The release of a re-mastered White Album by The Beatles reminds me of all the mixed emotions I have about this album. Leaving aside Magical Mystery Tour, essentially a soundtrack for a British TV special, The Beatles, as the White Album is officially known, came in 1968 on the heels of Revolver and Sergeant Peppers. I, and I think many Beatles fans, consider those two their finest work. Some people consider The Beatles or 1969’s Abbey Road (again, after an intervening soundtrack, Yellow Submarine) to be that.
But for me, the White Album has always been massively frustrating. It has some really great songs, but like Abbey Road, some that feel to me entirely disposable. There’s long been a truism in rock that most double albums are failures to edit down to a good single album. I don’t recall, but I suspect the White Album is the source of that idea. But what about the good stuff? What would a really great single album — let’s call it The Half-White Album — comprise?
Before giving my list, I do want to say that this album is a college course in 1968, a year like few others. To list just the more obvious things: the United States essentially lost the war in Vietnam during the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election after being elected in 1964 in the largest landslide in history. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. The Cultural Revolution began in China. Czechoslovakia defied Russia which then invaded it. French workers and students struck and the nation was plunged into a violent conflict for 6 weeks. The Democratic Party national convention in Chicago was consumed by a demonstration of more than 20,000 anti-war, anti-racism protesters and the police riot that followed. Hubert Humphrey backed the repression and effectively ended the Democratic Party’s long, historical dominance dating back to FDR. And I’m sure there are more consequential things that happened that year, but you get the idea.
The White Album reflects many of these things but that may not be obvious to those who didn’t live through the times. There is a great deal of “beginning of the end” in the album. Emotionally, it contrasts a great deal with early and mid-Beatles, which are drenched in youthful optimism. I’ve long felt that a good deal of the Fab Four’s appeal was just that brash, confident, forward looking cheeky feel. (Later, there would be a whole subgenre of “end of the end” songs as the ’60s disappeared in the rearview mirror — I’m thinking of Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Gil-Scott Heron’s Winter in America)
On the White Album, though, we get the warning signs. Psychedelic fervor has turned to downers and suicidal thoughts on Yer Blues. We get the out of control Helter Skelter. There’s the sarcastic frustration with America of Happiness is a Warm Gun, but matching disillusionment with the youth culture in Revolution. Taken together, there’s a feeling of being hemmed in, seeing few ways out. A number of songs go in a different direction, bespeaking a need to look deeper inward to personal history and conflicts (Julia, for example). Ultimately, that was the path for the Beatles, but not one they were able to walk together for much longer.
Yet the album also has real power, strength and art if you ignore the whimsical experiments that didn’t quite pan out (but kudos for trying!). So here goes my playlist for a single, LP-length Half-White Album. Listen to it on Tidal!
1, Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey. This has both the optimism of early Beatles with the musical sophistication and edge of the later albums. And it rocks! (3:03)
2. Back in the USSR. Replacing the US with the USSR was a brilliant way to poke fun at American self-satisfaction. And who doesn’t want to hear The Beatles do Chuck Berry tunes? (2:43)
3. Dear Prudence. The segue between the prior song and this so great, I don’t want to break it up. Otherwise, this song might not have made it. (3:54)
4. Martha My Dear. Paul’s fascination with music hall songs eventually became annoying, but here this is just a nice acoustic number. As always, experimenting with various non-rock instruments and then having the electric guitars rescuing it just in the nick of time. (2:48)
5. Blackbird. I had no idea at the time that this was a comment on Rosa Parks, but it’s a beautiful tune and the context further cements its place. (2:18)
6. Piggies. Just to be true to the spirit of the times and for the harpsichord fans in the audience. (2:04)
7. Julia. This is one of John’s great works. The lyrics are a brilliant poem, powerfully evoking both a young boy’s impressions of the mother he adored and a young man’s mourning of the mother he never had. The music and the playing are achingly sad. I can think of few tunes as emotionally honest in both words and music as this. (2:56)
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (4:45). Of course.
1. Glass Onion. Well, it’s either this or Rocky Raccoon, but I went with this for its energy. (2:17)
2. Yer Blues. Under-appreciated. The Beatles didn’t do the blues that often, but this has all the down home you could want without just blindly copying Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. The lyrics are a kind of white, psychedelic evocation of Delta hoodoo. (4:01)
3. I Will. A nice little throwback to the Beatles 65/Rubber Soul sound. (1:45)
4. Happiness is a Warm Gun. More biting satire. (2:44)
5. Revolution 1. The Beatles, like Dylan, were often described in revolutionary terms that both were uncomfortable with. By 1968, the more radical youth no longer see The Beatles as all that and John clearly knows it. Here he tries to come to terms with a youth movement he can’t relate to and whom, he suspects, can’t relate to him. His plea for an inward focus sounds sad in retrospect. (4:15)
6. Mother Nature’s Son. Another of the albums acoustic, folk rock gems, Paul’s plaintive paen to the power of music and nature. Maybe a kind of portend of Let it Be. (2:47)
7. Helter Skelter. If Revolution 1 was a reaction to protest, this seems to just react to the general tearing apart that 1968 was. The manic and sinister feel of it is so startling coming from The Beatles and especially cuddle-bear Paul who returns to his Little Richard vocal roots. (4:29)
8. Revolution 9. And so we end in an electronic collage, a fog that envelops us in which we struggle to glimpse all sorts of things. A fitting end. (8:20)
Well, that’s 49:25 minutes of music, which was on the high end of LPs in those days. And for the CD, of course, bonus tracks.
CD bonus tracks
You can and should argue with this list! Let the fun begin.