What more is there to say about The Beatles? Pioneering, prolific, insanely talented and highly influential; they virtually wrote the book on popular music as we know it. I could have easily filled my Top 20 with three or four of their records. But having set myself strict guidelines (read more here), some tough decisions were in order and I had to settle on just one.
Would it be the arty progression of Rubber Soul? The revolutionary leap of Revolver? The meticulous orchestrations of Sgt. Pepper’s? Or perhaps even the medley-driven ebb and flow of Abbey Road? In truth it could have been any one of them. But for me it’s always been their eponymous release, better known as The White Album, that best sums up the fab four’s incomparable greatness.
In the spring of 1968 The Beatles flew out to Rishikesh, India for a transcendental meditation course with the famed spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. A highly introspective and stimulating period of enlightenment and self-discovery, the group produced forty new compositions; twenty six of which would be recorded upon their return to England.
The acrimonious sessions themselves proved to be the polar opposite of the serenity they’d enjoyed in India. Everyone was fed up with Paul McCartney’s domineering nature. John Lennon, messed up on heroin, was prone to wild mood swings that often intimidated his bandmates. They were also mightily unimpressed with the interfering presence of his new girlfriend Yoko Ono, who dared to comment on and criticize the new material. George Harrison was becoming increasingly frustrated at having to fight tooth and nail to get his songs included, while Ringo Starr felt his role had become so minimized he quit for a short period before being coaxed back with apologies and flowers.
The result of this considerable instability was four individuals pulling in different directions. A group so at odds they went off and worked individually in separate rooms. In fact, of The White Album’s thirty sprawling tracks spread out over two discs, only fifteen include contributions from all four band members. No wonder it’s become known as The White Album, as the very notion of calling it The Beatles feels like a bit of a misnomer.
So it’s no surprise that musically and lyrically this is the band at their most diverse. There’s stomping Rock ‘n’ Roll with pastiche Beach Boys harmonies on Back in the U.S.S.R. A theatrical homage to British music hall with the whimsical Honey Pie. Donovan-inspired psychedelic pop on the dreamy Dear Prudence.
Unafraid to swing from one extreme to another, the listener is also treated to the gentle summery strumming of Mother Nature’s Son alongside the raw heavy-metal-like aggression of Helter Skelter (so raw and aggressive it apparently made Charlie Manson and friends want to kill people).
Elsewhere Lennon pedals uncompromising avante-garde experimentalism on the absurd soundscapes of Revolution 9 and McCartney opts for a bluesy spoken-word storytelling approach on Rocky Raccoon. Ringo meanwhile croons melodramatically to the schmaltzy arrangements of album-closing lullaby Good Night.
Harrison makes great use of his paltry four song allowance. The poignant While My Guitar Gently Weeps is arguably his finest hour, Eric Clapton’s towering lead guitar the perfect foil for the quiet one’s fragile ghostly vocal.
Piggies meanwhile, a damning commentary on financial greed, positively drips with cynicism through a sickly mix of baroque textures, foul pig snorting and dislocated harmonies. You’ll either love it or hate it. On side two his glacially subtle Long Long provides a much needed sense of calm between the braying Helter Skelter and the politically-charged Revolution 1. And then finally there’s Savoy Truffle with its boogying saxophone, essentially a light-hearted poke at his friend Eric Clapton’s incurable sweet tooth.
It’s by no means the only moment where the band’s signature sense of humor shines through. On I’m So Tired John brands Sir Walter Raleigh a ‘‘Stupid get’’ for discovering nicotine. He also has a poke at Chairman Mao on Revolution 1 and provides girlish yelps and sarcastic repetitions on Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da, a McCartney number Lennon openly despised, describing it as ‘‘Paul’s granny shit’’.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road is Macca’s spontaneous tribute to the witnessing of monkey sex during a walk in the jungle. And what about The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill? A frivolous romp of a tune where anyone who happened to be standing around was lassoed into supplying sloppy backing vocals. (Oh go on then Yoko, you can sing too).
And yet in true White Album style these moments exist hand in hand with some of their most personal material. Paul’s Martha My Dear is a touchingly sweet accolade to his beloved pet sheepdog. John, always the Beatle most likely to wear his heart on his sleeve, is uncomfortably mournful on the eerie Julia, a doleful memoriam to his deceased mother. Later on he’s furious on the acerbic Sexy Sadie, a tirade against The Maharishi who he mistakenly believed guilty of a sexual indiscretion.
Despite countless delights, The White Album has plenty of detractors, with many considering it an overlong mess that should’ve been trimmed down to a single collection. And while it can be argued that tracks such as Don’t Pass Me By, Revolution 9 and I Will are nothing but unmemorable filler, to have censored such an unprecedented flow of creativity would’ve been nothing short of a crime!
Ultimately this is the sound of the world’s greatest rock band letting everything hang out. The result is an impulsive, almost schizophrenic work that feels looser and more genuine than say the indulgent, self-conscious bombast of Sgt. Pepper’s. It’s literally the sound of John, Paul, George and Ringo going unmasked (as opposed to the masks they literally wore for Magical Mystery Tour).
With this in mind I tip my hat to a musical box of chocolates that treats us to this flavor here, that flavor there. And if along the way we have to swallow that chewy coconut one that nobody really likes, then so be it.
Choice Quote: ‘‘It’s great, it sold. It’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album. Shut up!’’ – Paul McCartney.
Choice Lyric: ‘‘She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane. The man in the crowd with the multi-coloured mirrors on his hobnail boots’’. – From Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
Like this? Check out Many Years From Now by Barry Miles, an excellent Paul McCartney biography with a colorful section on the making of The White Album.