Forty years ago the Beatles released a double album that changed our world

[24 November 2008]

By Steve Paul

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Call me daft, but every now and then I like to pick up one of those British pop music magazines.

It’s not that I need updates on the latest drug scuffles of Babyshambles or Amy Winehouse. But I’m a sucker for some of the “free” CDs they often glue onto their covers.

My favorites are the tribute albums, entire discs covering Dylan or Springsteen or other boomer icons, and introducing me to new British and American voices making their own magic with rock classics. (The Handsome Family’s countrified “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” comes to mind, or Mary Lou Lord’s minimalist “Thunder Road.”)

Recently, and for two months in a row, Mojo magazine’s bonus CD recrafted “The Beatles” (forever known as “the White Album”), that quirky, sprawling landmark of rock history that caught our ears for the first time 40 years ago last weekend.

Two discs, 30 songs, 31 bands (“Sexy Sadie” covered twice) casting new spells with their interpretations of some of the Beatles’ most vexing and melodic tunes.

Is it nostalgia that hauls us back so magnetically? Or is the music on the original record so essential, so memorable, so charmingly crazed that we can’t ever let go?

Given much of what I’ve been listening to on Mojo’s two-disc “White Album Recovered,” I’d vote for the latter.

When Beatles fans debate the relative greatness of individual albums, I’m guessing that the White Album loses out more often than not to - take your pick - “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper,” maybe even “Abbey Road.” (Gentlemen and ladies, start your e-mail.)

But few deny its astonishing challenges to convention, its endearing love songs, its bold satire and its emotional leaps from childhood, cartoon humor to adult anxiety and despair.

I was in high school when the White Album arrived and implanted its sound and its cast of indelible characters (Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, Julia, Prudence) into my brain.

It was the year of exhausting turmoil - Martin, Bobby, Prague, Chicago. It was also the year when the Beatles checked out Indian mysticism and Yoko Ono checked in.

By most accounts, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were operating less as a team and more as a group of individual free agents. They were drifting apart, and their musical interests clashed and churned with the times.

“It was hodge-podge in a grand way,” Yoko Ono wrote in the September issue of Mojo, “showing the state of mind that they were in then.”

Writing about the White Album last week at PopMatters.com, Zeth Lundy called it “self-referential, perverse” and “the first postmodern pop album: it nestles into form and fractures it, making the familiar suddenly fantastical, for the first time and for all time.”

I’m sure my friends and I had similar feelings about it back then as we memorized its absurd and often impenetrable lyrics and listened to it over and over, all the way to its cacophonous, lullaby end. So who was Sexy Sadie and what rule did she break? Did it matter?

As theater of the mind, the double album might well have been postmodern, but it was also post-Looney Tunes and even a bit dangerous.

“At this point, in late 1968,” Lundy adds, “the Beatles had changed the course of pop music countless times over, and now they were predicting the paths it would follow in the future.”

The White Album was the loose-screw hinge between the playful adventures of “Sgt. Pepper,” which I was less fond of, and the seamless orchestration of “Abbey Road.”

The paths it predicted led almost everywhere - to punk, to performance art, to incessant, joyous, mysterious music of all kinds. Musicians have been covering White Album tunes ever since it came out, of course.

The ambitious gathering of musical creatures on the Mojo-produced discs - not available in stores! - serves to highlight anew the unabashedly crazed whole.

Some songs are warmly faithful to the original (Phil Campbell, for example, in “I’m So Tired,” and Julie Fowlis’ lovely rendering - in Gaelic - of “Blackbird”).

Some are wildly inventive, as in the Virgin Passages’ take on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which subsumes the title instrument (and Eric Clapton’s original guest spot on the lead) to a ghostly, acoustic line wrapped in a vocalized blanket.

A few, as on the original ... well, maybe not so hot.

I found it fitting that Joan as Police Woman (nee Joan Wasser) channels Radiohead in the opening of her haunting arrangement of “I Will.”

No matter how many Beatles disciples have shown up in the last four decades, I’d argue that the only true heir to their sustained ability to innovate, to stretch the music and to influence others, has been Radiohead.

But this is now. And that was then. “Ob-La-Da,” we learned, life goes on.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/66073-forty-years-ago-the-beatles-released-a-double-album-that-changed-our-/