“The White Album” may seem like a peculiar choice to represent the best of the Beatles, or indeed a See What You Hear Classic Album, given the issues of cohesion and the presence of several questionable tracks. But the bottom line is that, despite its faults, this album represents the Beatles’ finest hour in a number of ways. For one, it’s become somewhat of an enigma, each song developing its own folklore that has been debated about ever since it was first released. Should it have been made as just one stellar record? Were there really secrets meanings carefully embedded in its darker moments? Regardless of the answers, there has never been anything like it: a double album from the world’s most famous band that takes in every genre of music, flirting with insanity, slipping into a dimension that was slightly more haunting than it was cheery, and yet still managing to be filled with some of their greatest songs.
Written and recorded during a tumultuous period in the bands career – a time taking in the death of Brian Epstein, the temporary resignation of Ringo, and their stay in India meditating with the Maharishi – “The White Album” sees the four band-mates literally heading in separate directions, often simultaneously recording their contributions in different studios within Abbey Road. The cracks may have been beginning to show, but the results are hypnotically alluring.
Starting off with “Back in the USSR,” McCartney gets the blood pumping with an authorised send-up of the Beach Boys, its tempo making for a perfect tune to start the day. Just as its jet engines fade into the sky, “Dear Prudence” descends with a breathy, childlike incantation, finger picking its way along with an irresistible ease. Originally meant to entice Prudence Farrow out of her room in Rishikesh, the way the track builds itself up brilliantly, culminating in some excellent “look around, ’round, ’round” harmonies, making it one of the album’s brightest numbers.
While “Glass Onion” features a particularly interesting and unusual arrangement, Lennon delves into self-referencing, culling the words from previous songs in order to take this opportunity to make a point about imbuing their work with life that isn’t there. “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” recently voted the worst song of all time, begins a trend of quirky, story-based McCartney contributions in the form of a swaying, catchy take on reggae that leaves most people divided.
“Wild Honey Pie,” though only a minute long, is one of the Beatles’ most strangest and warped cuts of all – even for The White Album. Even still, it’s an ingenious little nugget that would have been unlike anything else at the time, and it should have come as no surprise when the Pixies decided to cover it over two decades later. While “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (another song inspired by events in India) seems like Lennon’s take on the kind of format of song McCartney was inclined towards, it’s merely a fun and light-hearted excursion before the heavyweights of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” step in.
” Frequently cited as many people’s favourite White Album track, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was George Harrison’s time to shine. Brooding into resignation, Eric Clapton’s guitar cuts into the heavy, falling chords, wailing dramatically either side of the almost elegiac chorus in what is one of the album’s most stunning pieces. Similarly, Lennon’s harrowing “Happiness…” is an extraordinary five-piece suite that continually shifts its dynamic. Beginning with an almost depressed whisper, digging into a string of jagged, feverish imagery, the magnetic drone of the woozy guitar that accompanies the lines “I need a fix, ’cause I’m goin’ down…” is simply one of the most effective moments on The White Album. Finding another burst of energy, Lennon swings the song into a final commanding turn, “bang bang, shoot shoot” being piped out sweetly as he shakes out the closing lines dramatically. Though “I’m So Tired” is one of the more straightforward tracks on the album, Lennon uses its funk tinged blues to paint a remarkably lucid picture of a restless night, stamping his energy into a scene of midnight cigarette butts and relationship anxiety. With “Blackbird,” McCartney takes a moment to get serious and produce a beautifully stripped down arrangement that’s indisputably one of the highlights of his career. Essentially a solo recording, the song has widely been interpreted as being inspired by the struggle of African-Americans to attain civil rights, but was also infamously misinterpreted as part of Charles Manson’s reading of “The White Album” – an analysis that, as we shall see, would lead to deadly consequences.
Closing off the first disc, Lennon records his own contender for a career best; another solo acoustic piece, “Julia” catches him at a rare moment of vulnerable but spellbinding openness, paying tribute to his deceased mother. Halfway through, and it’s as if Lennon and McCartney are trying to outshine each other, producing the goods pound for pound.
Starting the second disc off with a burst of energy, “Birthday” is as playful as it is pounding, the band stomping (and clapping) their way through one of the album’s sillier, light-hearted numbers. A cooler, smoother outing, the rollicking pump of “Yer Blues” is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the Englishman’s take on the genre, but it can’t help but be a bloated feast of droning guitar bending none the less.
An acoustic sweetener, “Mother Nature’s Son” is in much the same vein of some of Paul’s other White Album tunes, doot-dooing and foot tapping away until a light, streaming accompaniment of horns and strings lifts things off – it’s a veritable McCartney signature.
Written about the sense of disillusionment that the band experienced after the Maharishi came under fire for a series of sexual abuse claims, the slinking piano of “Sexy Sadie” makes for one of the more concentrated and rewarding listens in the White Album experience.
“Helter Skelter,” on the other hand, epitomises that experience, its haunting legacy almost single-handedly defining the mythos of the release as a whole. An absolute juggernaut of adrenalin, its pummelling sound has even been credited with inventing Heavy Metal. Its lyrics, however, were another focal point (along with “Blackbird” and “Piggies”) of Charles Manson’s skewered philosophy, its associations tainted forever when it formed a backdrop to a series of brutal murders in 1969, including Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate.
Perhaps one of the Beatles’ most recognisable tunes from the latter stages of their career (possibly from featuring in advertisements), “Revolution 1″ is one of the most straightforward tracks on the White Album, sounding so like typical 60s rock fare that, arguably, it may sound out of place here. “Honey Pie” retreats further back down the time scale, McCartney conjuring up an oompah of war-time, show band gold, proclaiming “I like this kind of music!” almost defensively as he mixes the eclecticism of the album up to a dizzying degree. Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” is loaded with the kind of sweeping pomp one would have found on the funk of the Atlantic label, only its lyrics are a virtual tour guide through the contents of a box of chocolates, of all things.
The imaginative “Cry Baby Cry” is Lennon’s last hurrah on the album, putting any question of a songwriting competition between the band mates beyond all doubt. Its infectious paddle is injected with brilliant squeals of electric guitar and clinking piano keys before McCartney makes a final bid to steal the show with what is my favourite moment on the entire release: a simple sing-along coda sung softly and only lasting for a number of seconds, the ease with which “Can you take me back…where I came from” fades out is a magnetic addition. It may be tacked on as a mere afterthought, but it sums up exactly where the band were at this point of their career: they were plucking these haunting melodies out of the air for fun.
Ironically, what comes next is the most despised of all Beatles’ songs, the experimental “Revolution 9.” Long before the likes of The Books were making artistic collages of sound samples, The Beatles raised more than a few eyebrows with a reckless rampage through archives of stock sound files, weaved together by the tittering narration of John Lennon and a spinning voice simply repeating “Number 9,” over and over. If you have ever seen the episode of The Simpsons where the direction of Homer’s barbershop quartet is hijacked by Barney and his new Japanese girlfriend with their belching “Number Eight” song (in fact, the entire episode is a hilarious summation of the Beatles’ career), that moment should make even more sense now. Closing things out is the Ringo-penned, “Goodnight,” floating away with a serenading, fairytale quality, capping off what is the most controversial part of the band’s career. It’s something that just has to be heard to be believed…
Many people have agreed with George Martin’s claim that The White Album should have just been condensed down to one spectacular disc, and on the 30th Anniversary of its release, MOJO Magazine ran a feature on the highly debated permutations of what that one disc would be comprised of. And therein lies a charm that other albums just can’t offer – it’s so disjointed and head-spinning that you can make your own mix of the album and be guaranteed an amazing listen.
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