Birthday: The White Album Turns 40
By Bill Gibron and Zeth Lundy | Published: 17 November 2008 | Source: PopMatters.com
As part of PopMatters’ week-long celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ self-titled double album, we’ve asked Bill Gibron and Zeth Lundy to discuss the record’s importance and impact, and why it continues to resonate within popular culture some four decades later.
If the Beatles were the Messiahs of Music, then their self-titled follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was and is their Bible, complete with contributing Gospels according to John, Paul…George, and Ringo. Born out of an attempt to find a spiritual center within their growing superstardom, the disenchanted lads from Liverpool were growing up—and growing restless. The death of manager Brian Epstein still weighed on them, and a recent trip to India had produced little in the way of enlightenment.
What it did create was a kind of aesthetic purge, a proto-punk decision to strip away the artifice and ‘get back’ (to coin a future phrase) to their origins. A mix of straight ahead rock, lo-fi acoustics, personal reflection, rambling cockiness, and a minor amount of Lennon’s newfound avant-garde gumption, The Beatles was viewed as a direct retort to their previous concept epic. But as with anything Beatles, it was also more than that. Indeed, the so-called White Album also became the last-act rebuttal to a Summer that was more socio-political lust than love.
But what does it all mean some 40 years on? Can anything akin to clarity come from something that, by all accounts, should have been shaved down to the classic sonic cliché—i.e., a single “good” album? In many significant ways, The Beatles represents the end of the counterculture. It signals the moment when the meaning was drained out of flower power. It pissed on the predilection to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” and provided the band with the first of many catalysts for their eventual bad vibe breakup. Unlike everything else in their astonishingly short career (they hit it big in ‘62, and were a professional postscript a mere eight years later), there seemed to be no purpose, no rhyme or reason to the album’s existence. Like the hit or miss compilations at the beginning, there was an absence of theme, a lack of stylistic cohesion. Unless you want to consider backwards glancing experimentalism a model, this was merely a collection of tunes.
But what a brazen, ballsy anthology it is. Whenever someone suggests that The Beatles be pared down to a stand-alone LP, the inevitable debate arises—what to get rid of? Do we junk Ringo’s two contributions (the self-penned “Don’t Pass Me By” and the closing lullaby “Good Night”), or marginalize an already underappreciated George (who, by this point, was backlogging an impressive list of soon to be classics). Sure, “Wild Honey Pie” seems like a joke the band forgot to let its fans in on, but in the context of the two songs surrounding it—the reggae-fied “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”—it makes fractured genius sense. Naturally, there are many who point their still strident “no Yoko” fingers and find nothing but noise in Lennon’s self-indulgent sound collage “Revolution 9”, and yet what it represents (the zenith of the boys attempt to grow beyond their mop-top merchandising) gets lost in the lambasting.
Having retired from touring two years before, the Beatles were both inspired and stifled by the studio. In that regard, The Beatles often sounds like a set list for an abandoned tour, the rollercoaster realities of a band that could handle almost any aural approach with amazing skill and dexterity. As the aforementioned noise track suggests, the material here feels raw and unfinished, few tunes taking on the fully formed awe of “A Day in the Life” or “Penny Lane”. It’s as if each member of the group, locked in his own little world while exiled away in India, decided that there was nothing left to fight for—at least, not as pop culture icons. Instead, it was going to be about the art from here on in, no matter what form or figure it decided to take. Amidst all the quitting and complaining, the studio session struggles and individual inspirations, it was time to upend the untamed excesses of their Magical Mystery media image and return to their roots.
It’s no surprise then that, after this professional purgative, the boys only had a couple dozen songs left in them. Yellow Submarine would see a quartet of paisley plied outtakes, while Abbey Road and Let It Be became the pro and con of the band’s rekindled spirits. After climbing the Everest that was international iconography, and standing on the world’s highest precipice in rapt determination on what to do next, the Beatles decided to do something totally unheard of. Instead of playing it safe, or retracing their steps into retirement, they resolved to step up to the edge, and jump. It was more than just a leap of faith though. It was, perhaps, an attempt to leave their Earthly shells behind and finally find the spirituality their journey to Rishikesh failed to provide. The Beatles does have the aura of legends lost in a void of infinite variables. That they decided to explore all of them before finally falling apart stands as the reason the Beatles remain timeless. It’s also why this record is considered a classic.
