Counterbalance No. 14: The Beatles - 'The Beatles' a.k.a. 'The White Album'
The Beatles' 1968 self-titled double LP has been referenced by everyone from Joan Didion to Charles Manson and analyzed literally backward and forward. Mendelsohn and Klinger, always smiling and arriving late for tea, discuss the Number 14 album on the Big List.
22 November 1968
Klinger: Before we begin, Mendelsohn, we should probably establish one ground rule: avoid discussing whether this should have been cut down to a single album. That parlor game has been played since November 1968, and I'd say it's pretty well played out. That being said, this is an unruly tangle of an album, and even though I've heard it hundreds of times, it still feels like a lot to digest.
Mendelsohn: I'll adhere to that ground rule, even though I've groused about just such things in previous installments. But just so we're clear, I don't think this album should be consolidated—I think it should be chopped up and re-released as three separate albums. The Beatles (Pretty, Well-Orchestrated Songs), The Beatles (These Songs Rock a Little) and The Beatles (We Are Taking Copious Amounts of Controlled Substances and Then Recording the Results and Selling It to the Public as a Lark).
Seriously though, I love this record. Mostly because it's full of gems, and it documents the Beatles slowly unraveling. It's like watching them realize they are stuck in a tiny box. They do their best to push against the boundaries, but after failing to break out, they turn their aggression on each other. And then it's just a free-for-all. Well, maybe not for Ringo.
Klinger: Ringo famously quit the group for two weeks during the recording of this album, and when you manage to tick off Ringo, you're clearly dysfunctional. Tensions apparently ran high during these sessions, possibly exacerbated by the fact that they had just returned from an extremely long camping trip with Mike Love. That tension appears to have manifested itself in the lack of esprit de corps that is painfully evident here.
For example, go back and listen to "Martha My Dear". It's a lovely little tune, but I maintain that had its marshmallowy sweetness been tempered by a more pronounced contribution from the more acerbic faction of the group, it would have been one for the ages. In other words, put some backing vocals on that number, and people would stop yammering on about how he's singing to a dog. Similarly, a touch of Macca cheekiness could have really driven home the point that "Yer Blues" was a satire of British blues—as it stands, it sounds rather on the nose.
Mendelsohn: Agreed, the collaboration that drove the Beatles to the height of the music world is nowhere to be found on this record. Instead, the listener is treated to lots and lots of schadenfreude—sweet, sweet schadenfreude—as the boys from Liverpool claw at each other's throats.
And yet, out of this messy professional train wreck, we get to see the Beatles, albeit separately, at the apex of their writing prowess and enjoying the pure thrill of exploring music. Harrison writes "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", the song that arguably defines him as an artist, Lennon answers the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" with "Revolution 1", McCartney further refines that sappy sweetness that will carry on through Wings and, as usual, Richard Starkey is left to follow up the rear. However, he receives his first songwriting credit.
Sure, it's a hodgepodge, but just think about what kind of album they would have put out if they still liked each other. It may have made Sgt. Pepper's look like a silly little rock dalliance.
Klinger: Or it could have just been Sgt. Pepper II: Nerds in Paradise. Remember, too, that there had been some pretty big changes in that year and a half. Dylan and the Stones had put the smackdown on psychedelia with John Wesley Harding and Beggars Banquet. Hendrix and Cream were stripping down their sounds, and hippie-friendly oboists everywhere suddenly found their services no longer required.
The Beatles, at their core, were expert synthesizers. Their greatest strength was taking all of the things that were going on in '60s pop and, through their songwriting prowess, create a definitive declaration on the state of pop music. You could almost think of their albums as '60s Rock Annual Reports. 'The White Album' shows the transition that was taking place between the more baroque sound that was passing and the rootsy style coming to the fore.
Still doesn't explain "Revolution 9", though.
Mendelsohn: I don't think they would have made Sgt. Pepper Part Deux: Still Marching. The Beatles were too smart for that. But think about the album that could have been. No distractions. No infighting. It's one of those unanswerable questions that could have changed rock history. Instead, we're left to pick through the detritus.
Klinger: Ah, but the debris left behind can be fascinating, and I think it's the "minor" pieces on "The White Album" that give it its unique character. When I first got this record as a mere lad of 13, I focused on the immediate pleasures of "Back in the USSR" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da". But the more time you spend with this album (and for me, it's been nearly 30 years), I find a greater appreciation for a song like "Long Long Long", which swoops elegantly from near-silence to a genuinely spooky climax, all without raising its voice. Or the way that "Good Night", a song I once considered way too schmaltzy, sounds almost sinister after "Revolution 9" (and yes, even with a skip button right handy, I still listen to "Revolution 9" because I'm a real fan).
It seems that the infighting and the distractions lent themselves to the dark tone that seems to surround the album. But is it possible that the darkness has been assigned to this record ex post facto, given its association with Manson and the general sense that 1968 marked the end of the utopian hippie dream?
Mendelsohn: You raise a good question. It's tough to look at some of those albums through the fog of history. Despite the baggage, I don't think "The White Album" has any ominous overtones. It's a sprawling, sugar-coated behemoth.
But sweet always goes down better with a touch of sour. On the flip side, I don't think it would hold the place it does without all of the craziness.
Klinger: Really? You're not hearing an undercurrent of ominousness throughout these two discs? Maybe it's the fact that the TV movie Helter Skelter for some reason scared the bejabbers out of me as a kid, but parts of this album still feel almost unnerving to me. Even the way songs cut abruptly from one to another (the startling "Hey-O!" as "Bungalow Bill" goes into "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") or just lumber into an odd little coda (like the discordant strings at the end of "Glass Onion" or sleepytime Lennon mumblings after "I'm So Tired") create a mood that's very seldom found on other Beatles records.
Mendelsohn: Ominous? No. The Beatles didn't do ominous. Although, I imagine that if they did, it would make little children cry, cause older people to suffer shortness of breath, and probably kill small woodland animals. I think what you may be hearing is all that tension boiling over, manifesting itself in their inability to transition seamlessly from track to track and popping in the odd segue. Freud would have had a field day psychoanalyzing the rifts in this record.
Klinger: That's weird—I'd swear I heard ominosity in there. Must have just been the specter of Charlie Manson haunting me from my young dreams. But you are correct. The mood was indeed toxic throughout much of the recording of The Beatles—even stalwart engineer Geoff Emerick, whose technical expertise brought so many of the Fabs' ideas to fruition, walked away from the sessions, unable to tolerate the group's pissiness and rancor. That may have something to do with the matte finish that this album seems to have.
Even with all the curious noises and things that go bump throughout this record, it lacks the sheen that the previous couple LPs have, and nowhere near the polish that they were to bring to Abbey Road. That's not a knock on the album, either. I've heard it said that the Beatles catalog needs the spooky weirdness of 'The White Album' to be as serve as a counterbalance, if you will, to the sunny joys that are so often associated with the group. But maybe that lack of polish is why I'm hearing darkness here.
Mendelsohn: Geez, Klinger. A couple of people get massacred because Chuckles Manson thinks the Beatles are sending him secret messages, and suddenly 'The White Album' is all doom and gloom. Unless you, too, are hearing those secret messages, in which case I don't think we should hang out anymore. And no, I will not move out to your desert commune. Stop asking.
Klinger: Fine. I'll just leave these brochures.
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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.
This article was originally published on 22 December 2010.