Happy, happy Beatles singing love, love, love. Wacky, wacky Beatles bouncing around the English countryside in a bus. Busy, busy Beatles dashing off another hit single before flying off to India to seek the truth.
Oops! No truth there! Only Donovan, a Beach Boy and several other hangers-on.
Grumpy, grumpy Beatles fly home in pieces with forty-something songs and start a corporation. John dumps Cyn for Yoko and a heroin habit. Jane catches Macca in the sacca but he’s got a Francie in his pantsy.
Maybe things will get better in the studio.
Oh, no! Happy, happy Beatles snappy with each other! Where’s Ringo? Where’s George? Why is John in one studio and Paul in another? What the fuck is Yoko doing here?
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, what happened to love, love, love?
The White Album should have been the first signal to the music-listening public that the dream was over.
At the time, the music-listening public was either too stoned, too devoted to their gods or too hungry for anything Beatles (it had been well over a year since their last full album) to receive The White Album with anything but automatic adoration. Thirty tracks! That’s an early Christmas present if there ever was one!
I think the more relevant fact about the timing of The White Album was not that it came at the start of the holiday shopping season, but on the fifth anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy. Although the assassination had far more impact on history, both senseless disasters occurred on November 22.
I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theorist out there who will make something out of that.
It certainly doesn’t seem you’re about to experience the beginning of the painfully slow demise of the Fab Four when you put needle to wax. The opening track, “Back in the U. S. S. R.” must have delighted and thrilled Beatle fans of the time with its breezy, playful humor. Ah! The sound of happy, happy Beatles all playing nice together. Just like on Thornbury Playing Fields in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene from A Hard Day’s Night.
That might be the sound, but it was not the reality. Ringo doesn’t play a single beat on either “Back in the U. S. S. R” or “Dear Prudence.” He’d been spending most of his time waiting for the others to show up to work, a drag in itself. When they did get to work, Paul started picking on his drumming, so Ringo said fuck it and left for a couple of weeks. Because of the rising enmity between the band members, all four Beatles only participated on a little more than half the tracks, justifying the inclusion of four individual glossy photos of our heroes in the album’s innards.
The critics of the time were not as enthusiastic as the fans. The critics of our time, looking back through nostalgia-tinted lenses, have reached consensus that The White Album was one of the greatest albums ever made.
According to Kenneth Womack in The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, John Lennon said, “the break-up of the Beatles can be heard on that album.”
That’s what I hear, too.
I also hear a serious decline in the quality of the recording, probably due to George Martin taking an unexpected leave of absence and lead engineer Geoff Emerick getting fed up with the bullshit and beating a hasty retreat. I also hear song fragments rather than complete compositions, lyrics that go nowhere and a distinct lack of musical originality.
I guess that’s where six weeks of hanging out with Donovan will lead you.
Think about it. When you’ve found yourself in the mood for music, have your ever thought, “Man, I’d sure like to hear ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey?’” Or “Yer Blues?” Or “Honey Pie?”
Let’s go back to the promising beginning. “Back in the U. S. S. R.” is an irresistible hoot, and had they continued to connect with that spirit throughout the album, they might have had something. This is The Beatles not taking themselves seriously, trampling all over the image of them as generational gurus. When I listen to “Back in the U. S. S. R.” they seem like accessible, approachable blokes and not at all like rock royalty.
“Dear Prudence” is a solid effort from Mr. Lennon, with lyrics expressing sincere concern for another flowing over pleasant rhythmic and melodic variation. Unfortunately, he follows it with the dreadful “Glass Onion,” where his attempt to poke fun at the tendency of fans to over-interpret Beatle lyrics and the whole Paul-is-dead thing falls flat due to the absence of the insightful absurdist wit Lennon had displayed in his earlier days. It’s also a musically awkward song that never really comes together.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was selected as the worst song ever in one online poll. I don’t think it’s that bad, but it does not seem that the effort put into this song (retakes, remakes galore) is reflected in the outcome. It’s basically on of those cute McCartney songs (what John called his “granny songs”) partially redeemed by the accidental gender-bending line in the last verse. It’s followed by “Wild Honey Pie,” a silly and stupid waste of time.
