The Beatles – The White Album – Apple Records (1968)/ EMI Records PCS 7067-8 remastered 180-gram stereo double-vinyl, 93:35 ****1/2:
(John Lennon – vocals, guitars, piano, keyboards, harmonica, saxophone percussion,; Paul McCartney – vocals, guitars, bass, piano, keyboards, drums, percussion,; recorder, flugelhorn; George Harrison – vocals, guitars, Hammond organ, percussion; Ringo Starr – vocals, drums, electric piano; Eric Clapton – guitar; plus many others)
After Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (both released in 1967), The Beatles were enjoying creative and commercial success. In the spring of 1968, they embarked on a journey to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. While attempting to “get away from everything” (in the words of John Lennon), they found themselves in fertile songwriting mode. Upon their return, the group worked on their only double-sided LP, simply titled The Beatles. Fans would venerate this recording, forever referring to it hereafter as “The White Album”.
Despite existing in a dysfunctional, at times acrimonious environment, the band created a significant amount of material, albeit with less collaboration. Two events overshadowed this period, the passing of long-time manager, Brian Epstein and the waning of George Martin’s influence over his protégées (It was reported that Martin left the sessions at one point). Yet, somehow the songwriting “mojo” of Lennon and McCartney prevailed.
The White Album is an ambitious, uneasy balance of brilliant compositions and experimental material. However, there are many classic Beatles songs that are memorable. Opening Side One is the classic rocker “Back In The U.S.S.R” which seems to pay homage to Beach Boys (“California Girls”) and Chuck Berry (“Back In The U.S.A.”) simultaneously. In this up-tempo tribute to Russian girls, McCartney delivers his trademark, urgent lead vocals and piano riffs. As usual, the back-up vocals fit perfectly. Then a sly charming Lennon track (“Dear Prudence”, a reference to Mia Farrow’s sister) has an organic, mellow vibe with nature references (“…the sun is up, the sky is blue…”). Lennon’s delicate voice transforms the song. A back story to both of these cuts is that McCartney played drums after Ringo Starr “temporarily” quit the band. Perhaps the most impactful song by George Harrison (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) features lead guitar from Eric Clapton that was not formally credited at the time. This was the first time a featured musician outside the band was utilized.
Side Two has a flow of great material. There is the bouncy, piano-infused “Martha My Dear” with only Paul playing, augmented by a chorus of strings and brass. Again a sudden transformation to a slower groove by Lennon (“I’m So Tired”) becomes a minor key ode to insomnia. For conspiracy theorists, it is rumored that if you play the mumbling at the end of the song backwards, it says “Paul is a dead man, miss him… ”. A solo McCartney track results in the lyrical, melodic “Blackbird”. He sings folk as well as hard rock. Lennon is equally adept on “Julia, which he performs without the band. His mournful voice expresses sorrow for his departed mother.
As Side Three begins, Lennon/McCartney coalesce on the rollicking “Birthday”. This is a reminder of the synergy of this duo. Within a rip-roaring arrangement, Paul and John seem to be having some fun. Long separated from their blues origins, “Yer Blues” offers a stripped down, nasty song with guitars, bass and drum. Another “lone” McCartney effort (“Mother Nature’s Son”) is tender and acoustic. Of course, this is followed by Lennon’s acid-drenched expression of drug culture (“Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”). The next sequence reverses as Lennon offers his scathing criticism of The Maharishi (“Sexy Sadie”) in full psychedelic depiction. McCartney counters with a blistering, guitar-heavy “Helter Skelter”. Clearly edgy and dark, this could have been a legacy to a versatile songwriter. But the unfortunate association with Charles Manson cast a morbid shadow on a pretty good jam.
The final side gets off to a glowing start with a slowed-down, hook-filled “Revolution 1”. The group recorded a faster version that was released as a single. However, the soul of John Lennon can be heard in the classic blues/rock arrangement and politically-charged lyrics. The avant-garde “Revolution 9” (which used speech, sound effects, tape loops, echo distortion stereo panning and fading) was broken off from the aforementioned title. 33 years later, it remains a dense non-musical anomaly. In keeping with the unpredictable nature of the White Album, a schmaltzy lullaby accompanied by a large string section and the lead vocalist is Ringo.
There are many exhilarating and rewarding moments on this album. There are also, weird snippets and partial compositions that somehow contribute to the mystique. Vinyl is the perfect vehicle for this music, as each side has its own sequential logic. The tonal quality is smooth, and the stereo separation is flawless. The session was notable for the transition to 8-track recording. This was the debut release on Apple Records. Hi-gloss finish, individual “head shot” photos and a giant poster with lyrics (like the original) make this a collector’s item. The Beatles gambled on personal growth, innovative musicality and experimental aesthetics…and it paid off!
Side One: Back In The U.S.S.R; Dear Prudence; Glass Onion; Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; Wild Honey Pie; The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill; While My Guitar Gently Weeps; Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Side Two: Martha My Dear; I’m So Tired; Blackbird; Piggies; Rocky Raccoon; Don’t Pass Me By; Why Don’t We Do It In The Road; I Will; Julia
Side Three: Birthday; Yer Blues; Mother Nature’s Son; Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey; Sexy Sadie; Helter Skelter; Long, Long Long
Side Four – Revolution 1; Honey Pie; Savoy Truffle; Cry Baby Cry; Revolution 9; Good Night
Pure Pleasure Records releases a re-mastered live vinyl of a great tenor saxophonist.