Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The White Album Revisited

Fifty years ago last month I celebrated my tenth birthday. To celebrate that momentous occasion my parents gave me a record player. In case you don't know what that is, ask your grandparents.

I bring it up because right around that same time, November 22, 1968 to be exact, either one of the greatest, or one of the most over-rated albums in the history of popular music depending upon your point of view, was released. Its official title was simply "The Beatles", but given the sparse design of the cover, pure white both front and back, broken up only by name of the album and its eponymous band embossed on the front, the album since its inception has been popularly referred to as The White Album

I was completely oblivious to its release. Like many Americans, my first encounter with The Beatles (the band) was leading up to February 9, 1964, when they appeared live on the Ed Sullivan show during their first trip to America. I remember the buildup for that show and all the hubbub surrounding the group and their premier American performance, but was less than impressed. My mother it turned out quite liked the Fab Four but I took my father's side on the subject as I usually did in those days. There were no older siblings around to influence my musical taste, so my father for better or worse filled that role. Interestingly enough, most of my friends at the time also did not have older bothers and sisters so they too listened to the same music as their parents. Consequently my personal soundtrack of the sixties, the music I actually listed to during that seminal period in the history of popular music, was middle of the road to say the least. To give you an example, the albums I received with that record player included recordings by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, and hands down my favorite band at the time, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

We moved to the suburbs shortly before my tenth birthday and I soon came in contact with a new group of friends who actually listened to music that kids listed to. That was when I discovered Top 40, and began buying 45rpm singles (again ask your grandparents), featuring recordings of the most popular songs of that particular week. Thumbing through a list of the 100 most popular songs of the year 1970, I can pick out a number of songs that I owned as singles:

War, by Edwin Starr
Band of Gold, by Freda Payne
Hitchin' a Ride, by Vanity Fair
The Love You Save, by the Jackson Five
Cracklin' Rosie, by Neil Diamond
Ball of Confusion, by the Temptations
Patches, by Clarence Carter
My Baby Loves Lovin', by the White Plains
and I kid you not:
Gimme Dat Ding! - by The Pipkins

You may have noticed, still no Beatles, even though they made a number of appearances in the top of the pops that year. It was in 1970 that I made the aquaintance of the person who to this day I still consider my best friend, a person who has influenced my life in more ways that I can name. He was years ahead of me in all things including music, and I would love to give him credit for my ongoing passion for the Beatles, but I cannot. Credit for that has to go to my mother.

I'm guessing it was the summer of 1970 when she bought a stereo console for our house, a piece of fancy furniture that doubled as a record player and radio. They were all the rage in those days. Anyway, along with that purchase she also bought several albums. Two that I remember were Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon and Garfunkel, and Blood Seat & Tears, by the band of the same name. I liked both of those well enough but the two albums she bought that changed my life forever in that pivotal year were Meet the Beatles and Abbey Road. Unbeknownst to her at the time, those two particular albums represented the alpha and the omega of the Beatles' Capitol years *, covering the time shortly before their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, until the band officially broke up, also in 1970.

There were several songs on both albums I instantly recognized, by then the ancient I Want To Hold Your Hand,  I Saw Her Standing There, and All My Loving from the first album, and the recent hits Come Together and Something from the last. What struck me was how different those two albums were. From the music to the appearance of the Fabs, it was hard to believe the two albums were made by the same group only five and one half years apart. Of course, those were eventful years.

