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Monday, November 24, 2008

Looking Through a Glass Onion: 40 Years of The White Album

At twelve o'clock a meeting round the table
For a seance in the dark
With voices out of nowhere
Put on specially by the children for a lark.
-John Lennon, Cry Baby Cry

Released 11/22/1968

The White Album is the most difficult album in the Beatles catalogue, at least in terms of initial approach. At least I found it that way, a seemingly random collection of various musical tropes. And perhaps that’s why it’s their most rewarding. This is the Beatles at their peak and their breaking point. Four geniuses all using their full power, a power which could/would not be contained or channeled afterword. Sure, Sgt. Pepper may have been revolutionary in its engineering but it feels too contrived as an album idea, rather than each song having a textured and layered identity. On the flip (or perhaps b) side Magical Mystery Tour probably has the best lineup of songs on any Beatles album, but has a forced flow, and is about as cohesive as their early efforts which mixed covers and original material.

This contradiction, of increased artistic brilliance and individual separation, caused a great deal of discord during the process, and would later lead to the band’s falling apart. John and Paul recorded alone in separate studios at times. George Martin was both losing control, or any interest in controlling the band. George Harrison began to show more signs of frustration, during the recording of Helter Skelter he reportedly ran around the studio with a flaming ashtray to try and distract Paul. Ringo, feeling ignored, left the recording, leaving Paul to play drums on Back in the USSR, and each Beatle played on takes of Dear Prudence, to the point which nobody knows to this day who’s playing is actually on the track. But this individual reflection led to more personal and reflective material finding its way onto the album.

In the next decade, The Who would make the concept album ala Rock opera Quadrophenia, which was supposed to represent the four members of the group into one character. But this, The White Album, is essentially that concept completed, as Quadrophenia really is a quite personal album for Townshend and to a great extent Keith Moon, and while it’s probably the greatest teen angst album of all-time it’s not nearly as diverse as this.

Then again maybe the charm of the album is that it challenges you not to like it. It’s about as highly modern as any mainstream pop music ever got. Reflexivity, satire, parody, self-efficacy are paralleled with complex, layered, and sublime music.

The Beatles also experiment with something that really wasn’t done until full on avant-rock bands like The Residents released an album of single themed and fragmented pop songs, and the Beatles themselves perhaps did it a bit too much on Abbey Road. I'm referring to the practice of not making each idea or melody into an individual full on song. Happiness is a Warm Gun perhaps the best example.

This is Paul before he became too bombastic, John before he became too moody, George at his peak, Ringo at his most diverse, and Yoko before she got annoying. And yes you can’t ignore her contributions to this album.

The album was to be called A Doll’s House, after Henrik Ibsen’s play. This would have been an apt title; Ibsen’s play is the turning point of modern drama. Nothing was the same after it played. Or for the fact that this is a band discovering theirs is a marriage which won’t work out. Instead they opted to go with the white self-titled album, which was designed (yes, someone designed the cover) by Richard Hamilton.

The album was recorded from 30 May 1968 and 14 October 1968, at a time of great stress; despite the problems inside the band, from what I’ve read, it had more to do with the bands formation of Apple corps and the problems which followed that.

Above: What the cover for A Doll's House would have looked like according to historian Geoffrey Giuliano.

Here’s a quick song by song.

Back in the USSR (Paul)- Parody and homage to the Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson, who Paul heavily admired. Wilson was at this time, suffering from a devastating mental breakdown.

Dear Prudence-written for Mia Farrow’s sister, who attended the meditation sessions in India, but was always in her room meditating, and written to get her to come out. Great bass line by Paul. One of John’s 4 favorite Beatles songs.

Glass onion (John)- Self-reflexive, and deprecating. Note that this album was the first of the Beatles to utilize 8 tracks, and this is perhaps the first on the album that really showcases that. The Walrus was Paul caused and causes all sorts of problems.

Ob-La-Di, ob-la-da (Paul): Some critics have named this as one of the Beatles worst songs citing it as a failed attempt to do a Reggae song. These same critics seem to miss the fact that the song’s lyrics make no sense either. One of the oddest songs on the Clear Channel post 9/11 no play list. John added the intro, when after leaving the session, he (no surprise) hated the song, returned doped up.

