Thirty incredibly diverse songs made the albums final cut

Most of the songs that eventually ended up on “The Beatles” were conceived during the group’s visit to Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968. There, they had undertaken a transcendental meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although the retreat, which had required long periods of meditation, was initially conceived by the band as a spiritual respite from all worldly endeavours—a chance, in Lennon’s words, to “get away from everything” [1] — both Lennon and Paul McCartney had quickly found themselves in songwriting mode, often meeting “clandestinely in the afternoons in each other’s rooms” [2] to review the new work. “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing,” Lennon would later recall, “I did write some of my best songs there.” [3]

The Beatles left Rishikesh before the end of the course, with Starr and McCartney departing first, and Lennon and Harrison departing together later. According to some reports, Lennon left Rishikesh because he felt personally betrayed by rumours that Maharishi had made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, who attended Transcendental Meditation classes in Rishikesh, India at the same time as the group. Shortly after he decided to leave, Lennon wrote a song called “Maharishi” which included the lyrics, “Maharishi/You little twat”; the song became “Sexy Sadie”.

According to several authors, Alexis Mardas (aka “Magic Alex” ) deliberately engineered these rumours because he was bent on undermining the Maharishi’s influence over each Beatle. [4] [5] [6] Lennon himself, in a 1980 interview, acknowledged that the Maharishi was the inspiration for the song. “I just called him ‘Sexy Sadie’.” [7]

Thge Beatles in India Feb., 1968

The Beatles traveled to Rishikesh in February 1968, along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters.

Acoustically Speaking

The only western instrument available to the group during their Indian visit was the acoustic guitar, and thus most of the songs on The White Album were written and first performed on that instrument. Some of these songs remained acoustic on The White Album (notably Rocky Raccoon, Blackbird, I Will and Mother Nature’s Son), and were recorded in the studio either solo, or by only part of the group.

The Kinfauns Demos

Close to forty new compositions had emerged in Rishikesh, a little more than half of which would be laid down in very rough form at Kinfauns, (photo left) George Harrison’s bungalow home in Esher. In May 1968, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison assembled at Kinfauns. They recorded demos of 27 songs, to be put forward as potential titles for the White Album. Of these songs, 19 eventually found their way onto the album.

Individual Compositions

Although most songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team, that description is often misleading, and rarely more so than on The White Album. With this album, each of the four band members began to showcase the range and depth of his individual songwriting talents. They also began to display styles that would eventual be carried over into their solo careers. Indeed, some songs the individual Beatles were working on during this period were eventually released on solo albums. John Lennon’s “Look at Me” and “Junk” by Paul McCartney are just two of those examples.

Lennon’s contributions to the album are generally more hard-edged lyrically than his previous output, a trend which carried over to his solo career. Examples include his pleas for death on “Yer Blues”, his parodic “Glass Onion”, which mocks fans who read too much into The Beatles’ lyrics (see also Paul is dead), and what may be references to drug addiction in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (“I need a fix…”). Lennon’s intensely personal “Julia” may be seen as foreshadowing his later song “Mother” from his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; the political “Revolution 1” begins a pattern of overtly political songs like “Give Peace a Chance” and “John Sinclair”; “Revolution 9” reflects extensive contribution and influence from Ono, another feature of much of Lennon’s solo output. Lennon’s songs on The Beatles embrace a wide array of styles, including blues (“Yer Blues”), acoustic ballads (“Julia” and “Cry Baby Cry”), and rock (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”). Lennon would later describe his contributions to the White Album as among his favourite songs recorded with The Beatles.

McCartney’s songs for the album include pop ballads “I Will”, the proto-heavy metal “Helter Skelter”, a Beach Boys homage “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, the up-beat “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, and a music-hall foxtrot (“Honey Pie”) among others. The soothing, stripped-down “I Will” foreshadowed themes of McCartney’s later solo career.

Harrison’s sparse ballad “Long, Long, Long” is stylistically quite similar to much of his earlier solo output. His songs on The Beatles also includes the lyrically sophisticated “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a chronicle of gastronomic excess and dental trauma in “Savoy Truffle”, and a class-driven piece of social commentary in “Piggies”.

Even Starr was given leave to include the first song composed entirely by himself on a Beatles’ album, the country number “Don’t Pass Me By”.

The album is the first by the group not to feature any genuine Lennon-McCartney collaborations; in fact, there would only be one more co-write from the pair in the remainder of the band’s career (“I’ve Got a Feeling” from the Let It Be album). This new lack of co-operation and focus is reflected in several fragmental, incomplete song ideas that were recorded and released on the album (“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, “Wild Honey Pie”, and an officially untitled McCartney snippet at the end of “Cry Baby Cry” often referred to as “Can You Take Me Back”).

On previous albums, such undertakings might have been either abandoned or collaboratively developed before release, but here again, The Beatles represented a change of course for the band. The trend continued for the rest of the band’s recording career: such song fragments were presented by joining them together as a long suite of songs on side two of Abbey Road.

Patterns and Symmetry

The arrangement of the songs on the The White Album follows some patterns and symmetry. For example, Wild Honey Pie is the fifth song from the beginning of the album and Honey Pie is the fifth song from the end. Also, three of the four songs containing animal names in their titles, (Blackbird, Piggies, and Rocky Raccoon) are grouped together. Savoy Truffle, the fourth song from the end of the album, contains a reference to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, the fourth song from the beginning. In addition, the four songs composed by Harrison are distributed with one on each of the four sides.

Self-Reflection and Change

Many of the songs are personal and self-referencing; for example, “Dear Prudence” was written about actress Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, who attended the transcendental meditation course with The Beatles in Rishikesh. Often she stayed in her room, engaged in Transcendental Meditation. “Julia” was the name of Lennon’s beloved but frequently absent mother, who died during his youth. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” expresses concern over being “bought and sold,” a theme in later songs about Harrison himself, such as “Handle with Care”, recorded with The Traveling Wilburys. “Glass Onion” is a Beatles song about Beatles’ songs.