Bill Gibron | PopMatters.com
17 November 2008
Every time I listen to The Beatles, I regress. Although every Beatles album will be forever linked to my childhood, their 1968 double-LP—the ninth official full-length studio album the group had released within a five-year period—is especially conducive to sudden bouts of youthful nostalgia. It’s the one album where the band really gets back, a motley patchwork of nursery-rhyme ditties and communal sing-alongs; it is, on its surface, a collection of songs about tigers, blackbirds, raccoons, monkeys, and piggies, songs that are alternately fleeting and preoccupied, songs both abstract and concrete, songs that turn gibberish into mantra—the stuff of pop fantasy and digressive whimsy that is so appealing to the less grown-up geography of our so-called sophisticated palate.
But The Beatles is, aesthetically, its own regression, a regression into the tropes, truisms, and motifs of rock ‘n’ roll’s creviced shell. It’s a chameleon of form, hollowing out the foundations of Chuck Berry and the ghosts of British music hall, moving from faux reggae to pastoral folk, from reductive blues jams and progressive proto-metal vamps to whispered balladry and late-night lullabies. The Beatles both summarized the splintered British music scene of the late ‘60s, with tongue firmly in cheek, and served as a crib sheet for its origins. Self-referential, perverse, and impishly stock-taking, The Beatles is the first post-modern pop album: it nestles into form and fractures it, making the familiar suddenly fantastical, for the first time and for all time.
At this point, in late 1968, the Beatles had changed the course of pop music countless times over, and now they were predicting the paths it would follow in the future. The endearing mess that is The Beatles—producer George Martin has conceded that they “should have made a very, very good single album rather than a double”—forecasts upcoming ego-driven sprawls of concept like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and the Clash’s London Calling , all of them sharing a perfection wrought from a tapestry of imperfections. Albums could be whatever they wanted to be, for better and for worse, self-editing and artistic restraint be damned. (I would also argue that Lennon’s contributions to The Beatles, mostly disparagements of hypocrites and authority figures, were the beginnings of punk, at least in attitude.)
The album’s sprawl, dissociative and in search of a greater purpose, also predicts the anything-goes, DIY methodology of late-20th century indie rock and bedroom pop—indeed, a record like Guided by Voices’ fractured Bee Thousand (1994) is a direct descendent of The Beatles‘ slackened tactic. The Beatles destroyed the notion that pop records had to be made in one room of a professional recording studio by a unified collective. In fact, the album was made in simultaneous pieces, within different rooms at Abbey Road and nearby Trident Studios; many songs were recorded by a fraction of the band, while others were completed entirely by one Beatle alone. And so although The Beatles is a perennial fan favorite (if you were bringing one Beatles album to a desert island, why wouldn’t it be the generous one with 30 tracks?), it is actually the least Beatles-esque of all their albums. As Bob Spitz wrote in his masterful 2005 biography of the band, “The new repertoire, almost to a song, had lost its collaborative aspect…the writing process would forgo the critical feedback—the suggestion of a phrase, a few bars, or a middle eight—that helped shape a Lennon-McCartney song in the past.” (It’s also important to note that by recording so many songs, the band was effectively getting closer to the end of its contract with EMI. The Beatles was the first of the group’s albums to be released on its own Apple label, rather than Parlophone/Capitol—yet another connection that can be drawn to the burgeoning indie trends of later decades.)
Formally, therefore, the songs on The Beatles aren’t always up to classicist snuff. The puzzle-piece functionality of a song like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” replaces the compositional neatness of a past song like “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”, to pick an arbitrary example (or even a more similar experiment like “A Day in the Life”, which still attempted to emulate the existence of a middle eight with its pasting-together of separate sections), while tracks like “Helter Skelter”, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, and “Yer Blues” eschew any sort of formal ingenuity in order to satisfy more primal urges. This isn’t to say that these songs are inferior examples of the Beatles’ genius, but for the first time (perhaps the only time) Beatles songs were being dictated by mood, imagery, and/or instinct rather than by compositional intellect.
