I have yet to do an introduction, because this is a double album and my writing got, frankly, ridiculous. But considering this might just be my favourite Beatles album, I won’t neglect to explain why this is in the introduction. All I’ll say at this moment is this: picking songs to take off The White Album is like picking which spots to take off a Jackson Pollock painting just to make it look tidier: at this point of time, pointless. So look out for more of an explanation for that. Until then, feast your eyes on this madness…
Track by Track
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”: As if to emphasise how long a journey this album will take us on, The White Album begins with planes taking off and guitars rolling forwards underneath thunderous turbines. Its definitely a rollicking good ride, but the propulsion of that song, from strings to percussion, is all Paul, who took over drumming duties during Ringo Starr’s three week quitting period. I’ll confess to being pretty ignorant on the apparent pro-Soviet message this songs critics say it espoused, but I’ll suspect that ignorance was also on the part of Paul, who probably just wanted to write a song about wanting to have sex with Eastern European women. It was said that this song was influenced both by Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. But unlike other songs where those influences tended to be much more obvious, especially the former, here the resulting combination creates a song that even in its travels is onto itself. Much like so many songs on this record.
“Dear Prudence”: Despite that previous sentence, “Back in the U.S.S.R” also cross-fades in perfectly with its soft John Lennon counterpart. This song was inspired by the sister of Mia Farrow, and whilst the lyrics to this rock ballad is a friendly dig at her isolating meditation when they were all on the Indian retreat, the key lyrics of the song, “That you are part of everything”, very much endorses the philosophy that her meditation was based upon. It’s among the most simple songs lyrically and structurally on this album, but here that simplicity heightens its impact and makes it one of The Beatles’ best tracks. And with the bright guitar tones and gently rocking bass that underpins the , it all ends up having the coddling warmth of a meditation chamber, or a baby’s crib.
“Glass Onion”: I’ve talked before about the band’s self awareness at their own history, but never before or again would it be so obviously the point of the song as it was here. Like “I Am The Walrus” this is bit a fun surrealism in a Alice Through the Looking Glass style, though here that would be a looking glass onion. Among so many other Beatles references in this song, mainly focused on the two prior albums, John references that track will the lines “Here’s another a clue for you all: the walrus was Paul”, hilarious in its intent of making a confusing song even more so. All the while the guitars and instrumentation is tight and groovy, until the very end, where the string section is all that remains and stumbles around like it is going through a bad trap. Also, Ringo is back! We missed you, man.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”: In Britain we came up with the term “cod-reggae” to define a certain kind of reggae played very noticeably by white boys (for modern versions of this, see Magic! with “Rude”). It wouldn’t be unfair to say that this track essentially birthed that definition, written by Paul just as ska was making a prominence in the UK music scene. Now, there’s some Beatles songs that get on people’s nerves for cloying sentiment, but this song in particular seems to take so much of that ire. One online poll even voted it the worst song of all time. But, To paraphrase an often misattributed quote by John Lennon, it’s not even the worst song in The Beatles. Even though many Beatles who weren’t Paul also hated the song, with John calling it “granny shit”, none of that bile can be found anywhere in the song, with bouncy sped up piano, clapping and lots of call of laughter and and exuberance, all to the message of “hey, life goes on”. And while I can see what people find intolerable about this song, I’ve never been able to say I dislike it. All I’ll say is I prefer this tone when it’s about a psychopathic murderer. And that this song’s chorus is definitely in your head after I’ve written this sentence.
