Bleached: The Beatles' White Album Effect on the US Alt-rock Explosion of 1988-95
The Beatles' White Album has been credited with a lot of things over its 50-year history, but how about as the single biggest influence on US alternative rock as it burst into the mainstream in the late '80s and early '90s? Well, it's not as crazy as you might think.
The Beatles (The White Album) (Super Deluxe Edition)
9 November 2018
Pixies frontman Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis) recently revealed the genesis of the many incendiary tracks on the band's 1988 Surfer Rosa album, probably the most celebrated record to have come out of the whole alt-rock era. He claimed that his "most well-known songs come from something that just happened one day -- you come up with a chord progression, you throw down a lyric and boom". The track "Something Against You", particularly, was recorded firmly in the tradition of the raucous burst of 12-bar blues to be found on side two of the Beatles' eponymously named double LP of 1968, universally known as the White Album: "[It's] just a little riff, we played it fast in a punky way, I scream one line on one particular spot. It's almost an instrumental, it's minimalist, like the Beatles' 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road?'" (Uncut, September 2018).
As proponents of raw, sparse and semi-improvised rock, there can be no doubt of the Pixies' considerable debt to the White Album, and its excursive revelry in rootsy musical styles. The band absorbed it into their sound, together with a healthy dose of hardcore punk and surf rock, to spark an alt-rock explosion that would last into the mid-1990s. This explosion saw a punk-infused cohort made up of Sonic Youth, the Breeders, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Pavement and the Smashing Pumpkins also buy into the White Album, in reaction against a posturing, poodle-haired, and power-ballad-obsessed rock establishment. These groups exploited this legendary four-sided record to advance their subversive cause with hard-edged, do-it-yourself and angst-ridden guitar noise, usually on an independent record label. It gave them license to make albums rammed with unrefined tracks in a jarring range of genres, free of a producer's interference, and with the option of spending an inordinately long time in the studio.
The concern here is to spotlight the White Album as a precursor to what was essentially the last truly vital episode in rock, so it will be prudent to first clarify its status as an archetype of musical eclecticism. This will enable an assessment of the varied ways in which the protagonists of alt-rock, beginning with Hüsker Dü, emulated its 30-track, multi-stylistic sprawl, to the extent that Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder called it "almost a textbook for someone born in 1964" (Spin, December 2002). We'll see from this that they drew not so much from the Beach Boys-flavored rock of "Back in the USSR" as the rather less commercial aspects of the record, in their bid to demonstrate authenticity and cathartic expression above all else. This meant the brutally loud hard-rock of "Helter Skelter", the folky brevity of "Wild Honey Pie", the tooth-decay-themed soul of "Savoy Truffle", and the sound-collage experimentation of "Revolution 9". It also meant the three-part hybridity of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", and the satirical-yet-real British blues of "Yer Blues", not forgetting the visceral rock of "I'm So Tired", a track on which there is to be found a certain quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that somehow seems relevant.
The White Album became a model for the alt-rock movement upon being defined by its unprecedented display of divergent musical forms following its release on 22 November (in the UK) and 25 November (in the US) 1968. The New York Times noted its mix of "blues, country, easy listening, folk, and 1955-to-1962 rock", but wasn't entirely convinced by some of the styles: "There are a number of electronic distortions, and there are many put-ons" (November 1968). Time magazine commented, rather negatively, that it lacked "a sense of taste and purpose" (December 1968) and The Village Voice subsequently called it a "pastiche of musical exercises" (September 1971). However, along the way, the multiplicity of its makeup has been deemed to constitute the template for any artist to have altered course repeatedly over the distance of an album without inviting accusations of self-indulgence. This is such that the terms "their White Album" or "your White Album" have become commonplace within rock discourse. Indeed, Pitchfork, recognizing this in its placement of the double LP at number four in its "200 Best Albums of the 1960s", has stated that to "record your White Album is to make something that tugs and bursts at its own seams" (22 August 2017).
The Beatles can now be seen to have originated the White Album archetype out of marginalization of their paternalistic producer, George Martin, during the four-month, tour-free period of making the record. Biographer Kenneth Womack, for the second volume of his Sound Pictures (2018), has publicized new quotes as evidence of this from sound engineers present at the studio sessions in 1968, who claimed he was doing "nothing" for a lot of the time: "he was in the back of the booth, reading newspapers, sharing his chocolate with us". Womack argues that this was the result of the band reacting against the elaborate and ornate Sgt Pepper-era studio creations he had taken credit for and which they now viewed as the epitome of an outmoded psychedelic sound (The Guardian, 18 August 2018).
