The White Album: Side One

7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Primary Songwriter: Harrison

Recorded: July 25, August 16, and September 3 and 5-6, 1968 at Abbey Road

My introduction to the Beatles came through my mother who happened to have been born at an ideal time to appreciate every stage of their evolution: she was young enough in 1964 to join the legions of screaming girls across America, singing along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show yet mature enough to appreciate the group through their more artistic, studio-hermit years. An important aspect about her influence on my experience with their music is the fact that she always cited Harrison as her favorite Beatle. For me, the fact that such a powerful force in my young life felt a certain way about a band whose albums I began to immerse myself in at a very young age augmented my experience with a heightened level of intrigue into all things George. The Harrison compositions became my typical starting point for discovery into any Beatles album.

Choosing a favorite Harrison Beatles song is as utterly trivial as determining the best song on The Beatles. Upon first listen, however, no song in either category struck me with such brilliant immediacy as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. It is an emotionally, melodically, and structurally complex masterpiece. Although it received limited attention upon release, the song has since gained status a guitar rock staple, as a certifiable major Beatles work, and as perhaps the definitive statement of Harrison’s career.

The supposed inspiration for Harrison’s first composition on the Beatles’ historic double album came about through his studies of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text, which Harrison — as quoted in the 1980 book of his recollections, I Me Mine — described as seemingly “based on the Eastern concept that everything is relative to everything else, as opposed to the Western view that things are merely coincidental”. The legend of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is that Harrison, while visiting his parents’ home, committed to writing an entire song by applying this theory of relativism to randomly chosen words out of a randomly chosen book; those words happened to be “gently weeps”.

Harrison first wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as an organ-accompanied, acoustic guitar composition. His fellow Beatles were rumored to have approached this initial incarnation with complete indifference. The level of annoyed displeasure with early takes among the band is believed by many to be the only documented occasion in which Harrison’s actions were a primary source of inner Beatle turmoil. After a failed electric reworking, Harrison invited Eric Clapton to assume lead guitar for the recording session which, according to Harrison, “was good because that then made everyone act better…they all took it more seriously”. The session ended up producing the official album version after, as admitted by Harrison, Clapton’s great yet “not Beatley enough” guitar work had to be put “through the ADT to wobble it up a bit”. (Due to legal reasons, Clapton’s guest appearance was uncredited.)

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, compared with other Beatles compositions, is superficially familiar in its verse, bridge, verse, guitar solo, bridge, verse, outro structure. The uniqueness of the composition lies in the melodic and lyrical structures of the verses and bridges. The downbeat, minor-keyed, four-line verses transition into the pleasantly sublime, major-keyed bridges. Wide-ranging, pessimistic observations make up the odd lines of each verse while the even lines are the familiar refrains of “While my guitar gently weeps” and then “Still my guitar gently weeps”. The most distinctive aspect of the composition lyrically is the fact that the words of the bridge are completely changed from its first occurrence to its second while the aforementioned single-line, inner-verse refrains represent the sole lyrical consistency throughout the track.

The actual content of the lyrics of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” can most easily be interpreted as a lament of love lost, not particularly on a personal level, but more in a global sense. The opening line of the song, “I look at you all / See the love there that’s sleeping”, implies a sense of large-scale desensitization. The opening line of the second verse, “I look at the world, and I notice it’s turning”, evokes negative sentiments toward the ostensible indifference shown by some in acknowledging such a loss of compassion. The constant refrain about the perpetual, gentile weeping of his guitar puts Harrison’s real power to change things into an existential perspective. Even as part of the most influential artistic force in the world, he is still simply a musician. His greatest weapon against the ills of the world is his music which, in the grand scheme of things, only amounts to a gentle weep.

A.J. Henriques

8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: September 23-25, 1968 at Abbey Road

The Beatles‘ first side ends with an intricate masterpiece that represents a united — and unusually wonderful and weird — effort amidst so much individuality. Reportedly McCartney’s favorite “White Album” song, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is also classic Lennon: a lyric mixture of the psychedelic (“She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand / Like a lizard on a window pane”), the distinctly British (“Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime / A soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust”), the obviously sexual (“When I hold you in my arms / And feel my finger on your trigger”), the personal (“I need a fix”, reflecting Lennon’s drug dependency), and the political (“Happiness is a warm gun” came from a magazine article about the American gun lobby).

But beyond its potent poetry of religion, sexuality, violence, and vision, “Happiness” is one of the Beatles’ most musically sophisticated tunes. It is not built on verses and choruses but rather from four or five distinct sections that build in intensity. Lennon claimed it as a miniature history of rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s fair enough. It opens with a delicate verse of guitar and voice only, shifting upward as bass and drums enter. There is a sudden change to 3/4 time for a brief, guttural blues guitar solo that precedes “I need a fix”. Just as suddenly, the triple meter double-times to 6/8 while Lennon starts to sing “Mother Superior jump the gun”, slowing to 3/4 on the second half of the phrase. Which happens six times. But with a measure of 4/4 on the end of the every other repetition. Got it? Needless to say, the familiar doo-woppy “Happiness is a warm gun / Bang-bang, shoot-shoot!” is back in 4/4 again, but Lennon’s spoken interlude (“When I hold you…”) is in 3/4 again.

All this intricacy might sound like symphonic prog-rock run amok, except that it takes a scant 2:43, with each section as concise as a dot of color in a Seurat painting. And the wonder of the song is precisely this almost shocking brevity and incongruity: no section repeats, and each part seems like a new world, a revelation. While it is clear that “Happiness” glues together several different tunes, there is also flat-out artistry in how these disparate pieces echo off each other. The toggling between duple and triple meter gives the tune balance, even as the intensity of each section ramps ever upward. There is also a balancing of romantic imagery (starting with a girl and a man) and violent imagery, allowing Lennon to be alternately provocative (“Mother Superior” mixed together with “gun”) and playful (is it the woman’s trigger or the gun’s trigger he has his finger on?). As always, Lennon is aware of how the commodification of the Beatles can be exploited: the title of the song is a bitter joke about the gun lobby, but also a reference to the cuddly catch-phrase from Peanuts of the time, “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy”. The joy of this play is that it is also sonic: the beautiful reverb on the opening guitars doesn’t even last a minute, but the vocal falsetto doubling that starts with “I need a fix” is its own kind of candy, which then develops into the mocking harmony of “Bang-bang, shoot-shoot”.

All of which is to say: Wow. Only five years had passed since “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, yet the Beatles were now writing and recording complex poetic suites rather than verse-chorus pop tunes. Radiohead apparently found “Happiness” of inspiration when working on its own multi-part tune, “Paranoid Android”, for OK Computer. But what had not changed for the Beatles was their keen awareness that rock ‘n’ roll — the sublime art of the three-minute symphony — was worth an investment of great wit and passion. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is catchy like a pop song, provocative like protest art, effortlessly complex and yet off-the-cuff funny. Which is to say: it is the apotheosis of “Beatle-esque”.

Will Layman