The white album

Beatles White Album

Image: John Downing / Getty Images. Source.

*Click here for my series on the great Beatles albums, with introduction!*

In my series, based on the work of Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack, somehow I’ve left The white album (aka The Beatles) (1968) till last.

Sandwiched between Sgt Pepper and Abbey road, The white album may seem rather less cohesive as a suite, but it has all the hallmarks of the Beatles’ late style, and again the effect of its songs is cumulative. Mellers highlights the parodistic, retrospective elements of the album, with simultaneously innocent and ironic incorporation of a variety of styles (music-hall, Country, R&B, children’s rhymes…), with what Pollack describes as a “rapid string of costume changes”. But the more we listen, the more enthralling it is.

Rishikesh

Source: wiki.

The Beatles conceived most of the songs while on a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. While (in keeping with their late style) the lyrics are trippy, the influence of Indian music, heard on their other albums around the time, is barely evident here.

The austere cover of the double album made a deliberate contrast with the exuberance of that for Sgt Pepper.

Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:

As usual, Pollack’s analyses are stimulating (links below), often making use of the “Esher demos” to explore the creative process.

Side 1

  • Back in the USSR. Pollack: “hard edged rock-and-roll”, with “the fresh impact of a palate-cleansing, eye-catching, and ear-opening album opener”, channelling the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry:

Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia’s always on my mind.

—a satire of naïve patriotism that was issued with unfortunate timing, just months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

  • Dear Prudence. Mellers: “a new type of Eden song”, with a pentatonic melody over a D pedal; Pollack: “taking that same droney aesthetic with which George was so enthralled”.
  • Glass Onion: an up-tempo rock number, its tune “obsessed by the disquieting interval of the tritone” (Mellers).
  • Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, “a Liverpudlian-West Indian music hall that deflates love by way of deliberate vacuity” (Mellers).
  • Wild honey pie, an entr’acte, “a little bonsai tree of a song” (Pollack).
  • The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, “a total deflation of the tough guy myth, […] the irony given an extra twist by the romantic flamenco-style guitar prelude and the lyrical postlude for solo bassoon” (Mellers).
  • While my guitar gently weeps, a song by George, with guitar solo from Eric Clapton. Pollack gives a particularly detailed analysis. For weeping in a variety of music, see under Fassbinder’s bitter tears.
  • Happiness is a warm gun, satirising cabaret, soul-cum-blues, and corny balladic waltz (for Beatles waltzes, see here), with changes of metre—Pollack even spots hemiola in Mother Superior jumps the gun.

Side 2

  • Martha my dear: related to Ob-la-di, affectionately ironic. The brass-band riff was arranged by George Martin.
  • I’m so tired, an enervated, self-deflating song from John.
  • Blackbird, Paul’s haunting, deceptively simple solo. Mellers:

The folk-poetic identification of light and dark in this refrain complicates our response to what appears to be a straight little song about freedom, but which turns out to be unexpectedly moving in its fusion of naïve white country guitar with black blues. This may be why the squeaky blackbird noises that erupt into the song affect us as being pretty, comic, and scary all at the same time.

Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will.

  • Julia. Eschewing the usual contrast between tracks, John concludes Side Two in somewhat similar vein, “elegiac, entirely devoid of irony” (Mellers). Analysing the shifting harmonies, Pollack finds it almost agonisingly exquisite in its restrained, laconic poetry. He adds:

Though you probably treasure your knowledge of the poignant personal history that underlies Julia, do you ever stop to wonder how relatively incidental and non-essential that knowledge is to the effect that the song has upon you? Oh, I understand that knowing that Julia was John’s mum unavoidably adds a new dimension to your so-called appreciation of the song, but what I’m asking now is how much less does the song speak to your heart in absence of that knowledge?

Side 3 opens again with a burst of blues-tinged rock-and-roll, in

  • Birthday. As Pollack comments, once you probe more deeply, you quickly discover that this is no mere rote revivalist knock-off.

As they matured they likely found that, in spite of all early interest, the strict blues form was not an idiom that they felt all that comfortable with in terms of self-image and expression. Interestingly, they never quite forgot or expunged the technique from their vocabulary, but it did remain for them something to be used sparingly, for special effect and exotic tang.

On a personal note, I note this felicitous addition to my inventory of Stammering songs:

I would like you to dance (Birthday)
Take a cha-cha-cha-chance—(Birthday)
I would like you to dance (Birthday).

Side 4

  • Revolution 1, an ultra-stylised blues, rather laid-back, with a fashionable reference:

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You know you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

  • Honey pie, a quaint rags-to-riches fairy tale, with period detail, described by Mellers as a 1930-ish Fred Astaire number, the wit of the chromatic harmonies nostalgically recalling Rodgers or Cole Porter.
  • Savoy truffle: George in blues mode.
  • Cry baby cry, a surreal anti-lullaby, leading into
  • Revolution 9. By contrast with Revolution 1, this is a long “electronic freak-out and collage piece, distorting and mixing muzak of various kinds” (Mellers), with sung melody banished. Even here, Mellers suggest that the Beatles are parodying their recent electronic experiments in Sgt Pepper.
  • Good night. Deploying a range of dreamy, sentimental Hollywood clichés,

The effect is quite different from the emotive strings in Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, or She’s leaving home, for we saw that in those songs the lush accompaniment preserved a virginal frailty that, in context, was at once sentimentally committed and ironically detached. […] The kitsch does not discredit the tenderness of tune and harmony. […] Its beauty, despite the cinematic scoring, turns out not to be in inverted commas. (Mellers).

This final sequence leads Pollack to make a fine point:

In order to fully appreciate the uncanny aptness of ending The white album with Good night, you need to first back up and consider why the penultimate album slot is such as logical place for Revolution 9.

Where else could you put Revolution 9? [SJ: he doesn’t consider the option of not including it at all…] Too early in the running order would make the rest of the album seem a bit anti-climactic at best. At worst, you could lose most of your audience well before you’ve trotted out the rest of your best stuff. Putting it at the very end lends it too much emphasis. Maybe put it at the end of one of the other sides, but no-one will be sufficiently motivated to turn the record over. Next to last feels just right.

Now then, what kind of act could possibly follow Revolution 9? You clearly need a sharp contrast, but exactly what kind? Virtually any other song from the album would sound a combination of anti-climactic, stylistically repetitive, underwhelming, or too weird.

Good night has the simultaneous virtues of providing musically arch-conservative ballast, a change of style as refreshingly surprising as anything else on the album, and a clever, self-referential way of telling you the music’s over; turn out the lights.

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