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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Beatles: The Beatles


THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (1968)

1) Back In The U.S.S.R.; 2) Dear Prudence; 3)  Glass Onion; 4) Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; 5) Wild Honey Pie; 6) The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill; 7) While My Guitar Gently Weeps; 8) Happiness Is A Warm Gun; 9) Martha My Dear; 10) I'm So Tired; 11) Blackbird; 12) Piggies; 13) Rocky Raccoon; 14) Don't Pass Me By; 15) Why Don't We Do It In The Road?; 16) I Will; 17) Julia; 18) Birthday; 19) Yer Blues; 20) Mother Nature's Son; 21) Every­bo­dy's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey; 22) Sexy Sadie; 23) Helter Skelter; 24) Long, Long, Long; 25) Revolution 1; 26) Honey Pie; 27) Savoy Truffle; 28) Cry Baby Cry; 29) Revolution 9; 30) Good Night.

By and large, the Beatles had no big reason to exist after Sgt. Pepper. Regardless of how much new ground it broke or didn't break in the world of actual music, it definitely broke a huge, huge lot of ground in the public conscience — definitely more so than any subsequent Beatles release. In 1967, the band pushed its creativity so far that the obvious question, «what next?», could seem unanswerable. I mean, really, where is one supposed to go after ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ?..

That the Beatles only had two years of toil and turmoil left after Sgt. Pepper is hardly surprising; the real miracle is that they had these two years, and that their legacy, these days, continues to be loved and respected as much as everything else (and even more, by some people at least) — de­spite the fact that the band's days as major innovators were already over. For one thing, having explored the experimental possibilities of the studio as thoroughly as they could, they couldn't help but simply fall back on their main strength — melodicity, and melodicity alone doesn't earn you many points on the pedantic scales of knowledgeable, but tonedeaf critics. For another thing, the musical scene in 1968 was far more diverse and competitive than it was two years earlier. It is one thing to compete with the Byrds and the Beach Boys — but compete with Hendrix? Cream? Procol Harum? The Nice? The Grateful Dead? Frank Zappa? Dozens of classy, innovative, in­spired acts, frequently including far more technically accomplished musicians? A hard task for sure, but an inevitable one: having set their plank that high in 1966, the Beatles had no right to lose face in 1968. In terms of pure creativity, it must have been an intensely tough period.

But The White Album offers a brilliant solution to the problem. What can you do if you have hit your ceiling and «up» is no longer an alternative? Simple as heck: instead of going high, you can allow yourself to go wide. You do not have to prove that you are the best in the world: instead, it is much more fun to show that you are the world. Everyone who ever complained that the 2 LPs of The White Album were overkill, and that the whole thing might have benefited from throw­ing out some filler, completely missed the point. If there are songs on here that you don't like, feel free to edit them out of your playlist — just like it is hardly a sin to skip over a few hundred unin­spiring pages of War And Peace when you set out to re-read it — but do not deny them their rightful place as an integral part of the whole composition.

Legend has it that there was no original idea to turn The Beatles into a humorous, insightful, Beatle-approved genre anthology. The band members just had a lot of free time on their hands while staying in India with the Maharishi, and they happened to make much better use of it than simply wasting it on transcendental meditation (this is why, after all, John is John, Paul is Paul, and Mike Love is, and will always be, Mike Love). They never were enemies of genre-hopping in the first place, and they were always open to influences, so what's up with a little «parroting»? But as the actual sessions started, and the final result started getting fleshed out, the project took on a life of its own. The Beatles turned into a small autonomous universe, no less.

As I try to recollect some of the oldest, possibly silliest, but also most intriguing impressions of the record, one thing that keeps surfacing is the contrast of the utter whiteness of the album sleeve with the sheer number of songs printed in small type on the back cover. That long, long stretch for Side B in particular — the whole «MarthaMyDearI'mSoTiredBlackbirdPiggiesRocky Rac­co­on­Don't Pass Me ByWhy Don't We Do It In The RoadIWillJulia» thing had something freaky to it. You knew it wasn't a de-jure concept album, but somehow even the way all these titles were condensed in one small area of the cover suggested some sort of happy family unity. Then you threw on the album, and there were all these little links like ʽWild Honey Pieʼ, and seamless tran­sitions from one song to another, and ultra-short pauses between songs that did not have actual transitions, and the songs were all so different, yet somehow seemed to belong together.

Relistening to The Beatles now only reaffirms that old feeling. The sequencing of the songs, and the manner in which they flow into one another, is almost as important an ingredient as the songs themselves. The Beatles is, indeed, a smorgasbord of musical styles, but, more importantly, it is a smorgasboard of moods, and the different ways in which those moods replace one another over the album's ninety minutes work magic on one's psychics.

