The White Album sees the Fab Four at their most experimental, their angriest, and some would say their best. A true epic, the band enters further into uncharted territory with sounds unheard, ideas expounded never before, lyrical flourishes and weirdness all put to glorious sound and noise. Unfortunately for an album with so many songs and with so many ideas (not to mention the band chasing the dragon around on some plain just above the rest of our heads) it has many flaws. Some things don’t come off well, there is a lot of nonsense, some duff songs, and plenty of filler. Most fans who don’t see this as their best album agree that if this had been cut down it could have been much better. The good stuff that we do have ranges from classic Harrison ballads to McCartney blues romps and Lennon’s drug fuelled madness. There are plenty of fun moments, plenty of offbeat treats, but the days of the happy mop haired lads is long gone. From here on we are left with more coarse and hard edged guitar tracks as the group began to implode.
`Back In the USSR’ opens the album in a fairly rocking fashion with some ye olde fast piano playing slpiced with the modern sounds of a jet plane. McCartney sings in a clearly more gruff way hinting at the maturity, experimentation, and arguments within the band at the
time. Ringo was absent so the rest of the band took up his duties, not that this is noticeable. The lyrics speak of the excitement and relief of flying back home to be with all the ladies and is a clear homage to The Beach Boys. The Californian interlude is quite authentic.
`Dear Prudence’ fades in gently offering an opposite to what the first song displayed. Lennon’s tribute to Mia Farrow’s sister who joined them India only to stay in her room and meditate most of the time. It builds to a jamming climax accompanied by some nice guitar
before coming down to an acoustic fade out.
`Glass Onion’ returns to the heavier feel while referencing many old Beatles hits. The lyrics are deliberately messy and confusing, full of potential mystery and ideas. Mostly it is Lennon having a laugh at obsessive fans and critics obsessing over every lyric, and a challenge for them to decipher.
`Ob La Di Ob La Da’ is a McCartney ditty, a nonsense but nonetheless catchy pop song. It sounds like the band are having fun, contrary to what was actually happening, but also highlights the experimenting mode they were in when they first came up with it.
`Wild Honey Pie’ is an experimental piece with strange guitars, voices and other noises. Basically it is the group stoned, banging together whatever was close to hand and still managing to make a song out of it.
`The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ features a line from Yoko but is more notable for Lennon’s excellent sarcastic lyrics. He sings of a rich American who they knew for a while who happened to go hunting and kill a tiger. Lennon saw him as an upper class mummy’s boy taking an all expenses paid trip to India for some enlightenment that he could then relate to his equally rich friends. The chorus is catchy enough, the song ends in ironic applause and whistling. With a more interesting verse melody it could have been great.
`While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is Harrison’s famous downbeat sounding song about Eastern philosophy, yin yang, everything relating to everything and everyone. It features Clapton on guitar and is usually included in most lists of greatest guitar songs ever. The organs, effects, and Harrison’s vocals combine to create a trippy mood although it was probably intended to sound other worldy.
`Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ is a constantly evolving song with time and tone shifts as well as each part sounding musically distinct. Each part is linked by the gun imagery, and it inspired countless imitators from Halo Of Flies to Bohemian Rhapsody to Paranoid Android. Many of the ideas on the album don’t come off as well as they should have but on this song everything fits.
`Martha My Dear’ is McCartney’s music hall tribute, evoking images of old couple swirling about to gentle piano led songs. The lyrics oppose the feel of the song with thinly veiled insults to past lovers. Many dispute the song’s reference point- McCartney’s dog, his muse, his ex. As with most things it is a mixture of each influence.
`I’m So Tired’ was recorded at 3am, written about Lennon’s insomnia, and has a clear drowsy feel. There is emotional fatigue, the lyrics are angry, and the chorus livens things up.
`Blackbird’ is one of the better songs on the album, harkening back to simpler, more pop times. It is a typical McCartney song, singing of yearning, freedom, with some racial issues thrown in to satisfy the revolutionaries.
`Piggies’ is an interesting Harrison song featuring harpsichord and strings to give a baroque feel- a time noted for wealth and extravagance. This mirrors the lyrics as Harrison sings Orwell style of the rich people as piggies, rolling around in their opulence. Ironic yes given their own wealth, but at this time the group were rejecting all ideas of materialism. Charles Manson felt this was a large influence on his Helter Skelter plan, leading to the deaths of those he felt needed `a damn good
`Rocky Raccoon’ is a folk style McCartney song with Dylan leanings. There is a Cowboy movie style piano and acoustic guitar played over some storybook lyrics. It rounds off the `animal trilogy’.
`Don’t Pass Me By’ is Ringo’s first solo composition. He does his best with the vocals, though the lyrics are as bad as expected and the song has the same rolling down a hill in a shopping trolley rhythm. The strings offer a different feel from the other album tracks but it’s mostly forgettable.
`Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’ sees McCartney at his most metal, shrieking the lyrics in an attempt to match the sounds of Daltrey and Townsend. The lyrics simply speak of him seeing two monkeys at it, inspiring the primal, animal instincts in all of us.
`I Will’ is a rather simple, soft love song from McCartney to Linda. The lyrics call back to the early days when music was more important than the words. The song is catchy enough but lacks anything truly memorable.
`Julia’ closes the first side, Lennon’s only solo Beatles song. Unfortunately it is mostly tuneless as the lyrics are good and he sings and plays well. With a stronger melody this could have been a much better song.
`Birthday’ opens the second side in heavy style, blasting out with one of the most famous guitar riffs. It builds and changes with chugging chords, distorted notes, and swirling effects laden piano. It was a clear attempt to return to a more simple rock’n’roll and blues style and leads nicely into the next song.
`Yer Blues’ continues the heavier, dirtier feel with an almost Zeppelin-esque song. It showcases Lennon’s personal demons, depression, and suicidal thoughts. It’s a song which it is hard not to jump around to, filled with good drum parts and intertwining guitar solos. Performing this song for the Stones Rock n Roll Circus renewed Lennon’s love for playing live after years in the wilderness.
`Mother Nature’s Son’ is a better McCartney ballad inspired as with most of the other songs here by his time with the Maharishi,
except here it pays off well musically. The lyrics are suitably ideal, the melodies gentle and hard to shake.
`Everybody’s Got Something To hide…’ is Lennon’s view of his relationship with Yoko and all the negative feelings towards it. They felt they were in love while everyone else was paranoid and edgy. The song is quite heavy with a loud riff at the end of the chorus. Some have also claimed that it is more about Lennon’s heroin addiction.
`Sexy Sadie’ has the famous piano part which sounds like Karma Police but it’s almost insignificant. It is an average Lennon song with some nice, angry lyrics, some strange effects on the vocals and an up and down rhythm.
`Helter Skelter’ was McCartney’s main attempt to make the heaviest, dirtiest, most rock song out there in a time when The Who and other English R’nB bands were taking noise levels moonwards. To an extent it works, the drums are great, the guitar is pretty loud and riff laden, and McCartney sings at his loudest. The Helter Skelter motion of the song is notable, everything swirls and comes around upon itself. This song was one of the major influences on Manson’s already destructive mind as he believed the lyrics contained veiled messages and calls to war. The song fades in and out a few times at the end to good effect, and proves that McCartney was more than a ballad writer.
`Long Long Long’ is a soft Harrison ballad with good drum and piano parts. The deliberately bad production is annoying though and makes it too difficult to listen to.
`Revolution 1′ may be the most famous, most popular song on the album. It is a traditional Beatles song, filled with melody and ideology, with a few guitar effects and plenty of instruments clanging together brilliantly. The version here differs quite a bit from the single most people know, but all the hallmarks of a great song lie in both.
`Honey Pie’ is another unusual song from McCartney showing his seeming obsession with older styles of music around this time. There is a clear WWII vibe and I can’t help hear it now without thinking of Allo Allo or Wish Me Luck. The lyrics speak of a young English woman who makes it big in Hollywood only for her old lover back home to call her to return.
`Savoy Truffle’ is a good song to listen to while raiding the fridge. It is quite jazzy, with lots of brass and guitars, lots of timing shifts and is one of the more upbeat songs on the album.
`Cry Baby Cry’ is based on a nursery rhyme from Lennon’s youth, features the Harmonium again but isn’t a very exciting or interesting song. The lyrics are fine but the music isn’t particularly inspired. It segues into an unreleased song at the end which really should have been included instead, but can be found on bootlegs.
`Revolution 9′ is probably the most experimental piece the band ever produced, a collage of sounds, words, clips, effects all smashed together to create something monstrous. It still sounds awesome today, but is pretty difficult to listen to more than once. It is like falling into a sewer and being swept naked at a million miles an hour through various viaducts of time, surrounded by sights you don’t want to see, like Terry Wogan playing golf with Jimmy Tarbuck’s leg instead of a nine. Understandably it still splits fans; it’s great.
`Good Night’ is a rather sumptuous ending, almost like a Disney composition. Ringo does very well here, the strings are beautiful and the backing singers give it all a good night lullaby feel. It is deliberately lovely, cheesy, but looking past all that it is a pretty good song, and a great ending.
The White Album was the final great departure for the band. Break ups and bust ups followed and everyone agreed they should go back to their roots to try to hold on to their success. At times it is boring, at times it is brilliant but on previous albums the brilliance overshadowed everything else. Here there are simply too many songs and many tracks either don’t work at all or don’t live up to the expectation. This is still the favourite of many fans, largely because it tries so much, covers so much, is brave and unlike anything else. Full marks for trying, full marks for breaking new ground, but mostly (for The Beatles) average songs.