Part 3: “Coming Down Fast”: ‘The White Album’ and the Dark Side of Revolution
The Beatles LP that the world now knows colloquially as The White Album was released on the 22nd of November, 1968. It was five years to the day since John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and in America at least, the awful promise of that day was being fulfilled. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had met a similar fate to that of the Presidential martyr; pop culture icon Andy Warhol nearly had as well. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre turned an already unpopular war into an ongoing public horror. Antiwar and civil rights demonstrations on campuses across the U.S. were erupting into violence. Propelled by his “silent majority”, a divided Democratic Party, and promises of eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, Richard Nixon won the Presidential election in the fall, inaugurating six years of near-Shakespearean villainy in the White House.
Though the Beatles had been chasing shadows of Orientialist enlightenment in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and tentatively dealing with their own business affairs after the passing of long-time manager Brian Epstein, even they had to have noticed the almost daily spasms rending the nation across the Atlantic to which they had long felt a special affinity. They need not have even looked that far, though. The unrest had spread to England, where a March demonstration in Grosvenor Square against American involvement in Vietnam had resulted in 91 injuries and 200 arrests. Across the Channel, the French government had nearly been toppled by student uprisings and general strikes in May, and Czechoslovakia had fallen behind the Iron Curtain by the fall. Some date the harsh takedown of the idealistic hippie dream to Altamont or the Manson murders, but by the time The White Album was on the shelves, the youth revolution’s days seemed numbered.
Listeners with any measure of socio-historical savvy will always listen to the Beatles’ eponymous ninth album with these events in mind. But the fruits of this cultural inspiration are disparate, scattered. The White Album is legendary for its disjointed nature (or natures), as well-known for its wild fluctuations in style and quality as it is for its classic passages. Sparked by unease and echoes of violence, it wound up inadvertently sparking further acts of terrible violence that would form a disturbing coda to the Sixties counterculture. In its unwieldy sprawl, it synthesized the roiling unease of its moment. To be pithy, it is the Fab Four’s great Russian novel.
To my mind, the famous starkness of The Beatles‘s cover design not only granted the album its well-worn moniker but also cast an odd pall on its sonic contents. Though its 30 songs were varied in their songcraft and rich in their production, there is a washed-out haze around them, a tense dilution. The fissures within the band were obviously growing while the album was being recorded, to such an extent that even the cheery Ringo Starr had to take a break from the unsheathed knives in the studio.
As a result, moodiness and occasional outright anger dominates the album. The often-bitter John Lennon was thus in his element, and largely rules the roost. The throat-tearing “Yer Blues” presaged the aural primal therapy of his unforgiving solo debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band with its opening couplet of maximum self-loathing: “I’m lonely / Wanna die”. “Glass Onion” follows “I Am the Walrus” in thumbing his nose at those who dealt in educated over-interpretation of his songs (I guess I didn’t take the hint). “Happiness is a Warn Gun” and “Sexy Sadie” quiver with bitter disappointment, “Julia” with regretful sadness. Even the gentleness of one of his greatest songs, “Dear Prudence”, seems to have an errant edge.
George Harrison’s building frustration at his marginal songwriting role in the band burst forth in the bridge of the otherwise funereal “Long, Long, Long”, and found further expression in the glib dehumanization of white-collar squares in “Piggies”. Even Paul McCartney couldn’t keep out of the muck. Although he still squeezed out a peppy potboiler or two (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Birthday”), his contributions either lamented (“Mother Nature’s Son”, “Blackbird”) or raged (“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, “Helter Skelter”).
The Beatles weren’t just reflecting a collective mood (or their own moods), however. More direct and literal lyrical commentary on current events would come later, particularly for Lennon, but his various “Revolution” variants were a tentative step in the agit-prop direction. Leftist revolutionary rhetoric had reached its apex in the West in France’s May 1968 unrest, but like the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” a few years later, the view Lennon takes of these concepts in “Revolution” predicts their decline. Idealism and cynicism often collided in Lennon’s head, and here that collision is audible. He goes for didactic equivocation in the verses (“you better free your mind instead”) and a reassuring platitude in the chorus (“you know it’s gonna be all right”). Opting out of “destruction” in the rockier single version, he counts himself both “out” and “in” on the foot-dragging album track. If he ever makes up his mind, the moment will likely have passed. Ideologues will be disappointed, but Lennon’s uncertain stance reflects the divisions of the progressive left throughout the twentieth century, divisions that far too often allowed right-wing political forces to enact policies that all left-wing parties could agree were apposite to their views.
The dark irony of probing The White Album for hermeneutic valences and unintentional meanings comes pre-equipped, mind you. We can all thank Charles Manson for that. Teasing out cultural reflections through academic criticism is far different from a paranoid mania that sees hidden meanings everywhere. Manson was a psychopath, but you don’t need to be a psychopath to hear what you want to hear. Still, its association with the Manson Family’s apocalyptic fantasies and disgusting violence gives The White Album an aura of black magic and menace, an aura that is not altogether indistinguishable as one listens to the album in isolation. Especially in its penultimate track, the unnerving sonic collage “Revolution 9”, this baffling but rich record fires our frayed post-modern synapses and leaves us more uncertain about civilization’s forward progression than before. It’s not an altogether pleasant experience, but on occasion, it’s an entirely necessary one.