The Beatles ("The White Album")

The Beatles

Capitol, 1968

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


So, what did I do this weekend? I finally plowed through the eight-volume video anthology of The Beatles, which not only left me numb (and fighting to get certain songs out of my head) but also with a renewed respect for this band. Something must have gotten into my head, because I found myself climbing through the darkest portion of the Pierce Memorial Archives ("I've fallen, and I can't reach the CD player") for my battered vinyl copy of their 1968 "untitled" album commonly known as "The White Album."

I had first listened to this about four years ago, when I picked it up at the local used record salon for three dollars - and at the time, this album so confused me that I thought I had been overcharged. There were some great moments, sure, but an afternoon in front of the turntable had turned into one fucked-up ride that even Iron Butterfly couldn't top. So, in the bowels of the Archives it languished - until this afternoon.

The Fab Four had definitely turned the corner - their decision to stop touring and their release Revolver was proof enough of this. But the lads were coming off both the massive success of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the abyssmal commercial flop (in comparison, anyway) of Magical Mystery Tour. If all this weren't enough, the foursome seemed like they could barely stand one another by this point. Throw all this into the kettle, and what you got was an interesting stew that is, at times, quite tasty - but you don't dare repeat the recipe in fears of it imploding.

(Note to my astute readers: While many of the vinyl copies of early Beatles albums I have are missing some of the tracks "restored" to CD from the British version, I think The Beatles was the same on both coasts. However, if you notice I've "forgotten" a track, don't blame me, blame Capitol for screwing with the originals.)

The album opens up strongly with "Back In The U.S.S.R.," though the significance of the track and its meaning I still have never grasped. For most of the first side, the Beatles walk the thinnest line between power-ballad (evidenced on Lennon's multi-tracked vocal on "Dear Prudence"), silly folk-rock ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which only McCartney could have pulled off so well) and balls-out rock (Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" featuring a young Eric Clapton on guitar). However, the penchant for silliness begins to creep in on the throwaway track "Wild Honey Pie," as well as on "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill" and "Happiness Is A Warm Gun."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

In fact, tracks like "Wild Honey Pie" and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" make it sound like the Beatles are parodying the rock band they have become - and the picture these songs paint isn't pretty. For the two minutes each cut features the band farting around, they could have either put on one decent track or cut back on the sensory overload The Beatles tends to be. (Apparently even producer George Martin thought this could have been pared down to a single album.)

The first disc proves that when John, Paul, George and Ringo were good, there was no one who could beat them at their own game. Songs like "Blackbird" show off how good of a songwriter McCartney was (and is), as well as how good of a musician he could be. (His bass work on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" is incredible.) Harrison's hidden gem is undoubtedly "Piggies," which mixes both social sarcasm with a sly grin ("What they need is a damn good whacking"), and is a track which must be heard a few times to truly appreciate. Lennon holds his mettle well, both with "Dear Prudence" and the stark, melodic tribute to his mother, "Julia." (Starr makes one vocal appearance on "Don't Pass Me By," further proof that the former Mr. Starkey had been underutilized as a vocalist.)

Had the first disc been trimmed a bit and had one or two songs from the second disc thrown on for good measure, this album would have even topped Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Abbey Road as the must-own Beatles album. Instead, the second disc - treasures and all - tends to drag the rest of the album down a bit.

The second record opens strongly with "Birthday," though I am embarrassed to admit that my view of the song is slightly skewered, remmebering the mechanical demons at Showbiz Pizza Place murdering this song when I was 10. Those goddamn robots are either entertaining our children or providing future fodder for psychotherapy. But I digress. The swift turn into the blues, "Yer Blues," is actually a solid effort at capturing the emotion of that genre, and is applaudable.

The rest of the disc, however, is quite hit-and-miss. Lennon's attack on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who apparently did for bullshit what the Chicago Bulls did for basketball), "Sexy Sadie," seems petty almost 30 years after the fact. The "slow" version of an old favorite, "Revolution 1," is a letdown compared to the version found on The Beatles 1967-1970. "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" - what the hell was this about? Obviously a warning sign to kids about what hallucinogenics can do to your mind. And while I loved "Helter Skelter," I truly think U2 captured the essence of this song better on Rattle And Hum.

Ah, we've come to the "golden nugget" of criticism - "Revolution 9." Do yourself a favor - as soon as this one queues up on your CD player, hit the fast-forward button pronto. Some people I've talked to blame this track on Yoko Ono, but I don't think even she could have done such a hatchet job in eight minutes. This is psychadelia at its ugliest.

I'm not saying The Beatles is a bad album; it's just a lot to stomach in one sitting. As one of my faithful correspondants put it when I told him what I was planning on giving this album, "But it's the Beatles !" Well, whoop-de-shit - like they couldn't have an off day in the studio?

Maybe a good portion of the problem was that this album was hardly a group effort - there were three distinct camps: Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. (Poor Ringo kind of just floated along with the times.) When the band worked together, the end result was usually nothing short of magical. Here, the tensions are clearly heard - and they don't work for the good of the band.

The Beatles will continue to be a Holy Grail for the faithful, no matter what I say about it. I just wonder why people get so worked up over this one - while it's got some exciting material, is sure isn't the band's best work.

Rating: C+

User Rating: A-


Most of the Beatles overtly "commercial" work was issued on singles. During the period when they were recording the White Album, they released "Lady Madonna" and "Hey Jude/Revolution" where "Revolution" is the fast version you appear to prefer. If you are looking for the stuff you will like upon the first listen, look to the singles. Clearly, many people liked other music on the White Album; its a 19x Platinum album. Some of the songs take a little longer to appreciate, especially 40 years later when the context is different. That doesn't mean you have to like it, but ou have to understand the differences between then and now, especially if you are a music critic.
Yes, if only sides one and two had been issued as an album, it would still have been a great album. But sides three and four have good songs too (though on the whole not as good as those on sides 1 & 2) with an even crazier diversity of music - just compare Helter Skelter with Long Long Long, but after HS you need LLL! The only song I can definitely do without is Everybody has Something to Hide Etc. As for Revolution 9, that's of course not a song but an experimental sound collage. I don't have a problem with it in the context of a 90-minute double album. It's a fascinating listen - which I can also say for the album as a whole. No other group could have pulled off an effort like this, a vast and rich landscape of music and sounds.
Transom is correct - up until the '70s, the single was the way for an artist or band to get popularity, and really only seemed to become a vehicle to sell the whole album in the '70s. (It also was a time when the b-sides were just as good as the single, as the "Hey Jude / Revolution" combo proves.) And, sgtpepper is also correct in that probably no other band could have gotten away with doing such a disc - face it, the Beatles could have recorded an album of them just breathing and it would have sold well, that's just how much of a goldmine their name was (and still is).

That said - sorry, but I've yet to warm up to "The White Album" in toto. I honestly believe that, had the band been on better terms personally, what they could have created would have blown apart what we know as rock and roll today - there were signs of what they could do on this disc, but it still seemed like it was the work of individual camps, rather than a whole band. Someday (and it probably will be sooner rather than later) this will find its way into my earbuds for a casual listen - and, who knows, I might find reason to revisit the original review.

© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol, and is used for informational purposes only.