Right off the bat, we have the reckless, joyful (but also notably tongue-in-cheek) rock'n'roll party mood of ʽBack In The USSRʼ contrasted back-to-back with — «pacified with», I'd say — the soft, na­tural, acoustic tenderness of ʽDear Prudenceʼ. The tense, nervous flow and the dark psychedelic string coda of ʽGlass Onionʼ replaced, in a flash, by the upbeat bounce of the merry ska piano of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ. The unexpected transformation of the mysterious, but clearly ironic ʽBun­galow Billʼ into the dead-serious cosmic despair of ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ. Once we get over to the second side, the songs get generally shorter and are so densely packed that, with just a little bit more effort, the whole thing would have turned into a never-ending medley, some­thing that the band would actually realize on their last album. ʽI Willʼ and ʽJuliaʼ, the album's most openly romantic numbers, complete the side in a competing manner — no better compari­son in the Beatles catalog of the difference in John and Paul's approach to saying «I love you».

The second half of the album raises the bar on harshness, with ʽHelter Skelterʼ serving as the ral­lying point for Side C and ʽRevolution 9ʼ looming far and wide over everything else on Side D. This is probably the reason why I never felt the same warmth for the second LP when I was a kid: after the colorful Brothers-Grimm panorama of the first seventeen tracks, the songs got longer, the moods got sourer, and the lone lightweight, humorous protest of the vaudeville of ʽHoney Pieʼ, a tiny island of sunshine lost in a sea of relative darkness, was never enough to counteract the huge sonic nightmares built up by Paul (I remember literally being afraid of the diabolical buzz coda of ʽHelter Skelterʼ) or by John (and Yoko, since ʽRevolution 9ʼ should clearly be cre­dited to the two of them, breaking up the happy Beatles home). The chaos brought on by ʽRevo­lution 9ʼ is so brutal that the necessary and inevitable «pacification» — the Ringo-sung romantic lullaby of ʽGood Nightʼ — does not feel like a happy ending. More like a slightly relieving calm before the upcoming storm, wherever it may come from. (For that reason, the evil of ʽHelter Skel­terʼ also needs quick remedying with a soft, caressing George number — and, likewise, ʽLong Long Longʼ calms down the nerves, but does not completely relax them).

Thus, The Beatles may be imagined as a sort of musical Odyssey, a gradual descent from the light into darkness — starting off innocently and colorfully, with all sorts of gags and tricks and fluffiness, and ending with raucous, aggressive, sometimes apocalyptic sounds. The transition is gradual (there are «previews» and «fallbacks» on both LPs), but quite notable, and even though it may simply be my personal impression, or just a coincidence, for me it is at least a direct answer to the question «wouldn't it be better if The Beatles had been a single album?» Sure it would. For those who just want to see the Beatles as reliable «hitmakers».

The album is frequently checked as the first true «non-collective» Beatles project, on which not only were most songs written completely individually (despite preserving the traditional «Lennon / McCartney» crediting), but sometimes even recorded individually, with Paul working in one studio, John in the other, and Ringo leaving the band because, with Paul surreptitiously re-recor­ding his drum parts and all, he reasonably felt himself superfluous. (It would be cool to assert that he only returned under the condition that the rest would finally include one of his compositions on the album, but, apparently, ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ was recorded several months before the row took place). Does this bear any direct reflection on the album as such? I don't think so. The indi­vidual members' individual styles had already been well defined by 1965-66, and the only thing that could have mattered was a potential loss of «quality control», where egos would triumph over common sense.

ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ is clearly the best example: McCartney was originally dead set against its in­clusion, and I am not exactly sure what made him change his mind. It represents the biggest and most obvious influence of Yoko Ono on the band, but calling it a «totally non-Beatles kind of thing» is difficult, because it raises the natural question of what exactly are the defining aspects of a «Beatles kind of thing». If the answer is «melody and harmony», then yes, ʽRevolution 9ʼ is an alien inclusion; if it is «breaking boundaries and searching for new forms of expression», then it definitely is not. I have never had any love for ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ, and often used to sacrilegious­ly skip it, going straight from "can you take me back" to ʽGood Nightʼ. But I cannot deny that the «song», with all of its much-too-obvious adoration of musique concrète, has a purpose — a sonic description of utter social chaos — which is essentially fulfilled; at any rate, it is a much more complex, well thought out, and properly executed sound collage than the trivial «experimental hooliganry» that clogs up John and Yoko's early solo albums. Nor can I deny that ʽGood Nightʼ right after ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ has a soothing, calming effect, whereas on its own it may seem too overtly sentimental, or even boring.

But ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ is far from the only artistic «advance» that John demonstrates on the al­bum. With the flower power / psychedelia cloud no longer hanging over the band, this gives eve­ryone a good chance to delve into the personal vaults, and John comes out with ʽSexy Sadieʼ (a thinly veiled attack on the Maharishi and one of the deadliest character assassination songs in pop history), ʽI'm So Tiredʼ (the coolest ever song written about... being tired?), and particularly ʽJu­liaʼ — a truly transcendental ballad, betraying his «mother complex» (the song is «formally» ad­dressed to his mother, but in reality blends her in one with Yoko) and standing several feet above every pure «love song» he'd written up to that point. Probably because that was the first time he had really fallen in love, a fact that professional Yoko haters have to bear in mind: without Yoko, there might never have been a ʽJuliaʼ.

