Wednesday, September 09, 2009


THE BEATLES (aka The White Album)

Fall of 1968 was an incredibly fortunate time for rock fans, with major releases from the Stones, Kinks and Jimi Hendrix. One of the most anticipated discs of that year came from The Beatles. It was the first full length album issued by the group since Sgt. Pepper and expectations were high.

They did not disappoint.

Released five years to the day after With the Beatles, the White Album finds the group making a concentrated effort to revive their ensemble playing skills. Augmentation was present, as well as painstaking hours of overdubbing and building tracks, though the production was scaled back in comparison to the extravaganzas of the previous year. Many believe that this 94 minute blow out is their finest hour, though it slots into second place behind Revolver in my rating system.

Subjectivity in ranking aside, it’s a fantastic collection of music that covers an ambitious range of styles.

No thematic unity is present here at all, though the sequencing of this patchy group of compositions provides the illusion of continuity. John and Paul, with George Martin, did a twenty four hour marathon, staying up and pouring over these tracks to achieve what they considered to be an acceptable running order. The end result was stellar, making it tough to imagine them queued any other way.

Double LPs were an anomaly in the rock world at that time, with the only precedents being Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Zappa’s Freak Out. Eager to fulfill their EMI contract faster they pushed ahead with plans to record everything that they wrote while in Rishikesh, while adding new songs in the process.

Retreating to the Maharishi's Himalayan ashram did wonders for their creativity as they detoured away from LSD for that period, cleared their heads and wrote nearly thirty new songs amongst them. (Even Ringo came up with a tune!) With just their acoustic guitars and a stash of pot for a regular evening joint or two, the songcraft that was missing in the interregnum following Pepper returned with greater clarity.

Imagine the worth of 30 new songs by the Beatles in their creative prime.

For those that have listened to this LP a lot, you will notice a few clouds dotting the horizon as you settle into the first few selections. Steadily darkening, long shadows pass overhead that culminate in a full blown storm toward the end. Side four, in particular, creates a feeling of palpable tension, leading up to the free form chaos of "Revolution 9". In the midst of the tumult, the sky unexpectedly clears, soothing strings from an old Hollywood movie fill the room and the unmistakable voice of Richard Starkey warbles “Good Night”. Had they called it quits after this, it would have made a brilliant end to their recording career.

Tensions ran high during the sessions, with even good-natured Ringo quitting for a short period. Fighting is an inevitable component of being in a band and relations that were already tenuous began to further deteriorate. Lennon, snapped out of his acid reverie, set out to deliberately provoke his mates by bringing his new girlfriend into the studio.

She didn't leave.

Harrison was frustrated with his role as an "economy class Beatle" and the dominance of the Lennon/McCartney songs. Further to that, McCartney had very distinct ideas about what his finished product should sound like (and always had) and drove the others to distraction with his instructions on how to play their parts.

That long fuse attached to the powder keg was now lit and burning away toward the inevitable.

One of the happier episodes of this stretch was the trailer to the White Album, "Hey Jude" released with "Revolution" as it's flip side. Written for Julian Lennon in the wake of his parents split, it is one of the best things McCartney has ever done. The astounding nine weeks that it spent at the top of the charts was a testament to its melodic strength.

Prior to the commencement of proper studio work at Abbey Road, they convened at George Harrison's place in Esher to tape loose arrangements of their new songs. Listening to these demos is quite interesting, as it is essentially "The White Album Unplugged". There are also a few that didn't make the final cut ( "Circles", "Not Guilty", "Sour Milk Sea", "Junk" , "Child of Nature" and "What's the New Mary Jane?") which are definitely worth hearing. The atmosphere is light with mainly acoustic guitars providing the accompaniment.

Certainly sounds as if they had more fun doing this than the real thing.

Starting off strong was a tradition that was kept up with every release and “Back in the USSR ” signals a return from the cosmos back to good old fashioned rock and roll. Mixing Chuck Berry with the Beach Boys, McCartney weaves a clever lyric about the pleasures of being back behind the Iron Curtain. Considering that the former Soviet Union was still a closed shop and that the Cold War had drawn a firm line between democratic and totalitarian institutions, this tune must have completely confounded listeners. Keep in mind that there were spokesmen for the religious right in the US who actually believed that the Beatles were tools of communist propagandists, whose goal was to infiltrate the very corruptible minds of young people and turn them against the ideological tenants of democratic structure.

