Influenced: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Big Star, Steely Dan, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Kate Bush, The La’s, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Radiohead, Blur, Elliott Smith, Neutral Milk Hotel, Kasabian, Blossoms, Yungblud
Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix
They may have officially broken up in 1970, but in many crucial respects, The Beatles had ceased to function a couple of years before that. Riven with personality clashes and irreconcilable differences in ambition, it was the period of recording their self-titled ninth album – almost universally nicknamed ‘The White Album’ – throughout 1968 that marked the beginning of the end for the band.
Recorded under a time of great stress, The Beatles has long since stood as a rock archetype. It’s the pinnacle of the kind of sprawling, deeply flawed and inconsistent yet weirdly enjoyable album that only really great artists can get away with making – a clearing house of odds-and-ends ideas that don’t belong anywhere else in The Beatles’ catalogue, but somehow draw a greater collective strength in proximity to each other on one tracklisting than they ever could separately. Its failings – and there are undoubtedly a few – are as essential to its unique character as its manifold strengths.
In the Fab Four’s mythology, ‘The White Album’ represents the dissolution of the ‘group’ aspect of The Beatles – instead, it makes more sense when viewed as the work of four solo artists. When you think that every previous Beatles album depicted the group as a unit, a singular entity, Richard Hamilton’s completely blank white cover, in whose packaging contained four separate colour photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo, is highly significant.
Much of ‘The White Album’ was written on acoustic guitar during March and April of 1968 in India, while they were on a pilgrimage to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but once the quartet arrived back in the UK at the start of the summer and ensconced themselves in Abbey Road as was customary, there began an arduous six-month recording process that saw The Beatles become increasingly fragmented and estranged from each other. Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio was provocative enough, flaunting the band’s normal ‘no wives/girlfriends’ policy, but the group’s two principal songwriters were growing further apart in personal and professional terms. Lennon found McCartney’s new songs to be “cloyingly sweet and bland”, while McCartney viewed Lennon’s as “harsh, unmelodious and deliberately provocative”. On top of that, George Harrison and Ringo Starr chose to distance themselves from the situation halfway through, the former jetting to L.A. to film a documentary about his mentor, Ravi Shankar.
READ MORE: The Beatles // ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ at 50 years old
Several backing tracks didn’t feature the full group, with Ringo at one point quitting the band altogether before quickly being tempted back, and any overdubs that there were tended to be limited to whoever had written the song in question. Producer George Martin noted the air of discontent that generally characterised the sessions – while accepting that such a long gestation period would have caused many of the creative arguments anyway. He himself at one point left spontaneously to go on holiday, leaving Chris Thomas in charge of proceedings. Long-time recording engineer Geoff Emerick had a bust-up with Paul McCartney over his vocals, and left the studio.
In spite of all this turmoil, what was eventually produced was the most eclectic Beatles record yet. Rather than sticking to one aesthetic or sound, ‘The White Album’ was a kaleidoscope of variety, a smorgasbord of influences that included rock’n’roll, raw blues, folk, country, reggae, avant-garde sound collages, proto-metal, orchestrated fantasias and music hall. The production aesthetic ensured that the album’s sound was scaled-down and less reliant on studio innovation.
Beginning with the sleek Beach Boys inversion of ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’, The Beatles immediately signal to the world that ‘The White Album’ is not going to be a re-tread of Sgt. Pepper’s…, but that they were intending on throwing everything up in the air again, cashing in on the huge commercial success and critical respectability that its predecessor had given the band and freeing them up to experiment in the studio once again.
Symbolically, this represented a dramatic departure from the psychedelic sounds that had characterised the Summer of Love the previous year – something that many other major artists reflected during their work in 1968, including The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Byrds. Just a year after they had said ‘All You Need Is Love’, Harrison’s incredible, world-weary ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ saw the group conveying a sense of quiet dismay at the carnage and reactionary conservatism of the world around them, characterised by the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War (“I look at the trouble and hate that is raging… as I’m sitting here doing nothing but ageing”). Lyrically, the group followed a similar path, producing material that was vaguer and more open to misinterpretation, something seen in the real-world reaction to ‘The White Album’. While the counter-culture was thrilled by these lightly subversive elements, the authorities began to be harsher in their attitude towards The Beatles in 1968, with Lennon and Ono busted for marijuana possession at one point.