The songs on Meet The Beatles were all about girls, dating, dancing, falling in love, and other yucky stuff that I was just beginning to appreciate as an eleven year old boy. That's no doubt the real reason I had no interest in the band as a five year old. By contrast, Abbey Road begins with John Lennon's gibberish filled, drug inspired, slowed down tribute to Chuck Berry with the oh so cool groove, Come Together. George Harrison came next with his sublime mature love song, Something, a Beatles song even my father could love.  Paul McCartney's first tune on the album is an upbeat ditty about a mischievous boy with homicidal tendencies named Maxwell. After Paul pulls out all the vocal stops with Oh Darling, we get a rare original Ringo Starr composition, this one waxing poetic about of all things, a cephalopod's lair, Octopus’s Garden. John finishes off side one with an ironic love song, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) featuring primal screams and an outro  comprised of a series of not altogether mellifluous guitar arpeggios that repeat seemingly forever, until they just stop mid-phrase. Side two is a veritable smorgasboard of songs that run together, some with no discernable beginning or end.  In a song appropriately titled The End, after Ringo's only bona-fide drum solo during his enitre time with the Beatles, comes a three way guitar solo with the remaining three members of the band trading off two bars in the lead before John's highly distorted triplet strumming brings the instrumental break to its sudden conclusion, leading into Paul singing what could be the words of the bands' epitaph:
And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.
Clearly Abbey Road was a long way from the Beatles' lovable moptop, yeah yeah yeahing, twisting and shouting, hand holding days. I was instantly hooked and my mission for the next four years or so, was to connect the dots between Meet The Beatles and Abbey Road, collecting every Capitol release, even the hard-to-find two record narrative of the band's history up until 1964, called The Beatles' Story. It's not an exaggeration to say that during those years I listened to nothing else. Despite being late to the table, I became an unrepentant Beatlemaniac. To this day I still know way more about the group and its members than I care to admit. 

Yet my knowledge pales in comparison to truly rabid Beatlemaniacs as I discovered while revisiting The White Album just after its fiftieth anniversary. In commemoration of that anniversary, a new "Super Deluxe" version has been released containing preliminary sketches for the songs, alternate takes, out-takes, as well as remastered versions of the original thirty songs that comprised The Beatles (the album). Weighing in at six CDs and a hefty price tag to go along with it, "The Beatles Super Deluxe Edition" is a must for Beatle "completists" with 150 bucks or so burning a hole in their pocket. In case you're wondering, in the words of one of the multitude of reviews I read about the set, a Beatles completist:
is a collector with deep pockets and unlimited willingness to max out any variety of credit cards for the best sound and every available version of a limited amount of tracks, no matter how negligible.
Well you know that you can count me out on that distinction.

One of many issues that listeners with a critical ear have expressed over the past fifty years is their complaint that the double-disc White Album was too long. That argument was expressed by no less an authority than the late George Martin who produced the lion's share of Beatle music over their career:
I thought we should probably have made a very, very good single album rather than a double. But they insisted. I think it could have been made fantastically good if it had been compressed a bit and condensed. 
If you google as I did, "Is The White Album too long?" you will come across a number of sites where folks who answer that question in the affirmative, offer up their opinions on what should stay and what should go. Looking at these lists however, it turns out that it's all a matter of personal taste. With one notable exception, which should be obvious to anyone who knows the album, there is little consensus on what should get the boot.

Some folks believe that all of Paul's upbeat, happy, and frivolous songs like Ob La Di, Ob La Da, Martha My Dear, Honey Pie, I Will and Rocky Racoon don't hold a candle to his more rocking numbers such as Back in the USSR, Birthday, and Why Don't We Do It in the Road, all three of which of which also received goodbye votes (obviously from different folks). Same with John's lighter fare such as Dear Prudence, Bungalow Bill and Cry Baby Cry.  There were lots of votes to jettison Ringo's clunky Don't Pass Me By and all of George's tunes with the exception of While My Guitar Gently Weeps which is one of the few songs on The White Album to receive nearly unanimous praise.

I was a little surprised that John's Revolution 1 has its share of detractors. It may be the most familiar tune on the album as the more energetic, rocked-out, three minute version of the song was released on a single as the B side of Hey Jude. and became a monster hit in its own right months before the release of The White Album. The laid-back original concept for the song which opens side four of The White Album to me anyway, better suits the true spirit of the lyrics which rather than being a shout out for changing the world at any cost as some folks assume it is, is a  word of caution about being careful what you wish for. After the release of the single, Lennon was excoriated by the Left who called the song reactionary and its writer a traitor to the cause. John was always ambivalent about the song and clearly moved by the criticism. In response, before The White Album was released he tweaked the recording, dubbing the word "in" right after the word "out" at the end of the line that goes:
...but when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out, (in).  
I was also surprised that several of John's hard rocking, cynical and abstruse songs like Happiness is a Warm Gun, Yer Blues, and Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey, also made many hit lists.

