The Beatles – The White Album (1968)

The Beatles self-titled 1968 release, known most famously as The White Album due to its white cover was one of the first double albums to be released by a prominent artist in popular music. This album was recorded during a turbulent period for the group, with the sessions dominated by in-fighting and disinterest, while Ringo Starr also quit the group for a brief period before being enticed back. Despite the recording of this album being un-harmonious and tense, the music was in no way affected and in fact what the band lay down on this album was some of their best work, resulting also in one of their best albums.

The White Album is an incredibly diverse album musically, containing a whole range of different styles across the two sides. There is seemingly something for everybody on this album with the genres on display including folk, rock and roll, alternative, avant-garde, music hall, pop, country, blues, heavy metal and even a child lullaby, and that’s not even everything. This album probably more than any of their others also highlighted strongly their overall musical talents, as on this release they played most of the instruments on the album relying on session musicians only on the odd occasion. The band would taken turns playing lead and rhythm guitar, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards, piano, harmonica and even saxophone and flugelhorn, interchanging across all sorts of instruments. Part of the reason for this was because many of the songs were recorded as solo pieces with minimal effort from the other band members. This highlighted the tension that was building within the band, as well as the desire for each individual to have their own song recorded and recorded the way they wanted.

The majority of the songs on The White Album were written on acoustic guitar while the band was in India studying transcendental meditation. Although the songs as usual were credited to Lennon-McCartney, this is by no means correct with most of the songs individually written and only a few co-written. When listening to the album you can even get a clear picture of who wrote what based on the different styles of each song. John Lennon tended to write more experimental and heavier tracks, while Paul McCartney wrote more pop oriented and somewhat softer songs, although there is the odd exception such as McCartney’s “Helter Skelter”. What makes this album an incredibly enjoyable listen and a very interesting album is the themes and ideas on display within the songs, of which many contain a subtle quirkiness and underlying humour. Just some of the themes that appear include a hunter named Bungalow Bill on “The Continuing story of bungalow bill”, Paul McCartney’s dog on “Martha My Dear”, the Maharishi on “Sexy Sadie”, and of all things Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction on “Savoy Truffle” – weird I know. Interestingly enough in connection with the song themes, the band helped to fuel Paul is dead conspiracy theorists on this album with subtle clues appearing to stoke this infamous conspiracy. These included the famous line “the walrus was Paul” on “Glass Onion”, as well as the supposed hidden message on the end of I’m So Tired” which if played backwards sounds like “Paul is dead miss him miss him”.

I just love the satirical and ironic nature of some of the songs on the album where they appear in many ways to mock the very style or theme of the song, something which critics derided them for after the album was released. “Yer Blues” is in many ways a pisstake of blues rock with its heavy reverb and distortion, as well as the all out solo where the band just let rip. On “Rocky Racoon” a country styled track, McCartney starts the song in a mock fake American country accent, while on “Piggies” a song about corporate greed, Harrison sings the chorus in a posh English accent. It’s these little things which make some of the weaker songs on the album musically an enjoyable listen. Despite this, incredibly enough some of the contemporary reviews of the album slated the band for not being serious enough and not writing songs about the political and social climate of the time. In one especially ridiculous comment, critic John Landau said that ‘the band used parody on the album because they were afraid of confronting reality and the urgencies of the moment’, a bizarre comment if there was one considering the previous year they were on a global telecast singing “All You Need is Love”. At the end of the day if they felt like writing social or political they would have done, and in fact three songs “Blackbird” “Revolution 1” and “Piggies” all had underlying political/social ideas in them, which then makes you wonder if people like Landau were expecting an all out protest album or something in a similar vain.

Although there is occasional filler material such as “Wild Honey Pie” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, while the less said about “Revolution 9” the better, I find it hard to criticise much about this album. It has great diversity and an eclectic mix of styles across both discs which keeps me interested throughout, from the opening track “Back in the USSR” to the final track on side two “Good Night”. Double albums often end up failing because a lot of the material is second rate and is simply there to fill a side meaning the listener can lose interest very quickly. This is not the case on The White Album with the really good tracks such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” evenly spaced out with what might appear to be weaker tracks musically but often more quirky and satirical such as “Bungalow Bill”. And in fact it is many of those lesser tracks which make this album such a quirky mix throughout, from half songs to unfinished songs of which anything less would take away the albums uniqueness and magical qualities.

The White Album is one of The Beatles best albums and certainly one of their most successful. It has gone on to sell over twenty million copies and was listed as the tenth best album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. It is one of my favourites Beatles albums and is definitely to me their most diverse and interesting offering musically, with its range of styles and song themes ensuring that it is a standout album from The Beatles back catalogue and a must listen.  

A+

– Sam

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