As is well known to anyone who follows music, The Beatles were one of the most remarkable, and undeniably the most influential, recording artists of the 20th century. Their music ranged from pop, through classic rock, through psychedelic rock, through blues to songs that quite frankly resist any attempt at description. They’re one of a handful of bands that can genuinely be described as changing the face of music forever, not only with their attitude to it, but also with the music they made. This is no more evident than on this album; their double disc opus which has always traditionally got mixed reviews from critics; some saying that it should have been cut to a single disc, contains too many novelty songs, and has no cohesion as an album, and others saying that it provides the best example of their genius, transcending genres every few minutes, as well as showcasing their sheer song writing ability. What is generally accepted though is that even if you think some of the material here could easily have been scrapped, there are a lot of songs here that rank up there with anything the band ever produced.
This fact is quite remarkable when you consider how the album was made. For a start, there’s the simple fact of the band’s prodigious work rate, which meant that The White Album was released just one year after both Magical Mystery Tour and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Given the quality of both these albums, it would have been understandable for the band to be suffering from creative burn out, as well as simple exhaustion, but, as the two discs here show, this clearly wasn’t the case. In addition to this, it’s been well documented that the band had grown apart, meaning that rather than working as a band, they were effectively making a series of solo records, with each member wanting to go in a different direction. It’s very easy to tell listening to this album which member wrote which song, and merely got the other band members to play on it. This difference between the members actually peaked during the recording of The White Album, when Ringo Starr briefly left the band, although he quickly rejoined for the majority of the recording.
So, what of the songs themselves? Although there aren’t many unifying strands on the album, with it encompassing so many styles and composers, something that does stand out is just how different the music really is. Back In The USSR is an ironic parody of a typical Beach Boys song, reflecting the band’s creative rivalry with Brian Wilson, the mastermind behind The Beach Boys, with layered vocals, and delicious harmonies. Immediately after this though, just as you think that maybe the band have done something that makes sense, and finally made a complete album designed to counter The Beach Boys, along comes the piano led ballad Dear Prudence; a genuinely beautiful listen, and one that shows Lennon’s voice at its crooning best. Glass Onion is another ironic look at the cult that had come to surround The Beatles, with lyrics such as “Here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul” seemingly designed to fuel the rumours that Paul McCartney had in fact died and had been replaced by an impostor. In a way that sums up this album-a band who were at the peak of their powers, but rather than fretting over how to show this, they were still able to go out and make an album that they could have fun with. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Daa stomp through an upbeat pop song, based around a very simple piano riff, before the first of the songs that typically attracts criticism from people who dislike this album as a result of the number of novelty songs on it. Wild Honey Pie, it’s fair to say wouldn’t have won any prizes for its merits as a song, as it features a strangely styled guitar line while the only lyrics until the last 2 seconds of the song are “Honey Pie”. Although this is obviously a weak point of the album, it’s still not an actively bad song to listen to, although the fact that it’s a mere 52 seconds long helps with this.
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill is, as its name suggests, a very odd song indeed, relating the embellished story of how a fellow guest on a Beatles meditation trip shot and killed a tiger. This features a large number of guest vocalists on the chorus, as well as Yoko Ono having a cameo line, although few people knew this at the time of the album’s release. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of the band’s most famous songs, as well as their most prominent Harrison composition, and also features British guitar legend Eric Clapton playing during the guitar solo. A very mournful song, it’s somewhat out of place on the album as a whole. Happiness Is A Warm Gun also fully shows the band’s creativity, somehow contriving to fit no less than 5 sections into less than 3 minutes of music, including woozy, psychedelic guitars, nonsensical lyrics, and a truly beautiful saxophone bridge, which adds a massive amount to the song. Martha My Dear is a comparatively average Beatles piano ballad, of the type that Paul McCartney was so good at composing, and serves more as a bridge between the two songs sandwiching it than as a great song in its own right. I’m So Tired is another song with musical ideas bubbling over, as well as being one of the funkiest songs recorded by The Beatles, again showing their huge musical diversity. Blackbird is another very beautiful song, with some very quiet, understated vocals, as well as the sound of blackbirds overdubbed onto the song, which combine to give it a very calm, soothing effect, which helps explain why it’s another comparatively well known Beatles song.
Piggies, another Harrison composition, shows The Beatles’s political influences, with the title referring to the pigs in the George Orwell book Animal Farm, making what at first sounds like a ridiculous song into something deeper and reflective. Revolution 1 is a similar song to this, although it’s far more down tempo and reflective, as well as being allegedly inspired by Che Guevara. Rocky Racoon and Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? can also broadly be classed together as songs, in that they’re both novelty songs that have therefore attracted more than their fair share of criticism. Rocky Racoon serves as a parody of the famous style of Western films, telling the story of an armed (and indeed dangerous) racoon. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? features a very dirty McCartney vocal, almost screamed at times, over a simple instrumental backing, leaving a song that is stunning in its simplicity. The remaining three songs on Disc 1 aren’t especially notable, with the exception of Don’t Pass Me By being Ringo’s only composition that made the album, giving it a significance for huge Beatles fans.