However I was not the least bit surprised that John's most challenging contribution to The White AlbumRevolution 9, is nearly universally panned. The experimental sound piece that comes near the end of the album consists of over eight minutes of bits and pieces of disparate recordings, both archival and original, tape loops, sound effects and the like. played forwards and backwards, ranging from bits of classical music to street sounds, to random bits of dialog uttered by John, George Harrison, Yoko Ono and others, all spliced together in a seemingly random fashion. Lennon commented that he was "painting a picture of revolution using sound." The effect is controlled chaos and while the piece was certainly a huge departure from the rest of the album, it is not particularly ground-breaking nor original, but part of a long tradition of avant guarde music and art, of which Yoko Ono was a vital cotributor. The track is dissed by rock fans as being too long, too tedious, and much too pretentious, and by serious music people as not quite measuring up to those pretensions.

I bought The White Album during the height of my love of the Beatles, c. 1972, at our local Sears after school one day with my afore-mentioned best friend. He may have been a little beyond them at the time, but still wholeheartedly supported my passion. I have fond memories of opening up the package with him on the way home and discovering a folded up poster inside featuring on one side a collage of random snapshots of the Beatles made over the years, and on the other, the lyrics to all the songs on the album. But as they say in the infomercials, that's not all. Also included were four full color 8 x10 glossies of iconic headshots of each member of the band looking much different than the people who graced the cover of Meet the Beatles. Those photographs still hung on the wall of my parent's basement the day John Lennon died in 1980. They would remain there until my parents moved out of that house in 1986.

I have a vague recollection of the two of us, my friend and I, ending up back at my house where we listened to the album front to back. That was most likely the one and only time I ever listened to my vinyl copy of White Album in its entirety. Unlike CDs, vinyl recordings have two sides meaning you have to physically flip the record over to listen to the other side. To ease that terrible inconvenience, automatic record changers were built into most record players enabling you to play a number of albums without have to get up to flip over the record to hear more music when it reached the end of a side. Instead you would stack your records one on top of the other on a spindle, and when one record finished playing, the needle arm would automatically lift and move out of the way so the next album in the stack could drop down onto the previous album on the turntable in position to be played. This process repeated until all of the records in the stack had finished playing. Then you would typically flip over the entire stack and repeat the process. Record changers reeked havoc on the lifespan of the delicate LPs and audiophiles would never think of using them. But they sure were convenient. I used mine with reckless abandon back then which is why the sound resulting from the inevitable scratches on the surface of the discs became for me as much a memory of those songs as the songs themselves.

The upshot of the changers is that you would not typically listen to two sides of a record in succession, rather you'd listen to one side of an album followed by one side of another album, and so on, for however many albums you had in the stack.

The sequence of songs on most recordings back then was designed with that in mind, consequently each side of an album had its own distinct character. The White Album was no exception. If I had to characterize The White Album by each side I would say that in a nutshell, side one is irreverent, side two is playful, side three is disturbing, and side four is, well, revolutionary.

There are exceptions to that of course, and part of the magic of The White Album is that it is filled with surprises, as there is always an extreme stylistic and mood change from one song to the next. 

I'm probably not the best person to write a critical analysis of The White Album nor any work by the Beatles. I know their music far too well as it was truly the soundtrack of my formative years. To this day it carries the baggage of all the collected memories of my life that go along with listening to the music over and over and over again. But like my friend, I did manage in time to move beyond the Beatles, and in roughly forty years of developing a very eclectic musical taste, I believe I'm able to put their music into context, well, sort of. The truth be told, I'm still biased.

My vinyl copy of The White Album is long gone but we do have a CD copy at home which in preparation for this post I listened to for the first time in about a dozen years, yes front to back. As a matter of fact, I'm listening to it right now.  YOU SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY....

Anyway, here are some thoughts, forty six years after first hearing The White Album for the first time. Keeping in mind what I just said about biases, you can take these thoughts with a grain of salt.

Much like the editing of a film, a lot of thought goes into the sequencing of songs on great albums. This is especially true of the Beatles, where their albums are not merely a collection of songs, but like the band itself, the whole of them is greater than the sum of their parts. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band, the album that preceded The White Album **  is particularly known for the care that went into the sequencing of the songs which in some cases dissolved (to use a cinematic term) into the next song on the album. If you know SPLHCB, think of the transition between the title track which opens the record, and With a Little Help from My Friends.