The Beatles, therefore, created a model of live performance in the studio and making material up on the spot, regardless of an inclination to double-track their vocals as a way to smooth over imperfections. They made it a model of studio talk and off-the-cuff remarks infiltrating the music, stemming from the "two, three, four's" on the LP, the "one more time", the "ey up!" and most famously the "I've got blisters on my fingers!" They also made it a model of stripped-down instrumentation and a fluency in the way different personas are taken up to give a song a particular flavor, evident in John Lennon becoming a self-pitying blues singer on "Yer Blues" or a jilted lover (perhaps) on "Sexy Sadie", or Paul McCartney becoming a storyteller of the Old West to sing "Rocky Raccoon", which he does in a hammy Western drawl.
Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade
Cowboy-narrated songs and all, it was the independent US label SST Records that anticipated alt-rock's engagement with the archetype at hand when, in July 1984, it promoted the sophomore studio LP by Minneapolis hardcore band Hüsker Dü as: "The most important and relevant double album to be released since the Beatles' White Album." The claim, in reference to Zen Arcade, was made three years into the Reagan presidency when a long-in-the-tooth Van Halen and their hair-metal affiliates Whitesnake and Bon Jovi ruled the rock mainstream, being pretty bizarre in conjunction with an underground act who had so far only released an LP (Everything Falls Apart) and an EP (Metal Circus) on their own label, Reflex Records.
Yet it meant that the trio of Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton were able to capitalize on the idea of the Beatles breaking free of their musical constraints on the White Album and finding a broader audience, in a coming-of-age moment for the rock scene they represented. They, therefore, conjured up the Beatles' rejection of psychedelic rock on their 1968 record in their offering of a four-sided release that represented, as Michael Azerrad has put it, a "strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy" (Our Band Could Be Your Life, 2003). They could be seen, in this way, to transcend the style typified by contemporaries such as the Replacements, Black Flag, and Minutemen of playing at breakneck speed and rasping over aggressive drums and distorted guitars, by instead fulfilling the wishes of their singer-guitarist Bob Mould to "go beyond the whole idea of 'punk rock' or whatever" (Matter, September 1983).
Hüsker Dü achieved their White Album-aligned musical liberation by delivering a multi-stylistic concept album of 23 songs, focusing on a boy who leaves his broken home to make his way in a cruel and unforgiving world. They purposed the music to reflect the changing nature of the narrative, in which the boy flirts with joining a cult, meets a girl who fatally overdoses, and retreats into himself on his return home. They principally interweaved hardcore with melody and introspection, by which they developed an affinity with the Athens band R.E.M., who had themselves shown a rapid musical progression from the urgent post-punk they demonstrated on the independent Hib-Tone label to the jangly folk-rock of their second album Reckoning (1984) for IRS. In this, they shared an evident fascination for 1960s groups like the Byrds and the Troggs, through which they acquired a quirkiness that made them staples of US college radio.
Hart and Mould, à la Lennon and McCartney on the White Album, added to the diversity of Zen Arcade as two competing songwriters within the band, with Hart largely categorized as "the angry one", and Mould "the poppy one". As such, they offered up a strident rock opener ("Something I Learned Today"), a folky acoustic number ("Never Talking to You Again"), a brief piano instrumental ("Monday Will Never Be The Same"), psychedelic rock ("Hare Krsna"), and a trippy 13-minute instrumental freakout ("Reoccurring Dreams"), while the sleeve notes declared that "everything on the record is first take". The ambition in the music, in turn, earned them mainstream press attention in the form of David Fricke's Rolling Stone review in February 1985, calling the album a "blueprint for a brave new music". Moreover, as if to justify the White Album comparison that had been applied to them, the band included the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" in their live set, a song which had served to encapsulate the Beatles' revived power as a live ensemble on their 1968 double. Hüsker Dü no doubt adopted the song to highlight their own newly acquired skills in integrating punk with melody, going on to issue it on their "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" EP in March 1986.
Pixies: Surfer Rosa
Boston band the Pixies sprang up in the wake of Hüsker Dü's emergence from the underground to inject White Album-style eclecticism into their own music, beginning with their debut LP Surfer Rosa, released on the British indie label 4AD in March 1988. The group's chief songwriter Charles Thompson has declared, in no uncertain terms, his indebtedness to the Beatles' 1968 album in the making of this work, by calling it "the best record ever made" and stating: "I think that record has probably influenced me more than any other record." He cites particularly what he sees as the Beatles' purity of expression in its grooves: "you see the arc of that band, and all the stuff they went through, and the changes in their styles and their productions… and then they get that one moment, and it's the toughest and the most beautiful record at the same time" (The Daily Beast, 20 September 2013).