On Disc 2, Birthday is an immediately more upbeat, rocking song, which shows that when Ringo Starr needs to he can definitely power the band forward with a pounding rhythm on his snare drum under some near hysterical vocals from McCartney. Yer Blues, by contrast, is probably the most depressing song on the album, imitating the blues influenced bands that were prevalent during the 1960s. As a result of this, the song is very slow moving, also showing the sheer vocal versatility of John Lennon, which allows him to turn a song that could easily have gone wrong into a triumph, with dramatic pauses in mid-chorus. Mother Nature’s Song is possibly the most forgettable song on the album, with, on one of the few occasions on the album that this happens, very little of interest. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey is another borderline novelty song, although in this case it’s far more rocking than those which were present on Disc 1, lifting it above those which normally receive the most criticism on this album. Sexy Sadie is a surprisingly bitter song, which refers specifically to the hypocrisy of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who Lennon had lost faith in after regarding him as a guru, although the song’s lyrics also refer to a hypocritical women, making the overall mood of the song very different from the beautiful piano and guitar arrangements.
Then comes possibly the greatest, most important song The Beatles ever recorded. Helter Skelter, from its opening guitar riff which influenced metal, to Ringo’s final scream of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” is a journey through mayhem, with McCartney’s incredibly raw vocals coming over a crunching guitar part, before the song fades out only to crash back in again. The song inspired Charles Manson to go on an infamous killing spree in the USA, believing that it referred to a potential apocalypse. Regardless of this though, the song is quite extraordinary, sounding like the equivalent of an out of control car spiralling along the road set to music, and also categorically disproving anyone who says The Beatles were just a pop band. Long Long Long is very quiet, and therefore is somewhat lost after Helter Skelter, although it’s a very underrated Harrison composition, which creates a wistful mood in the listener. As already said, Revolution 1 is a calm look at revolutionary politics, where Lennon sings about the need to “free your mind”, and reflects the band’s clear political consciousness. Honey Pie is another McCartney oddity, with a slow opening turning into a moving vocal set over a bouncy piano part while McCartney serenades a lover, before he experiments with the very upper end of his vocal range. This song is an example of a very underrated track on this album, which too frequently gets remembered for a handful of songs, rather than as an album of consistent quality.
Savoy Truffle is remarkable mainly for its use of a very dynamic brass section which is present almost to the point of overshadowing the rest of the band, and gives the song a completely different feel from a lot of the rest of the album, while losing none of its effectiveness. The section where the brass band seems to duel with Harrison’s guitar lines is a particularly stand out section in what is a very good song. Cry Baby Cry is a Beatles version of a lullaby, which, true to form, means that everything is not as it might seem. Opening with an immediate Lennon vocal, it’s a stream of consciousness sort of song, which builds and builds from a simple intro into an increasingly interesting piece of music, and one that serves as a beautifully dark song. Revolution 9 is one of the most famous songs on here, although it’s also one of the most disliked. Ignoring ideas such as melody, lyrics, and indeed actual music as fans would have expected it, it’s a collection of sounds that was basically put together by Lennon and Yoko Ono, and would serve as a very effective soundtrack to a nightmare, with screams, repeated lines, choirs, tapes played backwards, as well as indescribable white noise, sounding as if this was a band that had lost their mind. Famously divisive and avant-garde, this was a song that had no real precedent in the band’s back catalogue, and was certainly never really followed up to. The final song, Good Night, is something of a weak end to the album, with what sounds like intentionally emotive music of the type found in film credits coming under cloying vocals with lines such as “Now the sun turns out its light, good night”. The overall effect is one that leaves the listener thinking in surprise that the album has ended there, which no doubt is what The Beatles hoped to achieve with the last song of such a remarkable album.
Although this review is far longer than it would ideally be, it may surprise people who’ve never heard this album before that it would be easy to write far far more purely about the music found here. However, that’s simply the case; this album is so remarkable, and so diverse, that writing about it could take pages and pages. Containing a hugely disparate range of genres, as well as some that The Beatles pretty much invented here, it’s the kind of album that most bands could only dream of producing, especially given the friction within the band. Although not a perfect album, due to the fact that some of the novelty songs do grate after a while (it’s hard not to agree with people who say that a few songs could be cut and nobody would really notice), it’s nevertheless underrated by some, who claim that it could have been cut down to the length of other albums recorded by The Beatles. The wonder of this album lies in the fact that over 90 minutes of music the band never ceases to surprise and confuse the listener, something which few bands could really hope to achieve, and even fewer to have the confidence to accomplish.