26 November 2008

Sound Savour: The White Album (1968)

Artist: The Beatles / Label: Capitol Records.

Last week on NPR, I heard that researchers have discovered a biological benefit to the music we love. When listened to, it not only provides you with a mental jolt of energy but may actually cause your blood vessels to dilate, decreasing your blood pressure and making for a healthier heart. The news couldn't have come a better time for me personally, as the Beatles' self-titled double album – a whirlwind carnival of euphony that is most often referred to as "The White Album" – turned forty years old on November 22, prompting me to return to this musical cornucopia just in time for Thanksgiving.

Although this is a film blog, I'd like to take a moment this holiday weekend and discuss the album under the banner of "Sound Savour." (My academic knowledge of music runs about as deep as a kiddie pool, but I'd like to start including a review of one of my favorite albums at the end of every month, for variety's sake.) It's one of the best, written and recorded by my favorite band at the zenith of the members' musical power. At 93 1/2 minutes, The White Album is the same length as many films, and offers just as many twists and turns and surprises as a convoluted cinematic plot. After the lavishness of Sgt. Pepper, the band set out to return to standard rock, only to end up with a hodgepodge collection of songs that dips their fingers into all the imaginable 1960s musical genres: standard rock, blues, proto-metal, ballads, satires and parodies, protest anthems, experimental, and even an ambling country western tune. Producer George Martin had pushed hard for the Beatles to limit the song selection and release just a single album, but he has recanted and acknowledged it was the right decision to forge ahead with the double album.

Of course, many of the clich├ęs surrounding this ninth album by the band exist for a reason. In many ways, the production of The White Album marked the beginning of the end of the group that already produced multiple masterpieces and caused a mania in America under the long shadow of sadness from the Kennedy assassination. Setting out on the album began with the lukewarm visit to the Mahirishi in India, and once back in England, became exacerbated by the the permanent presence of Yoko Ono in the studio alongside John Lennon and the lack of cooperation of the band members (at one point Ringo Starr had quit, and those present remember all four working on their own music in separate studios). George Harrison was still feeling stifled in his songwriting by Lennon and Paul McCartney, and even those two were composing radically different songs, no more apparent than on The White Album.

The production's tensions occasionally spill forward into the music, though not in quite the palpable way that the tensions do on Let It Be. There is a rawness in many of the tracks, ironically often in the most uncharacteristic songs for the respective writers; Lennon's tender ballads "Julia" and "Dear Prudence" are as unrestrained in their own way as McCartney's rocker "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" and the roaring "Helter Skelter." The complexity and surprising variety of the tracks within make Richard Hamilton's all-white cover – all-white, except The Beatles, and in early presses, embossed serial numbers – seem even more apropos and, indeed even tongue-in-cheek, when stacked against the band's irrepressible fame and notoriety.

Out of all the chaos comes beauty – which is apparently a mandatory statement that must be submitted in all discussions of the album. The White Album's undisputed star is Lennon. His work is the most eclectic and most successful, ranging from the political ("Revolution 1") and the raucous ("Yer Blues") to the trippy ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun") and the fantasy ("Cry Baby Cry"). He not only seems to stand out more than his band mates in lyrical composition, but also steals eight minutes of vinyl with his avant-garde mash-up "Revolution 9" (which Slant magazine once brilliantly called "probably the single most skipped-over track in the history of pop music"). Harrison's few contributions are stellar; he has a track on each side of the LPs, including thunderous "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (with lead guitar by Eric Clapton) and the biting "Piggies." But the most impressive of Harrison's might be the least recognized – his ghostly and powerful "Long, Long, Long" is a breath of calmness and mysticism after McCartney's textured and dense "Helter Skelter." Much of McCartney's work is relatively playful, including his send-up of the Beach Boys in "Back in the U.S.S.R.," the fleeting silliness of "Wild Honey Pie," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and "Rocky Raccoon," but he also captures the pure smoothness of pop in "Blackbird," "Mother Nature's Son," and "I Will," perhaps the most gorgeous of the Beatles's love songs. I'm even an unapologetic fan of Starr's twangy "Don't Pass Me By"; whereas most people would be happy to throw it off the album, I think it's probably the best song he wrote for the group and it's in its right place among the wide-ranging music.

