The Beatles: A White Album Review
A double album, released in 1968, the White Album was a mix of all the Beatles’ myriad musical influences
Despite Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band proving a commercial and cultural phenomenon in 1967, the follow-up EP and television special Magical Mystery Tour failed to spark such praise and success. Whilst the EP reached number two in the British charts, this was considered a failure in light of the consistent number ones the group had produced in the mid-1960s. The television special which aired at Christmas 1967 was met my a level of criticism never before directed at the band.
Within the Beatles themselves, various factors were beginning to impact on their ability to work successfully as a group. The band had given up touring in 1966, partly due to the more studio-based direction of their music, and partly due to growing frustrations within the quartet. George Harrison famously quit the band following their last tour, although his threat was unfounded.
Harrison was, however, looking for greater input in to the music of the group, whilst John Lennon had become a keen taker of LSD and immersed in his new life with the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney was looking for ways to keep the band together, but the failure of Magical Mystery Tour impacted on his standing within the band. Ringo Starr briefly left the group during recording due to the tension.
The sessions for White Album were notable for their rambling nature and on occasion by the complete absence of some members of the band for several recording sessions. Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head is the key text in describing this turbulent period in the history of the Beatles.
The resulting album, a mix of brilliant moments, ill-advised and indulgent side-steps, and half-finished tracks, has long caused discussion and debate amongst Beatles aficionados. White Album begins with their fine Beach Boys salute, ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’, a jamming rocker propelled by a soulful McCartney vocal.
Lennon’s more subdued, atmospheric ‘Dear Prudence’ reflects the darker tone he would take with his early solo work, shorn of the swirling harmonies which McCartney was capable of producing. The self-referential ‘Glass Onion’ features quotes from Beatles hits and snippets of production tricks made famous by the band.
The lightweight ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ demonstrates the tuneful but somewhat vacuous style McCartney would later produce on his solo records, whilst ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’ is full of psychedelic lyrics which do not hit on the same scale as ‘I Am The Walrus’.
George Harrison is given chance to demonstrate his talent on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, which also features Eric Clapton on guitar. The dream-like bridge, complimented by the exemplary guitar work, create a mature track, added more weight by the uninspired tracks which precede it. ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ features a typically elusive Lennon lyric, but is stocked with the dry humour which had made the band so popular with the press in their early years.
McCartney’s love of old show tunes is in evidence on ‘Martha, My Dear’, his vocal a measured and perfectly pronounced performance, as well as on ‘Honey Pie’. Lennon’s LSD-fuelled lethargy is reflected in ‘I’m So Tired’, a more desperate-sounding piece than his ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ from Revolver. McCartney then displays his innate sense for melody with the acoustic and charmingly simple ‘Blackbird’.
The legacy of English music hall, prominent throughout Sgt. Peppers’, is again found on ‘Piggies’, ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, a trio of nostalgic, escapist, tongue-in-cheek tunes. More substantial is Lennon’s ‘Julia’, another track reflective of the deep love he felt for his mother, with his views on women gaining more air time on the later ‘Sexy Sadie’.
The blues and R&B music which informed much of the Beatles’ early work returns for ‘Birthday’ and ‘Yer Blues’, a rocky and bluesy track, respectively. ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ features some fine acoustic guitar playing, and trademark McCartney harmonies, his delicate touch in comparison to the anarchic glee in Lennon’s ‘Everyone’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’.
The heavy, hoarse, ‘Helter Skelter’, featuring McCartney at his most punishing vocal limits, is one of the heaviest tracks in the Beatles’ canon, reflecting the growing popularity of such music. Harrison’s fascination with the mystical east is the inspiration for ‘Long, Long, Long’, a haunting and meditative piece.
The experimental sound collage of ‘Revolution 9’ seems at odds with the Beatles canon, but as detailed in Dominic Sandbrook’s study of 1960s Britain, White Heat, McCartney had long been interested in the cultural underground. The track seems even more incongruous due its placing immediately before the Ringo-featuring ‘Good Night’, a Disney-esque nursery rhyme to close the album.
White Album is stylistically incoherent in comparison to other Beatles releases such as Rubber Soul and Abbey Road, but it provides an interesting view of each of the members’ musical development and interests as the group was heading towards its end.