Once again Lennon’s wit is absent in “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” as any attempt to satirize gun-loving Americans or argue the frequently-made point that killing is wrong are interrupted by the ex deus machina appearance of Captain Marvel for no discernible reason whatsoever. George then gets his turn with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” overrated by many due to the presence of Eric Clapton on lead guitar (it’s really one of Clapton’s most pedestrian solos). The lyrics, where George assumes the role of guru to the masses, are both insufferable and inane. The real cringer is “With every mistake we must surely be learning.” I can hear the acidheads saying “Wow” as they ponder the obviousness of it all.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a stream-of-fragmented-consciousness piece that works because of the obvious commitment The Beatles made to get this challenging piece of music right. The connections between the four disparate pieces are very well executed (especially the sudden shift to “Mother Superior jump the gun”). The last verse perfectly encapsulates the uniquely American love affair with guns and links that obsession to a people who are as paranoid as paranoid can get. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a small journey through modern consciousness, and the fragmented nature of the song perfectly reflects the fragmentation of the modern mind.
Now we’re on to Side 2 and McCartney’s “Martha My Dear.” The piano pattern is rather clever, with interesting dissonance thrown in from time to time, but the lyrics—whether they’re about McCartney’s sheep dog or Jane Asher—leave me feeling empty. This is the problem with all the McCartney songs on The White Album except “Blackbird”: the lyrics are throwaway lyrics, as light as diet lemonade. There was a certain amount of truth to the “Paul is dead” hysteria: at this point, the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby” is deader than Kelsey’s nuts, and what we will hear throughout the rest of his long, drawn-out career is McCartney Lite.
Although he was definitely running out of gas as well, Lennon still had enough left in the tank to give us more memorable lines, as demonstrated in “I’m So Tired.” What I find impressive about this song is that John actually wrote it while suffering from insomnia in Rishikesh. I don’t know about you, but when I haven’t had my sleep I’m barely capable of a complete sentence and most of what tumbles out of my mouth is pure bitch. Lennon manages to not only capture the irritability of the insomniac but also the stray brilliant thoughts that sometimes come to the fore when we’re half-conscious:
I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset
Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette
And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
He was such a stupid git
Easily the tightest and best-performed song on The White Album, “I’m So Tired” also features an absolute knockout vocal performance by John, who must have temporarily found his inner Lennon.
“Blackbird” follows, and while McCartney has claimed the song dealt with race relations in the United States, that may be what today we call “spin” in response to charges (like the one I made above) that he’s a lyrical lightweight. Sometimes lyrics work because they sound good (ever hear of lyric poetry?) and contain enough concrete imagery to make the moment come alive for the listener (or reader). That’s the case in “Blackbird,” where the images of utter darkness are balanced by images of freedom in the form of flight.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night
Oddly enough, my father—one of the most fanatic of all Beatle fans—can’t stand this song. “I heard so many lousy versions by friends and street musicians after it came out that I just can’t hear the original anymore,” he explains. Poor dad.
George gets another go with “Piggies,” one of the songs Charles Manson used to justify his psychotic theory of existence. I guess it was supposed to serve as relevant social satire, but the lyrics so heavy-handed and obvious that it sounds more like pandering in an attempt to remain relevant to the anti-establishment crowd. Harrison didn’t even write the two best lines (“what they need’s a damn good whacking” came from his mother, and “clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon” came from the still occasionally agile mind of John Lennon).
“Rocky Raccoon” was inspired while Paul was playing acoustic guitar with Donovan, and when most Donovan songs end, you inevitably ask, “And the point was . . .?” We stay in country mode for Ringo’s contribution, “Don’t Pass Me By,” which seems to drag on forever. “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” is Paul’s reaction to seeing monkeys humping in the street. “And the point of recording this was . . .?”