That said, it is once again Paul who is in general charge of the process. At this point, John is cle­ar­ly tired of the competition: his role is essentially reduced to simply writing a bunch of great songs and donating them to the band's collective fund. Paul, on the other hand, is the one respon­sible for the «Beatles sound» and the general structure of the album (which is also why he has al­ways been the staunchest defender of its 2-LP volume). The amount of «silly fluff» that he con­tributes dangerously grows at an exponential rate — most of the «parody» numbers on the album are his, be it the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys on ʽBack In The U.S.S.R.ʼ, country-pop on ʽRocky Raccoonʼ, old-school vaudeville on ʽHoney Pieʼ, or bubblegummy ska on ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ. But all these numbers fit in very well inside the slots of the band's musical voyage: Paul is not just «playing the fool» throughout because his inner fool (on the hill) got the best of him, but because a completely serious take on these genres would place the Beatles at a disadvantage — surely they could never hope to compete with the best masters of ska, or country, or proto-hea­vy metal, etc., on a «serious» level. Their saving grace could only be a superior sense of melody and harmony — and humor. Both are present.

Speaking of humor, there is humor a-plenty, and it's working. The lyrics to ʽU.S.S.R.ʼ are slyly parodic of Chuck Berry's ʽBack In The USAʼ (substituting Russia for North Korea would have been even more poignant, but the theme is not as popular), and probably contain the first signifi­cant pun on the toponymic ambivalence of «Georgia» in the history of mankind. The «life is won­derful» atmosphere of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ is exaggerated to the point of total absurdity — ap­parently, the names of «Desmond» and «Molly» were switched accidentally in the last verse as compared to the one before last, but they kept it that way because "Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face" sounded more fun. ʽRocky Raccoonʼ sends the whole «country-western» thing up like nothing else, with the honky piano breaks a particularly brilliant idea. And I may be wrong here, but isn't ʽBirthdayʼ a smart-as-heck ridiculization of «party atmosphere»? In a way, it presages the Ramones with their «lobotomized» perspective on life's rituals and conventions: big, energetic, straightforward, and making a sharp point by being utterly pointless.

On the other hand, there is no way a serious analysis could simply brush away Paul as the «fun guy» of the album, leaving all of its «soul» to John's isolated contributions. ʽMartha My Dearʼ may be named after the man's sheepdog, but the naming will fool no one: unless there is some­thing we do not know (and do not want to know) about Paul's relations with his animals, the song moves from optimistic love-and-tenderness ("Martha my dear...") to highly concerned sorrow ("hold your head up...") to an almost threatening attitude ("take a good look around you...") and then back again, in reverse order, in a perfectly realistic manner. ʽBlackbirdʼ and ʽMother Natu­re's Sonʼ conceal great depth behind their humble folksy acoustic surfaces — the former being the sharpest, most intelligent anthem to personal freedom ever written by the man, the latter cele­brating the simple joys of life so convincingly that even a stone cold dedicated city dweller, un­less he is completely tonedeaf, will get a moment's urge to move to the country. (Have the Maha­rishi to thank for that — the song required some Indian inspiration).

Furthermore, although the «battle» between ʽI Willʼ and ʽJuliaʼ is clearly unwinnable by the for­mer (which never even begins to seek for the same epic heights), on its own ʽI Willʼ is still an ab­solute triumph along the lines of ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ: sweet, sugary sentimentality fleshed out in the shape of heavenly beauty. Actually, the main influence here seems to be Buddy Holly, as the atmosphere is clearly reminiscent of ʽWords Of Loveʼ (even the guitar tones are comparable), but Paul pushes it up one more notch with a perfect vocal (which required 67 takes to get properly) and a particularly brilliant melodic resolution in the end. Then it's three more gentle bongo taps, and the mike is thrown over to John.

Additionally, there are four good-to-great George songs on here: ʽPiggiesʼ is an odd harpsichord-driven bit of social critique, ʽLong Long Longʼ is very atmospheric (but so subtle that it is barely even possible to hear what's going on behind the bass lines), ʽSavoy Truffleʼ is disciplined R'n'B that reads like a parody on moralizing, but, naturally, you'll have to have them all pulled out after ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ, which is simply one of the greatest songs ever written, period. Everybody who prefers the original, stripped-down acoustic demo version now available on An­thology 3 should be banned from procreation — the demo version is fine, but what is the sense in writing a song about a guitar that weeps at the turning world that doesn't have a weeping guitar? Kudos to George for recognizing the best candidate for the job, as well: everybody knows that Eric Clapton is responsible for the solo, but few ever mention that it was really the very first time in Eric's career that he played his instrument that way. Before ʽWhile My Guitarʼ, Eric was all about rock'n'roll flash, angry blueswailing, or Cream-style psycho-jamming. After ʽGuitarʼ, there were Derek & The Dominos, ʽLaylaʼ, etc. — get the drift? We do not simply have Clapton to thank for adding a cosmic dimension to a George Harrison song — we have Harrison to thank for bringing out the best in Clapton.

