It’s a long weekend! And so I’ve decided to revisit one of my all-time favourite records, the eponymous “The Beatles” (typically referred to as “The White Album”, for those unaware – but I really and sincerely hope you’re all aware).
Sometimes I forget what a masterpiece the album is, from the retro 50s rock n’ roll throwback of “Back in the USSR”, to the Broadway musical lullaby of “Good Night”. It’s clear on the record that there is no longer such a thing as ‘Lennon/McCartney’ but despite the duo’s long history of brilliant classic pop collaborations, the animosity and pull-apart works to their advantages (as well as George Harrison’s) on the White Album. Paul got to explore Vaudevillian influences (“Martha My Dear”, “Honey Pie”), George pulled out the stops with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and John’s sexed-up “Sexy Sadie” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” are staples in the extensive back-catalogue of the band (even though at this point, they were arguably not a band at all).
What’s interesting about the Beatles is their non-touring status; while other bands and artists in the 1960s (the ones who were also prominent; Joe Cocker, CCR, Clapton, Dylan, Joni Mitchell…) were playing Woodstock or the Newport Folk Festival, the Beatles focused in on the studio and the kinds of advantages that studio production could offer in terms of enhancing the band’s sound; like experimental filmmakers, they created records like “Sgt. Pepper’s”, which mimicks the feel of a live concert (by four marching band troubadours led by the one and only Billy Shears). And they created songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Penny Lane” which offer up stereotyped images of British society in their mere production quality and the use of atypical ‘pop/rock’ instrumentation (horns and strings in particular).
On the White Album, these odd production choices are particularly revelant to the album’s most interesting moments. Notwithstanding is the band’s ability to be chameleons; one minute we hear a hard rock band (“Helter Skelter”) and the next we hear harpsichords on “Piggies”; “Yer Blues” is exactly what it seems to be – a balls-out blues jam. And “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Blackbird” and “Rocky Raccoon” typify American folk of the 1960s, the latter perhaps able to pass for a long-lost Bob Dylan track.
Despite the fairytale qualities of songs like “I Will” and “Cry Baby Cry”, a seediness lurks beneath the surface; and of course it does — without that indescribable roughened edge, we wouldn’t have a rock record at all! That uncertainty comes to a head at the militant “Savoy Truffle”; John Lennon’s words of wisdom almost seem to be heeding a warning about giving into temptation.
Self-references in this record evokes a sense of humour and a moving-away from ‘The Beatles’ as an umbrella concept (something which in his later years, Lennon would continue to campaign for). “Glass Onion” is almost a broad look back at some of the Beatles’ odder moments such as “The Fool on the Hill”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I am the Walrus”; the song works as a goodbye to the old coagulation and cooperation of the band.
What exactly is “Revolution 9” anyways? It is almost an experimental film on audio, a journey through self-aware production and recording techniques, drawing us even further away from what we suspected we knew about The Beatles. You certainly couldn’t tour a song like “Revolution 9”; it is strictly a recorded entity, as are most of the odd, beautiful, stilling tracks on the White Album.
Revelatory, important, experimental, eclectic and offering up some of the Beatles’ best-EVER songs, the ones that meant the most and most define that the Beatles were completely unique and nobody could ever, ever in history do that they did, the White Album is never not worth a listen or revisit. Its iconic status is so much more than just plain white minimalist cover art.