Wild Honey Pie (Paul)-Yes, Paul could be druggy too. Has probably the shortest lyrics of any Beatles song, and Paul is the only performer on it.

Bungalow Bill-Excellent acoustic guitar part. Actually based on a real life person who the Beatles met in India. Maureen Starkey and Yoko on backing vocals. Chris Thomas on Melotron.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (George)- Trying to figure out who played some of the most famous guitar solos in history is a tough task. The solo on Layla was played by Duane Alman, and George played it on Cream’s Badge. And there are some who think that the solo which survives today, is actually George playing. George said that it sounded more like him because they ran it through the ADT to make it sound more “wobbled.” Paul ably holds his own with a rather throaty bass-line. Also, listen to Ringo during the verses.

Happiness is a warm Gun (John)-Paul’s favorite song on the album. Of all the interpretations, I think I’m pretty safe in assuming that this is about heroin.

Martha My Dear (Paul)- Bears resemblance and perhaps inspired by a tune from Friedrich von Flotow’s 19th century opera “Martha.” Patience with this one, it grows on you. The pre-chorus is something. Sounds like the first Wings song.

I’m So Tired-John’s battles with depression don’t get the attention other musicians with the disease receive. But songs like this (the more raw and explicit Yer Blues, or even Help, I mean that’s as explicit as it gets) are truthful and heartfelt without falling into self-pity.

Blackbird-Such a gentle and un-repentantly pretty song played straightly.

Piggies (George) -It’s a bit dated politically, but sonically the music is enchanting as ever. The line "What they need's a damn good whacking," was provided by George’s mother.

Rocky Racooon- first played by Paul for John and Donovan in India. George Martin plays piano.

Don’t Pass me By (Ringo)- It’s funny that Ringo always ended up the naturalist, even though he was the most amiable of the group. Here is another earthy love song. Jack Fallon on fiddle. The song was written as early as 1964.

Why Don’t We Just Do it in the Road- Mostly written by Paul, and Ian MacDonald lists only Paul and Ringo as performers. Obscure, and grading, and a work of genius. Why write a complex song with allusions to sex, when you can just write a song coming out and saying it accompanied to the most simple of three chord progressions? That’s what the Beatles are doing here. Replace the piano with a guitar and you’ve got punk, boy.

I Will (Paul)-…and then follow it up with this lovely maudlin, almost too neatly trimmed, love song.

Julia (John) –This is one of the more haunting songs in the Beatles catalogue. One can either view it as John’s love song on the album, not some abstract song about an ephemeral romance, but rather a specific song about his love for his son Julian, given weight by how things turned out. Or, as other suggest, it’s about John’s mother who died when he was a boy. Either way, it’s still a devastating song, helped my John’s doubling of his vocal. The first two lines are adapted from the poem "Sand and Foam," by Kahlil Gibran.

Birthday-In some respects the strangest song on this album. First of all, why? Second, why choose such an aggressive form? Third, who’s lying? Pattie Boyd and Yoko join in on vocals. Mal Evans, who had been with the band since the Cavern Club days and who some say wrote Fixing a Hole, performs the handclaps.

Yer Blues (John) -Maybe the first John Lennon post-Beatles song.

Mother Nature’s Son-A favorite of John Denver, so much so it was the title of a posthumous biography.

Everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey (John)-The common consensus, that this is about Yoko, is probably incorrect. While John later made this claim, the quote was said by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sort of an equivalent to a mote in one's eye, with monkey being (a monkey on one's back) any sort of addiction.

Sexy Sadie-Radiohead essentially lifted the piano part for Kharma Police. I’ll come right out and say it, that’s a better song.

Helter Skelter-The Beatles out Led Zeppelin-ing Led Zeppelin. Manson made this song about a childrens playground fixture (in relation to less concrete themes) infamous, but perhaps enough historical distance has passed that we can evaluate it for what it is. Mal Evans plays on Sax and created other sound effects for the song. Evans was tragically shot by police during a misunderstanding in 1976.

