1968, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Gifted Vinyl, 1988.
IN A NUTSHELL: The Beatles, aka “The White Album,” is, for the most part, a bunch of songs by the solo Beatles. It’s an Easter Basket of a record, with some favorite treats, some stuff you just kind of like, and even a (“WTF?”) stick of deodorant. I’ve come to appreciate the hit-or-miss nature of the songs, as they rise and fall in my estimation as I age and change. There seems to be no genre unexplored, and there was certainly nobody to tell them NOT to make such a weird record. And in the end they produced an album like no other.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I usually start with a bit of a background story for these posts about these albums. In the spirit of “The White Album,” it feels appropriate to instead start off with a bunch of random, disconnected Beatle memories and thoughts.
When I was a kid, my dad used to tell a story that Ringo Starr had once stopped at our house in rural Pennsylvania, knocked on the door and asked how to get to Pushnik’s, a nearby hotel with a nightclub. (I don’t believe it was true.)
I worked on the third shift at Hershey’s Chocolate Factory in the summer of 1987, and I had a bit of a crush on a co-worker. One night during work she said she hated The Beatles. The crush immediately deflated.
John Lennon seemed very scary to me as a child, as if he had things to say that my parents might not want me to hear. When he was murdered, I was surprised by how many people were saddened, even people who I wouldn’t have expected, like my fat, old YMCA basketball coach. (Who I hadn’t thought about until just now, and I suddenly remembered that time he was alone with me, a 13-year old, and he asked me to take off my shirt and try on my basketball jersey, then he told me to lose some weight. That was pretty creepy, now that I think about it. Even back then if felt creepy.)
In high school, I watched the documentary The Compleat Beatles on the old TV show Night Flight with my buddy Rick, and he said the following two sentences, in order, with no break: “Paul McCartney is the worst, he had no business being in The Beatles. He’s a musical genius, I love him.”
J.B. and the So-Called Cells, my band with Dr. Dave, play many Beatles’ songs, and in my younger years I learned the entire bass line to “Oh! Darling.” This doesn’t sound too difficult at first, but then you realize that McCartney plays it differently every goddamn time through the song! (I no longer remember its many permutations.)
In the September 1976 issue of MAD Magazine, there was a “future Where-Are-They-Now?” piece, imagining celebrities 20 years in the future. It included photos touched up to make people look older, and I still sometimes picture The Beatles as those images. I envision George Harrison as a long-haired, bald Anglican priest quite regularly. (Boy, it would’ve been great for Lennon to reach 1996, right?)
I saw Paul McCartney perform at Fenway Park in 2009. He was 67 years old, played for about 3 hours and he and the band sounded incredible. They played lots of Beatles songs. It was a dream come true.
George Harrison may be the most underrated guitar player ever.
My friend Dave Finney, who is a musician with a a great EP called Recycle My Soul, recently recommended the book Dreaming the Beatles, by Rob Sheffield. It’s an excellent book, and very different from other excellent Beatle books, and I also highly recommend it!
I heard one time that back in the 70s and 80s, Ringo Starr was the third-most-recognizable person on the planet, after the Pope and Muhammed Ali. The Beatles famously met Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Miami on their first trip to America.
At a family wedding in the mid 2000s, my sister-in-law brought a guest who was a music documentary filmmaker and he had the phone number for Paul McCartney in his cell phone. He’d worked on The Beatles Anthology TV series in the 90s. I didn’t ask to see the number to confirm – it seemed rude to ask. And he wasn’t sure it was still a working number, as it had been years since he’d had to call it. But over drinks he told me Paul was friendly and business-like, and that George was very funny. Then he shared a bunch of funny stories about other famous classic rockers he’d worked with on the BBC Classic Albums series.
In the brilliant1 film Fletch, Fletch visits the hospital records room as Dr. Rosenrosen, when he gets asked to assist on an autopsy. After passing out, he is roused and informed that he’s in the records room. He immediately asks for “The Beatles’ White Album.” (And a glass of hot fat and the head of Alfredo Garcia.)
I got “The White Album” on vinyl as a 21st birthday gift from my sister. I excitedly played it, but was not immediately impressed. At the time, I was really only familiar with the songs that had been played on the radio often. Beatles “deep tracks2” weren’t well-known to me, and I didn’t know what songs were on which albums. So upon pulling the discs out of the sleeve (it was a two-LP set) the only songs I really knew well were “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” and “Helter Skelter.” And, of course, “Birthday,” thanks to Farmer Ted. That left 24 songs I didn’t really know.
