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The Beatles are back with White Album re-release
The marathon album marks 50 years of Beatlemania.
December 6, 2018
It was 1968. A time of love, drugs and music. A time when the younger generation felt more connected to itself than ever, while at the same time being at odds with their parents more than any generation before them. It was at this time that Rock and Roll was peaking, and it was at this time that the world’s biggest music group released the longest album ever recorded at that point.
The White Album
No one had ever heard anything like it before. 30 songs, ranging from 40 seconds in length to 9 minutes. A year earlier, the same group released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a rock album that featured the usual instruments: guitars, drums and piano, but also included reversed organ music, Indian instruments and a full orchestra. Many of their fans thought that they had finally gone off the deep end, as they had stopped touring the same year.
But they couldn’t have been more wrong. Sgt. Pepper stayed at #1 on the Billboard Charts for 15 weeks, the longest running #1 album ever, and has since sold over 32 million copies worldwide. The group broke all of the conventional rules of Rock music. And then, when they released the fan-dubbed White Album, everyone was waiting to see what innovations this band, the Beatles, would bring to the music scene.
50 years later, the two living Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, released a remastered version of the White Album, turning the 30 song album into a 107 song album with 27 demos and 50 early takes of their classic songs. While 50 years old, the album still holds up with today’s modern music, still delivering a mix of feel good music, psychedelic sounds and at times, unsettling sound collages that may not sound unheard of today, but in 1968, were nearly revolutionary.
The first sound that someone hears on an album is important. When the Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night, the first sound played was one power cord, played on guitar, bass and piano, letting the listener know that what was to come was going to be epic. The first sound played on the White Album is a plane engine on the song “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which could be taken as a whole as Paul McCartney telling the world, “The Beatles are back!”
Much like Sgt. Pepper, the first song on the album bleeds right into the next, going into John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence,” written about Mia Farrow’s sister. One of the unique things about this song is the tambourine usage. Instead of a continuous rhythm, Ringo Starr just hits it once per 36 measures.
Next, Lennon sings one of the few self-aware Beatles songs, “Glass Onion,” which references many of their other songs, such as “I Am the Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Fool on the Hill,” and “Lady Madonna.”
McCartney returns for the fourth song, the happy tune of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” The song is the story of two lovers who get married and start a family, but McCartney said in a conversation with actor Rob Lowe that he loosely based the lyrics on drugs, hence the lyric, “if you want some fun, take Ob-la-di-bla-da.”
The song that follows seems like one of the album’s throwaways that still surprisingly works in the album’s setup. “Wild Honey Pie” is a 50-second song consisting of 5 words and no real effort. This song shows that the Beatles can make a seemingly dumb song, but they can still pull it off.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” the next song on the album, is interesting because it is the first Beatles song that features a vocal that isn’t sung by McCartney, Lennon, Starr, or George Harrison. Lennon’s girlfriend at the time, Yoko Ono, sings one line of the third verse, and also sings background vocals during the chorus.
The next song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is considered by many to be one of George Harrison’s greatest songs. Harrison brought in guitarist Eric Clapton to play lead guitar on the track, which seemed like a return to slightly more conventional Rock for Harrison, as for the past two albums, Harrison had adopted sounds of Indian music, such as the sitar.
Lennon sings the next track, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” about his girlfriend Ono, in a song that can be broken off into three parts. It starts of with Lennon singing reminiscent lyrics about a girl who doesn’t “miss much,” and then singing about personal downfall in the lyric, “I need a fix ‘cause I’m going down.” The song then becomes more uplifting, as Lennon sings of a warm gun as a parallel for happiness, which is interesting, as Lennon was very much anti-war and anti-violence.
After McCartney’s “Martha My Dear,” Lennon is back for “I’m So Tired,” a song about a depressed man thinking about his love interest as he cannot sleep. A relatively simple song, Lennon brings his trademark obscure lyrics into play, name dropping Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer in the 16th century, saying that “he was such a stupid git.” The world may never know what problems Lennon had with this 16th century Englishman.