Lennon’s ‘Glass Onion’ sees him gleefully dismantling and messing about with the band’s mythology, while ‘Sexy Sadie’ and ‘Dear Prudence’, in particular, are weighted with a sense of cynicism and weariness about the world and the search for meaning within it, after he had felt jaded after the India trip. ‘Revolution 1’ (a slowed-down acoustic version of ‘Revolution’ that acted as a double A-side for August 1968 single ‘Hey Jude’) gently mocks self-styled left-wing revolutionaries, sounding a brief note of optimism in its “you know it’s gonna be alright” in its chorus. The breathtaking ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ is a song-suite all unto itself, like ‘The White Album’ in microcosm. But elsewhere, Lennon is disarmingly autobiographical with ‘Julia’, a tender, finger-picking folk song dealing with his mother’s passing at the young age of 44 a decade previously.
George Harrison’s songs are largely dedicated to trying to translate his love for eastern philosophy and spirituality into rock context, and his songs are among his best – the resplendent ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and the warm, lush ‘Long Long Long’ are simply astonishing – but also among his worst (the takedown of material wealth of ‘Piggies’, which comes across as just plain misanthropy). Ringo Starr gets two moments, the lightweight but compelling ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and the final track ‘Good Night’, which comes across as some kind of long-lost Disney song.
McCartney’s contributions to ‘The White Album’ are among the very best of his career. The civil rights allegories of the striking ‘Blackbird’, the light/dark contrasts of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, and the heartfelt song sketch ‘I Will’ are some of the tenderest things he’s ever committed to record. On the flip-side, however, he’s able to embrace chaos like Lennon and Harrison’s more overtly political tracks. The thunderous ‘Helter Skelter’ is the most obvious of these, but the sense of mischief in the genre exercises of ‘Martha My Dear’, the punning of ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’, the rocker ‘Birthday’ (a co-write with Lennon) and the ‘40s music hall of ‘Honey Pie’ show off a breathtaking variety. Even the absolutely god-awful ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (sorry, it is an atrocity) does little to dent the overall strength of what McCartney – ever the undervalued component in the Beatles songwriting engine – brings to the album.
Aside from an analysis of the individual Beatles’ contributions, you can also look at ‘The White Album’ through the lens of its sheer variety, and the unevenness and incoherence that comes with that, and the historical context in which it all existed. Harrison’s ‘Piggies’ has to go down as one of the most shockingly dark moments in rock history, particularly following as it does the delicate flutters of ‘Blackbird’. While it’s an excellent slice of roaring, insanely aggressive proto-metal, ‘Helter Skelter’ was infamously interpreted by cult leader Charles Manson and his murderous acolytes as an incitement to revolutionary mass slaughter to bring about the end of the world. And that appears just before Harrison’s resplendent ‘Long Long Long’. The album is full of these kinds of unexpected left turns and juxtapositions, like the entire thing’s simply being played on shuffle.
The eight-minute sound collage ‘Revolution 9’, featuring a library of field recordings and Beatles chatter cut-up and arranged in a bizarre, faintly terrifying manner, is symbolically incredible – the biggest band in the world introducing a mainstream audience to a pretty alarming piece of avant-garde. Seriously, when was the last time that anyone else, with The Beatles’ kind of platform, took a risk of this kind in the last half a century? While it’s hardly easy to listen to, it’s precisely this aspect of ‘The White Album’ that has made it so resonant and disquieting over the decades.
