Tuesday, December 30, 2014

10 The White Album (1968) The Beatles




This used to be my favourite Beatles album. In fact for a while it was probably my favourite album of all time. I listened to it constantly and it became my go to album when I was in that "what do I feel like listening to now?" mood. I always felt like listening to The White Album.

Over the course of years, White has slipped in my estimations. It was first overtaken by Abbey Road and now it's possibly been overtaken by Revolver and Rubber Soul mainly for their solid consistency.

The White Album always had some amazing highs but some terrible and piteous lows. There are definite skip tracks but over the years songs that had some novelty value have worn a bit thin for me. As I've aged the "Good" column has stayed constant but the "Maybe" column has thinned and the "Bad" column has grown slightly longer to accommodate it. As I've moved from enjoying this on a cassette to owning it on CD, where I've had access to a skip function, and finally in a digital format which I can manipulate at will, I've developed less tolerance for Bungalow Bill and his ilk.

(By the way, I know this isn't actually The White Album and is officially called "The Beatles" but it's always the White Album to me)

Back in the USSR

The White Album is lauded for experiments, stylistic changes and general quirkiness but it's supported by good songwriting. Back in the USSR is just a simple and basic rock song which is nothing but an outstanding example of its kind. Despite the fact that it's lyrically a bit controversial for a song recorded in the Cold War, it's bread and butter stuff for the Beatles and it proves that they could do straight ahead rock better than anyone else at the time. (it also proves that they didn't really need Ringo. Their drummer had walked out at the time so Paul played the drums himself and did a great job)

Dear Prudence

It's often said that The White Album was a compilation of solo tracks recorded by the three Beatles working as their own independent artists, which is true to an extent but overstating the case somewhat. Dear Prudence was written by Lennon who sings lead vocals and plays guitar but Paul plays drums, bass, piano, fl├╝gelhorn and also provides percussion overdubs. The idea that the Beatles paths barely crossed during the recording just isn't true. Prudence is beautiful by the way and all the stronger for being a ballad by John that isn't about his mother or Yoko, two subjects he was known to dwell on somewhat.

Glass Onion

Glass Onion hasn't made the move from "undecided" to "bad" in the ledge of my mind but it's sort of teetering there. Years of listening have dulled and not heightened its impact and it's become a bit take-or-leave in my mind. The self-referential nature is fun but I'm not sure there's enough at its heart to keep it interesting. There's a limit to how many times you can nod knowingly at "The Walrus was Paul" before the novelty wears off completely.

Ob-la-di Ob-la-da

For many this is not just the worst song on the album, it's the worst song the Beatles ever recorded. John certainly thought so and apparently hated having anything to do with it. I've always kind of liked it. It's disposable silly fun but I have no problem with it. It might be an indication of Paul turning to the light side while John was getting darker in his songwriting, but that balance isn't a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.

Wild Honey Pie

Skip this. Seriously. This is just nonsense. It's not part of the album's charm, it's bollocks and while I used to endure it on my tape copy I've barely heard it since I first held the CD in my hands.

The continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

This used to be cute. "Hey Bungalow Bill" used to be fun to say but to be honest over the years it's got kind of annoying. It's not just the presence of Yoko (who makes anything that much more irritating) it's just a stupid kind of song with only a faintly catching chorus line to redeem it.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

As I said at the start, the lows are pretty low on this album but the highs are just magnificent. The White Album was the first Beatles release that saw George take "best song" honours and despite facing some stiff competition, he pulls of an absolute winner here. Weeps is in my top five Beatles songs of all time from its opening to Clapton's solo. It's just brilliant. I've always thought it was a huge shame that George never did this song justice when he played it live. In his few tours he either changed the lyrics or added pointless backing vocals and in every instance buggered it up. I'd love a great live version of him singing this masterpiece with a truly weeping solo. Special mention should go to the acoustic demo which is also great, both are worth enjoying.

Happiness is a Warm Gun

This is what happens when John sort of smooshes tunes together to make something that he considered a coherent whole. It works but partly because he's gutsy enough to try it and just manages to pull it off. It's dark which isn't normally a Beatles mood but they manage some how make it a decidedly Beatles shade of darkness.

Martha My Dear

This isn't about Paul's dog, despite what you may have heard. He got the name from the dog but it isn't actually a song about a dog. Which is a pity because if it was it might be more interesting. Martha My Dear is one of those tracks in which the novelty has just worn off. It's kind of pretty I've had enough.

I'm so Tired

Lennon in blues mode, effective but not his finest contribution.

Blackbird

McCartney in pretty mode. And it is very pretty. It's a beautiful little number which is simple but doesn't need to be any more complicated. Just lovely.

Piggies

I've never really appreciated the Beatles much when they try and do social commentary. There's something about their world statements that just don't connect, almost as if they're trying too hard. It's like they think Dylan does this sort of stuff so they should too. Piggies is definitely George's weakest contribution to the album and far too strained a metaphor to actually say anything worthwhile.

Rocky Racoon

Oh shush Paul. Bungalow Bill and Rocky Racoon should both just sod off together and form a silly character convention far away from this album as far as I'm concerned.

Don't Pass Me By

Ringo writes a song! Go Ring! It's not bad either. I mean it would be a dud if the others had wrote it but Ringo has enough charm to pull it off and it actually works.

Why Don't we Do it In the Road

As simple as Blackbird but not as effective. The Road sounds more like the potential for a great song rather than a great song in its own right. To be honest it sounds like one of the unfinished song fragments that got smooshed together to make the medley on Abbey Road.