Taking on the persona of Black Francis, Thompson succeeded in creating a similar sense of artistic outpouring on Surfer Rosa as on the White Album, along with "Mrs. John Murphy" (Kim Deal), Joey Santiago and David Lovering. The band instilled the album with impetuous expression and jarring contrasts, with little in the way of cohesive unity aside from a lyrical preoccupation with incest. It is here therefore that pop guitar songs like "Break My Body" rub shoulders with the violent hardcore assault of "Broken Face" and the slower, more melodic "Where Is My Mind?", as well as the seemingly improvised, flamenco-flirting "Vamos". This is not to forget the jubilant pop surge of "Gigantic", a major stylistic diversion on the LP in view of it being the sole track to feature Kim Deal as the lead vocalist and co-writer.
On Surfer Rosa, the Pixies also evoked the Beatles' preference for minimalism above stylization on the White Album, of the kind that relegated George Martin to the sidelines. Their appointment of Big Black frontman Steve Albini as engineer, not producer (underlined), was integral to this, his self-proclaimed role being to "capture" rather than "manipulate" the sound of a band, without threatening the artistic control of their product (Sound on Sound, September 2005). Albini, therefore, applied a "live in the room" approach to the Pixies' debut LP and eschewed technological polish in favor of subverting the studio sound altogether. He famously put amps in the bathroom to record "Gigantic", for instance, to channel the natural echo and distortion. He further filtered Thompson's vocal through a guitar amp to give it a terrifyingly contorted effect on "Something Against You", while allowing verbal idiosyncrasies to seep into the recordings as a characteristic feature of the band, not so much "I've got blisters on my fingers!" as the more prolonged sequences that include "You fucking die!" (from Thompson) and "There were rumors that he was into field-hockey players" (from Deal).
With Albini serving as the hands-off Fifth Pixie, the band assimilated as much of the White Album's episodic vitality as possible into Surfer Rosa, with particular attention to its most fragmentary tracks. Thompson has claimed "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" as the apotheosis of the kind of raw, loud, organic and naïve expression he aimed for on the record, being a piece that McCartney improvised in the studio with Ringo Starr as an experiment in bluesy minimalism that saw him sing the same line over and over at varying levels of intensity. Thompson has cited it as overall justification for "Something Against You", on which he also howls one phrase repeatedly over a short series of chords: "It's a 'ditty', and it's a valid form" (Uncut, September 2018).
Thompson has further claimed "Savoy Truffle" as a major influence, this being the brass-infused soul song on side 4 of the White Album, which George Harrison originated on the theme of his friend Eric Clapton needing to break his addiction to quality confectionary. The Pixies frontman told Rolling Stone that it is one of five songs he wished he'd written, citing its deceptively dark lyrics as the reason. The track, indeed, begins quite happily as a list of varieties of chocolates ("Creme tangerine and Montelimar"), yet then descends into the realm of tooth decay and tooth extraction while adopting language more akin to drug withdrawal (perhaps its real topic): "You might not feel it now, but when the pain cuts through, you're going to know and how." Thompson has, therefore, said: "There's a riddle to it. It's names of candies from a fancy box, but the punchline is that you've pulled out your teeth. It's way darker than it appears" (Rolling Stone, 26 October 2016). He has also made this kind of frivolity atop macabre subject matter a dominant feature of his own lyrics on Surfer Rosa, invariably in relation to incest, as on "Broken Face": "There was this boy who had two / Children with his sisters / They were his daughters / They were his favorite lovers."
Joey Santiago, meanwhile, has claimed "Savoy Truffle" as the source of the Pixies' defining guitar sound, which might even be called the defining sound of alt-rock, so influential has it become. He has pointed to Harrison's note-bending guitar solo on the track, which marked his compelling return to the electric guitar, after his lengthy commitment to the sitar under the guidance of Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar. Santiago has expressed his excitement at the solo: "When you hear that song, you go, 'Ah, there it is!'" He has further described it as "a bluesy E that veers upward nearly half a step in a quick, mousy squeak". He has, in fact, been refreshingly honest about his adoption of the same technique, saying how he "milked it for all it was worth", it being responsible for the squealing and squalling on many a Surfer Rosa track, from "Where Is My Mind?" to "Vamos" and "Broken Face" (Ben Sisario, The Pixies Doolittle). The dissonance it creates is in many ways the only possible accompaniment to Thompson's brilliantly demented vocals.
