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The Glorious, Quixotic Mess That Is the Beatles’ ‘White Album’

The crabbed, irate, confounding nature of the Beatles' White Album -- a hard dose of reality compared to the fantasy offered the year before -- fit well with the zeitgeist of 1968.

The Beatles
The Beatles ("The White Album")

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.


Four Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl

Hastily recorded near the end of the album’s sessions, McCartney’s quirky blues shouter “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” is another figure in the White Album’s collection of curios. The idea apparently sprung from McCartney witnessing two monkeys casually copulating while the band was in India. He delivers a killer rock vocal over the rumbling piano and Ringo’s rock-steady rhythm.

The band mischievously sequences a song about rutting in a roadway alongside an absolutely lovely romantic ballad, “I Will”. Airily brief at under two minutes, “I Will” harkens back to the Beatles’ earlier days, especially with the vibrant acoustic guitar riff that blooms between verses. McCartney uses his voice instead of his guitar for the bass part, giving the track a charming homespun feel.

Lennon’s stunning “Julia” occupies the final slot on Side Two. A poignant ode to his late mother (and also to Yoko Ono), “Julia” was the final song recorded for the album. It’s dreamy and deeply felt, just Lennon over a finger-picked acoustic guitar. As “Martha My Dear” offers a glimpse into McCartney’s future solo career, so does “Julia” for Lennon. It could easily have fit on either Plastic Ono Band or Imagine. Indeed, one of the key tracks on Imagine, “Jealous Guy”, is a similar piece also written around this time and demoed for the White Album as “Child of Nature”.

Disc Two begins with another McCartney blues-rocker, “Birthday”. Built on a ferocious guitar riff that originated in a jam session, McCartney wrote it quickly in the studio and the band recorded it the same evening. Given its simplistic lyrics “Birthday” really should be a throwaway but it works thanks to one of the band’s better group performances on the album. Although never a single, “Birthday” has become something of a standard over the years and is arguably the most widely-known track on the album. It’s followed by Lennon’s ragged “Yer Blues”, which the band perversely recorded jammed together in a tiny storage room adjacent to the main studio. The result is a sloppy mess, with a piercingly shrill guitar solo and a jarring edit at the 3:17 mark. The track seems at least partly a satirical stab at some of the white-boy blues that was percolating in England at the time, but despite this Lennon’s vocal has some genuine feeling and it hints of things to come (“Cold Turkey”, in particular).

We go from Lennon’s haywire suicidal blues to McCartney’s tranquil “Mother Nature’s Son”, a lovely acoustic guitar ballad that had no involvement from the rest of the band. “Mother Nature’s Son” is folksy, prosaic, and another stylistic notch on McCartney’s musical bedpost. Martin arranged the four-piece brass section which adds a warm glow of color to the otherwise stark acoustic recording.

After the nice lull, things heat up quickly with Lennon’s electrifying rocker “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”. Lennon’s vocal is particularly manic, Harrison’s guitar work is blistering, the rhythm is kinetic, and there are shouts of exuberance audible in the background. McCartney madly clangs a fireman handbell through much of the song, adding to the general cacophony and excitement.

Another track, another trip. This one is world-weary cynicism and disillusionment. “Sexy Sadie” is Lennon’s bitter repudiation of the Maharishi over unfounded rumours that he made a pass at one of his sexy young adherents. Musically the slow grooving piano-based number is at least partially inspired by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and ends up as one of the White Album’s more polished productions.

There’s nothing polished at all about “Helter Skelter”, however, McCartney’s attempt to record the loudest song he possibly could. John, Paul and George all bash away madly on their guitars, and Ringo slams into his kit with reckless abandon. The track has been much mythologized, thanks in large part to Charles Manson’s violent delusions. “Helter Skelter” is certainly a blunt force trauma to the head of a song, the most extreme rock the Beatles ever recorded. It’s oddly off-kilter and out of tune, a hurricane of irreverent messiness that exemplifies the ethos of the White Album perfectly.

As with many pieces on the White Album, there seems to be a parodic aspect to it, as McCartney tries to out-Who the Who, whose guitarist Pete Townshend was famous for smashing his guitar at the end of a gig. After the long fade out, it fades back in, before Ringo lets rip with a drum roll and that famous ad-libbed shout, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”

In keeping with the White Album’s gloriously perverse nature, the Beatles follow the loudest song with the softest, Harrison’s whispery “Long Long Long”, a lovely waltz infused with palpable spiritual longing. Harrison gently strums an acoustic guitar, McCartney handles the bass and the beautifully whirring Hammond organ, and Ringo displays some deft drum-work — Lennon isn’t on the recording at all. “Long Long Long” is perhaps most notable for its weird spectral ending, with Harrison wailing like a wounded ghost while the band members rattle their instruments ominously.


Side Four beings with “Revolution I”, a slower, bluesier take on the famous fuzz-toned single version that was the b-side to “Hey Jude”. The White Album version was actually recorded first (and was the first track laid down for the album), and Lennon wanted it as a single. McCartney and Harrison refused, claiming it was too slow, and nervous over such an overtly political song appearing as an A-side.

As a compromise they recorded the fiery single version and “Revolution I” was relegated to album-track status. Lennon’s relaxed vocal was recorded while he was laying flat on the floor, a mic hanging above his face. The song is largely an admonishment that revolution and change is best achieved through peaceful and rational methods. At the time, many of the hard left counterculture warriors up in arms over the Vietnam War considered Lennon’s rational approach something of a betrayal. Of course, after the Beatles broke up, Lennon became increasingly enmeshed in a more radical brand of political activism than what he advocates in “Revolution”.

