Thursday, May 19, 2011
The Bucket List: The Beatles - The Beatles (1968)
The dissension that would eventually tear the group apart began on the very first day of the sessions for this huge double LP. The fighting caused Ringo Starr to temporarily quit the band, forcing Paul McCartney to play drums on "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence." Frequently the quartet didn’t even function as a cohesive unit. They recorded their parts separately or with one member playing all of the instruments on a song themselves.
The White Album contains twenty-nine songs and one freaky, annoying sound collage. It is simultaneously The Beatles' best and worst set of music. Many people have said, and George Martin was among them, that there were enough great songs to release an outstanding single LP rivaling both Revolver and Rubber Soul in substance. Looking back on Martin's comments all these years later I have to say that he was correct.
Much of The White Album was composed in India and some of the stuff (i.e. "Birthday") was written off the cuff in the studio. The complicated psychedelic productions of the previous year were nowhere to be found. These new arrangements were much simpler, sparser, often more heartfelt, and easier to digest. Even the plain, white LP cover signaled an end to the pretentiousness of the Pepper era.
After we eliminate the obvious wastes of album space: John Lennon's "Revolution 9," as well as McCartney's "Wild Honey Pie,"” and "Why Don’t We Do It In The Road," and silliness such as "Martha My Dear," and Lennon’s "Good Night" sung by Starr, The White Album is loaded with some of The Beatles' best songs. In addition to the outstanding "USSR" and "Prudence" side one gives us one of George Harrison’s all time classics, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," complete with Eric Clapton’s wailing solo. The very strange and unique, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is also a highlight. Side two continues the diversity. John Lennon's "I’m So Tired," his solo acoustic performance of "Julia," and a typically beautiful McCartney ballad, "I Will," are all standouts. Side three contains some of the loudest and hardest rocking music The Beatles ever put on vinyl. "Yer Blues" references Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," and Starr bangs out some great cowbell on "Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey." Those people who insist on crediting The Beatles with every musical innovation even believe they invented heavy metal with "Helter Skelter." (They didn't.) Great harmonies abound on "Sexy Sadie." "Cry Baby Cry" and "Savoy Truffle" anchor side four.
Despite its unevenness, and the fact they were a mess all during its sessions, The White Album has always been one of my favorite Beatles’ creations. Perhaps the reason is the two discs contain a little bit of everything popular music offered the world at the time: mainstream pop, hard rock, folk music, country, politics, and even some weirdness. It’s not a cohesive set of tunes by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a wonderful hodge-podge of styles that show how talented these guys still were, even when distracted.