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.
EVERYBODY’S GOT SOMETHING TO HIDE EXCEPT FOR ME AND MY MONKEY-a strong rocker from Lennon.
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.
1-BACK IN THE USSR
3-WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS
6-REVOLUTION (the single version)
1-EVERYBODY’S GOT SOMETHNG...