To put it another way: The Beatles appeals to us on a gut level. It’s pop music that’s unhinged and presumptive, excitable and unashamed, blessed with the unpredictable acumen of a mood swing. This is an incongruous menu of music, and our brains duly inform us that it shouldn’t make any sense, that it is all too much, a consequence of our gluttonous desires for more. But it does work, against our better judgment: it is a place where ambivalent political sentiment can rub up against a sentimental showtune distraction, where declarations of carnal and spiritual love can exist in close proximity. It works because it wills itself to work, and because the child inside us deems it so.
Bill Gibron | PopMatters.com
17 November 2008
This isn’t one of them. Instead, this article chronicles the subterfuge behind the group’s 1968 release The Beatles. Known colloquially as the White Album, this article looks at its origins as the Wide Album. No one was willing to go on record and confirm details about this murky chapter of the band’s history—a chapter so seemingly implausible that virtually all esteemed Beatle scholars believe it to be fictional.
Yes, this is satire, just to clear up any confusion. (Editor’s note: Tony Sclafani)
Unplayable by Listeners! Unstockable by Stores!
This was the tagline on promotional materials drawn up by advertising executives at Apple Records for the upcoming Beatles album in the autumn of 1968.
In today’s anything-goes world of pop music, such an announcement might be considered shrewd marketing. But when the Beatles decided to use it to promote their impending double LP, all hell broke loose at EMI Records. Though unbeknownst to the public at the time (and unreported since), the world’s biggest selling group was nearly dropped from its record label and hauled into court for breaking the terms stated in their 1962 recording contract.
And all they really wanted to do, say sources, was break new ground
The idea came about after the group returned from India with a massive cache of over 30 songs and realized they had too much material for even a double LP. That’s when Beatle John Lennon hit on the idea of enlarging the size of the record’s discs from 12 to 14 inches, in order to fit more music. Beatle scholars agree that Lennon first brought the idea to his buddy, Apple staff “inventor” Magic Alex Madras, who confirmed that bigger discs could be manufactured. Unfortunately, no one would be able to play such discs since they wouldn’t be able to fit on regular phonographs. Undaunted, Lennon pressed on with the idea, saying the band “already did too much” for its fans and that he was “going to make sure Paul didn’t get more songs than me on the album even if it means no one hears the bloody tunes”.
Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars believe the old Close-n-Play record players could have accommodated the larger discs. They also note that Lennon in 1968 would only listen to records on the kiddie record players, calling them more “honest” and “authentic”, than the “bourgeois stereo” owned by Paul McCartney.
Other Beatle-ologists claim Lennon and then-girlfriend Yoko Ono were just trying to stay one step ahead of the avant-garde. It’s also been claimed that Lennon was being spiteful over the other Beatles’ rejection of his song “Revolution” as the a-side of their “Hey Jude” single and was deliberately attempting to sabotage the group’s career.
“The group’s true, conservative nature was exposed when they chose to relegate John’s ‘Revolution’ to the flip side of that record,” explains a former Apple Boutique employee. “These days, Paul McCartney tries to take credit for every innovation the band ever did, but back then he made June Cleaver look like Eldridge Cleaver.” (Editor’s note: Many Beatle scholars dispute the validity of this quote, claiming instead the staffer referred to Wally Cleaver, not June Cleaver.)
Whatever the case, it came to pass that Lennon goaded executives at Apple Records into mastering previously-unheard-of 14-inch test pressings of the LP late in 1968, while fellow Fab Paul McCartney was away in America. Upon returning to Britain, the baby-faced Beatle was purportedly livid, but agreed to stand behind Lennon’s idea—at least at first.
The group was so big at the time they figured people would buy the record anyway.
The disc would be called the Wide Album, because of its unique width, Lennon said. At an Apple Records board meeting, the Beatle explained to a group of employees and Hell’s Angels that the disc would herald a “bold new era”. (Editor’s note: Several Beatle scholars argue there were no Hell’s Angels in the meeting. They claim that Ringo’s wife had brought along an angel food cake and the details got confused in the ensuing years.)
By mid-autumn, thousands of copies of the 14-inch LP were rolling off the presses. Sure, the concept of a record that could not be played was odd, reasoned many close to the Beatles. But didn’t so many of the group’s previous ideas seem strange at first? You know, like long hair and actually having to listen to the Maharishi? And then one day a pressing of the LP found its way into the hands of Sir Joseph Lockwood, president of EMI Records, which distributed Apple.