In all this devotion to the White Album, the Pixies made Surfer Rosa into the antithesis of the bombastic, overproduced and glam-aspiring soft-rock then dominating the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the form of sentimental power ballads soaked in power chords, tortured vocals and synthesizers. They ensured, particularly, that it provided relief from Bon Jovi's "Never Say Goodbye" (1987), Aerosmith's agonizing "Angel" (1988) and Whitesnake's "Give Me All Your Love" (1988), and that it served as an ongoing corrective to the stylized sounds of Cinderella. They also saw to it that it became the Melody Maker and Sounds album of the year in the UK, where it gained a surer footing than in the US. Furthermore, with this breakthrough success, they conceded the debt they owed to the White Album by recording "Wild Honey Pie" for their first BBC session on 3 May 1988, this being another fragment of a track that McCartney made up in experimental mode at Abbey Road in 1968, as a twangy sing-a-long "home-made" affair. They, therefore, took probably the Beatles' least coverable track and made it into something loud, angry and threatening, and wholly representative of the kind of raw expression they aspired to achieve, enough to turn it into a staple of their live set.
Ciccone Youth: The Whitey Album
The experimental New York outfit Sonic Youth exhibited their own preoccupation with the subversive qualities of the White Album when they temporarily morphed into Ciccone Youth and released the Whitey Album in January 1989, on the independent Enigma Records label. They forged the record out of a highly ambitious plan to cover the Beatles' double LP in its entirety, in their ongoing mission to defy musical boundaries and redefine guitar music. Stevie Chick has noted, on this point, that because the White Album was "by turns as ugly, noisy, sweet, sad and weird as the Beatles ever got", it was "certainly worthy material for interpretation via Sonic Youth's transmogrifying guitars" (Psychic Confusion: The Sonic Youth Story, 2008). In the end, though, the band simply adopted the White Album archetype as a method of engaging in hip-hop-style experimentation as part of a side project in tribute to pop-queen Madonna (Ciccone).
The core of Ciccone Youth, namely Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Steve Shelly and Lee Ranaldo, highlighted the deliberately fractured nature of the Whitey Album by releasing it in the maelstrom of critical success surrounding their fifth studio LP, Daydream Nation (1988), a double album of 12 tracks that actually blurred together and culminated in a unified "Trilogy". They, therefore, offset their breakthrough moment with a completely uncommercial venture based upon studio improvisation and lo-fi production. They enlisted ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt to help out, and their only bow to music-business orthodoxy was to include on it an earlier single, from September '86, a dirty though accessible version of the Madonna chart favorite, "Into The Groove" (retitled "Into The Groovy"), not that this was an actual hit.
The band followed McCartney's example on "Wild Honey Pie" and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" of improvising much of the material on the Whitey Album in the studio. They did this by incorporating the creative techniques of contemporary black artists like Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G. and NWA, recognizing hip-hop as the true language of subversion at this point, especially in the wake of Straight Outta Compton (1988) and its centerpiece "Fuck Tha Police". Kim Gordon has stated: "The four of us decided to do a record where you simply went into the studio and made it there, the way hip-hop is made" (Girl in a Band: A Memoir, 2015). In this manner, they produced a work marked by the metamorphosizing methods of drum machines, sampling, beatboxing and freestyle rapping, which went a long way to undermine preconceived ideas and expectations of a rock album, while providing a parody of the '80s pop scene.
The band defied convention on the Whitey Album, first of all, with two minutes of tribal rhythm, followed by a minute of total silence, ahead of a cover version of Madonna's "Burnin' Up" (from her first album), and then a track fairly accurately titled "Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu". They further provided a deconstruction of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" that featured a karaoke-style vocal from Gordon, while the undoubted peak was "Macbeth", a heavy and sinister instrumental piece. They also seemed to take most inspiration from the Beatles' "Revolution 9" in all of this, in accord with its eight unsettling minutes of improvised noise comprising spoken-word extracts, sound effects, stereo panning and tape loops fading in and out, the product of Lennon's engagement with the avant-garde world of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, by way of performance artist (and new partner) Yoko Ono. "Platoon II", for instance, is a scary noise collage over a hip-hop beat, while "Hendrix/Cosby" is a tuneless jam based around a looped sample from a rare Jimi Hendrix performance. "Silence", on the other hand, is likely a tongue-in-cheek homage to Cage's "4.33", a three-movement composition of -- basically -- silence.
In further deference to the White Album, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr stepped in on lead-guitar duty halfway through "Two Rock Chicks", very much in the spirit of Eric Clapton on the George Harrison standout "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". The band also made the reverse sleeve of the record pure white with black type, in imitation of the simple yet iconic design of the 1968 LP (the front cover being, naturally, a close-up of Ms. Ciccone's face). However, for all its Beatles-inspired mayhem, the record didn't make a huge impact on its release, many viewing it as (that word) self-indulgent. Neither can it be seen today as a particular landmark in alt-rock, its success, instead, lying in the way it broadened the palette of the movement immeasurably.