Side 2 closes with two quieter numbers. The first is “I Will,” an insipid piece of tripe lasting a grand total of 106 seconds that took three Beatles an amazing sixty-seven takes to “get right.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Lennon comes to the rescue with his touching ode to his mother, “Julia.” While we would hear the more angry and desperate aspect of his anguish stemming from the loss in “Mother,” this song is more contemplative and appreciative. The two-word images (“ocean child,” “seashell eyes,” “windy smile” and “morning moon”) are brilliant and evocative. “Julia” is one of the most uncontaminated songs Lennon ever wrote, and it’s a beauty.
Side 3 is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. In the beginning The Beatles lose themselves at a birthday party; at the end George finds god. Along the way John speaks pridefully of heroin addiction, unintelligibly about Yoko and snarkily about the Maharishi. Paul goes sickly sweet on “Mother Nature’s Son” then attempts to compensate by leading the band in the noisemaking session known as “Helter Skelter.” My nomination for the worst side the Beatles ever produced.
Side 4 isn’t much better. First we have the original, slower, shoo-bee-doo-bee version of “Revolution (1),” an experience that makes one long deeply for the distorted excitement of the single version. Count me “out” when it comes to this turkey. How you can follow a song dealing with massive social upheaval with one of McCartney’s most sickeningly sweet numbers is a mystery to me, but the Beatles try to do it with “Honey Pie,” which probably made the radicals really wonder whose side they were on. George then brings us a tribute to food and drink, “Savoy Truffle,” and somehow synthesizes that with a dig at “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da” and the pursuit of higher consciousness. Other than the work of the horn section, “Savoy Truffle” is not particularly filling. “Cry Baby Cry” is easily the best track on Side 4, thanks to Lennon’s appreciation for delightful phonetic combinations (“the Duchess of Kirkaldy always smiling and arriving late for tea) and a slightly haunting arrangement that also has the rare virtue (on this album) of being tightly arranged. Paul’s “Can You Take Me Back” fragment follows, an oddly perfect introduction to the closing act.
Inspired by musique concrète and the talent-free Yoko Ono, “Revolution 9” has the virtue of being compelling the first time you hear it, largely because your mind is reaching out to the piece in its habitual search for meaning. You might even give it a second spin if you’re feeling adventurous, but if you’re unlucky enough to listen to it a third time, you’ll finally come to the conclusion that it’s really a self-indulgent piece of crap containing only the meaning that a wacko like Charles Manson derived from it.
The album closes (hooray!) with a Ringo solo, “Good Night.” All I can say about this one is that Lennon wanted it to sound real cheesy and they succeeded.
Many albums from the 1960’s have better reputations today than they did at the time. There are two reasons for that: one, the Baby Boomers still view the period as the most meaningful fucking period in the history of humanity, so everything that happened in the 1960’s was the best ever; and two, the quality of rock music has declined so dramatically over the years that people keep going back to the 60’s to hear the real thing. So, will I take The White Album over anything the Police, Weezer or the Smashing Pumpkins did? Probably.
But what pisses me off about The White Album is that it is the official record of how four very talented people chose to piss away both their talent and a unique opportunity to produce high quality music because they chose not to honestly and openly communicate with one another but behave like adolescents.
And it only got worse on their next album.
Joe: Many times I’ve debated with people about what should be on it, what shouldn’t be on it but now, looking back, I can’t separate it. It’s like the layers of an onion: there are some stupid tracks, there are some brilliant tracks. The more I think about it, the happier I am that it is what it is. The fact that it was all thrown down in one go and then released like that makes it doubly outrageous – triply outrageous. I can only say I’m proud of it, warts and all. It’s a magnificent thing and I wouldn’t change it even if I could. And that’s after some soul-searching.
