The Beatles (released 22 November 1968)
Dear White Album,
HOW THE HELL DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO THIRTY-ONE SONGS?
Let me back up, give you some space. You’ve just turned fifty years old and there was a lot of noise around the circuits about how game-changing you were, how you managed to reinvent the Beatles’ image again (largely by blowing it up). And yet this came at a price: you came straight after the Beatles’ disastrous trip to India, where they tried to find the Answer with a capital A and failed, and after John’s divorce and subsequent infatuation with Yoko Ono. Hurt by their failure, both to find spiritual enlightenment and to connect with a lonely John, the other three slowly fell apart and tensed up with each other, all four developing a slow dissatisfaction with the others’ songs and interfering with visions of how songs should have been played. (I mean, I usually worship Paul McCartney as the supreme human being, but I can’t defend his darker tendencies between 1968-1971, as it was nothing but self-centred, disruptive and destructive.)
Usually I like to take these albums as a whole: assessing a few tracks here and there and how they contribute, instead of taking each individual contributor and assessing what they’ve done. But it’s hard not to see this as three separate albums, with only Ringo connecting the three people together. I’ve heard somewhere that you should be titled “George, John, Paul and Ringo” instead of “The Beatles”, and that commenter’s not far off the mark.
And then, boy, this is a complete EXPLOSION of creativity. Heck, even Ringo — dear old Ringo, who usually doesn’t have a very good melodic sense — managed to finish up his first song in India, and “Don’t Pass Me By” fully deserves to be a Beatle song, if only because it documents how far our boy has come. Though it’s not much in both music and lyrics, the country style which Ringo has adopted is more than adequate proof that he is not just there to charm the girls by looking depressed, nor does he merely provide backup for the other three. He innovates, just like the other three do. It’s not much, but gosh, at least the man HAS creative juices and is willing to try — India, it seems, has done him good.
Speaking of India and its side-effects (hey I need a bridge) I’ve discovered how you also have quite the split between Paul and Ringo on one hand, and John and George on the other. Specifically, the amount of rage and negative feeling simmering away in this album borders on being toxic. As 1967 was the year of dreamy love, 1968 was the year of tension and broken dreams and one really feels just how disappointed (and distraught) the two mystics were. There are songs which manage to convey rage, and there are songs which try to indicate sadness from a lost love. But only George Harrison, in his infinite wisdom, can write a song that really conveys how disappointed he is with the world: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is one of my favourite songs from you and the sense of desperation is palpable. This is a rock song that doesn’t scream — it despairs, and the quiet heartbreak seems to be even more devastating than any loud songs which he could have come up with. I suppose that his disappointment with his bandmates, and with his failure to be enlightened, was really beginning to show by this point. To paraphrase Michael Caine: “I have not seen the Beatles in India, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have heard the music it created, and it is terrific.”
A lot of this terrificness (is that a word) comes from George: it’s really impressive how much he’s improved. Maybe it’s because of the drugs, or maybe it’s because he was more able to work out good songs in the isolation of India. Whatever the reason, in the space of just four songs, he manages to have more depth than Lennon-McCartney could ever have in the 25 they have here. It finds him reaching more and more inward — more genuinely than John ever did in any of his previous songs — and in listening to his songs, one feels like he has become the wisest and yet most accessible one of them all. When one listens to the quirky humour of “Savoy Truffle” — when have you heard of a good rock song that warns about tooth decay? — and balances it out against the heartfelt religiosity of “Long, Long, Long”, we begin to understand the two extremes that make up George Harrison. These songs show what he is like as a songwriter — deep, brooding, bit of a stoic — and also a glimpse of who he is as a person, with that snarky humour and a teensy bit of optimism shining through. Of course it does come out occasionally pretentious — “Piggies” is one of those tracks where George, yet again, overdoes the sarcastic humour, and one has to wonder if he sounds a little too preachy in the religion-related songs. But this is George Harrison, ladies and gentlemen: warts and all, his best and not-so-best tendencies out for all to see, and you are the closest we will get of a portrait of George during his Beatle years. I like that about you.