Long …(George)---Historian Nicholas Schaffner has made the assertion that this is the first Harrison song which is both a love song, as well as a song to his Lord, and can be considered in both frames of reference.

Revolution-- Nicky Hopkins on Piano.

Honey Pie- Harry Klein on Clarinet.

Savoy Truffle(George)- Six saxes. Other than Klein, I haven’t seen any other names attached.

Cry baby Cry (John)-The last song on the album on which the Beatles themselves play musically.

Revolution 9…: While Helter Skelter gets the infamy, this is the song that figured most prominently in the twisted philosophy of Charles Manson. To Manson, the song was an incitement but also musical document of a coming Armageddon, including instructions on fighting in it. Manson was not alone, as other listeners thought the song contained occult if not out right satanic subliminal messages.

These interpretations are somewhat understood by the song's overall mood; the song is rather ominous, and apocalyptic. And the number nine has ominous and for some composers macabre relevance. Mahler, who drew upon the apocalyptic for a number of his themes, was the first composer to mention the "Curse of the 9th" stating that a composer will soon die after completing their 9th symphony. He cited Beethoven and Bruckner as examples. And Mahler, like Beethoven, would die with their 10th symphony incomplete (10 other composers after Mahler are argued to have been victims of the curse). This should be considered as well amidst the Paul is Dead speculation.

Unique in popular music at the time, it follows musical traditions from Stockhausen, and the sampling done on "All You Need is Love." The song contains football chants, a conversation of George Martin, who never wanted the song on the album, Lewis Carroll inspired Lennon and Harrison verse, portions of works from Sibelius, Schumann (who may be included here for his own obsessions toward repetition), Beethoven, and tapes played in various states of disarray from the recording sessions from A Day in the the Life, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Martha, Honey Pie, and other Beatles Songs. Its believed the repeating "Number 9" was lifted from an EMI Test Tape, but it sounds an awful lot like Ringo.

Good Night (John)- Written as a lullaby for Julian. He wanted to make it sound like a cheesy musical number. Martin arranged the twelve violins, three violas, three cellos, one harp, three flutes, one clarinet, one horn, one vibraphone and one string bass. The Mike Sammes Singers, a top session group in UK’s pop scene as well as hundreds of commercials and who’d later appear on Let it Be, provide other vocals.

Songs from the recording session but not included on the album:

Hey Jude

Mean Mr. Mustard

Polythene Pam

Child of Nature"(changed to "Jealous Guy" for Lennon's Imagine),

Jubilee (later Paul’s "Junk")

Circles" (later found on George’s Gone Troppo)

The Long and Winding Road


1 comment:

erin said...

I think that a lot of this album, too, showcases how each of the band members coped with Brian Epstein's death. George being drawn to the spiritual, Paul the sentimental, John the cynical and Ringo optimism musically, though I think he felt more vulnerable since Brian was the one who wanted him in the band the most in the first place.

I think (could be wrong) "Not Guilty" and "All Things Must Pass" were also recorded during the White Album session. Which would mean a huge chunk of the best post-Beatles material came from this time.

Also, the cover began as a collage of photos of the band which was Hamilton's style, but then Paul claims he said to add more white space to it, and he liked it more as more was covered up, and then the decided to just have it be white. But then Paul claims to have thought of everything.

Tom Dowd introduced... Martin? Maybe? to the 8 track recording process who in turn introduced it to the Beatles for this album. Prior to this, on tracks like "Tomorrow Never Knows" they had to enlist their girlfriends and such to manually load tape loops. Which I think arguably makes it the first "techo" pop song.

OH and George wrote While My Guitar Gently Weeps after opening a book (can't recall which one) to the phrase "gently weeps."

John (pretty much had to) claim Happiness isn't about heroin, but he transcribed on the lyrics that one third was written from the perspective of "the junkie." The other thirds are "dirty old man" and "the gunman." He claims he got the idea from a magazine that had Happiness is a Warm Gun" on the title.

OHH and Martha is the name of Paul's sheep dog.

Savoy Truffle was inspired by Eric Clapton's sweet tooth. Nothing much more to the song than that, despite what I always inferred.