The Beatles take two
When I was a kid, my mother told me that with “The White Album” the Beatles stopped being the Beatles that everyone liked. I asked her what she meant and she said that they had changed with the album and “went off the deep end”. Sometime later I dug my father’s copy of “The White Album” out and put it on. I listened for a few minutes, skipped through a few songs, and put the record away. I realized that my mother was right and that this wasn’t the Beatles I liked. I didn’t know what to do with the album or how to listen to it.
I didn’t give it another thought until early ’92, when I first listened to U2’s Achtung Baby. About two minutes into the first track, “Zoo Station”, my mother asked “what the hell is this?” I had read a number of reviews of the album and knew that it was “postmodern”, which was how I described it to my mother. Moving quickly from track to track with her face twisted, she said “what does ‘postmodern’ mean?” I took a guess and said “it means new and strange.” She said “this is what happens to these bands. They get too wrapped up in themselves and start making weird music for themselves instead of their listeners. This is like ‘The White Album’ and I don’t like it.”
The thing was that I liked the album and was impressed by the drastic shift in sound U2 had undergone. If that was postmodernism, then I knew I liked how it sounded. After a full listen to Achtung Baby, I decided that when it came to music that my mother didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Curious as to what else I was missing by taking her music opinions at face value, I decided to take another listen to “The White Album” and realized that I liked that too. However, it has taken me almost 20 years to reconcile myself to the album and really appreciate what it’s about and its musical and cultural importance.
My initial mistake with “The White Album” was looking for a firm narrative within it. If one can say the album is about anything, then it’s about fragmentation and disintegration. What strikes me about this album is its utter lack of sonic and thematic unity and commensurability. Virtually every song seems to belong on a different album and little seems to connect them aside from the fact that they were recorded—for the most part—by the Beatles. This musical incommensurability was what I couldn’t wrap my head around for so long. It was only after years of listening to the album that the point, such as it is, of the album came to me.
Over the years, I began to realize that it is a postmodern pop album in the truest sense of the term, however problematic such a term might be. In this case, I’m using the term “postmodern” in the most basic sense—which itself might seem to be a contradiction—as a movement in the Western arts in which a piece of art demonstrates an awareness of and overt interest in it itself as a work of art. Furthermore, postmodern art tends to reject grand narratives and meanings in favor of a plurality of fragmented, irresolvable and contradictory narratives and meanings. Postmodern art is also marked by intertextuality, imitation, mockery, demythologization, collage, engagement with counter-culture, an interest in higher and lower forms of consciousness, and abrupt returns to earlier artistic forms in the midst of a work that what would seem to be a rejection of such.
Virtually every track on “The White Album” seems to exemplify some element of postmodernism. “Back in the USSR”, is probably the most overtly ironic of the Beatles’ popular releases. The song serves as a biting parody and, at the same time, a radical deconstruction of the Beach Boys’s “Surfin’ USA”, and “California Girls”. The next song up is “Dear Prudence”, a desperate, heartfelt plea for young Prudence Farrow to relax and step away from her long, seemingly endless periods of meditation. There’s nothing thematic and sonically that connects these songs to each other, nor are these songs connected to the next two songs “Glass Onion”, a purposeful nonsense song that offers an overt rejection of meaning, and “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, an upbeat tale of domestic happiness that some consider as one of the earliest attempts at white ska. “Wild Honey Pie”, the next song, is a mere fragment of a full song, and one which was left on the album only at the request of Patti Harrison. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” attacks the sort of conservative, mainstream cultural norms that Lennon despised and which would seem out of place on any Beatles record save for this one.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is one of the finest songs the Beatles recorded and features Eric Clapton on lead guitar. The song, much like “Long Long Long”, is grounded in Harrison’s reading of the I Ching and represents his attempt to apply the principles of Eastern philosophy to song. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was the product of Lennon assembling three unfinished song fragments into something of a cohesive whole. “Martha My Dear” is a relative simple love song, a call back to the Beatles’ earlier sound, a plea to the songwriter’s muse to remember him despite their separation. “I’m So Tired” is about loss, whether the loss of chemical substances (the song was written during a time of forced sobriety during a long period of meditation) or the loss of love.
The origins of “Blackbird” are shrouded in mystery and contradiction. McCartney has offered numerous different origins and interpretations of the song, all of which are radically different and incommensurable. Harrison’s “Piggies” is a scathing attack on the middle class and “Rocky Raccoon” is a twisted adaptation of Robert Service’s poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”. “Don’t Pass Me By” is Starr’s first recorded Beatles song and serves as an ironic plea for itself to actually be recorded. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” is decidedly Lennonesque McCartney song and “I Will” represents McCartney’s first musical commentary on his well-publicized relationship with the future Linda McCartney.
“Julia” is a decidedly sentimental and old-fashioned Beatles song about Lennon’s mother who had died ten years before and features guitar work heavily influenced by Donovan as well as Lennon’s own new found emotional realizations about his mother’s death. McCartney’s later track “Honey Pie” serves as a reversal of “Julia”, with Paul offering a simple, happy and bubbly song as a tribute to his father. “Yer Blues” is one of the starkest songs Lennon ever wrote and “Mother Nature’s Son” was influenced by a lecture McCartney heard on the unity of nature and man and in turn shows a decidedly Romantic influence. “Birthday” is an unabashed throwback to the band’s early rock roots and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is about Lennon’s relationship with Ono and is sonically influenced by “Virgin Forest” by the underground American group The Fugs. “Sexy Sadie” is about Lennon’s disillusionment with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi and attempts to deconstruct and demythologize a man The Beatles and so many others had come to admire.
“Helter Skelter” is McCartney’s attempt to “freak people out” by turning away from his sugary pop impulses and compose a Lennonesque rock song. With the later track “Good Night”, Lennon attempts to compose a McCartneyesque sugary pop song. “Revolution” serves as a strong reflection on Lennon’s politics and questioning of his political and social positions. Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” is a perfectly ironic and sugary song about, of all things, Eric Clapton’s love of chocolate. Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry” was influenced by the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and the playground taunt “cry, baby, cry”. “Revolution 9” is probably the strangest and most avant garde track the band ever recorded and consists of over eight minutes of Ono and Lennon screaming against a range of discordant sounds.
Ultimately, it seems that my mother was right. This was the album on which the Beatles stopped really being the Beatles. And that’s what makes this album so remarkable. It is a record of fragmentation, disintegration, irony, self-awareness, and humor. One on hand, it shows us just how capable the Beatles were as musicians, how truly lyrically and sonically gifted they were, not to mention how original. At the same time, the album shows us that the Beatles that had come before were beginning to disappear. They were being influenced by a variety of cultural and musical forces, both high and low, as well as from sources ranging from popular myths, to personal confessions, long jams, counter-cultural thought, political manifestos and nonsense rhymes.
A great deal of experimentation and mixing of styles is also featured on the album, with influences ranging from dance-hall, to hard rock and even chamber music. Yet at the same time, we find Starr stepping out on his own finally, Harrison becoming all the more spiritual and experimental, McCartney torn between crafting rock songs and pop songs, and Lennon becoming even more self-conscious and ironic. The band was slipping apart during the recording of the album, with Starr quitting the band for two weeks in the midst of recording and Lennon and Harrison taking leave of the band shortly after the album was finished. The album became a far more collaborative effort than any previous Beatles work, with Jack Fallon and Eric Clapton, among others, contributing to the album. “The White Album”, then, is the Beatles’ grandest musical gesture and perhaps the first truly postmodern pop album.