Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Beatles - The Beatles (1968)

The Beatles (a. k. a. The White Album) was supposed to lead off part four of Bloggerhythms series reviewing all of The Beatles’ albums chronologically by era. However, this review grew in length beyond my original intentions, so now it will be handled as a separate posting.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Actually, I think there is too much good material to boil down to a single LP. Once the real clunkers are gone (and we would all disagree on what these are) there is probably 3 'sides' of classic stuff. So in truth the White Album would make a genuine digital CD with about 60 minutes of fab music despite being made in the analogue age.

    But then the very fact that it is a 'wonderful hodge-podge of styles' means it is just great as it stands - a sprawling mixture that tells you all you need to know about The Beatles. A truly great album for all its faults.

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  2. The White Album IS a cornucopia of styles!

    Personally, I think the clunkers and the fillers give the album its character. The character of mystique and mystery that draws most any listener to dig deeper into the heart of the record. Kinda like other double album classics that followed it-Exile on Main Street and Physical Graffiti.

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  3. Editing the White Album down to 40-42 minutes would be a tough task indeed. I tend to agree with your list of nonessentials, except I'd add "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." That's one track whose charms have always eluded me. Good post.

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  4. I just heard all of this album for the first time this past Mothers day. I think the good songs are really good and the bad ones are REALLY bad (what the heck is Revolution 9?!). I think it is a testament to their writing abilities to create and album with such a wide variety of styles. You just don't see that anymore. Led Zeppelin could pull that off as well. Each song sounds a bit different.

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  5. I have been listening to this again lately and there is something to be said for clever sequencing. Even the B grade tunes have their place as the running order gives the illusion that they belong. One of my favorite albums.

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  6. height of the backwards masking on this album too. Number nine backwards was "turn me on dead man".

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