I Will

It would have been interesting if The Beatles had arranged The White Album into a more conceptual idea rather than a random one. They could have had a rock side, an experimental side, a cutely narrative side and a side that was more low key and acoustic. It would be interesting to hear how I Will would have fit into a side of vinyl that also boasted Blackbird, Julia, Sexy Sadie and Mother Natures son. I suspect they'd actually complement each other well and make the whole thing a more enjoyable listen. It would also mean we could just skip the experimental side altogether after hearing it once.

Julia

I will and Julia give us a chance to put a John and Paul acoustic number side by side and see which one comes out strongest. It surprises me to say in this case it's Paul. I Will has a beautiful chorus, verse and bridge while Julia sounds a bit too aimless. I will hangs around in your head after its finished but Julia doesn't.

Birthday

One of the things I love about Birthday is that it's so fantastically meaningless...

You say it's your birthday
It's my birthday too, yeah
They say it's your birthday
We're gonna have a good time
I'm glad it's your birthday
Happy birthday to you.

Whenever anyone complains about modern music and says: people don't write good lyrics like they used to I like to point them to this song. The lyrics are something that Paul obviously wrote in a matter of seconds. It's just any old bollocks that entered his head. Fantastic though isn't it? Birthday is just a joyously fabulous song that it's impossible not to like and the fact that the lyrics are rampant tosh don't detract from it for a second.

Yer Blues

Yer Blues is just an attempt to write a blues song by someone whose natural musical mode isn't the Blues. Lennon wasn't a fan of Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson like his contemporaries were. He was more of a pop and R&B man than a blues purist. But Yer Blues proves that even if he wasn't soaked in the blues it had rubbed off on him enough to perform some with a fair degree of efficiency. Yer Blues is a fantastic and powerful track that Lennon gives real feeling to. I suppose you don't need to study the blues if you live them.

Mother Nature's Son

Another gentle Paul ballad and a really nice one. His tunes seemed simple but were perfect little pop songs. I've heard this a million times but I'm still more than happy to see it come along again.

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey

Hot on the heels of While my guitar gently weeps as my favourite song on the album. Monkey isn't long or overblown or drawn out or wasting anyone's time, it just jumps in quick, rips your ears off, belts you around the head a few times and then buggers off.  Brilliant stuff. It's often a favourite track for people hearing the album for the first time because it's the most obscure track on the album which is worth hearing. Anyone who puts White on for the first already knows Birthday, Back in the USSR, Weeps etc but this comes as a surprise and an extremely pleasant one at that.

Sexy Sadie

Originally this was a venomous song about The Maharishi but John was persuaded to change the lyrics to tone them down which is why he's singing an angry song about someone named Sadie who is apparently possessed of a certain allure. The end result doesn't really work because it's an angry song that isn't angry and John sounds unconvinced. Shame. It could have been great in its original form.

Helter Skelter

This is really noisy stuff. It's just intense and shouty and the track to play people if they think the Beatles were just light pop and ballads. It's a song that really makes you happy to be leaping around your room shouting about a fairground attraction. And not many other songs do that.

Long Long Long

Another of those songs whose ideas don't seem to justify its running length. Harrison's weakest contribution to the album

Revolution 1

Slow and plodding. Unlike the single version which is faster and infinitely better. The plod version of Revolution is one of the reasons why I don't often bother listening to White all the way through anymore. I wonder how many Vinyl owners never bothered flipping over to side 4.

Honey pie

Paul's love of music hall "granny music" used to annoy Lennon and listening to this it's not hard to see why. It's kind of irritating and doesn't just sound like music hall, it sounds like bad music hall.

Savoy truffle

Another in a line of "not really worth the full song length" list of songs and definitely a track which has started to grate on my nerves a bit over the years.

Cry Baby Cry

The best song on side 4 which isn't saying much. It's infectious though and sometimes I find it in my head and I've got no idea how it got there (although perhaps it's got something to do with the fact that crying babies have been a part of my life for four years now)

Revolution 9

The most infamous Beatles track of them all. Eight minutes of noise collage and sound effects that feels like a lot longer. The fact that Lennon recorded this and Paul didn't want it on the album has enforced the view that John was all about experimenting while Paul was safe and mainstream. The truth is that Paul could experiment as well, he was just clever enough to realise that people didn't need to actually hear it. Is it an interesting idea? Possibly? Does it need to hold up eight minutes of album time? No. No it doesn't.

Good Night.

How many people have missed hearing this track because they turned the album off a few seconds into Revolution 9 knowing that it was unrelenting like that for the next eight minutes? I'm guessing a lot. They weren't really missing a huge amount. Goodnight is too overblown and silly for it's own good.


Like most double albums, there's a good single album somewhere within The White Album and it runs like this:

Back in the USSR
Dear Prudence
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
I'm so Tired
Blackbird
I Will
Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Natures Son
Everybody's got something to hide
Helter Skelter
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution (fast version)

That's quite possibly the best Beatles album ever. I also think there would be a lot to be said for an Abbey Road style medley of tracks like Why don't we do it in the road, Glass Onion, Savoy Truffle etc which could exist without their welcome being worn out.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I have never understood all the fuss over the Beatles. They couldn't sing, weren't good looking and played the same guitar music over and over that you can't even dance to."

-You have clearly not listened to the album you're actually reviewing. Put down your computer and walk away, you're not qualified to comment.

So is this fantastic or just all white? Let me know below.

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