“Wild Honey Pie”: If it wasn’t for a certain penultimate piece, this would by far be the weirdest moment on the entire album. Kept on the album solely because Patty Boyd liked it, this little bit of weird is all Paul, from every vibrato guitar string to every off kilter harmony. It is not a song that you’ll commonly hear be played on its own – in fact many people outright hate this – and might also be the shortest song of the band’s career. But in album so commented on for how sprawling and diverse each songs on the album are – which includes me – this track is in contention for one of the greatest transitional pieces in album history. It perfectly bridges the bouncy feel of the previously, whilst preparing us for the guitar led song with strange components coming up.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”: It has been a long time at Beatleland at this point (3 years!) since John had written an overt folk song, and the return of the genre has gone through the psychedelic and pastiche lens of the bands career and results in this strange tale. Multiple key and beat changes that is all so effortless. The only part of the mix that feels jarring, and deliberately so, is Yoko Ono’s one line “Not when he looks so fierce”, acting as the innocent voice amidst death. Oh, and “If looks could kill it would have been us instead of him” is one of my favourite John lyrics.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”: The first George song on the White album is also agreed upon by many as his greatest contribution to the Beatles. Starting with an amazing piano open (which you don’t expect because, well, the title), the guitars wail in such a way that makes the descriptor completely. He picked those two important words in a random search of a book, so let’s be thankful the two words weren’t “breaks down” or “kindly tickles”, because those definitely match the beauty of the organs and clattering percussion work that accompany the cries. I had no idea that it was Eric Clapton who does the song’s iconic solo, but I think its precisely because he doesn’t give in to his Claptisms and becomes a complete part of the song he is working, losing himself the same way that George loses himself to the melody, his cadence moving up and down in hills until being conjoined with the mix.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”: It was said that, in such a turbulent recording period, this song with all its strange rhythms, time and key signatures changes and complex melodies helped the band to unify together again. That would be a great achievement in and of itself, put the end of Side One also one of The Beatles finest songs (in my Top Five), because all those changes follow such a strong melody that it all doesn’t make itself obvious until numerous listens. It’s also such a quotable and imaginative song, from “mother superior jumped the gun”, “a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust” and of course that title (set to actually the most “pop” moment of the album). All of which could be dissected in terms of love, drugs or any combination thereof, but like the splatters of songs on the easel that is this album, everything becomes so impressionistic that it becomes impossible to care.
“Martha My Dear”: Side Two begins with one of Paul McCartney’s most overlooked compositions, and a personal favourite of mine. It’s also a song dedicated to his dog. Well, OK, that’s a little simplistic, as its emotions can also apply to Jane or a general artist muse, but “hold your head up you silly girl/see what you’ve done” is very much a thing I would say to my dog if they had done a mess on the carpet. But the main take away is the sheer exuberance and joy of the music, with lush strings backing a musichall song with a bass of pompous tubas, that segues seamlessly into a Vegas-like trumpet and guitar section that makes you feel to “take a good around you”.
“I’m So Tired”: Another overlooked composition, though this time from John, the guitar comes in early and in syncopation as though the instrumentation itself is tired (and no real chorus, to continue with the lack of contentment). There are also the haze of lyrics in the second verses, where the rush of conversation comes in like the person is unable to focus, and the guitars themselves rush to an abrupt climax where the whole process starts again. That’s insomnia for you. How do you think I feel typing these words now?
“Blackbird”: “Yesterday” may hold the record for most covered song of all time, but when it came down to learning and covering my first Beatles song, this is the one I chose. A common choice of course, but the fingerpicking, constantly moving melody on the guitar is just one of the most fun to play. It’s just a simple and beautiful acoustic song, one whose simple image accompanied is just the right amount of sweet and uplifting to feel incredibly sincere. Some say that the song is about racial tensions in America, a reading backed up by Paul himself, and I actually think it works better when I don’t think about that; the general metaphor of the bird and freedom is such a universal one.
“Piggies”: George Harrison’s go at writing a Paul McCartney song, whilst still indulging in his more political side, might be his weakest song one The Beatles, but is still very much entertaining. Taking from the Bach, baroque influences that Paul once cocooned himself in, the beginning of this song sound like it would be played in 17th Century halls, with the prominent harpsichord (by great session musician Chris Thomas) and the sturdy bass that would seem fitting while people rotated in circles with fancy dresses like I except people for yore would do. It’s an amazing change, from “Blackbird”’s sweet bird calls, to the sarcastic and angry use of pig grunts in this. Considering the obvious George Orwell Animal Farm pulls it could be seen as politically trite, as many commentators of the time said, given certain events involving pigs in my home country it has become all the more hilarious. Why was there no campaign to get this to number one when it happened?