With two of the lesser members out of the way, we come to the fractious relationship that made up the rest of the album — and look, they are such a diverse duo, to go through all of them would take ages, and I simply can’t spend the next 1500 words or so trying to slot in 26 song titles. You’d fall asleep, or dead. So here are the songs they wrote, in one go:
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Wild Honey Pie”, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Martha My Dear”, “I’m So Tired”, “Blackbird”, “Rocky Raccoon” (deep breath) “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Birthday”, “Yer Blues”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (dear God, what was John thinking for this title), “Sexy Sadie”, “Helter Skelter”, “Revolution 1”, “Honey Pie”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “Can You Take Me Back” (yup, I’m a serious Beatle fan), “Revolution 9” and “Good Night”.
Trust me, this is a weight off my back (and yours, too). You might think that those are just words, a deluge of titles that make no sense. But this really does convey how you present to us John and Paul: they’re just too diverse, too unrestrained, to express in words. Having been writing songs since 1958, ten years on it was undeniable that they knew how to write good songs when they wanted to, and quickly too. (“Birthday”, a rather fun if shallow rocker, was written from scratch, recorded AND mixed in just eight hours. If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.)
But then the two of them got a bit too self-satisfied, too convinced that they were the precious songwriting darlings of the world. I think they believed that anything they put out would become a hit anyway, and so they used that supposed freedom to satiate their weirder musical urges. Long story short, their experimentations on you tend to be either a hit (and a direct hit at that) or a really, REALLY bad misfire.
Let’s talk about the latter category first: you’ve got some really, really weird ones experiments in you that don’t work. “Helter Skelter” was mostly borne out of Paul’s desire to be “noisy” (his words, not mine), and I don’t know whether this is because I’ve never been a fan of metal, but this seems just like a bunch of people undergoing primal therapy (which in fact John would go through in a couple of years). There’s a fine line between mindless screaming and anguished screaming, and this is definitely in the former category. “Honey Pie” takes on the cheesiness of the music hall song (as in “When I’m Sixty-Four”) and dials it up to eleven, and this is where McCartney’s taste for cheese really does overstep the limits of musical good taste.
But of course, the cardinal offense belongs to John Lennon, as usual. “Revolution 9” is not only a misfire, it is a BAD misfire. As any music fan will know, this is just eight and a half minutes of weird noises (“number nine, number nine, number nine, number nine…”) which probably mean something, but God help me if I know what they’re supposed to be. Now, I’m sure that this “song” has its share of fanatic defenders, and I love experimentation as much as the next person. But I have to draw the line somewhere: and for me, “Revolution 9” cannot be considered a “song”. I appreciate Yoko Ono as an artist, and her contributions (I’m thinking of her line on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, where she becomes the only non-Beatle singing lead vocal on a Beatle song) do have merit to them. But if John thinks that this is good music, worthy of the album, then he has much to think about. This song — no, this bunch of noises — is no evocation of a revolution, any more than my stomach rumblings are.
Happily for us, these anomalies that are badly fleshed out good ideas are few and far between. Most of the time, the ideas we can find floating around are good, and when they are teased out fully, given a coherent beginning and end, they can be real pretty. They don’t even have to be very complex or long — Paul comes up with a lot of what Alan Pollack calls “bonsai” songs in you. “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” are both songs which never get any further than their title phrase and repeat themselves musically as well. But it’s no biggie: McCartney’s variations on the melody ensure that we get the sense of a beginning, middle and end to the song. And this is why they feel more complete and have some sort of musical statement within them that “Helter Skelter”, for all its four-minute length and demonic-possession screaming, could never accomplish. It’s a simple idea, and yet — once again — it works.
Sometimes the Beatles’ ideas don’t even need a set of lyrics to be voiced out. By these, I mean the long instrumental solos that populate your songs. Of course, we’ve experienced bridges before in Beatle songs — think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and many more besides. But those were all there as filler: a musical interlude between sections of lyric, a way to pass the time. But now, when George says that his guitar is weeping in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, he means it: Eric Clapton’s minute-long guitar solo rounds out the entire song and replicates the heartbreak of mourning beautifully; and when the guitars are suddenly replaced by eerie strings in “Glass Onion”, you sit up and listen instead of tuning out. These solos are part of the song, not just a break from all the singing. Without them, these songs can only tell half their story. I suppose these beautiful, sometimes haunting solos came from all those feelings the Beatles couldn’t express after India: they felt betrayed, and yet none of them felt comfortable talking about it. (Yes ladies, we men are terrible at feelings most of the time.) So instead, the four of them (or all of them except Ringo — the poor boy took his own food there, bless him) turned to the only way they knew how to express themselves: turning their anger, their confusion, into pure music, music beyond words.
