The Beatles, more commonly known as the White Album, turns 50 today. A difficult, brilliant hulk of an album, it’s spent five decades defying the many questions it throws up. Is it the band’s best album? Is it the start of their break up? What is Honey Pie all about?
But no question comes larger than the one that emerged after a chance remark from producer George Martin in the 1970s: Should the Fab Four’s only double-LP have just been one disc? Is there an undisputed best-in-class single album in there? This Jokerside aims to find out…
“It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album”
FOR A WHILE THE BEATLES’ NINTH STUDIO ALBUM WAS TITLED A DOLL’S HOUSE; AT FIRST THOUGHT, THAT SEEMS THE PERFECT NAME. The double-LP White Album is a brilliantly difficult and perverse collection of songs that defy analysis as much as they demand it. The album has thrown up myriad questions over the past five decades, often encouraging contradictory answers. It’s an album packed with so-called ‘fillers’ that earn more attention than many bands’ lead singles. It’s the record of a band breaking up… Before they made another two, rather superb, albums (three if you count Yellow Submarine, which you shouldn’t).
One thing is certain, it’s a Fab Four album unlike any other. It may reference the Magical Mystery Tour that emerged a year before, but it’s nothing like it, even at its most whimsical; it lacks the experimental concept of Sgt Pepper, perhaps even reacting against it. The contents could be the jumbled interior of a doll’s house, with all the nostalgia in oddly assembled and matched tidbits it implies. But that’s not quite the whole story.
The White Album features some of the Beatles’ greatest optimistic highs, but there’s also an undeniable and persistent air of menace running through it. Many songs referencing death and violence. Not unusual in the Beatles canon, but never so intense, and treated so disconcertingly. Behind it sits a unique discordance; an otherworldly sound that is carried in every song, often with an bubbling and winding melody or percussion line, but remains remarkably elusive. It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album. Take Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it, or the thinned out back to basics approach of Let It Be (Spector production notwithstanding) that would hammer real splinters into the cracks of the band shortly afterwards. Both those albums have echoes or foreshadowing. But they both hold together in a wholly different way; the White Album endures as a puzzle unlike anything else.
Long, Long, Long time together?
Could the White Album be the record that broke the Beatles apart? John Lennon would explicitly state that sometime later, and there were undoubtedly fraught times during the sessions. Ringo left the band at one point (at least), perennial recording engineer Geoff Emerick refused to work on the album as the tension boiled over, and of its 30 songs, only 16 feature every Beatle; a fair few only have two. That’s a bold step away from the cohesive Fab Four that had quickly risen to the peak of western culture just over half a decade before.
The emergence of four separate artists had never been more evident, and that’s clear in the Esher demos – the acoustic demoing of many album tracks at George Harrison’s house prior to entering into the studio. Some however, would have to wait until Abbey Road in 1969 (Lennon’s Polythene Pam, Mean Mr Mustard…). There are Harrison efforts that would find an audience on his later solo albums. Most notably, the song that would become Lennon’s Jealous Guy failed to pass the cut in 1968. As Lennon appears to have suffered the most cast-offs, a fair few of the notable standalone songs are Paul McCartney’s.
But the tapes and anecdotes around the sessions have never seemed that extreme. The Esher demos, and the trawls of session tapes that Giles Martin used to craft his 2018 anniversary remaster struggle to portray a band at war. The banter and collaboration throughout the finished album is undeniable – an extension of Sgt Pepper’s production. But most importantly, there’s the music itself. Despite the standalone efforts, the quality of the instrumentation when they’re all in the same room, or on one occasion, an Abbey Road cupboard, is the sign of a band at the peak of their collaboration and understanding. The experimentation, far wilder and less contained than Sgt Pepper’s structure allowed, and the subsequent results, couldn’t come from a group that wasn’t getting on. Some of the great examples of the Beatles’ differing interests and tastes complementing each other’s come on the White Album. Harrison’s gentle eastern-influenced guitar lines behind Dear Prudence are a great example of that. Perhaps no coincidence that’s one of Lennon’s favourite Beatles songs. It’s phenomenal.