“Rocky Raccoon”: Another great folk song, though this is the one with the most obvious country influence, I like to think of this as of a piece with “Bungalow Bill”. And like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are in simpatico, its interesting that John’s is full of stylistic detours and epigrams, and Paul’s is a very clear narrative (though “only to find Gideon’s Bible” is very quotable”) and its stylistic structure is rigid (though there’s a lot of complex drum fills from Ringo going on in the background). That is until, like on Beatles on Sale and Rubber Soul, George Martin gets the honky tonk piano and just goes to town on it. The song is also the instigator of a chain of events that results in a story about a Space Racoon being friends with a talking tree, so it gets bonus points just for that.
“Don’t Pass Me By”: This marks a somewhat special occasion in the Beatles discography, as it marked the first time that a Richard Starkey written composition actually made it onto an album. It would probably a more joyous if the song wasn’t a bit meh, but I don’t actually blame that on the tune itself, with a great country inspired violin part (that makes me think of Heaven’s Gate and the roller-skates for some reason), and more more on the strange mix of the piano. This is one of the cases where a Beatles song would have been better being played more straight.
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”: I’m sure that this was a personal challenge set by Paul to see how many times he could enunciate (think “You never did the Kenosha kid” from Gravity’s Rainbow). Well, OK it’s two sentence, but the experiment results in Paul simply rocking the capabilities of his voice, at one point howling in a way that I honestly did not possible for him to do. And the music, from the pummelling piano to the propulsive drums to even simple hand claps, seem willing to match that challenge. People talk about how John was hurt by Paul and Ringo recording this song with the other two present, but if I had to guess he was mainly hurt by being left off a cool song. All about monkey’s fucking.
“I Will”: The drastic shift in tone between the previous song and this sweet acoustic number’s first line “who knows how long I’ve loved you” is such that it provokes an(I presume intentional) laugh whenever I hear it. They brought John back into the fold for this one, but seemed to still leave George behind. Still that makes the singularity of the guitar (at least the fact that only one guitar is being used in this mix, there’s still layering going on) much more apparent, and also gives attention to Ringo’s strange popping bongos. I only listen to this song to listen to the shift between the two tracks, but whenever I do I always finish this one as well.
“Julia”: Seeing the Paul was able to write songs and get them recorded in a single day all by himself, John would try to create something of himself. The result, the end of Side Two, is one of the album’s highlights, precisely because it feels like an holistic and deeply personal song. The lyrics refer to his mother very explicitly, and to his future wife Yoko Ono in more symbolic terms (“ocean child”). This very much presents the two sides of John Lennon in a nutshell, all presented in a gorgeous acoustic melody and vocal pattern that manages to be both delicate and full sounding.
“Birthday”: I have a very close friend who shares the exact same birthday as I do. For the last six years she and I have shared this song online, and in the occasions that we have been in the same place together we found an opportunity to listen to it as part of a little ritual. We are both massive Beatles fans and so it is always a joy to do, especially this year, and its tied inescapably to my emotions regarding the song, much like I’m sure its tied emotionally to Paul in being the last song that he and John wrote as a pair. The music’s good too, I guess.
