Originally published October 2012, revised June 2016.
George Martin named Abbey Road his favorite Beatles album.
Well, there’s no accounting for taste.
In fairness to Sir George I do believe that Abbey Road was his greatest achievement as a producer, for the man worked wonders with seriously substandard material submitted by Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. He also had to work around irreparably damaged group dynamics, piecing together work that was often recorded by band members in separate studios to make it sound like The Beatles were having the time of their lives. In the so-called suite on Side 2, George Martin patched together a series of incomplete musical ideas with no lyrical connection whatsoever into something that resembles a coherent musical work.
But once you get past the production, you realize that there really is no there there.
Abbey Road has a terribly sterile, cold feel to it, but in this case the fault lies not with the producer but with the performers. Lennon is absolutely full of himself and of Yoko and comes across as a man with a highly inflated belief in his status as an artiste. McCartney is equally self-absorbed and out of touch, and his work on Abbey Road is consistently substandard. Even Ringo’s contributions flop, and his drum solo on the “suite” is one of his saddest moments as a Beatle.
George Harrison was the only bloke who showed up for work. “Something” is a love song for the ages (though I do cringe his use of the archaic word “woo”), featuring George’s most accomplished lead vocal and some of his sweetest guitar work on record. “Here Comes the Sun” is his most purely joyful contribution to the catalog, a beautifully simple work free of spiritual proselytizing and classic Harrison bite. The only other memorable performances on Abbey Road are Paul’s exceptional bass part on “Something,” the long, heavy fade on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and the harmonies on “Because” (especially when sung a capella on Anthology 3).
Even with his two solid contributions, George could never carry the load by himself. While I’m sure he took some satisfaction in finally out-composing and outperforming the guys who always looked at him as the little kid, we’re only talking about two tracks in a package of seventeen.
That leaves a lot of room for crap.
Lennon’s contributions range from gibberish to more gibberish. “Come Together” is a cascade of nonsense lyrics (partially ripped off from Chuck Berry) building to his Christ-fantasy statement, “Come together, right now, over me.” The aforementioned “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” becomes palatable only when he stops singing and mumbling. The lyrics to “Sun King” sound like they were written by a very happy drunk or a very young child. “Mean Mr. Mustard” is a shadow of Lennon’s early wit, as is its truncated twin, “Polythene Pam.”
McCartney had been in serious decline since Sgt. Pepper, slipping in a few good singles here and there to mask the extent of his creative atrophy. He sinks to the bottom with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” one of the most pointless and stupid songs in history, a jolly song about a murderer who bashes brains. Lovely! “Oh, Darlin’” couldn’t even survive the horrid Get Back sessions, and at this point McCartney was so far removed from the kid who used to channel Little Richard, he should have . . . let it be. “You Never Give Me Your Money” opens with promise but quickly dissolves into a series of scattered fragments that leads to a “suite” of scattered fragments. As for McCartney’s other contributions, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is an inside joke even the insiders didn’t get, and even the 17th century poem he “borrowed” for “Golden Slumbers” is a back catalogue poem.
And while no one likes to pick on poor Ringo, the truth is the man couldn’t write a song to save his life, and “Octopus’ Garden” defines the word “hokey.” When I saw Cirque de Soleil’s Love in Vegas and “Octopus’ Garden” started blasting through the surround sound near the end of the performance, I walked out.
I know the Baby Boomers are in complete denial about this, but The Beatles peaked as album artists with Sgt. Pepper. After that, they put out a few great songs, but their album work was inconsistent at best. The White Album, the Get Back/Let It Be fiasco and Abbey Road are all indications of a band that stayed together way past their prime. I listen to those works with the same sadness people must have felt while watching Willie Mays embarrass himself by hanging on for one year too long.
From Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles had always tried to improve on what they had done before—to make the next album better than the last. Once the group dynamics began to shatter during the making of The White Album and the once-friendly competition between John and Paul turned ugly, the quality of their material declined precipitously. They had lost their drive and were running on fumes. They were able to get away with it because they were The Beatles, with legions of fans ready to pronounce anything they released as yet another triumph in a never-ending success story.
The album may say “Beatles,” but the Beatles were long gone by the time Abbey Road hit the shelves. The guys who had always tried to outdo themselves had become undone.
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.