Those 24 songs, on first listen, didn’t really sound like Beatles songs. I mean, sure, yes, I could make out the distinctive voices of Paul and John and George and Ringo, and the nonpareil melodies and harmonies were evident. But there was a particular “Beatle-esque” quality that seemed to be lacking. And I noticed that it was lacking even in the songs that I did know – apart from maybe “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Helter Skelter.”
This blog is not a history of The Beatles – so many folks have done that so well that I’m not even going to try. But lots was happening among the band members in 1968, so suffice it to say that this album lacked that certain Beatle-y something because The Beatles is the album where John, Paul and George – and even Ringo – were basically testing out their solo stuff. Even the photos included in the album were four individual close-ups of the band members, plus a bunch of random solo photos, and NOT shots of jolly mates frolicking in matching suits. And though I was initially unimpressed, over the years this album has rocketed up my Beatle chart. The lack of a unifying spirit to the album has become its main draw to me now. I seem to find something new in the album with every listen. It’s almost like the record has changed with me over the years.
The Beatles is like an Easter basket of candy. There are plenty of Reese’s eggs and Kit-Kats and lots of chocolate, plus a few jelly beans, and then, let’s face it, one or two stale marshmallow peeps. (There’s even an equivalent to finding a stick of deodorant in your basket.) The point is, there are THIRTY mother-effing songs on this record!! And just like candy, everyone has their favorites. I don’t think I can go into detail on each song. Some are going to just get a brief mention. I hope I hit your favorite song! I’ll do my best.
I figure the best way to tackle all these songs is to go through it the way I first heard it: as a double album, four sides. I’ll start right at the beginning: “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
What a great way to kick off an album, with the sound of a jet airplane, a cool guitar squawk, and a some old-fashioned rock-n-roll piano! It’s a Paul-song, with music and lyrics written as a sort of parody of/homage to The Beach Boys3 and Chuck Berry. George and John provide perfect 60s surf harmonies, and George and Paul share lead guitar – George on the first solo (1:23) and Paul on the last verse (2:03). By the way, that’s John Lennon on bass, and Paul himself on drums, as Ringo had briefly quit the band due, in part, to Paul’s criticism of his drumming on the song.
Next up, blending into the diminishing sound of that BOAC jet, is a song that is one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever4, “Dear Prudence.”
This one’s a John song, a soft, acoustic, finger-picked ballad that builds beautifully into an inspirational, electric epic. It was written to encourage Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, to have a little more fun while they were all in India meditating. I love Paul’s repeated lone bass note (0:19) at the beginning, balancing on the perfect dueling guitars of George and John. Although it’s a John song, Paul nearly steals the show with his wonderful bass and – once again – DRUMS! (His fills and rolls, particularly beginning at 2:50, are so Ringo-like that some people still insist Ringo played them.) But forget Paul – put on your headphones and listen to John and George play guitar. They work together brilliantly, curling around each other, John holding down the rhythm, George playing lead … check out 1:25, 1:43, 2:14, 3:30… Just listen to the whole song, it’s amazing. And if flows into another excellent song, Lennon’s “Glass Onion.”
The lyrics cleverly recall many old Beatle songs, spoofing the mystical nonsense that was swirling around the band at this time. It’s a short song with really cool-sounding bass and guitar from Paul and George, and terrific vocals from John. (I love his “oh yeah!” at 1:13). Ringo’s back on drums, too, and while I myself could’ve used a little less of the string section, it’s still a great track.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a fun song I used to sing to my kids at bedtime. It was my favorite Beatles song in college, but now I find it very ‘eh5.’ “Wild Honey Pie” is one of those stale peeps of a song. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is a sort-of singalong kids song with funny lyrics (and a Yoko Ono cameo vocal) about asshole cowards who go “trophy” hunting. Then we arrive at one of the all-time greats, the George Harrison classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
It’s a slow, bluesy number that opens with Paul’s piano, then George’s mellow vocal begins. It’s a song with a lyrical theme that Harrison would return to throughout his solo career, a wish for the power of love to triumph, and the potential for music to make it happen. (Or not. The interpretation is sort of a glass-half-full/half-empty kind of thing.) McCartney’s harmony vocals are great, and Ringo’s drums are subtly brilliant. But, of course, the star of the show is guest Eric Clapton, who plays lead guitar throughout and really does seem to make it weep6.
