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.

Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger / Nirvana – In Utero

Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger

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 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.