After Ciccone Youth channeled the White Album to disrupt the rock LP format, the Pixies utilized the Beatles' double record as a model for their exhilaratingly assorted sophomore album, Doolittle, produced by Gil Norton and released in April 1989 on 4AD. Ben Sisario, in his incisive study of this hugely influential disc, remarks that the White Album, "as a work of fragmented, jarring pop", is, in fact, an "aesthetic precursor" to Doolittle. He makes specific reference to the way Charles Thompson riffs on the multitudinous range of character voices available on the Beatles' record, which contributed to its mix of styles. He further points out that Thompson does this while reviving the persona of Black Francis on Doolittle, quoting him as acknowledging that he does "sing a little bit differently" with the Pixies: "Some other little character or something enters in. It's more nasally, more spazzy or something." Sisario observes that the end effect is that the album is "sung by a cast of mostly two-dimensional figures", making it "a riddle that teases the listener" and the launchpad for "a tradition of rock built on eclecticism and obscurity" (The Pixies' Doolittle, 2006).
Thompson, without question, mimics the Beatles' penchant for singing in character on the White Album, with its rich vein of first-person songs from "Honey Pie" to "Martha My Dear". He summons up "Rocky Raccoon", particularly, in the way McCartney semi-improvises a situation where he is an inhabitant of the Old West reciting a country ballad about the eponymous "young boy" who sought revenge when "his woman ran off with another guy", and who was determined "to shoot off the legs of his rival". Thompson injects his own stories with characteristic darkness, however, as when he applies a first-person-narrative voice to "Wave of Mutilation", which concerns a man who has seemingly attempted suicide: "Cease to resist / Giving my goodbye / Drive my car into the ocean / You think I'm dead / But I sail away". He also sings as a death-obsessed figure in "Mr. Grieves", who talks crazily about the end of the world and how humanity should find a medium -- like Dr. Doolittle -- to converse with the dead. He further becomes the sporadically Spanish-speaking narrator of "Crackity Jones", who is forced to seek new accommodation after contending with a demented roommate for too long: "Please forgive me, José Jones / You need these walls for your own / I'm movin' out of this hospedaje / I'm afraid you'll cut me, boy."
While Thompson drew on the White Album to populate Doolittle with an array of troubled and otherworldly characters, Joey Santiago repurposed the note-bending guitar squall he'd inherited from "Savoy Truffle". He applied it to "I Bleed", "This Monkey's Gone To Heaven" and "Gouge Away", its role on the latter song being to add intensity on the chorus, at the moment just before Black Francis suddenly kicks off about "Missy Aggravation". He certainly made it a factor in the quiet-load-quiet dynamic that the band famously implemented on many tracks on the LP, with the help of Norton's more textured production techniques. He further contributed to the assimilation of "I'm So Tired" into this dynamic, a track on which the Beatles play in a slow and restrained fashion on the verses, yet burst into life on the chorus, with Lennon adding some psychotic yelling. Thompson's comment on "Yer Blues" is also revealing on this matter of where the Pixies sourced their quiet-loud-quiet signature sound: "You don't start off on top volume. You turn it up as your frustration increases" (Lament for a Straight Line blog, 5 July 2011).
Nirvana: Bleach -- The Breeders: Pod -- Throwing Muses: The Real Ramona
In the wake of Doolittle, Aberdeen band Nirvana betrayed a musical debt to the Beatles, if not specifically the White Album, with the release of their debut album Bleach on 15 June 1989. At this stage, Nirvana, led by Kurt Cobain, was an underground band on Seattle's independent Sub-Pop label, who specialized in a grunge sound that owed a lot to the heavy metal of Black Sabbath. Yet, on an album recorded with Mudhoney producer Jack Endino, they daringly included a Beatley pop song called "About a Girl", which did not fit well and was not guaranteed to please their fanbase. It did, however, signpost the way towards a more melodic and polished second album.
The Pixies' Kim Deal, in contrast, fed the White Album directly into a new side project called the Breeders, made evident on the release of Pod in May 1990 on 4AD. She was every bit the George Harrison figure at this point, with a wealth of strong songs on her hands that the principal songwriting force of her main band was unwilling to accommodate. Yet, in the Breeders, she rectified this by joining forces with a kindred spirit in the form of 4AD labelmate Tanya Donelly, then in an identical situation as overshadowed singer-guitarist and songwriter in the Throwing Muses. She also found the creative space to flirt with a broad range of song styles in the tradition of the Beatles in '68, while acquiring the services of Steve Albini, who replicated his "engineer" role on Surfer Rosa. Deal, therefore, ensured minimal instrumentation on Pod, achieving a fragmentary, no-frills and almost chaotic exuberance, with guitars coming out of nowhere, studio chat filtering through, and a general sense of unpredictability. Moreover, to showcase this consequently thrilling Breeders' sound, she released track three as the first single from the album: a wholly convincing version of "Happiness is a Warm Gun".