Strummer, Joe; Jones, Mick ; Simonon, Paul; Headon, Topper; Clash, The (2011-09-27). The Clash (Kindle Locations 1873-1883). Rocket 88. Kindle Edition.
I agree with your overall take on the white album. It is seriously overrated, for what is very much a curate’s egg. People like it for the good bits while studiously ignoring the bad bits. Self indulgent to an extreme: I like ‘I Will’, it’s short and sweet, but I would loathe it after 67 takes, in the same way as the rest of The Beatles grew to loathe ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’. It would have made a good single album. I find hypothetical discussions about what should have been left off pointless, but it required a ruthless, dispassionate razor. Pity.
[…] The Beatles (White Album) […]
Desert island album. I’d take it over Pepper and Revolver, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. It’s all over the place which is what makes it great. First time listening it was a total trip into the unknown, imagine the idea that the Beatles would deviate from their script and go off in so many directions? Sorry you don’t get Helter Skelter or the rest of side 3, which is brilliant.
I deeply recommend the reading of this review.
It is more than a matter of opinion (there are many that you won’t agree), but it is a truly fantastic review anyway that I recommend, regardless of opinion (beets) about The White Album. Please, say to me what you think about the review after you read it.
One more thing: I really like the song I Will. Lyrically, it is insipid, but the melody is really good and McCartney’s delivery is very sincere. In fact, the people that dismiss the song ALWAYS dismiss because of its insipid lyrics. If McCartney had taken more time in its lyrics, it could have been almost a new Here, There And Everywhere.
Correction: “dedicated more time in its lyrics”
I was not impressed. Many of his arguments are circular and defensive in the extreme, and he’s projecting his perception of structure instead of accepting the lack of structure that is the White Album and dealing with it. He’s also projecting intent (his comments on “Birthday,” for example) without evidence. He’s really just another of many Beatles mythologists, trying desperately to turn everything they ever did into something magical and meaningful. He also ignores the testimony of the two most qualified observers of the process: George Martin and Geoff Emerick. Martin tried desperately to get them to get it down to a single album and really work the songs; they told him to bugger off. Emerick quit in frustration in the middle of the sessions. “Grasping at straws” is how I would summarize this review. I repeat: we will never get an accurate assessment of The Beatles’ musical value until the Baby Boomers are dead and gone because they can’t get past their mythologizing.
Fantastic review! Never enjoyed this album save for a few songs.
Thank goodness. Beatle fans really hammer the crap out of me because I don’t care for their last three albums, so it’s nice to experience relief.
It’s an album that is like an unsecured catherine wheel. It whizzes and careers off in many directions at the same time. Some you see and hear and go ‘ooh’ but you miss others that make you go ‘ugh ‘ until later when you are in the right (or wrong) mood. Main thing is many parts are still memorable years later. When you listen to it again after a long time away we hear it in a different way. I still hate a few tracks with a passion- ‘Piggies’ will forever piss me off, but again, decades on this album still is getting dissected. Must mean something in a Timberlake world?
I’ve never understood anyone who thinks this is a great album. Thanks for breaking it down. It did come out at a time when any Beatle utterance was considered genius, but I don’t understand why critics today would listen to this album and think it wasn’t mostly a waste of time. I own it (vinyl and cd), I’ve listened to it a lot over the years, but…I…don’t…know…why. Such is the allure of the Beatles. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society was released on the same day in 1968. Thankfully, I’ve listened to it a lot more than the White Album over the years, though the White Album had a 10 year head start. Even as an Arthur fan when it came out in 1969, it took me 10 years to get around to listening to VGPS. Such is the lack of allure of the Kinks.
Gosh all heck I love both those albums. Does that make me confused?
I really enjoyed this review. I agreed with most of your points except that I like the Lennon songs much more than you do. I think Glass Onion is funny, as well as a cool groove, and I love how he name checks all of those old songs. (most of which weren’t so old!)