Finally, let us not forget about poor Ringo. ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ was an old ditty that he'd worked on since 1964, and chances are it would have never seen the light of day on a Beatles album if it weren't the White Album. As it is, the smorgasbord is large enough to accommodate everybody, even the friendly, but compositionally-challenged drummer boy. And it's a fun, catchy tune that gets a tongue-in-cheek wall-of-sound arrangement, pianos and violins and all, which it probably would have never gotten in 1964. (Also, without this boost of confidence there may never have been an ʽOctopus' Gardenʼ).

One popular assessment of The Beatles is that, for the Beatles, it signalled a «return-to-roots»: the band's contribution to the emergent roots-rock movement that stepped away from the excesses of psychedelia and made a point of reintegrating back in the world of «earthly» values. For one thing, it marks a return of guitar-oriented rock tunes — ʽBack In The U.S.S.R.ʼ announces this shift fairly loudly. For another, the «absurdist» segments of the album either place most of their absurd in the lyrics (ʽHappiness Is A Warm Gunʼ), or veer away towards more «intellectualized» musical directions (ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ).

This is all true, and is also well reflected in the evolution of superficial features (plain white cover instead of the rainbow colors of 1967, «homely» photos of the band members, etc.), but no one should be misled into thinking that The Beatles was, in any way, a «step back» in the direction of Revolver (which did place much of its trust into loud electric rock) or Rubber Soul (which did have an intentionally «rootsy» sound most of the time). There certainly was an understanding that the big masquerade of 1967 had been pushed a bit too far, but the difference is that in 1966, the Beatles were a leading force in popular music; in 1968, the Beatles were «elder statesmen», car­rying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The greatest single wonder of The Beatles is that somehow, in some way, despite all the odds, evading all the glaring traps and pitfalls, these 2 LPs managed to convince the public at large — your humble servant included — that the weight has been lifted.

I mean, what other album, single or double, recorded in 1968 (and the year was fairly rife with great albums), could produce an equally imposing impression? With all the breakthroughs and the discoveries and the technical achievements and philosophic backgrounds, there was only one niche open — that of the «wise encyclopaedist» — and the Beatles were only too happy to occu­py it. Accidentally, or intentionally, coming up with the finest encyclopaedic album in history. (Don't even let me hear of Todd Rundgren in this context).

If you are waiting for critical remarks, I have none. Barring the disputable case of ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ, The White Album, through its devilishly clever structuring and «ideology», is unassailable. You think the melody of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ is silly and pedestrian? It's supposed to be that way — it is a friendly laugh at the excessive optimism that dominates some people's lives. You think ʽYer Bluesʼ is generic and draggy? It's supposed to drag — it's a musical projection of pis­sed-off misery (or, rather, self-miseration). You think ʽDon't Pass Me Byʼ should never have seen the light of day? Have pity on poor Ringo — the song is not half-bad, and there is no reason why he should be excluded from this special feast of life. And so on.

The Beatles deserves its title and its minimalistic cover — both imply that it is only the music that matters, not the PR-friendly environment. On the other hand, I sometimes wish the front sleeve were more colorful, because that would arguably be a better reflection of the new gallery of wonderful characters that have been introduced here to us. From Dear Prudence to Sexy Sadie, from Rocky Raccoon to Mother Nature's Son, from Bungalow Bill to Martha, from piggies living piggy lives to me and my mon­key, The Beatles are really not less «rainbow-y» than the pictures painted in 1967. They are sim­ply less cloudy and live in closer proximity to us mortals — but at the same time, The Beatles ne­ver really ceases to be a wonderous fairy tale, intriguing, exciting, yet also with a fairly ambiguous and unsettling ending. How great it is that they had it in them to complete this project before personal problems finally took over.

Check "The Beatles" (CD) on Amazon

29 comments:

  1. Scattered thoughts. 'Long Long Long,' is now my favorite song on the album, after all these years.

    I feel like the Beatles sidestep retreat from psychedelia was influenced by Dylan's "John Welsely Harding" record. To me, that accounts for all the country ballads and songs that seem out of time.

    The acoustic version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is great because its the acoustic version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." You are right to bestow higher praise on the final product, but you contradict yourself a bit in claiming that the acoustic version has less value. After all, your own words, 'its one of the greatest songs ever,' demand people's love of that song in all its incarnations. So, my advice to people out there that prefer the Anthology version, Procreate Away, don't let George stop you!

    Revolution 9 is simply great. I too skipped it to no end throughout my life, but now I look forward to it. What the hell else is more important in life when you find yourself listening to the White Album anyway? Come on, its John freaking Lennon, when has he let you down before? He's not going to fail in entertaining you so listen to Revolution 9, its fantastic and ahead of its time.

    Scattered Conclusion: The White Album, more than Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, showed the Beatles had grown up, despite the presence of more nursery rhyme type songs. That was just proof of children present in their own lives. Its their most realistic album too, whatever that means...To me its kind of a miracle. These gods of fame, talent, and art never really lost their heads, at least not in a way where they couldn't strike profoundly resonant and humanistic tones, a great gift, and also a great vision of their humanity.

