in it is the key and for me every1 of the tracks are equally important and if any one had been missing in xmas 68 it would have been a lesser album.
the single lp idea is a total non-starter.i could chosen a better version than yours with entirely different tracks lol