Reviews

The White Albums’ Critical Reception and Its Legacy

Presented here under the Reviews tab in chronological order are a series of reviews spanning the albums’ original release in 1968, up thru the present.

four-beats

The Beatles were at the peak of their global influence and visibility in late 1968. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released the previous year, had enjoyed a combination of commercial success, critical acclaim, and immense cultural influence that had previously seemed inconceivable for a pop release. Time, for instance, had written in 1967 that Pepper constituted a “historic departure in the progress of music — any music,” [1] while Timothy Leary, in a widely quoted assessment of the same period, declared they were prototypes of “evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species.” [2]

After creating an album that had delivered such critical, commercial, and generational shockwaves, The Beatles faced the inevitable question of what they could possibly do to top it. The next full-length album, whatever it was, was destined to draw considerable scrutiny. The intervening release of Magical Mystery Tour notwithstanding (released as a double-EP package in the UK), The Beatles represented the group’s first major musical statement since Sgt. Pepper, and thus was a highly anticipated event for both the mainstream press and the youth-oriented counterculture movement with which the band had by this time become strongly associated. Expectations, to say the least, were high. The reviews were mixed.

Tony Palmer, in The Observer, wrote shortly after the album’s release: “If there is still any doubt that Lennon and McCartney are the greatest songwriters since Schubert, then . . . [the album The Beatles] . . . should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making. . . .” [3]

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times on December 8, 1968, described the album as a “major success.” [4]

Another review in The New York Times, this one by Nik Cohn, considered the album “boring beyond belief” and described “more than half the songs” as “profound mediocrities.” [5]

Alan Smith, in an NME review entitled “The Brilliant, the Bad, and the Ugly,” derided “Revolution #9” as a “pretentious” example of “idiot immaturity” and, in the following sentence, assigned the benediction “God Bless You, Beatles!” to “most of the rest” of the album. [6]

Smith’s review established a pattern that has endured for much of the critical assessment that followed. Many of the reviews since 1968 — and “The Beatles” surely ranks among the most-reviewed releases in rock history — have tempered rapturous enthusiasm with a consistent note of criticism about the album’s seemingly undisciplined structure. Unlike such albums as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver, The Beatles is a release that, four decades on, tends to provoke heated discussions of such topics as continuity, style, and integrity.

The New Rolling Stone Album Guide praises the album but maintains that it has “loads of self-indulgent filler,” identifying “Revolution #9” in particular as “justly maligned,” and suggests that listeners in the CD era, who can program digital players to skip over unwanted tracks, may have an advantage over the album’s original audience. [7]

Some contemporary critics say the album’s inclusion of supposedly extraneous material is a part of its appeal. The allmusic.com review contends that: “Each song on the sprawling double album “The Beatles” is an entity to itself, as the band touches on anything and everything they can. This makes for a frustratingly scattershot record or a singularly gripping musical experience, depending on your view, but what makes the White Album interesting is its mess.” [8]

One important current trend in critical assessments of the album is to draw parallels between the band’s disintegrating ensemble and the chaotic events of the tumultuous year in which The Beatles was created, 1968. Along these lines, Slant Magazine observed that: “(The album) reveals the popping seams of a band that had the pressure of an entire fissuring generational/political gap on its back. Maybe it’s because it shows The Beatles at the point where even their music couldn’t hide the underlying tensions between John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or maybe because it was (coincidentally?) released at the tail end of a year anyone could agree was the embittered honeymoon’s end for the Love Generation, the year when, to borrow from a famous Yeats poem, the center decidedly could not hold … for whatever reason, The Beatles is still one of the few albums by the Fab Four that resists reflexive canonization, which, along with society’s continued fragmentation, keeps the album fresh and surprising.” [9]

In 1997, “The Beatles” was named the 10th greatest album of all time in a ‘Music of the Millennium’ poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998, Q magazine readers placed it at number 17, while in 2000 the same magazine placed it at number 7 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. [10]

In 2001, the TV network VH1 named it as the 11th greatest album ever. [11]

It was ranked number 10 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003. [12]

In 2006, the album was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best albums of all time. [13]

On the 40th anniversary of the album’s release the Vatican issued an unusual review of the album. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a lengthy article which declared that “Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled.”[14] Forgiving John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, the paper called the White Album the “creative summit” of the Beatles’ career, comparing it favorably to contemporary music and taking note of the now antiquated equipment used, concluding that “a listening experience like that offered by the Beatles is truly rare.”



NOTES:

  1. Time magazine, September 27, 1967, page 128
  2. IMDB Timothy Leary bio
  3. Norman, Phillip (1981). “Shout!”. Fireside Press.
  4. New York Times, December 8, 1968
  5. “A Briton Blasts The Beatles,” New York Times, December 15, 1968
  6. New Musical Express, November 9, 1968
  7. Brackett, Nathan (2004). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon and Schuster.
  8. “Music.com White Album review”. Retrieved on 2007-10-08.
  9. 9″Slant Magazine review”.
  10. “The 100 Greatest British Albums Ever”. Q. Retrieved on 2007-11-20.
  11. “2001 VH1 Cable Music Channel All Time Album Top 100”
  12. “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. Rolling Stone
  13. “The All-Time 100 Albums”. Time
  14. “Vatican newspaper: Beatles’ music better than today’s pop songs,” Catholic News Service, November 24, 2008