I love Yer Blues, which I find emotionally raw and was probably a good representation of how he was feeling in that era. Have you ever seen the version he did with the all star band? Clapton, Keith Richards playing bass, the drummer from Hendrix whose name escapes me now. Incredible!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I’ll have to check out Yer Blues with that lineup—they probably didn’t suffer from all the bad vibes running through Abbey Road during the White Album, and Clapton is a superb blues guitarist.
The drummer for Hendrix was Mitch Mitchell—he passed away a few years ago in Portland and I happened to be in Portland the night he died—right down the street from where I was staying.
An interesting review which I can’t agree with fully but you do make some good valid points and observations that do highlight that as much as I love this album, it is very erratic and deeply flawed. The Beatles – the band – are part of my DNA and this album is one I know back to front having listened to it countless times as a kid and in spite of some tracks I don’t like much, I can still listen to this in it’s entirety (bar one track which I’ll come to in a moment) and derive pleasure and amusement from it.
This was pretty much the work of three solo artistes (and a drummer) starting up their solo careers and the warning signs are all there, yet I’ll take these songs over what they produced when The Beatles ended any day. Macca enters the twilight zone of frivolity, Lennon gets ever more self centered (and is also clearly confused) as he became ever more withdrawn into his own twilight world with Yoko, and George is heading into his preachy and patronising persona… all these facets would be milked to death with calamitous results when they went solo. Yet here, jumbled up with some other flights of fancy, it makes for a very diverse album that to this day remains “interesting” – not necessarily brilliant, but interesting all the same!
OK. Trying to keep it brief, so a handful of my own thoughts.
“Long Long Long” is for me, the most boring song The Beatles ever recorded. Nothing comes close… well… apart from the one that follows it! It’s the only track I HAVE to skip because I don’t want to run the risk of being induced into a coma. That apart, I do enjoy George’s other contributions, they’re not brilliant but compared to Macca’s worst moments…
Macca is all over the place and though he has his moments “Blackbird” and “Mother’s Nature Son” are big faves of mine, but “Ob La Di” highlights what a prick he had become. Utterly staggering how he forced John, George and Ringo through endless takes of this crap AND in three different versions. Yoko’s presence sure didn’t help matters within the band but the ordeal of “Ob La Di” must had been the ultimate in having the piss taken out of you and little wonder the vibes grew heavier causing Ringo, George Martin and Geoff Emerick to snap and walk out during the sessions for the album. I know there were many factors behind it but I do believe the sessions for “Ob La Di” contributed strongly to the chasm that grew with Macca isolated from John, George and Ringo that made 1969 and beyond such a chore.
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “I’m So Tired” are two of Lennon’s greatest songs. Period. “Happiness” is very unusual musically for John, unlike anything else he ever wrote. On both songs you hear The Beatles sounding committed and doing what they did best. “Bungalow Bill” is silly but I find it amusing and endearing, and one can sense that everyone enjoyed themselves recording it. “Revolution 1” is tedious… a real drag. Hate it. The B side version is way way better – good in yer face rampant rock and roll!
Finally, the ever controversial “Revolution 9” which I’m gonna confess is the most influential track in my life. I just always found it fascinating and still do to the degree that as a teenager it inspired me to start creating my own sound and music collages which resulted in many many hours of fun. I was unlucky with the ladies and found myself on my own a lot so creating collages helped me through that lonesome misery and it challenged and changed my thoughts and ideals of what music can and could be.
Fascinating. So much of our interpretations of music have to do with the specific moment or life period when we heard the music. From that perspective I can understand your appreciation of Revolution 9. I do like other pieces of musique concrete, but this one just doesn’t float my boat.
You are being oversimplistic in show Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da as proof that McCartney had become a prick. Did you forget that McCartney had made Helter Skelter in this album? McCartney also made two great songs that unhappily were put out of this album: Hey Jude and Junk. McCartney and Lennon also had some great songs already in 68 and 69, but only released in solo career, maybe saving great material.