Deal bought into the sinister Lennon-penned song, at the climax of side 1 of the White Album, because it seemed to affirm her musical intentions on songs like "Glorious", "Doe" and "Lime House". She was convinced by its stinging stop-start sound, for one thing, in the way it has three distinct sections that sound like different songs joined together, all requiring complex changes in rhythm and meter. She was also convinced by its dark and disturbing lyrical concerns, which spoke of a sex pest on the loose (the "man in the crowd with the multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots"), heroin addiction ("I need a fix 'cause I'm going down"), and sexual innuendo ("when I feel my finger on your trigger"). She, therefore, remade it, alongside Donnelly, Josephine Wiggs, and Britt Walford, in a less stylistically ambitious way (dispensing with the doo-wop in the third section), but in a way that made perfect sense: stripped bare, with louder drums and a sneering vocal that made it more tense and threatening. She was rewarded with a minor hit on college radio, but more importantly, a song to tie the whole Pod album together.
Deal and co-writer Ray Halliday indeed appeared to spark off "Happiness is a Warm Gun" for the rest of the LP, with its range of unsettling songs about perverts, drugs, and sex and, possibly, abortion, all mystified in minimal and cryptic language. Deal has said that "Glorious" is about an adult who has pleasant memories of being molested as a child by an aunt, but it is not spelled out for us: "We were tired from the tea / Scrabbled and we slept / Through the window came the rain" (Melody Maker, 26 May 1990). She has also said that "Doe" is about a teenaged schizophrenic couple who lose their grasp of reality after taking too much Thorazine, but this is similarly not spelled out in the lyrics: "Tripping / I walk to where he's sitting / It's all salty / It's all salty / He knows / It's good, it's real, it's pretty."
The Throwing Muses also gelled with the more unsettling aspects of the White Album, as they demonstrated in connection with their fifth studio album, The Real Ramona, released in February 1991. Under the leadership of Kristen Hersh, and with her stepsister Donelly back in the fold, they, first of all, mimicked the Beatles' stylistic diversions on their double record. Hersh showed her songwriting versatility with an anthemic pop song ("Counting Backwards"), an ambient instrumental ("Dylan") and a ferocious rocker ("Hook in Her Head"), as she continued her lyrical specialism in damaged people and troubled psychological states. Donelly added the jaunty "Not Too Soon" and the dramatic "Honeychain" to the mix, but they were both united in lending their songs a dreamy and magical quality so that they often came across as skewed nursery rhymes. They demonstrated this no more ably than on the ghostly final track, "Two Step", their ethereal voices and guitars meshing delicately with the simplicity of the lyrics: "Two-step, behind the rest, one fingertip too long / A hole, a hole in the box they carry, spills sugar in the road".
The Throwing Muses punctuated the inherent strangeness of The Real Ramona with a cover of the White Album's "Cry Baby Cry", which they would release as the B side to the "Not Too Soon" single in November '91. They, therefore, adopted a Lennon song that was itself a distortion of the weird and violent "Sing a Song of Sixpence", a children's rhyme which saw the maid to the king and queen get her nose picked off by a blackbird. Lennon added ominous descending chords and brought in a "séance in the dark", with "voices out of nowhere" put on "specially by the children for a lark". Hersh, in turn, notched up the song's essential creepiness with an eerie lead vocal abetted by psychedelic effects and swirling guitars. In the process, she brought the curtain down on probably the band's most alluring period, just before Donelly's departure to form Belly.
Soundgarden: Badmotorfinger -- Nirvana: In Utero
Seattle grunge band Soundgarden subsequently associated themselves with the White Album when they talked up a musical leap forward on their third studio record Badmotorfinger, released in September 1991 on major label A&M. They had already recorded a John Peel Session version of "Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey" (on 14 May 1989), yet lead guitarist Kim Thayil now applied to the famous archetype, jokingly telling Kerrang! magazine of their new LP, "It's the Heavy Metal 'White Album'!" There's no doubt, however, that the band were serious about not wanting to be put into a category, Thayil clarifying: "It's 12 different ways of approaching the idea of heaviness" (Kerrang!, 31 August 1991). So while they merged Black Flag with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin influences (hardcore and heavy rock), they also challenged listeners with unusual time signatures and drop-tuned guitars in their offering of a diverse range of songs replete with uniformly sinister and oblique lyrics, as on "Rusty Cage", "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose".