“Yer Blues”: Another song on this album might reflect the solo material that John was making at this point in his life, but this song reflects the songs he would make a couple years later on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. A lot of that is the combination of parody/humour and complete sincerity, a mickey take of over exaggerated white-boy blues that also serves that very function to show his insecurities compared to his blues and folk heroes. It’s worth remembering that only eight years ago that John showed his securities blunt on “I’m a Loser”, but for me the hiding/not hiding amongst irony is just as effective, if not more so. Plus it also for some amazing guitar playing
“Mother Nature’s Son”: Another exclusively Paul song with only George Martin’s arrangements for accompaniment – because rarely will you find such a profile artist with such great songs in such amount of time than Paul McCartney – it certainly comes off as another grand contrast between sandwiched into two (or three depending on you definitions) of the hardest songs the band had written until that point. It’s not the strongest acoustic number on this album, but is elevated by that bold brass rising into prominence in the track like the sun for Mother Nature herself. Even when he was so busy, George Martin could produce greatness on a whim himself.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”: First of all, great title. Second of all, this song sounds like a riot to an almost literal point, particularly in its introduction with the unescapable ringing of the bell. From here on in we get an avalanche of a guitars and vocals, all set, in John’s interpretation, to be about him and Yoko thinking everyone else was paranoid apart from them (which I think is the first step of paranoia). I will put a littler tick next to this song probably also being about heroin, but I’ll be putting a larger ticket of hope that its about an actual monkey and John riding a van and going on adventures.
“Sexy Sadie”: So after the positive vibes of the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had helped create so many songs on this album, his alleged sexual advances towards Mia Farrow resulted in his negative vibes influences inspiring the band. It also seems to influence the structure of the melody itself, a beautiful piano piece that is perverted in its vibrato, tritones, and the combined forces of the howling guitars and organ. The song is of course not explicitly about that incident, but just the general theme of humiliation. But an early outtake of the song actually has these lyrics: “Maharishi, you little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.” I’m not sure which version I prefer to be honest.
“Helter Skelter”: There’s a contingency of people who point to this song, with hard, fast guitar work and screaming, as being the prototype for “heavy metal”. Now, this has never been a theory that I buy, partly because Steppenwolf and MC5 did exist at this point, and at no point in history have I ever heard that a heavy metal band was influenced directly by “Helter Skelter”. But if I’m not going to give the song that honour, I’ll give it the consolation prize of being an absolutely amazing song. Definitely the hardest track of the band’s career – and based on rollercoasters, a subject of which there should be more songs – ascending and descending as sees fit but just constantly moving to the point of making fade outs an intricate part of the piece. It also has one of the most entertaining studio outtake (though more an improv) left in a song with Ringo’s impeccable screech of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers”. After eighteen takes of the most pounding drumming of his career, who can blame him. Also, so I don’t have to talk about it too much: fuck Charles Manson. And fuck Bono for stealing the song from him, apparently.
“Long Long Long”: The end to Side Three is a George Harrison song that, even counting his solo work, is among his most beautiful and most spiritual (again, definitely a jarring shift from the last song). Called fifth worst Beatles in 2012 by cretins who read the Telegraph, this song is a long calmer and sweeter I am typing the sentence, with George going through a direct spiritual journey backed with suspended organ notes and rocking piano. It’s very hard to make calming feel like such a large, passionate emotion, but by the song’s coda, somehow a calming screech, you will know that he has achieved just that. I don’t think I have much more to say. It’s just lovely
“Revolution 1”: The single “Revolution” is one of the band’s hardest songs next to “Helter Skelter”, but before they made that change for the album’s version, and the introduction for The Beatles final side, is an acoustic, doo-wop melody that harkens back to the band of only 5 years ago (it’s only been five years!), but with the experience they have gained along the way. It also contains one of the single most important word changes to a song I have heard, and one that taught me the importance of singular changes. Where the single version would say “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can me out”, here John adds the absolutely crucial “in”. By the start of the songs evolution there was a definite debate going on in his head; by the rockier final version his beliefs are much more concrete. I guess I have to ask one crucial question though: where’s “Revolution 2-8”?