Bootlegs of The White Album demos are tucked into the cobwebbed corners of the Internet, and can be found if you scrummage long enough. They're really worth the time – both in their acquisition and their listening – particularly the earliest demos recorded on low-tech equipment at Kinfauns, Harrison's country home in Esher. In addition to the songs that made it onto the album, there's Lennon's "Child of Nature" (he would recycle the melody for "Jealousy Guy" on Imagine); "Not Guilty," a rollicking Harrison tune that should have, in all honesty, made the cut onto the album; early recordings of "Hey Jude"; and many tracks that would end up on Abbey Road, including "Polythene Pam" and "Mean Mr. Mustard." With the release of the Beatles Anthology in 1996, many of the Kinfauns and studios versions were cleaned and released broadly; highlights there include McCartney's bluesy take on "Helter Skelter," a solo acoustic demo by Harrison of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and Lennon's abandoned "What's The New Mary Jane," produced during the sessions.

My stamp of approval is meaningless compared to the instant canonization The White Album has experienced. It frequently, and justly, ranks among the best albums of all time, and the Recording Industry Association of America has certified it nineteen-times platinum, making it the tenth best-selling album in the United States, making it the best selling album of the Fab Four. The grab-bag quality to the songs lead many to call The White Album a good cross-section of the band's career, but I'm not sure that's the case. There's something wonderful about the sprawling expansiveness and room to play in this work, but tighter records like Abbey Road and Revolver still top my list. Not too far behind, however, is The White Album, which McCartney remembers as "good ... but [not] a pleasant one to make." But what a pleasure it is to hear, forty years after hitting the shelves and for forty more years and beyond.

Update (28 Nov 2008): I recently came across the wonderfully dense site PopMatters and read their five-day retrospective of the album. If you have the time and the desire, you should read the introduction and then work your way through their song-by-song analysis of Side 1, Side 2, Side 3, and Side 4.


FilmDr 27 November, 2008  

Nice review. In his recent biography of the Beatles, I think I remember Bob Spitz discussing how the White album reflected the upcoming break-up of the band (as you mentioned). He was concerned about the way the Beatles were no longer collaborating on songs as much, so some of them seem more fragmentary. "Rocky Raccoon" is an under-baked doodle of a song as well as "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" Thoughts on this? One could make the case that the fragmentary nature also makes the album more evocative and suggestive (and more open to the crazy interpretations of people like Charles Manson).

T.S. 27 November, 2008  

FilmDr - I think Spitz is probably right, that the splintering of the band members probably did lend a fragmentary air to many of the songs on the album. That's good and bad, of course – good in that it really seemed to be the kick-start to many of their solo careers, but bad in a sense that if they were producing such good material on their own, it's interesting to wonder how much better more collaborative work might have been. I'm pretty dismissive of "Rocky Raccoon," although I think "Why Don't We..." is fun. The fragments can be frustrating, particularly when they're surprisingly captivating and you wish there was more (like McCartney's haunting add-on at the end of Lennon's "Cry Baby Cry"). In my opinion, despite their approach of greatness, none of the songs on The White Album, soar to the same heights as something like "A Day in the Life," which is really a fantastic representation of how Lennon and McCartney could combine both of their aesthetics into a single track. (Yet I do consider The White Album to be more of a fave than Sgt. Pepper.) In the end, I think there's an overwhelming sense of uniformity that emerges from the collective rawness. Despite its hodgepodge feeling in hasty observation, I think too it's actually assembled quite deftly (with some beautiful mirroring and grouping of songs), a fact that's generally lost now that we don't listen to vinyl as much and just let a CD player or iTunes shuffle down through the songs.

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