Nirvana, now on a major label (DGI), also aligned their evolving grunge sound with the White Album in the making of Nevermind, released the same month as Badmotorfinger. With producer Butch Vig, they particularly evoked "I'm So Tired", this time in accord with its vivid autobiographical evocation of Lennon's unstable state of mind in late 1968 due to substance addiction and insomnia, present in the lines: "You know I can't sleep / I can't stop my brain / You know it's three weeks / I'm going insane." Nirvana instilled "Lithium" with a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic to convey Cobain's similar drug-related feelings of disconnection, though obviously of a more blissful kind: "Sunday morning is every day for all I care / And I'm not scared / Light my candles in a daze 'cause I found God." Cobain furthermore echoed Lennon's method, evident on "I'm So Tired", of double-tracking his vocals on Nevermind. He initially thought the technique made the voice sound too fake, but Vig has spoken about how he convinced him to double-track on songs like "In Bloom" by telling him "John Lennon did it" (NME, 23 March 2016).
Nirvana's adoption of the double-tracking technique contributed to a more polished studio sound on Nevermind, which became the sound that defined grunge to the masses when the album reached number one in the Billboard chart in January 1992, marking the band's sudden entry to the mainstream. R.E.M., now signed to Warners, welcomed them there following their similar level of success with Out of Time (1991). They consolidated this success when Automatic for the People reached number two in the Billboard chart in October 1992, having appeared to have followed the Beatles' studio-bound trajectory that gave rise to the White Album. Tony Fletcher has noted, on this point, that as the Beatles' decision to quit touring in 1966 resulted in the "inimitable" Pepper and then the "ambitious yet initially impenetrable White Album", "so R.E.M.'s conscious withdrawal from the touring treadmill delivered first the incomparable Out of Time, and now, the brilliant yet initially opaque Automatic for the People" (Perfect Circle: The Story of R.E.M.). Indeed, while the group confused audiences initially with somber and "difficult" material, they soon won them over with the unusual level of emotional directness and honesty in songs like "Everybody Hurts", "Sweetness Follows" and "Nightswimming".
While R.E.M. coped with their mainstream acceptance, Nirvana were of course appalled by it and beat a hasty retreat by appearing to imitate further aspects of the White Album for their next record, In Utero, released in September 1993. It was their turn to acquire the services of Steve Albini this time, in their quest to shed casual fans by introducing a hard, untreated and more "honest" sound. Cobain meanwhile reflected Lennon's "I" songs ("I need a fix", "I'm going insane") on the LP in his determination to use his art as a form of catharsis, referencing his heroin addiction and his copious physical ailments in songs like "Serve the Servants" and "Pennyroyal Tea". As Lennon howled "I'm so lonely, wanna die" on "Yer Blues", in a genuine cry of pain despite a pastiche element to the track, so Cobain coined the phrase "I hate myself and I want to die" as the working title for In Utero. In this way, Lennon can be seen to have provided grist for the grunge tradition of expunging inner torment through song.
Like Nirvana, Soundgarden were also intent at this time on altering course in their music in a way that complied with the Beatles' double, not so much to shed casual fans as to continue challenging their audience. Chris Cornell described the time surrounding the release of Superunknown, in March 1994, as their "White Album period" in view of that record's diversity of texture. He also quipped that "The Super is the heavy metal Whiter Album", following on as it did from Badmotorfinger (Rolling Stone, 29 May 2017). They accentuated the analogy by giving one song, "Fell On Black Days", a tense "I'm So Tired" vibe. They made the melody of another song, "Black Hole Sun", resemble that of "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill", whether intentional or not (most likely not).
Cobain, meanwhile, was apparently still intent on evoking the Beatles' 1968 LP on demos he was recording. He no doubt realized that his band was still a mainstream act after another number 1 album on the Billboard chart, continuing his struggle to reconcile this success with his underground roots. Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, for his 2012 book Letters to Kurt, told Fuse.tv he was "headed in a direction that was really cool" with the demos, and that the result "would have been his 'White Album'". He added that he was "working with different people" and that the material constituted a "raw, rough acoustic thing" (Rolling Stone, 18 April 2012). However, the circumstances surrounding Cobain's premature death from a self-inflicted gunshot on 8 April 1994 mean that one particular White Album song has come to be associated with him, present in the title of a Bill Harry article on singer-songwriters who have died by the bullet: "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (Psst Magazine, June 2003). The article includes both Kurt Cobain and John Lennon.
