Why Don’t We Do It in the Doll’s House?
A Peek Inside the Beatles’ White Album
I remember what they sounded like. As obnoxious as auctioneers, the loud, peppy DJs on the Top 40 radio stations crammed in as many words as they could between commercials and hit songs that grew increasingly stale, but the disc jockeys on the underground station were low-key. With deep voices, they spoke slowly and softly, and listening to them it was easy to imagine bearded hippies with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure rock ‘n’ roll. They never played hit singles, and they waited until several songs played before they identified anything, which was frustrating to someone trying to become familiar with at least a small fraction of the overwhelming amount of rock ‘n’ roll that was out there. It really didn’t matter, though: At that point, I still had to hear most songs several times before they penetrated.
This was in Des Moines, Iowa in the early ’70s—early enough that it still seemed like the late ’60s. I was in sixth and seventh grade when I listened to the underground radio station. Occasionally, on a Saturday I would walk to a hippie shop called Elysian Fields and try to figure out who the bands were on the posters covering the walls and flip through record bins while wondering what all the records sounded like. As with the underground radio station, you never heard any Top 40 hits in Elysian Fields. I took in what I could, but I processed little of what I heard. Fortunately, a friend whose older brothers left their record collections behind when they moved out set his selling price at a quarter; it was because of him that I first had a chance to listen to, at my leisure, bands like Captain Beefheart and the Electric Prunes.
One day, one of the deep-voiced hippies announced that the underground station was going to play The White Album by the Beatles in its entirety. Because most of the other Beatles LPs had number one singles, The White Album was probably the only serious candidate for an underground station—that or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although none of its songs were hits, Pepper’s generally had more of a pop sound than The White Album, and because at that point the wow factor associated with Pepper’s was still fresh, it got much more press. Of all the Beatles records, The White Album seemed the most underground.
Before the radio played it, I still hadn’t heard anything from The White Album. Somehow I ended up with the poster that came inside the record and had the lyrics printed on the back, and sometimes I’d read the lyrics and wonder what to make of them while trying to imagine what the songs would sound like that went with those lyrics. And I’d read about The White Album, usually in connection with Charles Manson, who claimed that it gave him strict instructions to direct a series of gruesome murders. When people thought about that record, they thought about Manson, and that was part of its mystique. Another part was “Revolution 9.” How could it be that an eight-minute sound collage with no melody and no lyrics could be created by the only band that was so popular that touring was no longer a sane option? I had no idea—after all, I hadn’t even heard it yet—but I imagined a minefield full of hidden messages, a treasure chest with all the answers to all the messages secretly embedded in all the Beatles albums. Would I be the first person to unlock the mystery?
On that Sunday afternoon, The White Album played from beginning to end. Reading the lyrics as they were sung, I listened closely, but all the mysteries connected with the album remained mysteries, and, with time, more were added. Actually, for decades The White Album remained the most elusive Beatles record for me. I wasn’t sure where to rate it against the other Beatles albums, and while I could summarize, in 20 words or less (well, maybe not 20), how all of their other albums fit into the grand scheme of Beatles things, The White Album seemed more slippery.
Only recently did The White Album start to make more sense to me. What helped was skimming one of those Beatles books that music nerds have on their night stands. The book said—and I’m sure it’s appeared in a thousand other places, but this was the first I caught wind of it—that the Beatles originally planned to call the record A Doll’s House. That name was scrapped, however, when another British band, Family, released an album earlier in the year entitled Music in a Doll’s House. Plan B was, quite simply, The Beatles. Going along with the simpler title was their simplest cover: White, with the band name embossed on the cover. The implication is a musical Rorschach test where the connections between the different parts of the record are left up to the imagination of each listener.
But what about the original title? Where did it come from, and what was its appeal? Just as Sgt. Pepper’s featured the faces of dozens of people who influenced or inspired the Beatles, the original album title to The Beatles was a nod to the past, as its original title came from A Doll’s House, a play Henrik Ibsen wrote almost a hundred years before The White Album. A scathing indictment of the Victorian era, A Doll’s House told the world that middle-class wives were second-class citizens—or, if you will, dolls. As the play progresses, the repression and entrapment Nora Helmer experiences becomes increasingly apparent to her and the audience. When she decides, at the end, to leave her husband, her prospects look grim, but she would rather do that than stay trapped in a subservient role.