One of the most famous Beatles tracks comes next, McCartney’s solo track “Blackbird.” McCartney wrote this song during the height of the Civil Rights movements about African-American women, saying, “you were only waiting for this moment to be free.”
Harrison’s second track follows, the second song in the dubbed “Animal Trio” featuring “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” and “Rocky Raccoon.” Harrison sings of the life of pigs the way he sees it: the pigs play in the mud until they turn into bacon.
During the making of the White Album, there was a resurgence in what is known as Roots Rock; many big bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks started incorporating slightly country or western sounding instruments into their music, and the Beatles did this too. McCartney’s next track, “Rocky Racoon,” features 1920s piano, western guitar and the story even takes place in a saloon.
The next track also includes elements of Roots Rock (in this case, the band brought in a fiddler to play), but the interesting thing about this song is that it’s one of two songs in the entire Beatles catalog written by drummer Ringo Starr. “Don’t Pass Me By” is not musically or lyrically complicated, but this was the first glimpse at what style Starr took when writing songs, a style that still stays with him in his solo career.
One of the things McCartney is famous for within the band is singing many of the band’s ballads and love songs, and the next song, “I Will,” is a return to the classic Beatles formula of a short, simple sounding love song. Not lyrically complex, the song’s biggest unique section is Harrison’s twanging guitar and the pairing with McCartney’s soft vocals.
The last song on disc one of the White Album is a song written and sung by Lennon about his mother who died in a car crash when he was younger. “Julia” includes Lennon’s trademark complicated lyrics, with sections like “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you.” This song ends disc one on a happy, calm note, which, if that’s what a listener expects to hear on disc two, they would be sorely mistaken.
After the feel good nature of “Birthday,” disc two’s first track, it must have seemed only fitting that the next song should be Lennon’s Blues track concerning wanting to die and the dysfunctional nature of his life. “Yer Blues” is a darker, more distorted take on classic Blues, with uncomplicated music, but with the added noise of Rock and Roll.
In contrast to the dark tone of “Yer Blues,” McCartney’s folksy tune “Mother Nature’s Son” contains calming depictions of nature, soft instruments and no real thinking required, unlike Lennon’s previous song. In a way, it’s somewhat of a cooldown moment after the upbeat nature of “Birthday” and the dreary feel of “Yer Blues.”
But the Beatles aren’t about leaving you feeling one emotion for a long period of time. So after a listener has finished “Mother Nature’s Son,” Lennon comes off of his very probable high to bring them “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey.” Telling the audience that “the deeper you go, the higher you fly,” and, “your inside is out, and your outside is in,” in a song that has nothing to do with monkeys, and holds the record for the longest title of a Beatles song.
Coming back for more, Lennon departs from the usual love song formula to tell the story of “Sexy Sadie.” In this song, Lennon talks about how looks aren’t everything, saying to whoever Sadie is, “you’ll get yours yet however big you think you are.” The main reason Lennon wrote so many depressing songs is because his divorce with his first wife, Cynthia, was going through at this time, and he was dealing with this as the album was being made.
The next song is considered by many to be the pioneer of Hard Rock, McCartney’s “Helter Skelter.” Written about a British fair ride involving a spiral slide, this song again inspired a crime spree during 1969’s “Summer of Love.” A cult known as “the family,” led by Charles Manson, executed a series of murders in Los Angeles, writing words such as “Pig” in the victims’ blood. The cult believed that the Beatles predicted an approaching apocalypse called Helter Skelter orchestrated by the rich “Piggies,” and they must try and prevent it from happening.
While the Beatles never really got involved with the case, it it interesting to listen to the album knowing what the cult thought it meant, and seeing if their logic, however false it might be, is something that can be heard in the songs.
