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.