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The Glorious, Quixotic Mess That Is the Beatles' 'White Album'

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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.

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."

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