So why would a play written during the Victorian era speak to the most important band of the late ’60s when the Victorian era seemed like ancient history? A partial answer would be that apparently, in 1968, the world had not yet achieved a state of utopia—not quite. There were, among other things, a war that polarized two generations, racial tension, assassinations, and a few other problems. And while, in some ways, Nora Helmer’s world would have seemed alien to the late ’60s generation, The White Album made clear that the struggle to break free from different forms of oppression and repression was still very much a current event. But, it could do so humorously.
In the opening track, “Back in the USSR”, McCartney (or his protagonist, since McCartney had not yet been to Russia) celebrates returning to Soviet Russia because of all the tail he gets whenever he goes there. The KGB and Communist repression notwithstanding, the revolution—or at least the sexual revolution, which played no small part in the rebellious ’60s—was apparently on. A McCartney interview from 1984 made it clear that something serious was going on under the surface of such a playful song: “It was also hands across the water, which I’m still conscious of. ‘Cuz they like us out there, even though the bosses in the Kremlin may not. The kids do. And that to me is very important for the future of the race.” Three sides later, Lennon would ask, “Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?” In one sense, McCartney seemed to be saying, it already was.
An invitation to experience the world rather than retreat from it into a pseudo-nirvana, “Dear Prudence” urges a woman to break free from chains that are partly self-imposed and partly the result of gurus who are less enlightened than they claim to be. “Piggies” takes on the establishment, while “Revolution 1” addresses the counterculture taking on the establishment, and the title of “Revolution 9” (plus the fact that it was easily the most avant-garde piece of music the Beatles released) offers more evidence that change was in the air. On “Yer Blues” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”, the liberation Lennon seeks is internal. “Blackbird” addresses racial tensions with lyrics like, “Take these sunken eyes and learn to see / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to be free,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” describes someone (a woman, presumably) who is trapped emotionally. And bringing us back to the part of the revolution that takes place below the belt, there’s “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”
It’s quite possible that in the next Beatle interview I read, one of the remaining Fab Four will say that they picked the original title because they liked how it sounded and that was all there was to it. Still, if there’s more of a connecting thread to the record than is often assumed, commonly held opinions like this one from allmusic.com seem questionable: “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 so-called White Album interesting is its mess.”
Many of the songs were written while the Beatles were on a spiritual retreat in India, which is the sort of thing that is supposed to breed introspective lyrics describing what rock stars think about while gazing at their navels—yet no other Beatles album is more engaged with the outside world. We’d expect rock stars in India to tell us that all is right with the world, but on The White Album Blue Meanies abound. “The all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” in “Bungalow Bill” comes across as your basic trigger-happy asshole, and the piggies “in their starched white shirts” deserve “a damn good whacking.” “Sexy Sadie” is this week’s transcendental con man, and the portrayal of addiction on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” seems like a scene from Naked Lunch. This could have been titled The Dark Album—but we’re sometimes misguided as to why it is so dark. According to Slant magazine, The White 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.” I would argue that the bummer vibe says less about the Beatles than the world, which is a far more menacing place than on other Beatles albums. Insisting that the dark tone has everything to do with conflicts between band members undeservedly takes something away from the record. It’s more like the Beatles were waking up to the fact that the change their generation sought was going to be more of a challenge than they thought when they sang “All You Need Is Love.”
The White Album is the quirkiest Beatles record, and the one that, more than any other, pushes the envelope, to the point where it would be hard to imagine many of its songs showing up on any other record. George Martin urged the band to whittle the record down to a single album. Chances are a single LP would have chopped off some of the stranger material and made a saner and easily palatable record… which would have been less interesting. Often there’s something off-kilter about the album, as if it were recorded in a funhouse. At times, the music feels etherized (“I’m So Tired”, “Bungalow Bill”, and “Long, Long, Long” drone along in a soporific stupor); elsewhere, it’s harsh and abrasive (the shrill horns of “Savoy Truffle”; the overcooked, manic “Birthday”); repeatedly, band members seem to be competing with each other to see who can be the first to rip out their vocal cords. “Helter Skelter” is the loudest, most caustic song on the record, but it’s also more skewed than most hard rock; the fade-out/fade-in makes you wonder if they’d been thrashing away the whole night in an all-out frenzy. Even the happy-go-lucky pop songs seem twisted; it’s hard to imagine the heavy-handed carnival-like organ line on “Don’t Pass Me By” going over on American Bandstand, and the brief guitar solo on “Honey Pie” is deliberately amateurish. On “Honey Pie” and “Piggies”, McCartney and Harrison sound like radio singers from early in the 20th century. After such a strange ride, “Good Night” sounds more spooky than comforting, like deranged, easy-listening music.