Some of the songs on The Beatles mark important changes in the band’s recording style. Previously, no female voices were to be heard on a Beatles album, but Yoko Ono made her first vocal appearance on this record, adding backing vocals in “Birthday” (along with Pattie Harrison); she also sang backing vocals and a solo line on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and, as noted earlier, was a strong influence on Lennon’s musique concrète piece, “Revolution 9,” an avant-garde sound collage that McCartney initially did not want to include on the album.[8]

Editing Concerns, and Release

‘The Beatles’ was the first Beatles’ album released by Apple Records, as well as their only original double album. Producer George Martin has said that he was against the idea of a double album at the time and suggested to the group that they reduce the number of songs in order to form a single album featuring their stronger work, but that the band decided against this.[9] Interviewed for the Beatles Anthology, Starr said he now felt it should have been released as two separate albums (that he appropiately named The White Album and The Whiter Album). Harrison felt on reflection that some of the tracks could have been released as B-sides, but “there was a lot of ego in that band”. He also supported the idea of the double album, to clear out the backlog of songs the group had at the time. McCartney, by contrast, said it was fine as it was and that its wide variety of songs was a major part of the album’s appeal.[10]

Note: The Beatles (1968) shares the same Nov 22 release date as The Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles (1963).

Compositions Not Included

gutiar_leaning_leftA number of songs were recorded in demo form for possible inclusion but were not incorporated as part of the album. These included Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam (both of which would be used for the medley on Abbey Road); Child of Nature (recorded with drastically different lyrics as Jealous Guy for Lennon’s Imagine), (later retitled Junk and released on McCartney’s first solo LP); Etcetera (a McCartney composition later recorded by the Black Dyke Mills Band as Thingumybob); Circles (which Harrison would return to fourteen years later on his 1982 album Gone Troppo); The Long and Winding Road (completed in 1969 for the Let It Be LP); Something (which ended up on Abbey Road); and Sour Milk Sea (which Harrison gave to friend and Apple artist Jackie Lomax for his first LP, Is This What You Want).

Other songs recorded for, but ultimately left off ‘The Beatles’ received significant exposure via bootlegs, notably Harrison’s Circles and Not Guilty (which he would eventually re-record as solo tracks and release on his 1982 album, ‘Gone Troppo’ and 1979 self-titled album, George Harrison respectively) and Lennon’s manic What’s the New Mary Jane.

      Not Guilty - unused Harrison composition
      What's The New Mary Jane - unused Lennon composition

The Singles

heyjude_single_200pxAlthough “Hey Jude” was not intended to be included on any LP release, it was recorded during the White Album sessions and was released as a stand-alone single before the release of “The Beatles” album. “Hey Jude’s” B-side, “Revolution”, was an alternate version of the album’s “Revolution 1”. Lennon had wanted the original version of “Revolution 1” to be released as a single, but the other three Beatles objected on the grounds that it was too slow. A new, faster version, with heavily distorted guitar and a high-energy keyboard solo from Nicky Hopkins was recorded, and was relegated to the flip side of “Hey Jude”. The resulting release — “Hey Jude” on side A and “Revolution” on side B — emerged as the first release on the Beatles’ new Apple Records label, and went on to become the best selling single of their career.

backintheussr_45_200x205pxFour tracks from the “White Album” were released on two American and one British single almost eight years after the original album was released. In the summer 1976, to promote the compilation album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, EMI’s Parlophone label in the UK and its Capitol label in the US each released a single that contained A and B-sides that appeared on the compilation album. In Britain, Parlophone issued “Back in the U.S.S.R.” backed with “Twist and Shout”.

gottogetyouintomylife_single_200pxIn America, Capitol released “Got to Get You Into My Life” (from the group’s 1966 album, Revolver) on the A-side, but selected “Helter Skelter,” to serve as the flip side. “Helter Skelter” was likely chosen for the B-side because a cover version of the song had been prominently featured in a made-for-tv movie about the Charles Manson murders that had aired on CBS shortly before the release of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.

The singles were successful, with “Got to Get You into My Life” hitting No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” hitting No. 18 on the New Musical Express chart in Britain. Both records also helped sell Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, which hit No. 2 in the United States and No. 10 in the UK. With the success of the singles from the compilation album, Capitol followed-up “Got To Get You Into My Life” with the release of another single in November of 1976.

OB-LA-Di,Ob-La-Da_200pxInstead of taking two more tracks from Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, however, Capitol selected two “White Album” tracks—“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as the A-Side, and “Julia” as the B-Side. The “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” single was sold in an individually-numbered white picture sleeve that mimicked the design of the original album. It did not duplicate the success of its predecessor, stalling out at No. 49 on Billboard Hot 100.

[1] Anthology, page 281
[2] Spitz, Bob (2006). The Beatles: The Biography. Little Brown and Company. ISBN 0316013315, page 752
[3] Anthology, page 283
[4] Brown, Peter; Steven Gaines (2002). The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles. Penguin Group Inc.. ISBN 0451207351
[5] Spitz, Bob (2006). The Beatles: The Biography. Little Brown and Company. ISBN 0316013315

[6] Lennon, Cynthia (1978). A Twist of Lennon. Star Books. ISBN 0352301961
[7] Sheff, David (1981). The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Playboy Press. ISBN not listed.
[8] The Beatles Anthology (1995
[9] The Beatles Anthology DVD features an interview with Martin confirming this discussion.
[10] The Beatles (2003). The Beatles Anthology (DVD). Apple Records. ASIN: B00008GKEG.