The Beatles’ kaleidoscopic opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived in 1967, the “Summer of Love”, the season of psychedelia and LSD, free love and hippy idealism. That all faded into 1968, a year of violence and dread. The Vietnam War raged with no end in sight, civil rights protests and vicious backlashes roiled across America, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the hippie enclave at Haight-Ashbury descended into a quagmire of hard drugs and crime, protesters and police skirmished at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Czechoslovakia was invaded, numerous countries around the world were held in the stone fist of brutal dictatorships, protests in Northern Ireland erupted in violence… the world was wrought with chaos and fear.
The time for the mystical fantasies of Sgt. Pepper had passed. Something more elemental was required. It’s no coincidence that the Rolling Stones released their dark classic Beggar’s Banquet in 1968, with its incendiary cornerstone tracks “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man”. The darkness was in the air.
So what next for the Beatles? Their longtime manager and restraining influence, Brian Epstein, was dead of a drug overdose. The band’s Magical Mystery Tour TV special was savaged by critics and became the group’s first significant failure. The stakes were high for pop music’s biggest band, who suddenly found themselves cut adrift in a very different world. Their solution was the Anti-Pepper… simply called The Beatles but promptly dubbed the White Album for its stark white cover. Where Sgt. Pepper was all vibrant colors and imagery, the White Album couldn’t be more different—raw, often unrefined, frequently veiled in shadow.
The fact that the Beatles were able to deliver such a spellbinding classic under the circumstances is a testament to each band member’s incredible talent. The White Album is a glorious quixotic mess, a schizophrenic quilt work of 30 songs sprawled over two discs. Many were written on acoustic guitar while the band was in India studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After returning to Britain they gathered at George Harrison’s residence and banged out over 20 demos. It was clear at that point they wanted to do a double album, their first ever. Yet despite this creative burst, the Beatles had started a slow and painful disintegration, and over the course of recording the album tensions boiled to the highest level they had seen in their career (and it would only get worse).
The Fab Four were surrounded by turmoil. They were in the midst of the chaotic formation of their company Apple Corps., drug use had become more frequent and serious (Lennon was arrested five days after the album’s completion), and new personal relationships brought complications (Yoko Ono’s sudden presence in the band’s inner circle amped tensions considerably). Some songs are solo pieces (“Mother Nature’s Son”, “Julia”), while others earned fully committed group participation (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Helter Skelter”). There are moments of spellbinding beauty, and strange little curios that would not work on any other Beatles album.
Indeed, The Beatles is the first time the group was really untethered. Epstein was gone, and producer George Martin, upon whom the Beatles relied upon so heavily throughout most of their career, was no more than a caretaker most of the time, with the band often ignoring his advice and suggestions. At times Martin wasn’t there at all, and he left his assistant Chris Thomas to help the band members achieve their musical visions, which they did to massive effect. Hardly a genre exists within the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon that The Beatles didn’t touch upon.
The album opens with the sound of an airplane taking flight, followed by hard-rocking electric guitars, piano and drums that fade into “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, Paul McCartney’s imaginative mish-mash of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”. As the song was recorded during a brief period when a fed-up Ringo Starr had stormed out of the proceedings, only to be cajoled back by the others in an apparently heart-felt exhibition of appreciation, the rudimentary drum part is played largely by McCartney. He also bangs out the rollicking piano, and delivers a boisterous rock vocal previously heard on early ravers like “I’m Down”. Harrison’s brief guitar solo is piercing and fierce. There’s an interesting touch, starting at the 2:03 point, where there’s one ringing note of guitar that chimes through the entire verse. The album is full of such idiosyncratic sonic tidbits.
Of course, the far-right John Birch Society, not a group particularly enamored with the Beatles anyway, promptly branded the song communist propaganda (and one might indeed argue that McCartney’s timing was poor—Soviet tanks had just rolled into Czechoslovakia two days prior to the song’s recording). Political considerations aside, “Back in the U.S.S.R” was the perfect start for an album heralding a return to basic rock ‘n’ roll after the extravagant studio experimentation of Sgt. Peppers.
John Lennon’s first offering is the majestic “Dear Prudence”, which was inspired by Prudence Farrow (sister of famous actress Mia). She was part of the group hanging with the band during their spiritualistic sojourn in India, and got so wrapped up in the Maharishi’s concepts that she spent most of her time shuttered in her cabin, meditating. The song is an invitation to come out and rejoin the land of the living, and is liltingly gentle for the the often acerbic Lennon.
“Dear Prudence” opens with a gorgeous finger-picked descending acoustic guitar pattern which persists throughout the song. Then Lennon’s summery sweet vocals emerge, followed by a single plucked note on the bass, until the drums kick in and McCartney’s loping bass part becomes a strong countermelody to the guitar. Like on “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, the drums were handled by McCartney—he does his very best to emulate his AWOL bandmate during the wild fills of the song’s sensational climax. “Dear Prudence” is a ray of sunlight on an album that tends to be riddled with darkness and anxiety.
“Glass Onion” is Lennon’s sly riposte to those who liked to read too deeply into the meaning of his lyrics. He litters the song with lyrical and sonic references to multiple songs of the band’s psychedelic period, sending the over-thinkers into a maze of inanity. “Glass Onion” is sardonic with a savage rock vibe and a strong dose of Lennon’s trademark cynicism.