Side one finishes off with my favorite song on the album – oh wait, I think I said that already about another song. A John Lennon masterpiece, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
It’s got three separate sections (“The Dirty Old Man,” “The Junkie,” and “The Gunman”) that each have different lyrics and different sounds, but that all fit together due to Beatle Magic. George’s guitar sound is phenomenal throughout, as is Paul’s bass and harmonies. And Ringo makes the sections flow together. I love the sound of the band in the “Mother Superior” section (1:14), and the 50s doo-wop vocals after 1:36. Also, Lennon is really a great vocalist – and his final “guu-uu-uun!” (2:22) is thrilling. I just love how weird and cool and different this song is. Well-done, boys.
Side two kicks off with one of those tremendously catchy, timeless songs that Paul seems to write in his sleep – “Martha My Dear.” It’s a Paul solo song, with hired musicians. And as much as I love it, it’s no “I’m So Tired.”
It’s a John song, and I heard this song for the first time in the Beatles documentary The Compleat Beatles7. I wondered then, and I still wonder, why it wasn’t a radio staple. John’s voice is great, swooping between anguish and frustration as insomnia and paranoia get the best of him. Of course Paul’s bass is excellent, as is George’s guitar, particularly in the chorus (0:48, for example). It’s a great example of the band working together.
A great example of a Beatle working solo is everyone’s favorite song – “Blackbird.”
It’s just Paul with an acoustic guitar, tapping his foot, and singing a song about the US Civil Rights movement in the 60s. I don’t know how to play guitar, but I have heard that Paul doesn’t play traditional chord fingerings on the song, and that this makes it a popular song for guitarists moving out of the novice realm to learn and butcher (until they get it right!) It’s a beautiful song, and one that was rightfully left untouched by further studio production. A voice, a guitar and a tapping foot are the perfect arrangement for it.
Side Two continues with “Piggies,” George’s darkly funny lambaste of consumer culture (with harpsichord!). Then comes “Rocky Raccoon,” a humorous country ballad, and the last Beatles song to ever feature John Lennon on harmonica. “Don’t Pass Me By” is the first Ringo composition to appear on a Beatles album, which reportedly took him 7 years to write. “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” is a Paul solo song (with Ringo drumming), more akin to “Wild Honey Pie” than “Blackbird,” that clearly serves as evidence of the boredom that must accompany long hours in a recording studio8.
Another Paul solo song, and one that would have fit nicely on even the earliest of Beatle LPs, is the lovely “I Will.”
Ringo and John help out on percussion, but otherwise it’s just Paul on acoustic guitars, harmony vocals and “vocal bass.” That’s right, he scats the bass part. The lyrics are rather simple, perhaps in the “silly love song” vein that he was pilloried for later (a criticism he mocked with a Number 1 hit.)
Paul wasn’t the only Beatle recording solo songs for The White Album. John contributed the beautiful song “Julia,” written about his mother who died after being hit by a car when John was 17.
It’s just John finger-picking an acoustic guitar and singing along. I’ve always loved this song, but since I met and married a woman named Julia nearly 30 years ago, I’ve grown fonder and fonder of it. And listen to that last chord John plays – it’s really wonderful.
Side three opens with what may be the only truly Lennon/McCartney-penned song on the entire album, “Birthday.” It’s a guitar heavy, blues-based, party romp that leads into a different style of blues, the Lennon-penned “Yer Blues.”
I love the dirty sound of the Harrison and Lennon guitars coupled with McCartney’s heavy bass. And Ringo plays great fills throughout (check out the fill at 3:00). The song is meant to be a spoof of the British blues boom happening around 1968 (Led Zeppelin, Cream, John Mayall, etc), but it sure doesn’t sound like Weird Al. Lennon totally sells his vocals, and the guitars in the faster section (2:30 – 3:17) are terrific.
Side three really has a tremendous run of songs. After those rockin’ numbers, another soft Paul solo song appears, “Mother Nature’s Son.”
It’s an acoustic song on par with “Blackbird,” in my estimation. Paul’s playing is charming, even the little goof at 0:39. It’s a celebration of nature, with some lyrics contributed by John. I think the song would have been even better if George Martin’s backing brass arrangement had been pared down, or deleted. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s still a great song.
As is “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, Except Me and My Monkey,” a Lennon song that almost sounds punk rock!