The White Album takes these transitions even farther, where almost every song either dissolves into the next one, or has some intermediate transition to bridge the two, sometimes for a chilling effect. The WA in my opinion, opens with the best one-two punch of all the Beatle albums. The first thing we hear on side one is not of an instrument or a voice, but the recorded sound of a jet engine which opens up Paul's sendup of Chuck Berry via the Beach Boys, Back in the USSR. That up-tempo rocker concludes with the shrill jet engine again, dissolving into John's gentle Travis-pattern guitar picking on the opening of his beautiful Dear Prudence.

Like I said, the transition from virtually every song on The White Album to the next one is by design, a contrast often to the extreme. After Dear Prudence's dreamlike outro gently fades into a very brief silence, that calm is abruptly broken by two loud snare drum beats followed by staccato guitar chords that open John's self-referential Glass Onion. 

Another White Album track that is almost universally despised is Wild Honey Pie, a multi-tracked Paul-only song (some may be hard pressed to even call it a song). McCartney described it as improvised and experimental, two components that don't necessarily add up to a pleasant listening experience. This track which could be described as the musical equivalent of The Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Freddy Krueger, is without question the most boldly unpleasant track on the album. One might argue that McCartney came up with WHP just to prove wrong the criticism that he could only write pretty songs. Yet there are a number  McCartney contributions to the album that do just that. My guess is that WHP is the perfect antidote for the (to some ears) sickly sweet Ob-La_Di Ob-La-Da which proceeds it, a cleansing of the palette if you will. Alan Pollack, a musicologist who painstakingly wrote a detailed analysis of every song the Beatles ever released called WHP a diversion...
...while the stage hands change sets, as it were, during the entr'acte separating Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da  from ... Bungalow Bill. The gesture represents a theatrical exploitation of the LP album qua "medium" that is not to be under-estimated.
As if WHP isn't enough of a diversion, it ends with a clip of a flamenco guitar cadenza, (uncredited and most likely not performed by any of the Beatles), followed again by something completely different, John's cheeky knock on macho values, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. That song ends with my favorite transition of all. A little outro featuring a bassoon playing the melody of the tune backed up by the applause of a handful of people slowly fades out, then you hear a voice, sounds to me like John's exclaiming something unintelligible, which leads immediately into the opening notes of George's While My Guitar Gently Weeps, curiously played on a piano.

Now up to this point, the album consists of five solid, well crafted songs, all tied together brilliantly including the Wild Honey Pie part which I consider an interlude rather than a bona-fide song. So far so good, the album is off to a rousing start but nothing about it yet is particularly earth shattering.

That's about to change dramatically.

George Harrison was a brilliant songwriter who was overshadowed by his two bandmates, Lennon and McCartney. He was usually relegated to one or two songs per Beatle disc which clearly irritated him. But truth be told, George simply was not the hit producing machine that John and Paul were. That became apparent during his solo career where many of the songs he released are unlistenable. But when he was on, he was really on and by and large his released material in the Beatles catalog, especially after 1964 is of the highest quality. While My Guitar Gently Weeps goes beyond that. It is a deeply moving song that delves into the human condition and its composer's disappointment with humanity's failure to live up to its full potential which he describes as "the love that lays sleeping.". The song also expressed Harrison's disillusion over what was going on with the Beatles at the time, who seemed to be going on thier separate paths after their trip at Harrison's urging, to study Transcendental Meditation (TM) in India. The song originally was underappreciated by his bnadmates, perhaps because some of the original lyrics they correctly saw as digs against them, such as these:
I look from the wings at the play you are staging
The problems you sow are the troubles you're reaping
But Harrison pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He invited in his friend Eric Clapton to lay down some guitar tracks, which gave the song instant credibility with his bandmates.

As with many of the songs on The White Album, While My Guitar Gently Weeps went through many iterations before it was completed. The final version featuring Clapton's uncredited lead guitar became an instant classic and time has proven it to be hands down, the most enduring song on The White Album. But the release years later of one of George's early acoustic versions of the song on the Beatles Anthology 3, prove once and for all that Harrison's song holds up on its own with or without the intervention of Clapton. For the record, I actually prefer the acoustic version.

