Album released this week in… 1968: The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)
NOW ON OUR THIRD Beatles entry in this feature, The Beatles (or The White Album) is perhaps one of the more divisive albums amongst fans. A personal favourite of mine, it’s an odd choice, largely because it’s… well, actually quite flawed. Spanning over 30 tracks, it’s the longest Beatles record, as well as being one of the most diverse, alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The White Album also proved to be the start of troubled times for the band; creative differences arose, members left and Yoko Ono entered.
The primary tensions in the band came from the divide between Lennon and McCartney, both criticising the others performances and writing abilities. This brought tension in the studios to an all time high. But these weren’t all bad things; the differences and diversity between band members lead to some of the best songs on the album. ‘Julia’ is performed solely by Lennon, in a beautiful tribute to his mother who has passed away 10 years earlier. In a similar vein, McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ is another moving number, this time acting a commentary to the Civil Rights crisis in the United States. Both John and Paul proved that they could write equally gorgeous tracks without the other.
But four of the best songs on the album stem from George Harrison; four, ambient, majestic, fully-formed numbers. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a slow paced number with poetic lyrics as Harrison characterises his serene guitar work. In actual fact though, lead guitar was actually played by Eric Clapton. ‘Piggies’ is a more piano based track, with Harrison taking his political standpoint once again, while ‘Savoy Truffle’ is slightly more light hearted, with a pop-rock vibe and a theme of chocolate addiction. ‘Long Long Long’ is Harrison’s best song; with a snaking guitar line that’s overdubbed with haunting organ and Harrison’s own distant vocals. The climax sets up a crashing drum beat and passionate cries before flowing into a quiet, yet daunting, outro.
The failing unity of the band is evident even in the more ‘group based’ tracks; out of 30 tracks, all four members only played all together on 16 of them. Ringo Starr briefly left the group, the drums on ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ instead being played by McCartney. When the group did come together though, some of the results were fantastic. ‘Revolution 1’ is a bluesy tune that has some really chilled horn parts and classic Beatles layered vocals, while on the other end of the spectrum we have ‘Helter Skelter’, a chaotic track that exhibits the Beatles at their most outrageous, their most anarchistic and their most excellent. Hell, people even suggest this song was an early influence on Heavy Metal. There are even some surprises on the album. Judging from the titles, you might not expect ‘Rocky Racoon’ or ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)’ to be any good. But there’s a surprising catchiness to these numbers that doesn’t make them standout numbers, but certainly more enjoyable that some of the other songs on this album.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s not pretend that every track on The White Album is gold. There some songs on here that are… quite frankly, crap. I mean, does anyone really, I mean really want to listen to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’? It’s one example where Paul McCartney’s happy-go –lucky musicianship really just doesn’t work, and especially after the epic opening trilogy. ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ is a surprisingly sappy Lennon track that features some cringe-worthy Yoko Ono vocals, whilst ‘Honey Pie’ is a bit like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ without the appeal. And then there’s ‘Revolution 9’; I don’t care if this piece is ‘arty’ and ‘deep’, it sticks out like a sore thumb on a Beatles record.
But it’s ok that this album isn’t perfect, because the Beatles weren’t perfect. People are very quick to mythologise the band, to claim they had the Midas touch. But if The White Album does anything, it humanises John, Paul, George and Ringo; it’s an album based upon disillusionment, love and hatred. It shows the band working as a unit and spreading their wings as solo artists, whilst free to make mistakes. And as we’ve seen, The White Album is full of problems, both personal and creative; let’s remember that this was the band who put ‘Yellow Submarine’ on Revolver. Sure, ‘Glass Onion’ and ‘Birthday’ are great, but let’s not forget the disappointment of ‘Yer Blues’, for example. If imperfections make us human though, then The White Album is perhaps The Beatles most homosapien, and that’s what makes it one of the best, if not the best Beatles album to be ever released.
It’s damn tricky to write a decent double album, but The White Album succeeds in that, warts and all.
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