On The Beatles’ ‘White Album’…
I thought I might try something a little different here and discuss something that I have been listening to recently, something aside from the mix of parochial British music and choral stuff I usually write about – The Beatles’ White Album (1968). Now, I don’t profess to be a scholar of popular music (I don’t really profess to be a scholar of anything…) but repeated listening to The Beatles (that’s the actual name of the album, though it is more commonly known as the White Album due to its white cover) has made me realise what an astounding achievement the album is and how consistently inventive, creative, unexpected and truly maddening it is. It is not only great music, but a wonderful souvenir of a particular creative period in all the arts and represents The Beatles at their most inventive, resourceful and kleptomanical.
I’m not sure what inspires me most about this album – it certainly doesn’t contain The Beatles’ best songs or their biggest hits (the band didn’t release any singles off the album in Britain or America) and some of the worst songs they ever recorded can be found hidden in the midst of this sprawling double album – but it is the scope of ambition that impresses me: at every turn you can feel the creative feelers going out, looking to find another genre, another influence, another style to corrupt and feed back into creative melting pot. Yes, they don’t always hit the mark, but take the album as a whole and one can’t help but be amazed at the constant desire to try something new – to push the genre of popular music into new territories and sounds – it’s what we hope all artists should be doing, right?
The criticism that is often thrown at the White Album is that it would have made an amazing standard, ‘single’ disc album rather than the 30 song double album it finally became. True: if you slimmed it down to the most well known tracks (‘Back in the USSR’, ‘While my Guitar Gently Weep’s etc) and a couple of fans’ favourites (‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Julia’ etc) it would probably be amongst their best, but you would strip this album of what makes it so impressive – the schizophrenic switching of styles, genres, moods and direction – you would lose the whole point: the White Album exists to show what is possible within the confines of popular music – it pushes the boundaries but never steps too far.
It would be a dull process to list all the ‘source’ materials that can be found in this album, but needless to say children’s songs, reggae, 1920s dance-hall music, heavy metal, traditional blues, western-style saloon music, country and Henry Mancini film scores (amongst others) all feature in one place or another. When you consider that several tracks are solo, acoustic guitar ballads (of the more ‘traditional’ pop song persuasion) it heightens the effect of this musical menagerie. The most infamous track on the album is the eight minute long ‘Revolution 9’ – a nightmarish cacophony of tape loops, sound effects, dislocated vocal effects and distortion. There can’t be many fans of the band that have listened to the track more than once, and ‘Love Me Do’ it certainly isn’t. It shows the growing influence of Yoko Ono and her interest in the Avant Garde and sort of mirrors similar developments in the ‘art’ music world at the time (Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968-69 utilises similar effects in an ‘acoustic’ fashion with large chunks of Samuel Beckett read aloud amongst snippets of Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and others). Although a fascinating experiment – it is literally just that, and it is, perhaps, the one point where the White Album falls down – the Rubicon has been crossed, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water and what is possible in pop music has imploded.
Yes, the White Album is voguish, patchy and the quasi-political angst of several songs grates a little in light of subsequent events. BUT, I would challenge even the most die-hard-pop-denier to not appreciate the ambition and scope of this album – it’s all there. I recommend listening to it all in one go. Well, maybe skip ‘Don’t Pass Me By’.