I also disagree about the point of the band being already done at this point but no one having the courage to say so. That would be coming after the tumultuous recording of ‘Let It Be’. On the ‘White Album’, yeah, there was fights (mostly about Yoko being in the studio with the band as they were recording), and even Ringo quit the group at one point, but when you listen, there also seems to be real exhilaration for the band to performing as a basic rock group again without all the production flourishes. Ringo also admitted as much in subsequent interviews. John and Paul went on a songwriting rampage while in India, and the result of laying down all these songs is an album of surprises, diversity and sheer musical genius. I would go so far as to say it was the last truly great Beatles album.
I think the’ White Album’ makes for an extraordinary overall listen. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is not only the best song on the album in my opinion, it’s also the best song George ever wrote. You praise “Within You Without You” so much, which I think is actually the WORST song George ever wrote — it’s dreary and dreadfully slow, and puts a blot on the pacing of ‘Sgt. Pepper’. That’s another thing I like about the ‘White Album’ — no boring sitar mantras and no kiddie sing-alongs on the lines of “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopuss’ Garden”. Lennon and McCartney are competitive once again with an equal number of contributions, Harrison gives us one great-to-good song per side, and even Ringo’s “Don’t Pass Me By” is OK. “Revolution #9” used to bug me, but now I just see it as an interesting sonic experiment — no more, no less.
I also don’t agree with your constant comparison and referencing to Ray Davies. In my opinion, once he got out of the Kinks’ initial phase around the time of ‘Face to Face’, Davies resigned himself to writing quaint songs about old British folks living in the English countryside (“Lola” being the great exception”) that had no relation to what was going on in the world around him. It’s easy to see why the Kinks never reached the popularity levels of the Beatles, the Stones and the Who.
Altrockchick needs a hoedown. I still hear the White Album as a survey of 20th Century noise, up to 1968. Dear Prudence, I’m So Tired, Cry Baby Cry, and Revolution 9 stand up to anything The Beatles ever produced. My favorite lyric of all time–Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9, Number 9….
“Cute” as they may be, “Martha My Dear” and “Honey Pie” have some very intricate melodic and chordal progressions as do Lennon’s lovely “Goodnight” and Harrison’s delightfully Baroque “Piggies.” And the progressions are not aimlessly meandering, but quite sophisticated. I challenge anyone who plays guitar or piano by ear to play these songs without having to search for the chord changes through trial and error. As for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, the poignant “I don’t know why” falsetto part never fails to almost move me to tears. As for the most polarizing track in the Beatles canon, the 8-minute “Revolution 9”, it scared me to death when I first heard it in 1968, but I’ve come to hear it as a brilliant piece of musique concrete on the same level as some similar pieces by John Cage, Edgard Varese, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. This type of musical abstraction is not for everybody, but one thing we can always say about “Revolution 9” is that it’s the most widely distributed piece of musique concrete in the history of the world. I agree with you on “Wild Honey Pie” but at least it only goes on for about a minute. Musically, the White Album is all over the map with a wider variety of styles than any other Beatles album (and arguably any other album by anybody), but it is somehow strangely cohesive. That’s my take on it as a musician and songwriter.
You make some good points. I did learn to play “Martha My Dear” in my teens, but I had a score to work with, and though I’m pretty good picking out chords, this one would have been challenging, particularly for a guitarist. Some of the patterns are pretty elementary piano, though, and the main rhythm is rather formal and stiff, like a piano recital. I never connected with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but I’m probably an outlier on that song.
“Revolution 9” has some intriguing passages; I had a lit professor who played it for us while we were analyzing Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” using it as a sonic parallel. He attempted to extend the theme to the obviously lush 1930’s feel of “Goodnight,” but I think he was over-interpreting the connection, and I’ve never found any indication that Lennon was a T. S. Eliot devotee. As a composition, I find it wanting—John and Yoko trying to enhance their image as “artistes” who were above it all than a real contribution along the lines of Varese and Stockhausen, but that’s just one girl’s opinion.