Harrison’s third song, “Long Long Long,” is a beautiful sounding song about meeting up with a lover after a long period of separation. Placed at the end of side three, the illusion of ending the side on a calm note disappears when, at the end of the song, there is violent strumming on the guitar, an ascending drum roll from Starr, and a long moan from Harrison that leaves the listener slightly confused and a little disturbed.
The first song on side four, another Manson inspirer, is Lennon’s anti-war song “Revolution 1.” Manson believed that this song was his call to arms, and the time to act was now against the apocalypse, but Lennon was using it to protest the Cold and Vietnam Wars. After recorded, Capital Records considered it not upbeat enough to be released as a single, so the band re-recorded it as a louder version for a single.
The White Album includes hard rock, western music, and electric sound collages, so of course when the band realized that there was no 1930s vaudeville music on the album yet, they created McCartney’s “Honey Pie.” That’s not actually how it came about, but it’s funny in general that McCartney decided to frame this song in that way.
“Honey Pie” follows a man lamenting over his girlfriend, who made it big in Hollywood and left him. Looking at the last few songs on the album, starting with “Honey Pie,” are either slightly depressing or have a darker tone associated with them.
This might not seem like the case when hearing the next song, Harrison’s last track “Savoy Truffle,” a song written for Eric Clapton about chocolate. Not every song can be “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The darker tone is more subtle in this song, and, if the listener is not paying much attention to the non-chocolate lyrics, they would probably miss the McCartney diss, “We all know ‘Ob-la-di-bla-da’, but can you show me who you are?”
Lennon’s last real track, “Cry Baby Cry,” is framed around a royal family and how they operate, with the interjection of the chorus “Make your mother sigh. She’s old enough to know better, so cry baby, cry.” The strange thing about this song is that, after the song is supposedly over, a soft sounding, 30 second McCartney track pops in and surprises and unsettles the listener.
With Lennon’s whispering lyrics, heavy piano, and slightly disjointed guitar riffs, this track is an honestly disturbing preview to what’s going to come next.
One of the band’s most infamous tracks, the eight minute sound collage “Revolution 9” can at times be downright creepy. Reversed organ music, random snippets of dialogue, crowd screaming, loud orchestral music and baby noises are all part of what Lennon called “music of the future.”
On its own, the next song, sung by Starr, is, on its own, a beautiful lullaby, but, as any song would, after following “Revolution 9,” has a distinct eerie feel to it. “Good Night” is the last song on original album, featuring an orchestra, an operatic background vocal, and Starr’s melodic lead vocals, is a fitting end to the album, telling the listener “You can relax now; the rollercoaster (or, to stay on topic, the spiral slide) is over.”
The original album may be over, but the remastered version includes 77 bonus tracks and demos for songs the band was recording at the time, for the White Album and other releases. The 2018 super deluxe ended up being five hours and 27 minutes long.
The first 27 are labeled “the Esher Demos,” and the story behind them is that the band wanted to create very sophisticated demos for the album, and, going to George Harrison’s house to record them, they recorded 27 demos for every song up to “Cry Baby Cry.”
While most demos are quite crude, these demos include double track vocals and many of the instruments that show up on the album. Really, the only thing missing from the demos is the studio production value.
The last 50 songs are much like the Beatles Anthology series, in that they are all just early takes of some of their later songs. It isn’t possible to explain each song individually in this article and retain sanity, so the best way to understand how the Beatles worked in their studio is to listen yourself.
It’s a long album. It’s a strange album. It’s a classic album. It’s the White Album. And it still holds up as an artistically brilliant album today, in an age where almost every artist is experimenting with new things.
The remastered version definitely shows this, as well as showing how seriously the Beatles took this album and the making of it, and, if a listener has a free five hours, they can experience the making and remaking of a legendary piece of music.
OVERALL ALBUM RATING: 8/10
Reasoning: While the album is artistically and culturally important, this five and a half hour re-release would probably only hold the interest of the hardcore Beatles fans. The original album is a must-listen, but I wouldn’t recommend listening to all of the demos unless you are truly invested.