The thing that strikes me most, however, is how earthy and candid everything is. I know that I’ve been flogging the “always be true” line from “Love Me Do” relentlessly, but it’s astonishing that even after five years of being varying degrees of true to what they sing, they are still honest: they share bits of their home life and even tell you how tired they are. And even while that’s going on, I just love how John and Paul take different routes to doing that, as if they’re trying to outdo each other with their different styles. John’s contributions can basically be split into two categories: there are the ones where he screams and shouts — about how tired he is, because that is the bundle of contradictions that is John Lennon — songs like “I’m So Tired” and “Yer Blues”. Then there is the other type where he very nakedly (pun very much intended) talks about how much domestic bliss he is in right now: “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is basically him screaming to Yoko “I WANT TO SCREW NOWWWWWW” while “Everything’s Got Something to Hide, etc.” is… also the same thing, basically. (Bless him, the man’s in love.) And then there’s “Good Night”, which I simply have to mention because it’s an antidote to all the madness we’ve been experiencing for the past 30 tracks: Ringo sings lead on this very cheesy track (instead of writer John? hmm), but so lush are the instruments and so calming is Ringo’s singing, you really feel at peace in the end — sort of like ASMR, actually. (So, yet another thing the Beatles pioneered, then.)
But unfortunately, despite him being a bit of a prick from these sessions onwards, star player on you has to go to McCartney again. How can I not, when he was firing on all cylinders and showing the widest range out of the four of them? From the Beach Boys pastiche in “Back in the U.S.S.R” to the acoustic twangs of “Blackbird” (containing some of his most beautiful lyrics), from the faux-ska of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, to… yes, even the loud ruckus that is “Helter Skelter” (sigh), Paul gives us something new with almost every song. How was he able to write in so many different styles, and pull almost all of them off so well? This burst of creativity comes in so many different forms and instruments, it’s hard to keep track of what he’s trying to do — and yet it has to be remembered that he’s basically doing the same thing as his best friend. Like John, Paul had lost a love and found another during the White Album sessions; and though he didn’t show it, I guess he would have been tired and wanting a break from all his bandmates. But still, what he manages to convey in all his songs is not a sense of marital fulfillment, but more hope for the future in general.
I admit, sometimes his optimism comes from a selfish place: “Martha My Dear” sounds like it’s trying to encourage somebody, but when you look closer at the lyrics it resolves into him telling Jane Asher “you’ll regret dumping me, you’ll see” (to be fair, “one of the most successful songwriters in the world” does take some beating). But the vast majority of them are beautiful: “Blackbird” is a radical departure from the cleverly (and let’s be frank, sometimes overly) produced Beatle songs of the past. It’s just McCartney and his guitar, with the beats tapped out on his foot. The chords are simple, the lyrics bare, and yet you are left with an extremely elegant song which have a sense of optimism you don’t find everyday. In spite of everything, then, he’s still got it in him to make things lovely.
I know it all sounds as if I’ve been rambling on for ages, trying desperately to connect them your songs with weak connections. The truth is, you are not an album we can talk about easily. The four of them all pursued such different ideas of music, it’s just so hard to talk about what makes you “The White Album”. George, John, Paul and Ringo all perform in you, but I find that I can only say that a particular song is George’s, or Paul’s, or John’s, or even poor old Richard Starkey’s. I can never call your tracks “songs by the Beatles”, so stamped are they with their own unique brands. It’s something to really gently weep over.
Still, as Paul said, thirty years later, “it’s the Beatles’ bloody White Album, shut up!”. And for all the sharp edges you contain, I still like you for the fascinating glimpse you are into what was consuming the Beatles’ everyday lives, into a period where friction between the four of them created some of the most interesting and diverse sparks music has ever seen. Even when they were disintegrating, they created something beautiful — and that, readers, is something only the Beatles could ever do.
Favourite track: Okay, I really, really wanted to promote a Harrison song, because I really do think that this, instead of Abbey Road, is the album where he finally comes of age and dazzles everyone with what he can do. But dear God, John Lennon’s “Julia” is so hauntingly beautiful and simple that I would be kidding myself if I didn’t allow it. It’s a rare moment from the heart that doesn’t spiral into rage and/or pain, and I love it.
(Featured image from cover of The Beatles, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)