Sorry, I can’t agree here!!!!! I love all your reviews, and I laughed at several of your comments on this one (“Too fucking cute, McCartney”…..funny and apt)!!!! Admittedly, some of the songs here are not the greatest they ever did, but all together they create a mood and texture that wouldn’t be the same if you took off some of the tracks. Sure it is sloppy in a lot of places, the recordings are fairly murky and the mix is messy, but it’s a mood, a feeling, an atmosphere. To me, I can’t leave out any of the songs because they all add to it. Everytime I listen to it, I hear new things and other things grab me. Lately I have been ripping a lot of my vinyl on my computer, and I have a few different pressings of the White Album, so I have heard it a few times in the past couple of weeks. One of the “too fucking cute” songs that have hit me lately is “Martha My Dear” which I once thought was okay, but lately I love it. (I also love “Another Day” by the Rutles which is a parody of MMD. Neil Innes’s work on the Rutles is absolute genius – it’s like an alternate Beatles album).
You know, out of all the Beatles albums, this one is the album that I find divides fans the most. Some hate it, some love it. Whereas Revolver is almost universally adored, Pepper, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road are generally well liked, Let It Be is usually considered a let down (albeit with several great songs on it), the White Album is the lp I find gets the most passionate responses. Not an easy listen for sure, and depending on my mood, some of the songs I might skip, but overall I can listen all the way through and enjoy.
Obviously India, the Maharishi, Yoko, the start up of Apple and the state of the world in ’68 (student revolutions, politics, Vietnam etc) contributed to the mood of the album and the sessions. Geoff Emerick’s book makes it clear that they were in a different place and lots of tensions were being played out during the making of the album. Harrison was getting tired of being put down by John and Paul and was hanging out and recording with Dylan, Clapton and others who treated him as an equal instead of second tier. As many have pointed out, it was like 4 solo artists occasionally coming together to record when they needed someone else., not the work of a “band”.
Besides the songs and the recording quality, a number of things stand out to me with the White Album.
1) The guitar sounds. I read once somewhere that the White Album has some of the most distorted guitars ever recorded. It might sound like exaggeration, but listen to the album (in particular, George’s fills in the background of Dear Prudence, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Sexy Sadie and I’m So Tired) plus the sound of several of the solos on other tracks. Not to mention Everybody’s Got Something To Hide, Skelter and the single of Revolution. They are really noisy and fuzzed out. More fuzzed than anyone else at the time. Obviously they aren’t as “metal” as other later bands, but that has to do more with the songwriting and recording style and approach. The guitar sounds are just as dirty, but mixed a bit lower.
2) It is probably the best vocals that Lennon ever did. When he is at his peak on the album (Prudence, I’m So Tired, Julia, Happiness etc) no one could come close.
3) McCartney’s stuff sounds almost like a rebuttal to Lennon’s stuff. “Oh, so you wanna do something like Revolution? Well, I’d better write Honey Pie to get back the appeal of the granny’s”. I know that they did do this all the time, but it sounds more extreme on this album. Plus, on previous albums, even though we knew that they wrote separately, it sounded like they were still on the same page, and even though it might have been written by one, they would still check it with the other to see if it could be improved. On the White Album, it almost sounds like they wrote songs to spite each other, and didn’t give a fuck whether the other one liked it or not. And even though John and Paul always had a little competitive edge to their writing, on the White Album it sounds like the competition has turned personal in some ways, but in some ways it sounds like it’s over – they really didn’t care what the other one thought anymore.
4) You were right – at this point, the dream was over but no one wanted to admit it, especially each other so they continued on not knowing what to do about it, and not wanting to be the one who ended it.
Okay, so what do these points have to do with why I love the White Album so much? Admittedly, nothing. Just some points that I find interesting. The White Album just stirs up so many different emotions in me everytime I hear it. Sometimes I can be stressed, and the next song calms me down, the next one makes me want to scream, the next one makes me sad etc. No other album can do that for me, and that it one of the things that great art is supposed to do. Obviously every album I love gives me thoughts and emotions, but none do it as well and as often or as extreme as the White Album.