Following the cranky “Glass Onion” with McCartney’s fruity “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is one of the more genius sequencing decisions on the album. This time McCartney adds ska to his repertoire of genre exercises. Lennon and Harrison made no secret of their disdain for the song (which took seemingly endless takes to record to McCartney’s satisfaction) and the tension in the studio was so bad that engineer Geoff Emerick abandoned the sessions the day following the track’s recording.
Despite all the negative feelings, however, the performance actually sounds upbeat and buoyant. The lyrics are clever and the song exudes the type of joy rarely to be found on the White Album. Is it trite and somewhat annoying? Okay, yeah, but it’s undeniable that had “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” been released as a single at the time of the album’s release, it would now be on the Beatles’ #1 compilation of chart-toppers.
“Wild Honey Pie” is McCartney’s bizarre studio experiment in multi-tracking. It’s an odd little nugget that somehow works in the context of the White Album’s vast strangeness. Lennon’s “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is next, a campfire singalong about an arrogant but bumbling American big game hunter. Lennon’s mockery of his subject is about as nasty as he can get, but the song is performed with a jovial looseness that belies its poisonous intent. Yoko Ono, a continual presence in the studio, pipes up on the line “not when he looked so fierce”.
With the previous two songs often mentioned by fans as tracks that could be cut had the White Album been whittled to one strong LP, the next track—Harrison’s first offering on the album—is far more substantial. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a stately rock ballad with lyrics inspired by the Chinese I Ching. The song opens with McCartney’s strident piano and throbbing descending bass, then giving way to a searing guitar lick before Harrison’s beautifully mournful vocals emerge. The lyrics are evocative of loneliness and world-weariness: “I look at the world and I notice it’s turning / while my guitar gently weeps / with every mistake, we must surely be learning / still my guitar gently weeps”.
The famous shimmery guitar solo is played by Eric Clapton rather than Harrison (in part to ensure Lennon and McCartney would be on their best behavior in the presence of the highly-regarded guitarist and treat the song seriously). “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a terrific group performance that anchors the first half of the White Album, and is by far Harrison’s most consequential contribution.
From weary melancholy we go to sharply caustic on Lennon’s remarkable “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”. It’s a provocative title, with the image of a freshly shot gun conjuring all sorts of potential connotations. The song is a rapid-fire mesh of four separate snippets. It opens with Lennon’s soft vocal over a softly strumming guitar, “She’s not a girl who misses much”, before veering into a tense section with some of Lennon’s most arresting lyrics on the album. Next is the bluesy mid-section, “I need a fix cause I’m doin’ down”, then a quick change to another time signature for “Mother Superior jumped the gun!” and finally the manic doo-wop pastiche in which Lennon wails “Happiness is a warm gun, mama!” with full throated passion while his mates cheerfully harmonize, “bang, bang, shoot, shoot”. The Beatles worked as a tight unit to master the tricky multiple signature changes (especially during the final section), and as a result, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is arguably the band’s finest performance on the album.
Side Two begins with McCartney’s upbeat ode to his sheep-dog, “Martha My Dear”, a jaunty solo recording with zero participation from his bandmates. It foreshadows his solo career, and certainly wouldn’t be out of place on Ram. The mood shifts continue as we move from high energy pep to languid lethargy on Lennon’s “I’m So Tired”. While the verses are slow-groovin’ ‘60s style soul, the song amps up during the chorus as Lennon’s delivers his vocals with a tense urgency.
“Blackbird” is another solo recording by McCartney, a beautiful piece about the civil rights movement. It’s deceptively complex, with multiple signature changes as McCartney finger-picks his guitar and taps his foot for the beat. With its charming melody, McCartney’s sweet vocal and the uplifting nature of the lyrics, a strong argument could be made that “Blackbird” is McCartney’s strongest piece on the album.
Not quite so nice is Harrison’s snide “Piggies”, a bitter diatribe against society’s greed. Chris Thomas plays the harpsichord, which happened to be in the studio for a classical recording set to take place the next day. The Baroque string section arranged by Martin was added later. The classical pretensions only render the juvenile lyrics all the more jarring—it’s a thin joke of a song. Too bad Harrison’s “Not Guilty”, a track the band attempted to record numerous times before ultimately setting aside, didn’t fill this slot—it’s far superior.
The third animal-song in a row finds McCartney continuing his survey of every musical style possible with his wonderfully ridiculous country and western adventure “Rocky Raccoon”, a folk parody that even features a lively barrelhouse piano solo (played by Martin and sped up). The whole thing is rather absurd, from the exaggerated Western accent McCartney affects in the spoken-word intro, to the lyrics: “Her name was Magill and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, “Rocky Raccoon” has a certain goofy charm.
The first composition by Ringo to appear on a Beatles’ album is the countrified “Don’t Pass Me By”, a shambolic novelty that adds another layer to the White Album’s idiosyncratic weirdness. With awkward lyrics (“You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair”) and clunky piano (amplified through a Leslie speaker to give it that Hammond organ feel) that plods away laboriously, “Don’t Pass Me By” is a bit of a mess—and yet it’s endearing all the same. Starr recorded the song with the always-willing McCartney’s help—Lennon and Harrison don’t seem to have participated. The wily fiddle busking over-top of the chaos is played by respected jazz musician Jack Fallon.