“Honey Pie” is a gleaming vaudeville pastiche by McCartney, another of his genre exercises and one more splash of paint on the impressionist splatter that is the White Album. McCartney has always been a student of music history and he was instilling his love of classic, old-timey pop into the Beatles’ catalog since the very early days with songs like “Til There Was You”, but sometimes he lapsed into empty formula over substance. “Honey Pie” might be considered an example of this if it wasn’t pulled off so beautifully well. McCartney’s vocal delivery is dead on the money, Lennon adds a sublime guitar solo and the jaunty Martin-arranged seven-piece saxophone and clarinet part delivers old Hollywood charm. Not everything has to have deep meaning. Sometimes, just a pretty song is enough.

The long parade of oddities continues with the smokin’ “Savoy Truffle”, a soulful rocker by Harrison with a scalding brass section arranged by Chris Thomas. Harrison and Thomas achieved the distinct crunchy distortion on the horns by blasting them through a couple amps and overloading them. As with Harrison’s earlier track “Long Long Long”, Lennon is nowhere to be found on “Savoy Truffle”.

Lennon is responsible for the next track, through, a gem hidden near the end of the collection. “Cry Baby Cry” is a sinister fable with a menacing vibe, creaking with anxiety. It’s like a nursery rhyme out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The song becomes increasingly intense as the descending melody of each verse progresses. Harrison provides savage guitar licks at the end of each line of verse, and the dynamic rhythmic interplay between McCartney’s bass and Ringo superb drum work propels the track to a higher level of greatness. The haunting coda sung by McCartney, “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back”, is a snippet ad-libbed during the session for “I Will”. Although it doesn’t seem to get mentioned much, “Cry Baby Cry” is the Beatles at their creative best, an anchor for the final leg of the long White Album journey.

But we’re not done yet. Not until we wade through the surreal waters of Lennon’s infamous tape collage, Revolution 9. At over eight minutes, it’s the longest Beatles “song” and the most divisive. The piece shows without question Ono’s increasing influence on Lennon’s work. The track started out as part of the lengthy jam that was recorded at the end of “Revolution I”. Lennon and Ono added vocal and sound effects from the EMI studio library, tape loops, and general weirdness. The famous repetition of “number nine, number nine, number nine” that rises and fades throughout the song is actually clipped from an EMI studio engineer saying on a test tape, “this is EMI test series number nine”.

Indeed, “Revolution 9” is auditory hallucination. It’s creepy and disorienting and perfectly in line with what the White Album is all about. Is it a Beatles song? Well, no. Perhaps it could have been left off and instead some of the other tracks the band had recorded — including Harrison’s “Not Guilty” and Lennon’s “What’s the New Mary Jane?”, both of which existed in substantially finished versions — could have filled that space. But what fun would that be?

People love to hate “Revolution 9”, but it wouldn’t be the White Album without it. It turned out the way it was meant to turn out. Martin and Lennon’s bandmates all tried to persuade him to leave “Revolution 9” off the album, but Lennon held firm. It’s a crowning moment of uncompromising deviance that’s jarring and challenging and ultimately fascinating. And of course, lest we forget, out of all the “clues” in the loony “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory supposedly littered throughout the Beatles’ music, perhaps the most famous comes from playing the “number nine” backwards. You can supposedly hear: “Turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man”. If that ain’t definitive evidence of a massive conspiracy, then nothing is.

Finally after all the labyrinthine twists and odd musical turns, the sprawling double album concludes with “Good Night”, a syrupy lullaby written by Lennon for Ringo to croon over an ornate orchestral and backing vocal arrangement by Martin. “Good Night” is whimsical and a bit surreal, its lush orchestration at odds with the starkly raw nature of much of the album, but then an album like this would need an unexpected and quirky ending. None of the other Beatles appear on the track, only Starr who whispers at the end, “Good night… Good night, everybody… Everybody, everywhere… Good night.” Thus ends The Beatles, a marathon expedition through four pop culture titans’ fractured musical fantasies.

Yeah, some of the material on the White Album doesn’t stand up to the Beatles’ usual level of songwriting excellence, but that’s a big part of what makes it a fascinating collection. It’s the Beatles goofing around the studio seeing what they could come up with in a back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll approach. The sum of its parts is far better than the individual pieces. Martin had wanted to take the best songs and condense it into one super-tight LP, but the group was firmly against that idea. The crabbed, irate, confounding nature of the album — a hard dose of reality compared to the fantasy they offered the year before — fit well with the zeitgeist of 1968. The hazy echoes of the “summer of love” were a memory and the strains on the global psyche were many.

It’s amazing to contemplate that only four years prior, The Beatles’ spate of singles included the likes of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Now they were putting out tunes like “Helter Skelter”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Yer Blues”. Hell, only a year before they were immersed up to their eyebrows in psychedelia, painstakingly working with Martin to construct the whirlwind kaleidoscope of sounds that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now they were off the leash, four separate artists pursuing their own muses and agendas — four lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, free to scratch their most idiosyncratic musical itches.

The White Album inspires more debate and controversy among fans and critics than any other Beatles album. Some consider it a sprawling masterpiece, some consider it a grab-bag with a handful of great songs surrounded by a heap of mediocrity. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion, but dammit, McCartney was right when he shrugged off the criticism and debate in the Beatles Anthology documentary: “It’s great, it sold, it’s the Beatles’ bloody White Album, shut up.”