The title A Doll’s House may seem a good fit for the disparate elements contained within this single, plain-covered setting, influenced by the external, but self-contained in their own environment. But that doesn’t quite capture the album’s other oddity: the journey that emerges from these seemingly isolated songs. There is a definite rise and a definte fall, thematically and musically (the animal trilogy, the classical peak at the cusp of the first disc, the experimentation trail at the end).
What is be easily dismissed as filler is revealed over the course of the album as willful distraction and artifice. It all adds up to the change throughout the double LP that Martin Jr has described as “shocking”.
It’s all too much, as Harrison would later sing, perhaps because this is the Beatles’ only studio double. That’s the rub. It’s easy to suggest that this is the moment, even for a band powering out more than an album a year, that saw their selection process slip. It was fuelled by George Martin’s observations on the quantity of songs the band were working on at the time, and the solo albums that soon appeared. But was a single album even possible? Was there a goal behind the double that appeared that necessitated that breadth?
They clearly excised some songs early on. As mentioned above, Child of Nature, later Jealous Guy, was ousted by McCartney’s similarly themed Mother Nature’s Child. And some of the ‘filler’ is clearly more mischievous than others, as they roped in backing support more conspicuously than ever before (Yoko Ono? Patti Harrison?), crafting a riddle deeper than Sgt Pepper. If the White Album isn’t the malaise of a rudderless group then, splintering a year after manager Brian Epstein’s death, is it all part of a grand design?
The Beatles were incredibly consistent with the number of tracks pressed onto their studio albums up to the White Album’s release. Only three of their previous nine LPs failed to have a balanced seven tracks a side. So, using the tools of subjectivity, themes and riddle, let’s take an axe to that doll’s house and see if the White Album can be whittled down to a 14 track album, even 50 years on.
And most of all, let’s find out if it should.
The White Album – Yes or No?
Back in the USSR – NO
Paul powers the drums on his witty, Beach Boys risposte. It’s a storming opener to the album, but we can’t overlook that it’s a pastiche. The Beatles awareness of their contemporaneity is handled far better elsewhere, not least in the 29 tracks that follow. Mostly, we admit, there’s a perverse pleasure in hearing this album without the song that absolutely fails to set what’s to follow.
Dear Prudence – YES
Must not be affected by the beautiful melody line that fades in from Back in the USSR. A key exhibit in the case for the White Album’s difference, Dear Prudence is far removed from the LSD jams of Sgt Pepper. Here’s a band on full pelt and self-referential, even if it lacks Ringo (McCartney takes drums again). The storming crescendos that change throughout, the definitive 60s message, though not stooping to parody or age… It was ready made to be Siouxsie and the Banshees’ biggest hit.
Green Onion – NO
One of this writer’s favourites, from the menacing rhythm to the revelling in recent Beatles history and conspiracy. A lot of time for it, but this list is harsh.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – YES
The Beatles do ska. Not easy to include as this album’s Yellow Submarine, the White Album is beyond such things. Rollicking good fun and thanks to the happy accident of the final verse, and its separation from the rest of the band’s oeuvre, it’s got to stay.
Wild Honey Pie – NO
Extraordinary, especially when balanced against Side 4’s Honey Pie. A fun ditty, it continues the long, yearning sound set by Dear Prudence, revved up through Green Onion and even present in the kerplunk piano of Ob-La-Di. A classic example of the Beatles’ brooking no answers. It’s inexplicable, and perhaps most interesting for demonstrating how this album can make the happiest refrains unsettling. For that, it fails the cut.
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill – NO
The dark subject matter in the structure of a expedition debrief and fairytale, with Ringo’s vocals high in the chorus mix, it foreshadows some of Lennon’s weightier Plastic Ono work. It’s one of the prime examples of Lennon mining the band’s recent history, only on this album things are more personal and more biting. But its quality doesn’t make the single LP.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps – NO
Controversial. From the interjections ‘Hey Up’ to the staccato piano and booming bass line, Weeps is proof like nothing else that George Harrison was overlooked. Listening to the Esher demos helps reveal more of its influence. But perhaps because it’s so White Album, it’s out. Wait for it…
Happiness Is a Warm Gun – YES
A fascinating multi-part song, and based on the demos, there could have been more parts. The closest to an album microcosm, from the melancholy to the symphonic to the rhythm and blues. Lennon termed it a, “history of rock ‘n’ roll”. As John Harris recently put it, this typifies the sound of an album recorded at twilight. Simultaneously personal and surreal, it was reputedly Harrison and McCartney’s favourite song on the album. That could be because of the intense collaboration required to make it work. For that reason, it’s in.