Interpretation of their work now became a matter of course as besotted, drug addled followers combed every inch of their record covers and lyrics, while at the same time listening for any revelatory “messages” buried in the music.

Have you ever seen the film “Imagine”? There’s a poignant scene that captures a deluded fan at the door of Lennon’s mansion in Tittenhurst. The poor guy obviously came a long way to hear his idol deliver some bad news:

There are no personal messages to anyone in any of these songs. It’s just words and music.

It’s a shame that Lennon wasn’t able to impart this information to Charlie Manson.

Manson believed that the songs on the White Album were a transatlantic memo to him, containing instructions to commit murder, make it look like it was racially motivated and trigger a revolution in the US where a race war would ensue. He envisioned this whole scenario as “Helter Skelter”. Out of the chaos and carnage, Manson and his “family” would emerge from their hideout in the desert to take control over whatever remained standing.

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

There was a much more down to earth reason for the senseless killing committed by Charlie’s zombie clan. He was an aspiring singer-songwriter, trying to secure a record deal via his connection to Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Producer Terry Melcher was tapped to meet him, heard his material, felt an understandably bad vibe emanating from the career-criminal and bailed.

The sad part of the story is that Charlie knew where he lived and the first place that Manson drove his screwed up minions with orders to kill was Melcher’s address. He wasn’t home, though Sharon Tate and other guests at a dinner party being held at the residence were.

Neil Young summed it all up: “The guy doesn’t get a record deal, so he starts wipin’ people out. Dig that.”

Feel free to read more about this fatuous lunatic in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s fascinating book, “Helter Skelter”. Manson is still rotting in jail on the California taxpayer’s nickel. Complete waste of space if you ask me. Don't let anyone who buys into this bullshit try and tell you that he was/is a genius, either. Delusional, psychotic and vengeful are more apt descriptors.

Less dangerous fanatics were disappointed that the group had abandoned them on their sunny hallucinogenic trip this time around. The blank cover was then taken as an extreme about face and created another conspiratorial thread amongst followers as to what signals the group was sending out. Some opined that this was a reflection of the "back to the roots" movement that was steering rock music down to earth again, with the Beatles leading the charge.


Don’t follow leaders.

It was Richard Hamilton who conceived the notion of a blank cover. “Since Sgt. Pepper was so over the top,” he told McCartney, “I would be inclined to do a … plain white album.” Each copy could be numbered, he suggested, “to create the ironic situation of [an individually] numbered edition of something like five million copies.” The band’s name would be blind-stamped, white on white, onto the front cover, while an eponymous title would complete the minimalist feel.

Prior to taking up Hamilton's suggestion, "A Doll's House" was the tentative LP title with two alternate ideas in the running for cover art.

The blank cover was viewed as an extension of their sense of humor as well. Pranks played an integral part in much of what they created, though some of the the jokes here are tinged with bitter contempt. "Glass Onion" was designed specifically for that special group of listeners who look for things that aren't there. Having a laugh on the "nutters" as Lennon referred to them, he takes special care to name check a handful of recent Beatle songs, makes reference to a fairly decrepit stretch of the Mersey Banks at the south end of Liverpool where refuse from the sewers would wash up (the Cast Iron Shore) and lets everyone know who the Walrus was. Yanking the collective chains of record buyers may not have been the best move, considering how seriously people were taking their every utterance. It is a purposefully ugly song, with a great clipped, distorted rhythm guitar. I love the bass work in this one as well as the dreary string parts that drift in toward the end of the verses.

Few discs (of that time) have a dirtier guitar sound than this one.

When evaluating this record, it's easier to group the material in terms of what the main song writers had to say. Lennon seems to be all over the map, though quite inspired. "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" really gave everyone a chance to get back in the same room and play together, as did "Yer Blues", which features an unusually sloppy edit right after the solo (that dead cut right to a drum fill and back to the verse to fade). Rising to the challenge, despite the amount of takes needed to nail them ("Happiness" was finally ready after a reported 95 attempts) , the group soldiered on through the large stockpile of tunes. While joke songs like "Piggies" and "Rocky Raccoon" may not have seen the light of day before, they were now allowed on board due to the scope of the project. Unlike the out of focus sludge that they indulged in during the latter part of 1967, these numbers contained wit and while not quite top shelf, they certainly were entertaining.