Side one would have been classic had it ended right there but the band wasn't finished. Capping it off is what I consider to be one of the best songs on the record, John's Happiness is a Warm Gun. As with so much on The White Album, HIAWG is experimental, a clean break from conventional pop music song writing. The song is broken up into four, maybe even five distinct parts, lyrically as well as stylistically, stream of consciousness style. In that sense the song is a paradigm for the entire album. The payoff comes in the last section,  a camp version of a fifties style doo-wop number, where John elaborates on the song's title which was lifted directly from the cover of a gun magazine, which itself was a twisted appropriation of a phrase made popular by Charles Schultz in his beloved Peanuts comic strip: "Happiness is a warm puppy." The chilling power and irony of that song which was always there, only intensified twelve years later after Lennon himself became a victim of gun violence. 
OK so do I think that The White Album is too long? Absolutely not, but this post is certainly going on much too long. There's so much more left to talk about, the effect of the trip to India and the incredible creativity and hostility it inspired, especially Sexy Sadie, John's repudiation the founder of TM, (simply replace the song's title with "Maharishi" and you get the picture), the death of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, the beginning of the end of the band as evidenced by The White Album sessions, the most underrated song on the album, George's Long Long Long, and of course Helter Skelter. But I'm going to quit here and perhaps save all that and the remaining three sides for another day, or perhaps not.

The White Album as I said is a work unto itself, not merely a collection of songs. On Facebook the other day I posted a link to this piece from the New Yorker and made the comment that there wasn't much to argue about, The White Album was indeed the Beatles', magnum opus. Some friends took exception saying they preferred listening to this or that album much more than The White Album. To that I replied that more often than not I would probably choose to listen to any number of Beethoven sonatas over the great Hammerklavier sonata. Yet there is nothing as mind blowing in the entire piano repertoire as the Fuga, nor as sublime as the slow movement, which alone depending on the performer can be twenty minutes or longer.

As a testament to their talent, the variety, depth, breadth and mastery of disparate musical styles in the work of the Beatles has always been staggering, even in the early years, but especially in The White Album. It's kind of mind blowing that the same person,  Paul, is responsible for the tender love song I Will, as well as the demonic mother of all heavy metal, Helter Skelter, or that John, most famous for his acerbic wit, cynicism and capacity for being a fly in the ointment, could be responsible for some of the most beautiful and poignant songs on the album such as Julia and Cry Baby Cry. It's true that not every track on The White Album is equally meaningful or powerful, but that's really the point; it's not a greatest hits album, which in themselves are usually uninspiring by comparison. Another school of thought has it that judging by all the material from The White Album sessions that did not make the album, songs such as Hey Jude, Across the Universe and several other great songs that found their way onto other albums, one could say that The White Album could have been expanded to three discs.

In my humble opinion, Revolution 9 and Wild Honey Pie notwithstanding, The White Album is perfect just as it is. It may of may not be the most important album of all time, but it is without a doubt the most important album in my life.

Here I'll give Paul the closing word. In the film that accompanied the release of The Beatles Anthology set, at the conclusion of his comments on The White Album, he said exactly what needed to be said:
I'm not one to say, 
maybe it had too much of this or that, 
it's great, it sold, it's the bloody Beatles White Album, 
shut up.

*Capitol Records, a subsidiary of the Bristish company EMI, was the American distributor of Beatles recorded music for the bulk of the band's existance, however Meet the Beatles was not the first American issue of a Beatles record. That distinction goes to Introducing the Beatles, released by Chicago's own Vee Jay Records. The Abbey Road sessions were the last recordings the group made together as the Beatles, however Let It Be, recorded earlier in 1969, has the distinction of being the last album of original Beatles music to be released.

**Magical Mystery Tour was a Capitol Records, US issued LP released in 1967 between Sgt. Pepper and The White Album. However it was not recorded to be a stand-alone album, rather it came about as a compellation of songs from the sountrack of a BBC television program of the same name, (side one) and other songs that were released as singles that year (side two). That said, some of the Beatles' greatest songs can be found on that album such as I Am The Walrus, Penny LaneStrawberry Fields Forever and All You Need Is Love.

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