REACTION, THEN AND NOW
Almost inevitably, given the nature of its construction, The Beatles and their inner circle weren’t completely satisfied with ‘The White Album’. Producer George Martin, speaking on the ‘Anthology’ TV series in the Nineties, insisted strongly that it ought to have been “condensed into a very, very good single album”. George Harrison reckoned some tracks should have been “elbowed off” and relegated to B-side status, while Ringo Starr said it should have come out as two separate albums.
Indeed, a brand new 50th anniversary re-master, overseen by George Martin’s son Giles and an astonishing 107 tracks long, makes it clear that it could have even been 12 songs bigger – ‘Hey Jude’, a massively successful hit single, was saved over for a stand-alone release, while only ‘The Inner Light’ made it to become a B-side. But in a year in which they were supposedly disintegrating – only 16 of the final 30 tracks feature all four of them – it’s a testament to The Beatles’ remarkable creativity that the end product should be so magnificent. While as many were baffled as bowled over back in 1968, time has been very kind to ‘The White Album’, with many now considering it to be their finest work. The age-old argument over which songs might have been left off, or what order they could have been in instead, will never be settled. Everybody envisages their own perfect version of ‘The White Album’, yet none of them are correct. Imperfection is its key characteristic – lose that, and you lose its very essence.
Unlike all of the previous Beatles records, ‘The White Album’ found the band increasingly working as isolated individuals, working at cross-purposes rather than all pulling in one unified direction. Lennon later said “the break-up of the Beatles can be heard on that album”. But the joy of it is that the fractured nature of its recording ends up working in its favour, not to its detriment. Discord in the studio, as was infamously the case with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, can be just as conducive to creative genius as inter-band harmony. As such, it’s the Beatles album that makes the most sense 50 years later – in 2018, where algorithms and playlists increasingly dictate our listening habits, the massive grab-bag of influences on display somehow makes sense.
Furthermore, the political tension underpinning ‘The White Album’ can be seen as an eerie presaging of the cultural confusion and fake news of 2018. John Harris’s excellent essay for The Guardian lays this out in detail, how Lennon and McCartney’s alternately raging and becalming compositions chimed with the uneasiness of 1968 and yet continued to remain culturally resonant ever since. Just like the completely empty (and brilliant) cover art, ‘The White Album’ is an eternal blank canvas, open to endless re-evaluation and re-interpretation, where the listener projects onto it what they want. It’s also long since become a music journalism shorthand: whenever an artist releases a sprawling double album (think Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, The Clash’s Sandinista!, or Pavement’s Wowee Zowee) it’s always described as ‘their White Album’.
Commercially, ‘The White Album’ did not perform quite as well as the massive blockbuster of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had spent 27 consecutive weeks at the top of the UK charts the previous year. A combination of the high price of the double-disc package, and the imposing, sometimes wilfully difficult content within, meant it spent eight weeks at the top and sold 300,000 copies – still healthy, and a reflection of the comparatively massive 18-month wait for it, but a mere fraction of its predecessor.
In other respects, 1968 was a vintage year for The Beatles even as they were drifting apart as a unit. Paul McCartney’s magnificent and moving ‘Hey Jude’, written for Lennon’s son Julian as his parents were going through a divorce and recorded during the same sessions, became the biggest-selling single of the year in the UK and the group’s top-seller ever. In America, however, ‘The White Album’ fared rather better, selling two million copies in its first week alone and, to date, just shy of 10 million (currently 19-times platinum).
But no amount of sales figures or ‘Best Album Ever’ listings can get a handle on ‘The White Album’s significance. It’s a relic of a time in pop culture of limitless possibilities, when the idea of what an album could even be was still being defined and revised. Less than four years before, the Fab Four had released Beatles For Sale, the only point in their discography where they ever sounded tired and uninspired, half-full of perfunctory covers. By 1968, they’d released one of pop music’s true archetypes, even in the midst of their personal chaos.
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Tags: 50 years old, 50th anniversary, Chris Thomas, classic 60s, classic album, Ed Biggs, George Harrison, George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Beatles, The White Album, Yoko Ono
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