McCartney played his lyrical cards quite close to the vest, turning in an array of very melodic ("Martha My Dear", "Blackbird", "I Will", "Mother Nature's Son") heavy ("Back in the USSR" , "Helter Skelter", "Birthday") and lightweight ("Honey Pie"," Ob-La -Di Ob -La- Da") music that revealed nothing of himself. He played everything but the brass and string parts on "Martha My Dear", and all but the drums on his cock rocking "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?".

"Helter Skelter" is four minutes of pure noise, with everyone thrashing their respective instruments, prefiguring the heavier fare that was the next logical step in rock's rapid evolution. The blueprint for Led Zeppelin had been drawn up by the high profile power trios (The Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jeff Beck Group) that now came to prominence. The Beatles were not suited for this style, though in an apparent effort to produce something nastier than the Who, McCartney pushed everyone to rattle the studio walls. One version went on for 27 minutes. Indeed, it is Ringo, who complains loudly about the "blisters on his fingers" from windmilling endlessly around the kit, thus providing another entry into the patois of their followers.

Depending on who you talk to, this is either a pointless mess or a shit-kicking rock song. Opinions differ, though it's amazing that this insanity came from the same four guys who recorded "I Want to Hold Your Hand".

Pity that someone didn't tell Manson the "genius" that the song title was the namesake of a spiral slide, particular to British Funfairs. Maybe he would have just taken the Family to the park and then for ice cream afterward.

Harrison's finest moment on The Beatles is "Long Long Long". Far more imaginative than some of his other attempts to express his passion for spirituality and to embrace his creator, the music oscillates between deep silence and crescendos of drum fills and raised voices. McCartney adds very tasteful, solemn organ fills throughout. Simply stated and beautiful in execution, it is a succinct message of love to someone who had been there all his life, undiscovered, until recently.


Speaking of which, George also brought Eric Clapton in to fire off a few salvos from his cherry red Gibson to add extra weight to the lumbering "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It is a good song, with one of those chord progressions that every rock band has pulled out of the hat and played for an extra twenty minutes to allow their lead guitarist all of the wanking room that anyone could possibly hope for. It never quite leaves the ground, though it begins with great promise. His acoustic performance of this one beats the album rendition with a stick.

Despite some comedy relief that shows up in places, there is an ominous cloud that hangs over much of what is presented here. Whether this was intentional or not really doesn't matter. Side one begins upbeat and ends with three songs that centre around sadness, killing and guns. Side three is a musical test case in bipolar mood swings from the party atmosphere of "Birthday" to the dirty, sweating and suicidal confessional that is "Yer Blues". Out of nowhere, comes the soft landing pad in "Mother Nature's Son" a paean to the pastoral pleasures of life.

The mono version of the White Album is of particular interest to those who are only familiar with the stereo mix. “Helter Skelter” is very different, with an alternate drum flourish after the break down toward the finish and no trick ending. “Don’t Pass Me By” in mono also sounds much changed from its stereo cousin. Contemporary listeners will have a lot of fun going back and forth between the tracks with the re-release of the catalogue in both formats.

Some of the best moments here come with the understated, acoustic based fare. Lennon improved his finger picking skills, courtesy of the tutelage of one Donovan Leitch while they were in India together. “Julia” was the result of these newfound techniques and is a heartfelt, honest statement of love, addressed to both the mother he had lost and his new partner, Yoko. (she is named in the lyric as Ocean Child). McCartney played producer as Lennon ran through his guitar part numerous times to get it down.

Similarly, McCartney’s “I Will” features tricky changes and some deft riffs that had to be tracked several times over as the close-miked acoustic guitars revealed every nuance (and conversely, any slight mistake). Sitting next to one another, they reveal the different dynamic that John and Paul brought to their craft in a bare bones format.

That divide between the thought process of the two men had always existed, though by now had widened to the point where they became openly critical of each other’s music. Lennon hated the jaunty, reggae inflected “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, while McCartney had serious reservations about Lennon making any overt political comment within the lyric of “Revolution”.