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  2. This is my favourite Beatles album - much like you, I think the album simply wouldn't have been the same were it not for all the little weird touches like "Wild Honey Pie" (which one reviewer hilariously - and accurately - called "the sound of a pocket-watch having a heart attack"). Some of the songwriting on this album is very brilliant, too - "I'm So Tired", "Bungalow Bill" and "Happiness Is A Warm gun" stand out for me, the latter in particular aweing me. We all thought Queen were geniuses for making a 5-part song that was only 6 minutes long - yet here the Beatles have a 5-part song that is not even 3 minutes long, and it sounds brilliant.

    Then there's stuff like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", one of the most emotional songs ever written and with some of the best guitar solos in my entire music library. But really, what pushes that song into genius territory for me is George Harrison's tragic vocals. How the hell did he manage to turn something like "I look at the world, and I notice it's turning" into such a beautiful sentiment?

    "Revolution 9" is an interesting topic - I do like it, reservedly. It's an incredibly interesting, enthralling, terrifying piece of work - and the balls it took to release something like that (at 8 minutes, too) on a pop album are tremendous.

    Oh yeah, and then there's "Helter Skelter", unequivocally my favourite Beatles song. That thing makes me jump up and down like a lunatic, and the vocals are incredible. And people say Paul was the more "sentimental" of the bunch?

    Aside from that, there's a whole load of nice little songs, like "Piggies" and "Blackbird" (the latter, incidentally, serves as the perfect intro to the recent Alter Bridge song by the same name). Things like "Rocky Raccoon" and "Yer Blues" amuse me, "Back in the USSR" and "Birthday" are nice and energetic rockers (I linked the second to my Beatles-obsessed friend on his birthday - sometimes, taking things at face value is encouraged). And, of course, "Don't Pass Me By" - this song has my vote for the most utterly adorable song of all time (perhaps alongside "Reign of Love", by Coldplay, but that's another story). I don't know why everyone bashes Ringo's vocals, they do something for me that none of the others can.

    There are a couple of songs on here that I can't really remember very much at the moment, sadly (like "Long, Long, Long", I'm ashamed to say), but in the end this is made up for by the general greatness of the album. I wouldn't change a thing.

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  3. "Revolution 9" always seemed intensely weird to me (and maybe that's because I came to the White Album late, after all the Manson craziness became public) -- scary and somewhat inaccessible.

    I actually wish they'd released the Revolution Take 20 piece instead -- it's longer, but more coherent and actually connects "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9" in a very cool way. (If you haven't heard it, it's on YouTube at http://youtu.be/bQDDfW2pMhk)

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  4. I've always like 'I Will' more than 'Julia', but I really can't even defend that stance. They really are both just perfect. I used to sing 'I Will' to my baby boy (when he was a baby) and I think it's basically the perfect love song. I had no idea about the number of vocal takes. Does that include the vocal bass line?

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  5. My ex-Carly and I had little in common musically but the Beatles: and this album in particular. It was our favorite album by the band and we used to listen to it a lot. I still have to weep a little to "Julia" as it makes me think of her...

    Anyways. I actually like Mark Prindle's simple, mathematical equation that rendered this the best Beatles album ever: all Beatles albums are awesome and all Beatles songs (with very few exceptions) are worthwhile. This album has the most songs of any Beatles album: therefore, it's BETTER than any Beatles album!

    Plus, for me, I love the crazy diverse-yet-coherent sound of the album. I honestly think playing the songs without pauses helps to create this effect, as well as the production: the songs stop by, say "hi! I hope you like this great melody! Or this funny lyric! Maybe this sly arrangement detail? Anyways, you'll probably dig the swirling, whirling dervish of this vocal harmony tag ("round and round round round round") or maybe you'll just laugh at all the silly jokes. Either way, chin up!"

    Very little to add. I think your view of the album is an interesting idea and a good interpretation. I have always preferred the first album too...interesting.

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  6. In this age of Spotify, iTunes playlist and the like, it's not out of the question to think of this album as the first true aggregate album. Rather than stick to some straight trajectory, like George says, they go wide as hell. I mean, other bands can flesh out a bit but the Beatles, being who they are, can just own whatever genre of music they tackle. It's scary at first when you first realize why they edge out every other "best" band in the world, but the White Album is one of the main reasons. If they've been around during this era I can just imagine them putting out the best *shudders* dubstep track, followed by the best chillwave track, etc.

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  7. If GS doesn't want to provide a critical mark I will. Ob-la-di is the third stinker in the catalogue of the Beatles. It may have been intended to be silly and pedestrian, that doesn't make any better. It remains a stupid song. The Beatles only get away with it because, you know, they are the Beatles. And the Beatles deliberately or accidentally churning out shit is for most people an unbearable thought. Not for me.
    Helter Skelter is nót the first heavy metal song. You really got me is. HS is not even heavy metal (or proto heavy metal) as it lacks a riff. One thing the Beatles were nót capable off was capturing the nihilistic raw aggression needed for this genre. Sure quite a few heavy metal bands weren't either - that's why we call them second rate poseurs. And thát's what the Beatles are on Helter Skelter. What saves them and the song is their strong point as always: exceptionally good taste.
    GS hints at a very interesting point in the first few alinea's. The Beatles were there before Cream and Hendrix. They were even still there when my favourite genre, hardrock/heavy metal, broke through. That's a fact that completely defies my intuition. I have always felt - and still feel - that even the last album of the Beatles came at least two years before Led Zep I.
    As I don't think originality as important as GS apparently does the fact that the Beatles weren't revolutionary anymore doesn't bother me at all. What matters is the quality of the music. Me not being a fan of the Beatles cannot deny that overall - the three duffers I dislike so much only are the exceptions confirming the rule.