Pavement: Wowee Zowee -- Smashing Pumpkins: Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
California band Pavement further evoked the White Album in their offering of a wilfully anti-corporate third album, Wowee Zowee, on 11 April 1995. The band, like Nirvana with In Utero, sought to reject the responsibility of mainstream acceptance with this LP, having come close to it with the faintly successful Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994). That record had been a coherent set of fully formed and tuneful songs, with solid riffs and hooks which were showcased by a major MTV favorite and alt-rock hit in "Cut Your Hair". Now they dabbled in punk, country, folk, blues and rock across 18 tracks, demonstrating a more experimental and looser side. The result was an album on which nearly all the songs have the feel of being works in progress.
Many have put the fragmentary nature of Wowee Zowee down to the fact that Stephen Malkmus, the band's singer-guitarist and songwriter, had been a keen smoker of pot while making the record. But whatever the reason, Pavement succeeded in epitomizing the whole White Album idea of releasing an unpredictable and non-compromising LP that was a true and honest representation of the band. They appeared to do exactly as they pleased on the LP, whether playing with distortion and feedback here, or dropping in a bit of pedal steel guitar there, while interjecting a nonsensical rhyme or two, or simply changing the whole mood of a song halfway through. As a consequence, Pavement would have to wait a considerable length of time for the songs to grow on people, before Wowee Zowee could achieve the status of "their White Album". The immediate reviews were mostly negative, in a hugely entertaining way.
Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins similarly offered their third album, Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, as their true sound and therefore "their White Album" in October '95. It is also fair to say that they provided, in this landmark work, the culmination of the alt-rock fixation with the Beatles' two-record set and an endpoint to the movement's crossover to the mainstream, being a big statement on a big, major label, Virgin. Indeed, Billy Corgan, the chief creative force and (some might say) egotistical leader of Smashing Pumpkins, ticked practically all the White Album boxes with Melon Collie. He firstly made it a double album, after having whittled down 56 tracks to a slightly more manageable 28, the clear result of a songwriting frenzy. He secondly spent an extremely long time in several different studios working on the record, alongside James Iha (guitar), D'arcy Wretzky (bass) and Jimmy Chamberlain (drums), which encompassed the period March to August '95.
Corgan also took a mighty step back from the commercial sound of previous album Siamese Dream (1993), with its sonic grunge sheen again courtesy of Butch Vig. Furthermore, instead of taking on most of the guitar and bass parts himself (as he did on Siamese Dream), he implemented a more collaborative approach, involving the other band members a lot more. He additionally worked with co-producers Flood and Alan Moulder, who were amenable to this new band ethic, encouraging the four musicians to play live in the studio and attempting to capture their energy and chemistry. And to top it all, Corgan viewed this album as "the end of an era", on which, at age 28, he was consigning to the past his group's "basic format of up-and-down guitars [and] pounding drums" (Rolling Stone, November 1995).
In Melon Collie, Smashing Pumpkins delivered the ultimate alt-rock White Album in a daring display of musical talent and fearlessness in tackling a range of styles that grunge bands previously had no business with. They included in the mix an instrumental piano piece (the title track), a lullaby ("Tonight, Tonight"), a heavy metal epic ("Porcelina of the Vast Oceans"), and a slice of electronic pop ("1979") that New Order would have been proud of. Corgan also owed a particular debt to White Album-era Lennon in terms of the "confessional" element to many of his songs, having since expressed sympathy for the Beatle's supposed plight leading into that period: "He went through something of a public disintegration, starting in 1965 with 'Help!' and then going up till the end of the '60s when he was this bearded guy singing 'Yer Blues', talking about how lonely he was and that he wanted to die". He has said: "John's fearlessness as an artist has really had an impact on how I can let people inside my own head and not be afraid about what they're going to think" (Music Radar, 6 October 2010).
After Corgan filled Melon Collie with a profusion of his own personal hangups, the Pumpkins scored a highly unlikely number 1 spot on the Billboard 200 with the album. The band subsequently had to make room for a new breed of artists, however, as alt-rock ultimately gave way to different musical fashions that didn't give such regard to the Beatles' musical legacy of 1968. Audiences particularly turned against the rage and self-loathing of grunge and sought the perhaps lighter relief of trip-hop, hip-hop, and Britpop (the latter of which paid regard to the Beatles' legacy of 1967). But for a while there, the White Album provided the model for alt-rock bands to merge punk with the seemingly opposing styles of country, folk, blues, and metal, to hugely popular effect. They, in turn, paved the way for the likes of Elliott Smith, who would go on to release "his White Album" in the form of XO in 1998. Just don't ever call them "self-indulgent".
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