“Honey Pie”: Definitely more straightforward and instantly pleasing than the previous “Wild Honey Pie” (Also better. Probably important to say). Another pastiche music-hall number, though with jazz like piano and guitars that makes this feel like a true musical number, it charts the tale of a man wanting his old love of a now famous actress to come back to him. Like in a musical the instrument also clearly mirror the narrative, such as talking about the wind sailing across the sea and more prominent woodwind.
“Savoy Truffle”: George’s final song on The Beatles is also his token “most overlooked track” (they all get one). The organs and brass are as psychedelic as anything on the previous two albums, and that guitar solo is just amazing. If “Piggies” is closer to the Paul McCartney spectrum, than “Savoy Truffle” with its nonsense lyrics based on food feels more like a John number. It even has all the “self conscious legacy” part, but the line “we’ve all heard “Ob-La-Di, Ob-la-Da”” is this to point of being almost clairvoyant. Though I presume that, like “Wild Honey Pie” being close to the beginning and “Honey Pie” on the final side, this almost a way to give the record some form of unity.
“Cry Baby Cry”: The final acoustic led piece on the album, the thing that gives this song particular kick, along with the piano and short burst of guitar, is that introductory harmonium. Given its subject matter, it gives it the feel of being recorded specifically for children. I’ve also always thought that the last thirty seconds of this song, also called “Can’t You Take Me Back” with the complex acoustics and falsetto singing, is a precursor to the sound of Radiohead. It would also count as the shortest Beatles song next to “Her Majesty” if it was truly separate, which is fitting as we head off to…
“Revolution 9”: The most widely contested, debated and in many quarters of the fandom reviled song of the Beatles. This is the song with which we saw very clearly the influence of Yoko Ono on John’s artistic endeavours, pushing his already obvious admiration of Stockhausen to longer and more alienating conclusions. Containing pieces of Beatles compositions and conversations from many recording sessions, the result is a piece whose main “revolution” I guess was of the definition of what pop music could be. If you thought some art-focused critics couldn’t click with the band’s dips into psychedelia in an era of Zappa, that is not a fraction of the backlash compared to people with this song, and it comes from all corners. At one point, when I listened to the Beatles as a child, I thought this was absolute rubbish, not “real music”, and why the hell was this clogging up such an amount of record time. When I was a teenager and a pretentious dolt, I tried convincing people this was an absolute masterpiece and one of the greatest things the band ever recorded (or were a part of. This is a song which both has no Beatles performing and somehow all of them on the song). Now I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but appreciate what a scary, surreal experience . The thing that makes it an introductory point to this kind of music, in some way accesible, is that its components are made from Beatles song, so in its own way its got strange tangible melodies in its mix (Along with that repetition of “Number 9” which the Simpsons parodied wonderfully). Remember, this was the most popular band in the world at this point. And they released stuff like this. No act with that kind of popularity would be caught dead doing that now. If nothing else than introducing an entire audience to the possibilities of noise music, it has to be commended…Don’t listen to Two Virgins though. That’s a fair bit wank. And the critic who said this had more political impact than “Revolution 1” was full of shit. There ends thoughtful analysis.
“Good Night”: After such an abrasive, polarising song, it made sense to end this magnum opus with a factor that can unify almost any people together: the likability of Ringo Starr. Made to sound “intentionally cheesy”, coming at the end of so many different styles and “Revolution 9” makes it feel so joyous and sunny instead, ironic considering its basically a lullaby song. A lullaby in the style of a Gershwin musical number, from the lush strings to the angelic, it deliberately plays against Ringo’s voice in the same way that “With a Little Help From Me Friends” played to it, making us pay more attention and get lost in the melody. And with such a tiring journey, those final whispers of “good night” feel like just the right cadence and emotion to end such a sprawling work…
Well, I’m completely exhausted. Now I know how the band felt at this point. Which is probably why the next record release is so short…
What did you think though?
The Beatles Album Rankings
- The Beatles
- Rubber Soul
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- A Hard Day’s Night
- Magical Mystery Tour
- Beatles for Sale
- Please Please Me
- With the Beatles