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    1. Erm, Helter Skelter definitely has a riff. It's in between each line of the Chorus.

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  8. Obviously when you say you don't like a goddamn Books album, it's just your opinion. When you say something bad about a classic Beatles album, it just sounds like a statement. And yet I have to say that the White Album has never hit me as a great Beatles album. Let alone their best ever.

    Weirdly for a 30-song Beatles record, it just doesn't have enough great songs. Yes, so I could say that "Revolution 9" is interesting for a day or two; the fact that "Ob-la-di..." was intended to be schmaltzy and silly doesn't make it great (though I do enjoy it for what it's worth); the chorus of "Bungalow Bill" is abysmal (though the verse melody is pure class); "Wild Honey Pie" is, well, what the heck; I do take pity on Ringo, but that will hardly save "Don't Pass Me By" from mediocrity. Those are more or less the usual suspects.

    For me, however, it's more than that. We'd all have to agree that at this stage The Beatles were not physically capable of writing a less than good song, but in all honesty I count here 6 songs on par with most of that stuff off Revolver or Rubber Soul or MMT. And whereas I am eager to forgive the flaws of Sgt Pepper (which is wholesome and complete as it is), I can only take the White Album as a collection of songs. Out of which only 15 should have stayed.

    Also, I'd like to mention a great article on Beatles written by Robert Forster (of The Go-Betweens): http://www.themonthly.com.au/monthly-essays-robert-forster-mop-tops-moustaches-beatles-remastered-2179. I disagree with him on some points there, but this album he got about right.

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    1. This:
      "And yet I have to say that the White Album has never hit me as a great Beatles album. Let alone their best ever."

      Because this:
      "I can only take the White Album as a collection of songs."

      So right on, Alexey. And here's why I think it feels that way to me: Even if we disagree with Lennon's famous assertion that White is "me with a backing group, Paul with a backing group," etc, it clearly shows the first serious cracks in the group dynamic--in their 1962-67 working method, and their belief in group expression as a valid, grown-up concept. And as their solo careers all showed, what was special about The Beatles was the group, not the individuals.

      "Julia" is a lovely song, but it's impossible to listen to it outside of the tragic, mythic circumstances of John's relationship with his mother. I have a feeling it would seem a lot closer to "I Will"--lovely, weightless, romantic rock--had Julia Stanley been alive and happy in 1968. It's an interesting thought. If only.

      My sense is that his love affair with Yoko influenced the nature/texture of the song, but it's much more likely that Lennon's meditation was what brought the topic up, and then allowed him to work with such a charged issue creatively. So if you're going to credit Yoko for "Julia," you gotta credit Maharishi as much or more. What Yoko encouraged in Lennon was a self-mythologizing which worked well initially--when it was counterbalanced by non-negotiable external forces like The Beatles--but this worldview eventually drained and isolated him.

      Maharishi wasn't "the answer" (that this is how John looked at him represents a peculiar shallowness), but his association with The Beatles was incredibly benign given the circumstances. IMHO the quiet concentration and self-examination, not to mention the break from their increasingly crazy normal lives, and an increasingly toxic rock scene, is probably what gave them that extra two years after Pepper.

      Anyway, great review as usual George. So glad I know about your site.
      --Mike from Dullblog

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  9. I've always thought the White Album worked as a totality, and you expressed it better than I can, George -- thanks.

    I don't think "Ob-La-Di" is stupid; it's a character/story song, like "Penny Lane." Without that picture of ordinary life going on, that dimension would be missing from the album. Plus it's wicked catchy.

    [FYI, George, posted a reference to this on Hey Dullblog too.]

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  10. When I first bought the White Album circa 1970, I listened to it so frequently that I could name the next song before the previous tune ended. It was imprinted in my memory. And other than "Revolution #9", I loved every bit of it.

    Sometime in the last ten years, after reading many books and articles about the Beatles and the making of this double LP, I found it increasingly difficult to listen to and I rarely pull it out. The reason for this is something that was invisible to me in my youth, but it now seems clear that The Beatles that I loved so dearly were no longer a group. The bitter battles that took place during the recording cast a pall over the songs. Regardless of the beauty of "I Will" or "Julia", they and most of the other songs are missing that group ingredient. Where are their spectacular harmonies? Why is George's guitar playing so minimized, especially at a time when his songwriting and musicianship had grown astronomically? There are quite a few fine George songs written at the time of the White Album that were passed over by John and Paul, and instead we get nine minutes of revolutionary freak-out.

