And here it came: the anti-Pepper, the Beatles dismantling their Joshua Tree. Gone were the perfect pop noises of yesterday and yesteryear. Gone were cutting sounds only dogs could. hear Gone was any semblance of musical accreditation and appreciation (this was not an album for secondary school students). This was a band throwing everything they had from the vaults onto their longest playing album. There were those who hated it (biographer Philip Norman and producer George Martin ) and there were those who thought it the four piece’s best work( John Lennon certainly thought so). And whatever way it could be listened to, it’s still riveting listening, one which sounds fresh and provocative in the manner its predecessor has remained in a museum of late sixties artifacts.
With songs ranging from the superb (‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’), cerebral (‘Long Long Long’,’Goodnight’, ‘BlackBird’), pop oriented (‘Martha, My Dear’, ‘I Will’), angsty (‘Yer Blues’, ‘Helter Skelter’), comedic (‘Rocky Racoon’, ‘Piggies’), gloriously tongue in cheek (‘Glass Onion’, ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Back In The USSR’) delightfully throwaway (‘Wild Honey Pie’,’Birthday’, ), disjointed (‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Cry Baby Cry’) as well as some, frankly, embarrassing tosh (‘Savoy Truffle’, ‘Obla Di-Obla Da’, ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’, ‘Revolution 1’ and ‘9’), the two discs sprawled with copious amounts of music. Where ‘Physical Graffiti’, ‘London Calling’ and ‘Exile On Main Street’ proved the zenith of its respective authors, this was a album that showed the breadth, brilliance and flaws of Harrison, Lennon and McCartney’s writings, warts and all. Even Ringo Starr contributed his first song- but even he must have known they were humouring him with ‘Don’t Pass Me By’! (his next contribution ‘ Octopus’s Garden’ was a vast improvement.)
If there was ever a Beatles album that deserved a film bio (and yes, I am well aware that there is a film of ‘Let It Be’-that’s another story), then The Beatles ninth record would be the obvious contender. It was the album that laid the seeds for The Beatles ir-reconcilible break-up, John Lennon’s interest lying less in his three bandmates, but a new interest in Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney’s adherence to the perfect sound the irritance of George Harrison (McCartney recorded three of the songs entirely by himself). Even Ringo Starr felt the heat, taking the bold decision to quit The Beatles for a matter of weeks (McCartney took over drumming duties in his absence, and does so quite well, his ‘Dear Prudence’ fills brimming with imagination), unhappy with the sessions and worried about his drumming prowess. His remarkable turns on ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Long Long Long’ should have put such worries to bed, but his brief departure proved prophetic; within a year both George Harrison (temporarily) and John Lennon (permanently) also took turns to quit the band.
And for an album titled ‘The Beatles’ (it was only ever nicknamed ‘The White Album’), many of the songs were primarily the work of one (or sometimes two) members. Lennon and McCartney sang ‘Julia’ and ‘Blackbird’ alone on their acoustic guitars, and irritated each other by excluding the other partner’s involvement in McCartney’s howling ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ (one of his finest rockers) and on Lennon’s execrable ‘Revolution 9’ (a collage both structure-less and meaningless). With the Lennon-McCartney partnership in name only, both wrote a collection of songs versatile and tactile. McCartney’s opening Beach Boy parody ‘Back In The USSR’ rocked in the same way twenties ditty ‘Honey Pie’ charmed. Lennon’s ‘Dear Prudence’ brimmed with the melody he once mocked McCartney for developing, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ sequenced three separate pieces of music together to the song McCartney boasted the best on the record (and he’s right!). Only on ‘Birthday’ did they sound united, sharing the merry lead vocals as they had brimmed on ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ only four years prior.
Harrison, perhaps the weariest member of The Beatles and their disenchantment with the path of meditation (his passive but brilliant number ‘Not Guilty’, exploring his anguish at the other three’s failure to appreciate their passage in India, was unceremoniously vetoed by the members off the record), also broke his peace, bringing new best friend Eric Clapton into the foray to play the blistering solo on ‘Guitar Gently Weeps’, upping the other members game in the process (McCartney’s piano and bass playing especially rocks on this one). Despite the ordained musicianship, the song’s power lay in its lyrics, perhaps the finest Harrison had penned up to that point. With the release of The Anthology CD’s in the nineties came a bare acoustic demo Harrison recorded by himself, and one that was equally as powerful as its studio arrangement.
And its hard not to cry a tear listening to Starr churn ‘Goodnight’ (a song Lennon wrote for his son Julian, later the inspiration for McCartney’s opus ‘Hey Jude’), alone in the studio with only George Martin’s piano and an orchestra to accompany him. Sweet, and respectfully naive, it was an album closer neither the sonic brilliance of ‘Revolver’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ nor the damp squid efforts of ‘Run For Your Life’, but a mellow picture of four men growing ever apart, Starr’s most sincere vocal on any Beatle record.
‘Yet, despite these cracks, rarely had the band sounded as powerful as they did on ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, the former an aggressive blues number embellished by Harrison’s stirling guitar work (Lennon would perform the song live with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton in tow, subsequently stealing the ‘Rock N’ Roll Circus’ from Mick Jagger!), the latter McCartney’s attempt to outplay The Who for dirty playing. Forceful and aggressive (there is a case to be made that ‘Helter Skelter’ is an early example of heavy metal), the song proved a bete noire for McCartney when Charles Manson used it as part of his violent crusade! The recording itself proved contentious, stories of Harrison running around with an ashtray over his head perhaps a mild hyperbole.
However controversial ‘Helter Skelter’ was, it was upped by ‘Revolution 9’, Lennon’s first collaboration with future musical partner Yoko Ono. A collage of voices, it had none of the power ‘Voices Of Old People’ displayed on Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’ nor the brilliance of John Cage’s vast avant-garde work. Plodding on for an inane eight minutes, the song disgusted producer George Martin, and started a trend of irritatingly awful collection of albums Lennon and Ono would record together (their nadir ‘Sometime In New York City’ is an excruciating listen, despite their brilliance in the world of art and politics, music was not a collaboration that benefited both).
Lennon was not the only Beatle who’s indulgence got the better of him. McCartney’s ‘Obla Di… ‘ was a “tune” of asinine lyrics and direction, one that drove the band to near insanity as they recorded and recorded and recorded the track in many different manners and styles. Lightweight to the extreme, this was a criticism many critics would level at McCartney during the seventies as he released what many thought superflous pop.
And maybe that was the intention. With almost as many Ivor Novelloes and Grammies as they had hot dinners, perhaps the four piece needed the critics as little as they felt they needed each other (this may have proven premature). ‘The White Album’ was never an art statement, neither was it a cultural zeitgeist. Pepper behind them, the band know had the will power and leeway to play whatever and whenever they wanted. And while its a flawed masterpiece, The White Album is still a masterpiece, their collection of their most indulgent over-play, played with zest and hurrah.