Following the release of the Hendrix double album “Electric Ladyland”, the Beatles followed with their own double-album. Formally it is just self-titled as “The Beatles”, in casual terms it is known to most as “The White Album” for its stark white, and otherwise empty, cover. Yet another massively impactful album from the band that underscored and reflected the current and future state of the band, it is rated as the #29 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. There is a lot to talk about here, without question.
By 1968, the tension within the band had grown to a nearly untenable point. During the recording of this album, the band spent weeks on a transcendental meditation visit before departing in dissension and disillusion. Ringo Starr left the band and returned, frustrated and humiliated by internal criticism and on certain tracks, having his work re-recorded by Paul McCartney. (Yes, that is Paul on drums for “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Dear Prudence”). Tensions also spilled over as the band struggled with Yoko Ono’s sudden and constant presence in the recording studio, as well as the ongoing battle between Paul, John, and George over style, songwriting, and micro-managing musical control from McCartney.
The net result is a highly diverse collection of 30 songs, many of which were effectively solo songs performed by one of the band members, with the others either absent or effectively serving as well-compensated session musicians. Starting with John Lennon, highlights include “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, the biographical ballad “Julia”, and the bluesy-acoustic version of “Revolution 1”. Paul’s contribution in kind was typical McCartney. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is just a great rock and roll song parodying the patriotic theme of past Chuck Berry & Beach Boy songs, and “Blackbird”, complete with its highly relevant and timely racial commentary is one of the most complete songs Paul ever delivered. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” tortured the rest of the band with its style and obsessive recording takes, and songs like “Honey Pie” and “Rocky Raccoon” are classically ridiculous McCartney songs that are annoyingly catchy, and “Martha My Dear” is very consistent with some of his melancholy work on “Sgt. Pepper”. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” sets the stage for some of what would follow on “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be”, and “Helter Skelter” was recorded in direct response to The Who, trying to prove that the Beatles could still rock harder, louder, and longer than anyone, including Townshend and company. Just ask Ringo Starr, who yelled out at the end, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”
George Harrison continued to raise his profile, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” returns the album to a sane and more impactful place following some of the relative absurdities on side one. I have always been impressed that even as the lead guitarist for the band, George felt this song deserved a bigger sound than he could deliver, reaching out to his friend Eric Clapton to provide the solo only he could deliver. If you ever want to see something really special, look up Prince’s solo on this song as performed at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison, not long after his death in 2001. It is phenomenal. Harrison has three other songs on the album, the best of which is probably “Piggies”.
Even Ringo Starr steps in with the songwriting, with his first solo credit on “Don’t Pass Me By”, a surprisingly infectious tune, and he is the only Beatle to appear on the closing number “Good Night”, sung with a string section and written by John Lennon.
Overall, like many double albums, there is a lot of great music, even in their semi-dysfunctional state, along with a few tracks I could do without. “Revolution 9” is beyond my taste for experimentation, with essentially no musical appeal other than a collection of distorted sounds and clips. And even though someone is likely to hear this song once a year, “Birthday” has never been a big favorite of mine, unless it is being performed by Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles. Seriously though, a lot of really good music from all four members of the band, which is not surprising given their collective talents.
You really can’t talk about the famous “White Album” without mentioning the massive single they released during the recording of this album. Neither the “A” side or “B” side was ever released on this album, but “Hey Jude” by McCartney, and “Revolution” in its grittiest rock form, by Lennon, remain two of the greatest Beatle songs, and simply two of the greatest rock songs, ever recorded. The building chord structure, thoughtful lyrics and timeless sing-along outro of “Hey Jude” will live on forever, and in contrast, John’s complicated relationship with politics and social commentary is never more visibly and effectively blended with musical excellence than on “Revolution”.
“The Beatles” is a timeless and historic album, just as the Beatles were and are a timeless and historic band.