Lockwood couldn’t play the disc on his office turntable. Thinking his record machine was broken, he asked his secretary to try and play the record. But the needle kept popping up off the disc and Lockwood could barely make out the words to a song that sounded like it was called “Dear Pruneface”.
The elderly EMI president was not amused. Perceiving the “pruneface” song as a personal jab (Lockwood was nearly 80 at the time), he flew into a rage and hurled the group’s soon-to-be-released masterpiece against a wall. The next day, a more composed Lockwood summoned Beatles producer George Martin to his office. Martin had taken a leisurely vacation that fall and had missed many of the album’s sessions, but was about to be re-immersed back into the weird lair of the Liverpool Lads.
Lockwood demanded the producer bring the rapidly-fragmenting band together for a high-level meeting. A terrified Martin heeded Lockwood’s orders.
At the time, Lennon was dealing with the ramifications of his recent drug arrest, McCartney was in the studio with English thrush Mary Hopkin, Harrison was working with guitarist Eric Clapton , and Starr was in Greece. (Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars claim Ringo was not in Greece but that he was covering his prematurely-gray hair with Grecian formula.)
When each of the four band members heard Martin erupt on the telephone, they sped to EMI for the impromptu get-together. Even the usually bold Ono made like a shrinking violet and begged off. The arguments came fast and furious, with Lockwood accusing Lennon of being “crazy” and “arrogant”. Lennon kept his cool, explaining that the unwieldy album would “make fans think” and “cause them to question who and what we are.”
Guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr sat slumped in corners. Neither had known about Lennon’s scheme in the first place. As the always-articulate Lennon pressed on with his arguments, Lockwood held up a copy of the band’s recording contract, noting the clause which detailed the specific physical dimensions of albums. (Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars maintain Lockwood did not hold up the contract, but merely pointed at it.)
New concepts were all well and good, explained Lockwood, but a record that could not be listened to did not—in his mind—qualify as any type of “innovation”.
It’s not important to us that fans be able to actually play our albums… that’s a triviality to us at this point.
“But if they CAN manage to somehow play the LP, they’ll get extra music and better sound,” offered a helpful McCartney. (Due to its larger size, the Wide Album, contained two extra songs, “What’s the New Mary Jane” and “Not Guilty”.)
According to newly uncovered EMI documents, Lockwood “threw a hissy fit”. He also threw the band and its crimson-faced producer out of his office. “Stop acting like spoiled little prats!” he barked. “Come back when you’ve made a proper record. And I’ve never said it before but that ‘Lady Madonna’ record was a load of bollocks!”
As angry as Lockwood was at the band, the brunt of his ire was saved for Fabs’ whipping-boy George Martin . In the passing weeks, Lockwood not only berated Martin in public, he forced the producer to personally cough up the cash to have the album re-pressed, since it was “his oversight that allowed the craziness to happen.
“A producer should run the show,” fumed Lockwood. “Here, it looks like the lunatics have taken over the asylum.”
According to yet more Beatle scholars, Martin was furious at his “betrayal” by both the Beatles and Lockwood. This, say sources, is the real reason Martin was not present as producer during most of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions which commenced soon after. According to newly-discovered documents, the band began to “put out feelers” (their words) for a new producer. Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones was asked whether Stones producer Jimmy Miller could be employed. But Jones at the time was a drug-addled mess and claimed he didn’t even know Miller was now producing his band. (Editor’s note: Virtually all the Beatle scholars we talked to said they had never heard of an alleged band called the “The Rolling Stones” .) Jones snapped into lucidity when told about the band’s “Wide Album”. Calling Lennon a “mad genius” he dreamed of the day when he too could “put out LPs no one can play”. When Jones pitched just this idea to the other Stones a few months later, he was asked to leave the band.
Jones turned up dead weeks later.
Soon, both McCartney and Lennon agreed to “get the LP out as soon as possible in any way possible”. This, it turns out, is why the LP was issued in a plain white jacket: The Beatles had no time to commission a proper cover graphic.