    That said, there are still an enormous number of fine songs on the album. But it makes me sad that they were unable to build on the extraordinary streak that preceded it. Perhaps a saving grace is the single recorded at the same time as White - "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" IS The Beatles in all their glory. IMHO there was a second saving grace - and that is "Abbey Road" where the band knew they were probably recording their last group effort and the boys stepped up and produced an album that is clearly superior to White.

    ps. I am definitely in agreement with Alex about take 20 of Revolution #1. The experimentation is managed within the bounds of an actual song, and the crazy mix of John's grunting, nuggets of prerecorded music and chatter, and the overall insanity of the enterprise is a thousand times more listenable than what ended up in #9. Had that been on the LP in place of the two versions - thus freeing up space for some additional George tunes - I might have a better opinion of the whole enterprise.

    Finally - I want to thank George S. for starting this blog, and for your amazingly perceptive and well-written reviews. I was a fan of your old site for years and am very pleased that you are back at it.

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  11. Dean "Their Best Work" LaCapraraMay 24, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    Not simply the Sixties' finest hour (although Pet Sounds, Rubber Soul & Abbey Road are close), easily my favourite double after the untouchable-if-not-perfect Exile on Main Street.
    Coming apart in '68? Half of these songs feature the band working together but everyone seems to focus on the "solo" pieces which are usually superb, from "Blackbird" to "Goodnight." John apparently stayed away from George's whereas Paul is found everywhere until the last couple, maybe "Piggies" and of course the haunting "Julia."
    I remember being transfixed with the vinyl record late 1985 and picked up CD early Nineties—finally checking out pictures and lyrics because album borrowed excluded them. Nonetheless, brilliant tunes so consistent it's hard to believe they were already falling apart. Ringo missed the first couple of killers? Paul drums on his pieces except for "I Will" missed by George! "Revolution 9" features Yoko and two Beatles? Weird for a self-titled album, but I ain't complaining when you receive almost 30 new awesome tracks (both "Revolution"'s don't count, "Wild Honey Pie" hardly worth mentioning) by four guys on top.

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  12. Revolution No. 9 is a thoughtfully constructed piece of music, with recurring motifs, a coherent development and a consistent sound and texture. It's neither chaotic nor random - it just doesn't concern itself with rhythm or melody or harmony, our usual musical terms of reference. It also avoids the affectations of established musique concrete/avant garde composers, who were academically constricted rather than liberated by formlessness (Pierre Henry, anybody?). It's a goddam pop song.

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    1. It's definitely not a pop song.

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    2. "a coherent development"

      ^ This phrase, as used by you here, does not mean anything.

      "It also avoids the affectations of established musique concrete/avant garde composers, who were academically constricted rather than liberated by formlessness (Pierre Henry, anybody?). It's a goddam pop song."

      Paraphrasing Ian MacDonald?

      The best way to think of "Revolution 9": "I Am the Walrus", minus the song but keeping the sound effects.

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    3. "This phrase, as used by you here, does not mean anything"

      ^This phrase, as used by you here, does not mean anything, either.

      "Paraphrasing Ian MacDonald?"

      Maybe, if unintentionally. I haven't read the book for years.

      (It's a pop song because it's on a Beatles album. I always let them define pop for me.)

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  13. "This phrase, as used by you here, does not mean anything"

    ^This phrase, as used by you here, does not mean anything, either.


    Yeah, okay, see, that's not going to work. Because what I wrote does mean something, and you know exactly what it means, and so does everybody else reading this.

    Which isn't true for the way you're using the word "development". Simply repeating things or maintaining a consistent texture doesn't necessarily mean anything is "developing" - and that's as far as you go with specifics. If you're a classical music critic talking about a tonal piece of Western music, then you can say it has a "coherent development" and reasonably assume that people will know what you're saying is being developed, and how - but you're not.

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  14. (SWEEPS BRIC-A-BRAC OFF COFFEE TABLE WITH FOREARM) The phrase "a coherent development" (as you astutely point out, "as used by me here") has nothing but meaning. That's its defining quality. It has no weight, odor, dimension, nothing you can hang your hat on or distract the kitten with. It is pure, distilled meaning. Whether you understand (or disagree) with its meaning is really up to you. Can't help you there.

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    1. In other words, you were trying to look impressive by talking bullshit, and are now trying to pass it off as a joke.