The White Album is an album of extremes. It features the most world-weary John Lennon of any Beatles album, as well as the most aggressive. McCartney also tends to avoid any middle ground; most of his songs alternate between hard rock (or gritty blues) and peaceful pop songs. Whacked-out, over-the-top sonic experiments alternate with short, simple songs more sparse than anything on any other Beatles albums. “Julia” may well be the most intimate recording Lennon ever made, which is saying something. Although it has a nice pop melody, “Blackbird” is too stripped down to be a single. “I Will” is too scant and too short to even appear on another Beatles album. For a band that sold zillions of records, the Beatles were never really “commercial,” but the material on The White Album is less radio-friendly or easily palatable than on any other record. To some extent, the changes reflected on The White Album mirrored the newfound freedom of a successful band having its own record company. In that sense, the Beatles were leaving their own doll house. They were free to experiment, try different things, and if the mood hit, release those things on album.
In another sense, though, the Beatles were starting to feel trapped. Touring was no longer feasible, which meant spending more time in the studio, which was starting to feel old, plus they increasingly felt secluded. Slowly, it was becoming clear that the only way for them to manage their lives would be to end the Beatles, and the fact that they began to work more individually during The White Album helped prepare them for that. We can call that depressing—or, we can call it liberating.
Also, some of us have reached the point, when listening to The White Album and everything that came after, where we spend much of the time lamenting the toll the changing chemistry of the band supposedly took on the music. True, the arguments increased, but friction between band members doesn’t necessarily spell the death of good music. The arguments between members of Cream made the worst feud between the Beatles seem like a love fest, but that didn’t stop Cream from making some fantastic music together. Since Cream’s demise, Eric Clapton has formed several bands where there was less friction, but as his solo albums continue to cover the same old ground, evidence mounts that some artists benefit from being surrounded by raging egos.
It’s long been fashionable to say that Rubber Soul and Revolver represented the pinnacle for the Beatles and from there things went downhill. Partly that’s because of the turmoil within the group (“The rot had already set in” George Harrison said about The White Album); it also has to do with the Fab Four’s musical evolution. Although Sgt. Pepper’s, the first album to follow their supposed peak, was at first all the rage, its reputation has undergone considerable revision. As Tim Page, music critic for the Washington Post, put it, “I much prefer Help! or Revolver to Sgt. Pepper for listening pleasure—the rock is harder, the tunes are punchier, and there is an exuberant freshness in these albums that makes much of the Beatles’ later work seem over-marinated.” To many critics, Sgt. Pepper’s is too artsy, too self-conscious, and too psychedelic. But how psychedelic is Pepper’s, really? The attempt by the Rolling Stones to answer Pepper’s with Their Satanic Majesties Request tells us what people thought they were hearing, but Majesties is much stranger musically and lyrically. Pepper’s has solid pop hooks, rich melodies, interesting storylines, and all the things I like about the early Beatles. Things turn ambient toward the middle of the record—but “When I’m 64” reverses that course. Pepper’s is much more engaging—and engaged—than you would expect from an album by four hippies who had recently discovered LSD.
Immediately, critics deemed Magical Mystery Tour a fall from grace, and it continues to receive low marks, but this may stem more from a reaction to what has been deemed a self-indulgent movie than the actual songs, which, except for a couple throwaways, have held up well. Also, “Penny Lane”, “Your Mother Should Know”, and “Hello, Goodbye” may be happy-go-lucky, but damn, they’re good—although much of the credit must be given to Lennon, whose harmonies on both Tour and Pepper’s were highlights of both records. And can we also mention Ringo’s drumming on “Your Mother Should Know”? Nothing fancy—just perfect.
Although Hey Jude is just a collection of singles and B-sides, it offers six songs worth of evidence that the band didn’t die after Revolver. If Pepper’s was the most carefully crafted Beatles record, Let It Be was the least, but it shines for the same reason: The songs are solid. Abbey Road wasn’t the last Beatles album to be released, but due to the chaos surrounding Let It Be, it was the last to be recorded. The majority of the second side of the record was devoted to a medley that was as groundbreaking as anything the group did. Call side two of Abbey Road a sign of decline—and then list how many bands have matched it at their peak.
That leaves The White Album. If Sgt. Pepper’s was the most conceptual record and Let It Be the most raw, The White Album was the Beatles at their most serendipitous. Although they’d recorded hundreds of songs already, they were brimming with new ideas. And that’s one reason not to mourn their breakup: They never became stale or self-derivative. When fans listened to a new Beatles record for the first time, the anticipation was intense. Impressively—and especially for a band that set the bar so high—it stayed that way until the end.