“They wasted so much time with their bloody idea,” a former EMI engineer explains, “that they had to quickly assemble a cover in order to have the album ready by the Christmas rush. In effect, there was no cover!”
To save face, Lennon dreamed up the idea of calling the re-constituted LP by the similar name of the White Album, because of its blank jacket. “People had already been saying Wide Album so (they) thought up a name that sounded close enough,” says a source. Two songs were pulled from the disc’s lineup so the contents of the LP fit onto two standard 12-inch vinyl discs. EMI lubed up its presses for another run of LPs.
“The whole incident shows what can happen when egos get out of control,” offers a New Jersey-based rock critic and self-professed Beatles fanatic who wished not to be identified. “I’m glad all of this is finally being brought to light, because it hurt George (Martin) emotionally as well as professionally.” (Editor’s note: Several Beatle scholars contend this critic is not a critic at all, but a convenience store employee who likes to read music magazines.)
Indeed, the occurrence was considered such a professional embarrassment, it prompted a furious Lockwood to issue a memo to all EMI staffers, producers and bands to “keep quiet about it, or risk losing all earnings and your reputation within the industry.” To distract fans from the would-be scandal (and to secure their financial futures) the two head Beatles would both impulsively marry well-to-do women in the coming months.
They can ruin us professionally, but they can’t ruin us personally. We’re more than capable of that.
Although Martin would re-unite with the Beatles for their swan song, “Abbey Road”, the events in the fall of 1968 traumatized him so much that he vowed “never to work with rock acts again”. After a long search for “the most boring group in the world,” he “discovered” soft rockers America and purportedly produced many of their discs while asleep in a hammock in the back of his Bentley, which was parked a block away from the studio.
‘England’s lamest cover band’
The outcome of the Wide Album incident hit the Beatles hard. No longer were they the “golden boys” who could “do no wrong” for EMI. Instead, they felt like cogs in the wheel—another meal ticket for the stuffed-shirt executives.
Dispirited, the group reconvened in January of 1969 to start work on an album comprised of safe-as-milk oldies, a move engineered to mock Lockwood’s bland tastes. If Mr. EMI wanted the Best Band in the Word to make like milquetoast, well, that’s exactly what they would do. “Look out Herman’s Hermits!” they joked. “We’re going steal your mantle of being England’s lamest cover band!”
Sadly, that plan was realized in spades.
Drugged, depressed, and dispirited, the band slogged through ear-wrenching, tuneless renditions of numbers they once loved. Originally called Sloppy Seconds by Lennon (who named it as such because the band couldn’t make it through more than a few seconds of each tune), it was later re-titled Get Back. For a few weeks it was called Octopus’ Garbage (at Harrison’s bequest), then accidentally named Nancy Wilson Sings the Standards by a novice tape-op who wasn’t paying attention.
At one point during the sessions, a smartly-dressed Keith Richards dropped by with then-paramour Anita Pallenberg. Hoisting a guitar, he attempted to jam with the band, but found he could not get in tune with any given band member at any given time. Dazed, he walked out of the session saying he “could not believe what he heard.” Later that night he allegedly drove with Pallenberg to the worst section of London and scored heroin for the first time. “If that’s the way the best band in the world sounds,” he slurred, “then there’s no point in music.”
Lennon took the rejection of the Wide Album particularly hard. He decided to “turn his back on pop music as we know it” and take up more substantial causes. (Editor’s note: Many Beatle scholars say they never felt Lennon’s causes were really all that substantial, at least not in the scheme of record collecting.)
As the history books show, the band members decided to go their separate ways in Aug. 1969. Solo careers were launched, but the memory of the Wide Album would not go away. In 1974, Beatle roadie Mal Evans, then on the verge of bankruptcy, threatened to sell his memoirs—replete with an account of the “Wide Album” incident. One week later, Evans turned up dead.
Six years later, Lennon did an interview with Playboy magazine writer David Sheff, where he touched on all points of the group’s career—including the Wide Album. The discovery of the story was considered a major “coup” for the then-struggling scribe. But when Sheff went back to transcribe the tape the next day, the segment of the tape that covered the debacle—all 13 minutes of it—had been mysteriously erased.
Lennon was murdered less than a week later.
By Tony Sclafani | PopMatters.com
26 December 2008