Have I selected a favorite song on the record yet? If not, this is the one. I love Paul’s ascending-scale bass, I love the keening guitar sound of the riff, I love the busy guitar behind the lyrics. I even love the psychedelic lyrics that don’t fit into the space they’re given. There’s a weird bell that rings through the entire song, too, that I don’t love as much as I love Harrison’s lead guitar. It’s purely strange fun.
But you know what? My actual favorite song – and this time I mean it – is the next one. Lennon’s sharp take-down of phonies, specifically the guru the band sought out in India, “Sexy Sadie.”
There’s so much to write about this song. First off, Paul’s piano intro and Ringo’s drum entrance. Next, John’s voice, which truly captures the disillusionment he obviously felt after investing so much of himself in the teachings of someone by whom he later felt duped. The backing vocals of Harrison and McCartney, the “wah-wah’s” and “see-see’s,” and especially the “Sexy … Sadie” as the chorus begins, about 0:54. George unleashes some great guitar in the second chorus (1:56) to the end. The whole thing is just brilliant.
And this side of The White Album keeps delivering, with the frantic song – sometimes called the first heavy metal song ever – “Helter Skelter.”
It’s a raucous, furious song with lyrics about a British amusement park ride that seems far more tame than the song implies. (Hmm… maybe it’s not about a ride…) Paul screams his lungs out, while Lennon plays bass, driving things forward, and Harrison rips off a series of descending runs and a cool solo at 1:37. Ringo bashes his cymbals throughout (famously causing “blisters on his fingers”) and the band manages to sing cool backing vocals, too. There’s also two false endings, at 3:09 and 3:44. The song sounds like rather mischievous fun, like nothing else. Certainly it sounds nothing like Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long,” which closes Side Three.
Its lyrics could be about a woman, or could be about his spiritual devotion to a higher power. The song makes great use of dynamics, and Ringo’s drumming is perfect for it. The acoustic guitar is simple and lovely. The song’s the perfect way to close out a near-perfect side of music.
It opens with a song that, when I saw its name on the label, I expected to jump around and shake my fist to it. But it turns out that “Revolution 1” is not the “Revolution” I knew and loved through my teenage years. That song was released only as a single. The White Album version is instead a slow doo-wop song with the same lyrics. Great Harrison guitar in both. Which isn’t the case in “Honey Pie,” which has a guitar solo by Lennon. It seems to want to recapture the charm of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but it doesn’t.
“Savoy Truffle” is another George song, and one that shows that despite his frequently dour appearance, he was really a funny guy. The song – on which he plays a ferocious guitar – is about pal Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate. John Lennon also displays a different side than his usual sarcasm on the charming children’s song “Cry Baby Cry.”
The first verse is simply John on acoustic guitar, but Ringo soon joins on drums, and by the second verse Paul is once again shining with an inventive bass line for a simple song. I used to sing this song to my kids at bedtime, and images of “the Dutchess of Kilcardey” and “the local Bird & Bee” were perfect for conjuring dreams. It’s a cool song with great harmonies, and an addendum from Paul (“can you take me back?”) that really wraps it all up.
So, now we get to the stick of deodorant. Just as no one would describe such a practical gift as “a bad piece of candy” even if it’s received in one’s Easter basket, I can’t really call “Revolution 9” a “bad song.”
True, it appears on an album by a band that is well known for recording songs, but is it a song? I suppose if John Lennon says it’s a song, then it’s a song. Wikipedia calls it a “sound collage,” and I think that’s a better term. Whatever you call it, I have never been able to listen to more than about 4 minutes of this longest-ever Beatles recording9. I really tried for this post – but I couldn’t do it.
The album ends with a song that I don’t really love, but is perhaps the perfect way to end this wonderful monstrosity of an album: the Lennon-written, Ringo-sung “Good Night.” It’s a way-too-schmaltzy lullaby, and elicits the final “what the fuck?” from the listener. The band released a beautiful four-part harmony version a few years ago, which is probably a better version, but is not what was really needed after 28 disparate, crazy songs, plus one sound collage.
After all that, I can’t really say anything else besides “Go listen to this record!”
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
“Wild Honey Pie”
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
“Martha My Dear”
“I’m So Tired”
“Don’t Pass Me By”
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”
“Mother Nature’s Son”
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”
“Long, Long, Long”
“Cry Baby Cry”