Over the din of an aircraft revving for take-off, THE WHITE ALBUM blasts into the musical stratosphere straightaway with the stunning one-two punch of Paul McCartney's delirious "Back in the USSR" fading brilliantly into John Lennon's wonderful "Dear Prudence." The two tracks showcase what's best about the tight knit closeness of the Beatles' musical sensibilities--insistent piano backup, searing dual lead guitar, inspired mock Beach Boys harmony vocals on the former; delicate acoustic strumming, a great pleading Lennon lead vocal, a memorable McCartney bassline on the latter--but the sleight of hand begins here. As forceful a group entity as the Beatles appear on these indelible tracks, Ringo Starr played on neither. He'd quit the band for two weeks in August 1968 in the midst of growing dissenssion within the storied Abbey Road ranks, forcing Macca to fill in on both.
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Of course Ringo returned, but the story is emblematic of the tense, often dicey atmosphere that plagued the lengthy, legendary WHITE ALBUM sessions (While Ringo returned, Geoff Emerick, the gifted and indispensible engineer whose technical studio break throughs ushered in the landmark era of "Revolver" and "Sgt Peppers," also quit his association with the group and would not return until "Abbey Road"). Gone were the days when Beatles recording sessions were inspired, even joyous affairs. Now the warmth and pleasure of making Beatles music was replaced with coldness and friction. The business of descending upon Abbey Road had become just that--a business, fraught with an antagonizing competitive edge. Brian Epstein's death in 1967 had forced the Beatles to manage themselves, an occupation none of the Fab Four save McCartney were suited for. Now Lennon had Yoko Ono by his every side; McCartney, after the ecstatic reception of "Sgt Peppers," had spiritually taken over the band; George Harrison had to patiently bide his time amidst the clashing Lennon-McCartney egos before he could get a word in musically; and poor Ringo--the everyman--was stuck playing the same songs over and over again (Some took as many as one hundred takes) nights on end as the Beatles whipped their new songs into shape. Now George Martin was serving as producer in name only as the Beatles essentially supervised their music themselves, if still serving as the go too guy to arrange the orchestral arrangements. If this was the Beatles at their most creatively prodigious, it was also the Beatles at their most uncharacteristically arrogant and self indulgent. "The rot had begun to set in," Harrison has since remarked about the White Album sessions that would begin to see the Beatles deteriorate until their break-up two years later.
But, having said all that, THE WHITE ALBUM is still a miraculous, messy achievement; a gargantuan outpouring of music and personality--some of the songs indeed timeless masterpieces, while others don't hold up so well apparently. If "Sgt Peppers" served as the soundtrack for 1967's Summer of Love, THE WHITE ALBUM encapsulated the tumultuous chaos that was 1968 (Indeed, the album's very release date--November 22--is symbolic of the era) "You say you want a revolution?" Lennon sings--no, challenges--on the anthemic "Revolution," the first song recorded for the WHITE ALBUM sessions. "Well you know we all want to change the world." THE WHITE ALBUM may be the most difficult Beatles record to begin to fully appreciate what with the many dimensions and sprawling musical styles present (Often within the same song), but there can be no denying the sheer POWER of the songs and careening emotions in the lyrics and music.
Furthermore, it is the very IDENTITY of the Beatles themselves that is ultimately (And curiously) revealed. The irrepressible Ringo Starr offers his first written song on the upbeat, country tinged and decidedly slight "Don't Pass Me By." While the tune is a simple tale of love, based on the observations earlier the title can be even seen to be directed at his bandmates. Tellingly, the song is buried among the weak offerings of Side 2 on the album's first record. The dark horse George Harrison shines on the masterpiece "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with a brooding McCartney fuzz bass, stunning lead guitar by Eric Clapton, and timeless lyrics of quiet desperation. Elsewhere Harrison is in top form on the desolate "Long Long Long" and the odd but appealing rocker "Savoy Truffle," about (Of all things) a chocolate bar. If any further proof to the world were needed that all was not right in Casa Beatles, just check out these jarring "Truffle" lyrics slamming Paul McCartney:
You know that what you eat you are
But what is sweet now turns so sour
We all know Ob la di bla da
But can you show me where you are?
Harrison's other contribution is the sarcastic "Piggies," with a mocking harpsichord to complement the denigrating lyrics of upper class gluttony. The song is a tad reaching, and Harrison's least affective song on the record.
The object of Harrison's ridicule on "Savoy Truffle," Paul McCartney fares with mixed results on his contributions to THE WHITE ALBUM. Sure, Macca is in top form on the aforementioned "Back in the USSR," but the consummate pop lyricist and musician begins to exhibit an unfortunate showcase for sappy, if still interesting, songs. Macca is magnificent on the gorgeous soul searching ballads "Blackbird" and "Mother Nature's Son." But songs like "Martha My Dear" and the veddy dance hall-ish "Honey Pie" (A song I initially detested but now rather enjoy) are rather droopy if still catchy. "Rocky Raccoon" is still just utter rubbish. But Macca shows he can still rock harder--if indeed not better--than the best of them on the excellent "Birthday" (Written on the spot in the studio) and especially on the astonishing "Helter Skelter," a song about a park slide that will sadly be forever linked with the apocalyptic Manson murders. But the song, and especially Macca's delivery, are magnificent.
As superb as Harrison and McCartney occasionally appear, the Beatle who reigns over THE WHITE ALBUM is unquestionably John Lennon. The tempestuous nature of the times and the conditions the album were recorded under are stunningly reflected in the schizophrenic nature of Lennon's imagination and musical output here. What better illustration than Lennon's masterpiece "Happiness is a Warm Gun," three songs in one that say everything thst's best about Lennon's unpredictability and a great forecast for the medley that would end "Abbey Road." "I need a fix cuz I'm going down," Lennon sings in the song's great middle section, an alarming reference to his dabbling in heroin, before the inspired doo-wop of the song's end. Elsewhere Lennon is in top form on the rocker "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey" and especially the superb "Sexy Sadie," a savage attack on the Mahareshi who Lennon had an (Obvious) falling out with. And then there's "Julia," one of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded. A haunting ode to his deceased mother, the song's delicate acoustic strumming and plaintive vocals also reflect his new love for Yoko Ono. The latter's influence is clear on the lovely "I'm So Tired" and the controversial "Revolution 9," the confounding sound collage that nearly wrecks the album but is still quite interesting to sit through. "Drop that kick!" Very strange. Lennon also shows he can be every bit the sap that Macca can be on the album closer "Good Night" with a string score that borders on treacle depending on your mood but thanks to a superb Ringo vocal is quite moving. With revolutions, love and suicide on the brain, Lennon's offerings--some of the best songs the Beatles ever made--make THE WHITE ALBUM an indispensible rock monument.