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  15. I think The Beatles still are innovators on the White Album. McCartney’s Helter Skelter is harder than anything recorded by any group before December of 1968 (yes, The Who, Hendrix, Cream, The Kinks, all produced things you could call "hard rock" yet nothing as heavy and intense as "Helter Skelter" or even "Everybody got something to hide..." ). I always thought Helter Skelter is not only proto- heavy metal, but also proto punk and grunge. I'm not the only one, apparently Noel Gallagher went further, and said "Helter Skelter was the beginning of the punk movement". The Oasis’s songwriter said "Because it was exactly a year after that, the Stooges and the MC5 came out. In 1969. "Helter Skelter" was recorded at the back end of 1968, and that was the first. If you listen to "Helter Skelter" and listen to the MC5 and the Stooges, it's that sound. They sound exactly like that record. And song, the way it's played, is the birth of punk rock as we know it".
    “Happiness is a warm gum”, its ahead of its time too, is Radiohead’s alternative rock, three decades before.
    Even something like Obladi- Oblada has some innovation merit. Yes, it's silly (but catchy as hell), and a song not to recommend everybody, but it was one of the first white attempts to make a "real" ska track. Sure, the result was a parody, but none, or few, rock/pop bands of the sixties tried and got a more authentic product.
    The Police's drummer Stewart Copeland called Obladi -Oblada one of the first examples of white reggae. ¿And isn’t The Police one of the first big white reggae (pop/rock) bands? Important ska/ rock and reggae artists covered Obladi: No Doubt, Sublime, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff... So I think McCartney did something right, maybe he could make it better, but he did a valid try and unusual track for the time.
    In fact, McCartney’s debatable role as one of the pioneers of the white reggae continued on his solo career. He made a reggae cover (Love is Strange released on 1971) and wrote and had a reggae hit (C moon hit the top five in the UK on 1972) years before Clapton’s famous version of I Shot the Sheriff, cover that introduced Bob Marley to the masses and made reggae a trend for rock white artists. C moon was released a year before Led Zeppelin’s “Dyer Maker” and year before the Stones and Elton John recorded albums on Jamaica. Anyway, going back to The White Album, it is an amazing, flawed, beautiful and visionary album.

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    1. "yet nothing as heavy and intense as "Helter Skelter""
      Oh come on, gimme a break. Helter Skelter is very likeable, but essentially it's just another happy poptune by McCartney. Nothing to be blamed for, but he just always has lacked the aggression, anger and general pissitude necessary for heavy and intense stuff. And yes, I do like the riff of Live and let die.
      Helter Skelter is a very nice try, nothing wrong with (except perhaps that it lasts too long) but nobody but avid Beatles fans were ever impressed.

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    2. Well, I respect your opinion, but I see more agression, anger, and general pissitude on Helter Skelter than anything by the others bands of the sixties (yeh I include The Stones and Led Zeppelin sixties's outpout). "A happy pop tune", now you give me break. Its ok if you think it’s not heavy and intense, but Helter skelter clearly it’s not happy pop tune.
      “But nobody but avid Beatles fans were ever impressed”. Well, U2, The Killers, Pearl Jam, Motley Crue, Aerosmith, Soundgarden and Phish had covered. Maybe YOU’re not impressed.
      Ps: Check Paul's Nothing too much just out sight, Beware my Love (live), Soily (Live), Rinse the Raindrops (Twin Freaks version), or his recent Cut me some Slack, a collaboration with the ex Nirvana members. McCartney sometimes can be “heavy and intense". Yeh, and I still believe Helter, is another example of that.

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  16. The Gallagher Brothers knows shit about music history.
    I once saw them praising the Bee Gees' 1st by claiming that the Bee Gees were doing psychedelia before The Beatles. What idiot mongrels!

    "Kick Out the Jams" was recorded Before The White Album was released, and anyway, I love love love "Helter Skelter", but it's clearly a joke song, and nothing to do with punk in the MC5/Stooges sense.

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    1. You are right about the Gallagher brothers, but Helter Skelter wasn't "joke song" to McCartney.
      Paul came up with the idea for 'Helter Skelter' in Scotland after reading an interview with Pete Townshend in which he described the Who's new single, 'I Can See for Miles' (a very soft song if you compare that with Helter Skelter, even McCartney was disappointed when he finally heard it), as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest and most uncompromising song they had ever done.

      PAUL: I was always trying to write something different, trying to not write in character, and I read this and I was inspired. Oh, wow! Yeah! Just that one little paragraph was enough to inspire me; to make me make a move. So I sat down and wrote 'Helter Skelter' to be the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, et cetera et cetera. I was using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom - the rise and fall of the Roman Empire - and this was the fall; the demise, the going down. You could have thought of it as a rather cute tide but it's since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem, and since then quite a few punk bands have done it because it is a raunchy rocker.
      I went into the studio and said, 'Hey, look, I've read this thing. Let's do it!' We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, 'No, it still sounds too safe, it's got to get louder and dirtier.' We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, 'I've got blisters on my fingers.' That wasn't a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he'd been drumming so ferociously. We did work very hard on that track. Unfortunately it inspired people to evil deeds.

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  17. I'm a great fan of "the White Album". Yes, these are solo recordings, with the others playing the backing and than finished by the writer of the song.
    But I have to say: REVOLUTION 1 was the first recorded version of this song. Actually take 20 was appr. 10 minutes, so they used the first 4 minutes for this song. The rest was used for REVOLUTION 9 (with help from George). John wanted to be REVOLUTION 1 as a single, but the others rejected the idea. Later on they recorded REVOLUTION (the hard rocking version) for the b-side of HEY JUDE.

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  18. Very belated praise: As far as I know, George is here the first person to observe just how much happens over the course of "Martha My Dear." This is why we have critics.

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