The White Album at 50
Situated in time exactly halfway between now and the last day of the First World War (almost to the day) is the release of The Beatles’ White Album.
Over four sides of vinyl, this sprawling and dazzlingly eclectic piece of work is not only the band’s finest — but stands as one of the defining pieces of twentieth century music. I was twelve when I first sat down with my mum and dad to listen to it, and remember being mesmerised by its sheer musical breadth and audacious risk taking — such as its eight minutes of musique concrète. It is the one Beatles album that I return to not for reasons of nostalgia, but to hear something new on every listening — and to remind me of why I do what I do.
Had they been born a generation or so earlier, then these Liverpool pals may have shared the same fate as the 9,000 young men from that city who failed to return from Europe’s killing fields. But as it was they were born in a later time, ventured to Germany not as combatants but as a band of aspiring young musicians and learned their craft in nightclubs where the boss commanded them to “make show, make show”.
The White Album is the high water mark of my culture. I can’t speak for anyone else’s. I suppose all artists seek to capture the zeitgeist. In 1968 as an aspiring 12 year old poet I certainly did with my poem — Demo 68 — which was the first thing I ever had published, and for reasons that will become abundantly clear, also the last poetry I ever had published. It opened with: “From Charing Cross on Sunday in the rain, the thousands marched through London to protest, against a far off war’s unnecessary pain, and cruelties which kindly folk detest…” 1968 was a year that seemed to demand a creative response. Following 67’s summer of love, it was the year that everything tilted.
The Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion, the Tet offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, My Lai massacre, the one million people taking to streets of Paris in May, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech, Italy’s Hot Autumn, the unravelling of the post-war consensus and the assertion of youth culture and the New Left — all of this was 1968. The year was fractured and conflicted, colliding idealism with cynicism, unity with disunity. The White Album reflects all of this.
Just three years before, a typical Beatles album comprised a handful of brilliant self-written love songs, some competent fillers and a few covers. Giving up touring in 1966 gave them more scope to write and experiment in the studio, resulting in Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour TV film. During this period George had explored Indian music, Paul had driven the conceptual direction of the band along with his hugely productive songwriting, while John dropped a lot of acid and wrote a handful of seminal songs.
Taking time out in India early in 1968 was a way of them breaking free from the drugs, focusing on meditation, and giving them the freedom to write songs unencumbered by the pressures of the music industry and the expectations of The Fabs’ fans. The White Album demonstrates how each of them found a new strength and voice in their songwriting. Their six weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas resulted in over thirty new songs, many finding their way onto the White Album, while others were used on Abbey Road, some on solo albums, and a few recorded but never released.
John was the most prolific songwriter. He returned to the creative pursuit of his childhood and art school years — drawing cartoon characters, but drawing them in music — Bungalow Bill, Mean Mr Mustard, Polythene Pam, Prudence, Sexy Sadie, the Duchess of Kirkcaldy and the gun man. Alongside these were songs written for the most important people in his life — his son, his late mother, Yoko, and even Paul gets a name check (as do Mao Tse Tung and Sir Walter Raleigh). Paul weighed in with Desmond and Molly, Rocky Racoon, and the working girl “north of England way”. There are songs about revolution, Paul’s beautiful song about the American civil rights’ movement, and pastiches of The Beach Boys, the British Blues Boom and indeed themselves.
While the lyrics mix the intensely personal with social commentary, satire and surreal characterisation, the music covered a whole spectrum of musical styles in popular music from the First World War onwards. We find a music hall style song that would not have been out of place in 1920, a lush Hollywood style lullaby with full orchestra and choir, jazz, soul, ska, rock and roll, baroque pop, country, English folk, electronic avant garde, surfing pop and metal. As a reflection of how their musicianship had developed, all these styles were played to perfection. On one level The Beatles’ White Album is a celebration of fifty years of popular music, referencing styles that inspired them and fed into their own unique sound.
The album is also the sound of a band gradually disbanding. There are many solo performances to be heard, and within a year of its release The Beatles were finished. But when they do play together — and over the four sides of vinyl there are many ensemble performances — it is breathtakingly wonderful. Four musicians who know precisely how to bring the best to each other’s work — like Paul’s bass on John’s Dear Prudence, John’s jazz guitar on Paul’s Honey Pie and Ringo’s drumming on George’s quite wonderful Long, Long, Long. Commentaries on the album emphasise the arguments and musical differences, ignoring that over a decade in a band in which claustrophobia was a survival tactic naturally leads to short tempers amongst young men — and let’s not forget that by this point they had reinvented popular music, become more famous than Elvis, saved the British corduroy industry, and George was still only 25.
But the outtakes suggest that Lennon and McCartney had moved from being songwriting partners to becoming at times brutally honest but always totally supportive editors of each other’s material. There’s a recording of John’s attempt to record the song to his mother using the fingerpicking guitar style Donovan had taught them in Rishikesh. He just couldn’t do it right and was about to give up when Paul in the control booth, encouraged him and gave him the confidence he needed to finish the performance.
Then there’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. After three days of trying different takes, none of the other Beatles had any time for this languid calypso song by Paul. George especially loathed it, and said as much on one of his four songs on the album. After one particularly insipid take John stormed out the back door of Abbey Road to smoke a joint. He returned to the piano and hammered out the chords that we all now know as the start of the song. By ramping up the tempo and changing the rhythm it became a Ska song, as they would have heard from Lord Woodbine in their Liverpool days, and John led the backing vocals that gave the song its party atmosphere. John and Paul were perfect editors for each other.
Steve Jobs later said that The Beatles was his business model. He never really elaborated what that actually meant, but to me they — and this album in particular — is my ‘business model’ and as a twelve year old listening to it for the first time it provided me with principles that I’ve hung onto and applied to just about everything I’ve done. And here they are:
Be the best you can be. This album took their songwriting and musicianship onto another level, each member of the band striving to produce their best work. I’ve always tried, and sometimes achieved.
Be authentic. Be true. Even when it’s difficult for your audience, give them the real you. Lead your audience, don’t be led by them. Put Good Night next to Revolution 9. It may take them some time to get what you’re doing, but they will in the end if you’re true. Again, I try.
Say what you feel with passion. And that may be about your partner, your child, your dog, injustice, inequity, war, peace, but the thing is to say it. With a sense of love. I do this on social media, which often gets me into trouble. Usually at home.
Push the limits. In pop, double albums didn’t exist. Neither did eight minutes of musique concrète or the musical complexity of Happiness is a Warm Gun. I’m fortunate in knowing many people who do this as a matter of course in their work.
Never forget — you’re always in a band. Always. Even when they worked on their own songs, each member supported each other — because that’s what you do when you’re in a band. You’re inspired by your bandmates. And throughout my life, I’ve always been in a band.
Be a Ringo. If you’re a true band member, you’ll know why.
That is what The Beatles’ White Album means to me.