1968 was rife with demonstrations, riots and social unrest, with some American cities literally in flames. Student rallies in Paris culminated in violence, the insanity continued to escalate in Vietnam , eastern Europe and for a time it seemed that societies were coming unhinged.

“Revolution” had it’s genesis in the peaceful Himalayas , far from any hint of the chaos that was taking hold in many areas of the world at that time. Lennon apparently had some anxiety about which side of the fence to plant his ideological feet, counting himself both as “out” and “in” (on the LP only as the faster, heavier single version counts him “out”) for seeking change through violent means. Wonderfully immediate and packing an overdriven wallop, the one that ended up on the B-side to “Hey Jude” carries the most weight. It also succeeds in conveying Lennon’s first instinct about using peaceful methods to achieve the goals of existing movements that were at odds with the inflexible machinery of institution.

The album track of the song is slow, augmented by horns and “shoo-be-doo-wah” backing vocals and was edited to four minutes from its original sprawl.

Robbed of its original context, this great message was torn apart and sold off to Nike for use in a late eighties ad campaign, reduced to a disgusting display of crass commercial interest.

So it turns out that the revolution was televised after all.

Much of what was trimmed off the official LP recording was used to form the basis for “Revolution 9”, a sound collage which has had equal amounts of scorn and praise heaped on it over time. I have read full attempts to break this piece down into sections and analyze it, with one in particular being a very enjoyable dissection. One thing that separates it from other experiments of its kind is that millions of people bought it within a week of its release, smuggled into households within the proverbial Trojan Horse that was the latest Beatles disc.

What does it mean?

You tell me.

What it did provide was a perfect storm to compliment the spooky vibe that is present throughout this magnificent beast of an album. Side four grows especially creepy as the needle steadily progresses toward the run out groove, with a dour song about gorging on chocolate and losing all your teeth in the bargain (“Savoy Truffle”) leading into an unsettling, mock lullaby (“Cry Baby Cry”) that borrows a “Sing a Song of Sixpence” theme, employs a séance and has a dreary, dissonant musical feel. Ending on a question mark, Paul takes up the dark tone with a snippet of a longer improvised acoustic piece.

Can you take me back where I came from, brother can you take me back?

The implication of this well placed bit suggests that the author knew what was coming next and wasn’t keen about moving toward it.

It was too late.

Negative circumstances that surrounded the five months of work that went into this project pushed several members of the creative team to their limit. Tired of the constant arguments, Geoff Emerick walked out mid-way through. Tape operators and engineers recall vicious battles amongst group members, with many work stoppages. More often and not, they were told to go on break while heated discussions took place. One such incident saw George Martin making a polite suggestion to McCartney regarding his phrasing of a line, which drew a “why don’t you come down here and fucking sing it, then?” in response. Usually unflappable, Martin was absent for a stretch because of the hostility factor, leaving the director’s chair to fresh face Chris Thomas. (later to produce a variety of big ticket acts including the Pretenders)

At times, there were several studios running concurrently to meet the demands of the three song writers, who chose to work separately on their tracks after merely employing the others to back them up. Lennon would later say that "we really broke up during this period and it was now just me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group, etc."

The close knit gang that had clawed their way out of playing dives to become world famous now could scarcely stand to be in the same room together.

Rock aficionados have long pondered about what the White Album would have featured had it been trimmed of its fat content. George Martin certainly was in this camp, though the group was not receptive to this plan of action. I do have my personal favorites (“I’m So Tired” stands out), of which rank among some of their very best. Throwing the songs into a digital format gives those listeners with a short attention span the ability to program their own set, unencumbered by the task of lifting the needle from the vinyl to skip cuts.

Viewed from the prospective of those that actually made the record, it really should be taken as it is. It is an eclectic listening experience, serving as a testament to the power of continuous creativity that would be theirs no more after this Herculean effort. They really should have ended the game right here, but instead chose to embark on a project that would drain everyone of their patience and bring their confrontations into the public arena.

The Boys from Liverpool were about to enter into their final act.

Who plays drums on "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence"? What songs were cut from the final running order of the LP? What was "Sexy Sadie" originally titled?

No comments: