Publicity photo courtesy of Capitol Records

The Effect of the Beatles’ White Album on 1988-1995’s US Alt-Rock Explosion

The Beatles’ White Album was the single biggest influence on US alternative rock as it burst into the mainstream in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Nirvana – Bleach / The Breeders – Pod / Throwing Muses – The Real Ramona

The Breeders - Pod

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.