Plus, I think that it is the most “human” the Beatles ever sounded. Most, if not all of the Beatles albums were slickly produced, engineered and mixed. You very seldom hear anything out of place and it is obvious that there was a lot of work put into them. A lot of time and effort was spent in making them sound so good. And after the slickness of Pepper (and parts of Magical Mystery Tour) and coming out of the “summer of love” shit where everyone thought the Fabs were messiahs or something, out comes the White Album. This sloppy, noisy cacophony of sound that must have confused the hell out of everyone who expected another Pepper. Virtually no studio tricks, seeming to spend no time in making sure the drums sounded pretty, no cleaning up of mutterings off mike…..as Lennon would say, “no jiggery-pokery” (about Let It Be, but could have been about the White Album too. And to me, Let It Be was a more extreme version of the White Album – no overdubs, no edits, etc……which they did on the White Album, but without all the studio fancy stuff to slick it up). Of course, they had to do one last one (Abbey Road) slick enough to “preserve the myth” (again, a Lennon comment), but the White Album is where you get a sense of them being human instead of studio geniuses.
And one final point, again, nothing to do with why I think it’s great, but it is definitely the hardest “first listen” in the Beatles catalog. It takes time to absorb it and get used to it, if you ever do. It has been my favorite album for 30 years and like I said, I still get different things from it. Not that I am in any way implying that you need to listen to it again and again because you “don’t get it”!!!!!!!!! Not my intention at all. Just an unrelated point.
Thanks again for your great review!!!! You make some great points as usual, and even though I don’t agree with you, it’s still fun to read your well observed and well written comments.
It’s certainly okay to disagree and I think you made some good points. The way I see it, The Beatles reached their peak with Sgt. Pepper and the singles that appeared on the U. S. version of Magical Mystery Tour, but only in retrospect. They could have moved forward and reached new and different peaks, but they didn’t. I think they realized that the more elaborate recording style had run its course and approached The White Album from a different perspective, with more simple arrangements and no attempt to unify the song cycle. I have no problem with the concept—where they fell short was in the execution, particularly in the quality of songwriting.
If you look at The Beatles history, the bulk of their songs are neither as profound or as insightful as Ray Davies’ work, so I think there was still a lot they could have done with the art of the song, particularly with the lyrics. If The White Album had been filled with songs of the quality and depth of “Norwegian Wood” I would have a different take on it. Most of the songs on The White Album seem like terribly lazy efforts to me. It’s also quite obvious that the unity and level of collaboration which had been a trademark of their work was in serious decay. There are flashes, but the dream is over.
I have no problem with the sound or the increased distortion, which in context is very refreshing—especially if you never listen to Let It Be.
I think Lennon had the best efforts on The White Album, both lyrically and vocally; he still had his unique sense of humor working for him and hadn’t yet fully transformed into the self-and-Yoko absorbed jerk I loathe. Paul was already starting to fall deeply in love with himself, and George acquitted himself rather well in comparison and his four tracks are all very different from one another.
[…] The White Album […]
You surely know how to write – but so does McCartney, whose Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da I love just as much as his, er, Yellow Submarine. And I don’t give a f*** whether it’s uncool to play/sing these ‘cute’ tunes. Hell, I even adore Yesterday (how uncool is THAT?).
“Yesterday” is a beautiful song. See my review of “Help!”
[…] negative review looks like, I’d encourage them to see my reviews of Abbey Road, Let It Be and The White Album. I’d take Arthur over any of […]
[…] as a surprise. With a pattern very reminiscent of the horrid “Wild Honey Pie” from the White Album, the song has a grating sonic quality that is most irritating. Noel gets his head screwed back on […]
[…] Classic Music Review: The Beatles (White Album) […]