Martha My Dear – NO
A rather prancy Macca symphony sets the tone for the second side, but like the whimsy of When I’m 64 on Sgt Pepper there’s a little more to it. This is loaded with searching questions and dark chords. It’s a fine companion to some of the more revolutionary anthems that crept into crooners’ set-lists as the 1960s continued, but is badly affected by hindsight. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was a year away and coloured the trajectory of McCartney whimsy.
I’m So Tired – YES
Quite possibly the birth of stoner rock, along with the second disc’s Sexy Sadie. Some of the album’s finest lyrics include, “and curse the walls around me: He was such a stupid get” the Esher demos reveal the melodic similarity to Bungalow Bill, but this one wins as Lennon’s late-Beatles follow-up to I’m Only Sleeping. What a difference two years make.
Blackbird – YES
Despite taking the reins for Sgt Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album may be McCartney’s finest hour. Deceptively simple: inspired by Bach (Bourrée in E minor, which George and Paul both practised in their formative years), developed from finger-picking taught to Macca by Donovan, and later revealed to be one of the album’s subtle nods to politics (American civil rights). It’s also crucial in setting up the classical and animal-related themes heading to the heart of the album (if they make it).
Piggies – NO
A song with baggage, but apparently sparked from George Harrison’s questioning Paul about his silly songs. It’s satirical and sardonic, but regardless of its misappropriation in counter-culture, it could have been far subtler.
Rocky Raccoon – YES
The third animal-related song in a row, a poke at folk, and a catchy American ballad, with every Beatle involved and George Martin on honky-tonk. One of the album’s most covered, it’s simply essential.
Don’t Pass Me By – YES
Ringo’s first big moment on the album is a storming bunch of fun, with laugh out loud lyrics. Effectively a two-hander between him and McCartney, which is just as well considering the song’s lyrics, written by Ringo in 1962, were publicly mocked by Paul in 1964. Remorse has a place.
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? – NO
Perhaps an answer to the song before it? It’s a three-chord impromptu Macca wundersong that helps break down preconceptions about the clean-cut Beatles. But in taking himself off to record it virtually alone, this key point of isolation that would still earn Lennon’s ire years later, is solituded out…
I Will – YES
A definitive switch as McCartney’s melodious folk song follows the blistering vocal of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road? This would be a ‘maybe’ along with While My Guitar Gently Weeps but earns a place thanks to the glimmers of Beatles for Sale peeking through and Lennon on box percussion. It’s innovative and haunting; nostalgic for a time that’s impossibly recent.
Julia – YES
For all Lennon’s “hurt” that McCartney took himself to produce songs singlehanded, only Macca’s voice on the demos prevent this from being Lennon’s payback. It’s a stunning moment and one of John’s painfully biographic pieces. The end of the original single album, completing the classical rise of I Will. Included, not least, because of the injustice that it was later issued as a B-side to the band’s single of Ob-la-di ob-la-da.
Birthday – No
Rather mesmerising, silly, rocking – Birthday has an astonishing sound. Perhap it’s the peak of Lennon and McCartney’s collaboration on this album which says a lot a year or so after A Day in the Life. Lennon later termed it “rubbish,” but for all the enjoyment conjured up by a piece pretty much improvised in the studio…
Yer Blues – YES
Dark, howling, claustrophobic and eminently singable. As one of the select songs that they Fab Four all appear on, they naturally packed themselves in a claustrophobic cupboard at Abbey Road to capture this stripped back sound. Boy are we glad they did. Best viewed as a firm parry in the battle of Lennon and McCartney to nail the best blues-rock performance that runs through the Beatles’ later years.
Mother Nature’s Son – NO
A fitting, encapsulation of the post-Epstein era. It could rival Blackbird as McCartney’s finest contribution to the album, and duly kicked what would become Jealous Guy from the running order. Another McCartney one piece, according to engineer Geoff Emerick, it came at the height of tensions. So for this list, it’s pushed out the way by I WIll.
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey – NO
It’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong. Another in Lennon’s veiled, or not so veiled, drug songs. It’s pelting and fun, but leaves the other Beatles in its wake so misses a spot.
Sexy Sadie – NO
Languid excellence, picking up the soft rock of I’m So Tired. But as with that song, there’s a sting. Lucky to make the cut after Lennon’s searing criticism of the Maharishi morphed the title and sweary content. The discordant piano is captivating, the menace barely hidden, paving the way for the singer’s searing solo pieces like How Do You Sleep At Night? The other Beatles early reluctance, and reference to the band’s life off-camera, make this easier to chop.
Helter Skelter – YES
It’s worth including just for the way it comes back at the end. McCartney wanted to rival The Who with a loud and raucous song. There’s also a 27 minute hypnotic version, proving the idea transcends music. No doubt piqued by macca’s extraordinary vocal performance (see Yer Blues), in 1980 Lennon would say, “It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me”. (All Beatles were involved, including Lennon on backing vocals and bass).
Long, Long, Long – YES
A sign of intent, showing where George Harrison’s increased profile (heading into a solo career) would go; establishing what would become a trademark ambiguity, referencing spirituality and love on a scale of acceptance. There’ a lot going on in this deceptively quiet and haunting song, up to the disturbing, final, primal howl.
Revolution 1 – YES
Slower than you remember, thanks to the different versions that emerged. A nice counterpoint to Macca’s album opener, it’s the most overtly political song on the album, but not the most searing. Most interest lies in its excellent composition and Lennon hedging his bets.
Honey Pie – NO
There’s simply no need for this tribute to music hall on a single album, even if McCartney’s persistent fascination with it proves the major casualty of this cull.
Savoy Truffle – NO
Side Four is agony, as it’s where the treat of misdirection truly lies. It’s also particularly painful to shelve a Harrison track. Savoy Truffle isn’t easy to dismiss. For one, it reveals the remarkable solidarity of the album by referencing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. For another, some see this as the progenitor of glam rock. Sadly, none of this is enough.
Cry Baby Cry – YES
A song that needs to be on the Beatles’ 1968 record. Joining Julia as a skillful fusion of fairytale and contemporary culture, it may mean this album’s concept is far more complete than many think. It puts the Doll’s House in the piece and makes for a fine ending. McCartney’s Can You Take Me Back Where I Came From at the close, a copyright free improvisation, came from the I Will take. But in this trimmed album, makes for a lovely coda in the vein of A Day in the Life while removing its role as a rather sinister introduction to…
Revolution 9 – NO
We can’t conscionably include this on a single LP, as much as the Lennon-driven bat-crazy sampling speaks for much of the White Album’s intent, at least John’s “revolution using sound” left the opening for music that followed.
Good Night – NO
A fine way to finish the double album, with Ringo smoothly taking on Lennon’s lullaby (written for his son Julian) against George Martin’s lush arrangement. For once this is Lennon harking back to a bygone era, but as McCartney’s nostalgia has had short shrift in this pruning, it’s only fair to drop this too. So, Can You take Me Back Where I Came From, left as an open question…
Bonus: There would be little room on the disk (alright, maybe without Revolution 9 there would be a lot), but to stoke the controversy even further, we’d add in Hey Jude. Recorded in the White Album sessions but released three months before, it’s the Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields of this era so we’d be correcting two wrongs.
So there you go, a pruned single LP that looks like this:
- Dear Prudence
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
- Happiness Is a Warm Gun
- I’m So Tired
- Rocky Raccoon
- Don’t Pass Me By
- I Will
- Yer Blues
- Helter Skelter
- Long, Long, Long
- Revolution 1
- Cry Baby Cry
- Hey Jude
That’s a fine album. But it’s clearly doesn’t conjure up whatever it is the White Album is, not least because it’s cruelly removed the Harrison numbers. And that’s a teller, as Revolver’s Taxman explosively revealed, Harrison was the most salient, with an eye on either side of the circus.
Against an extraordinary year of unrest and politicism, a far stretch from the euphoria that surrounded 1966 and Revolver, where the references and musical development are far more cleancut, the White Album manages to be overtly political but fudge almost all of it. It tips the scale of whimsy, but keeps a cold dislocated heart. It’s the sound of a band breaking up who’ve never collaborated better. It’s the individual and the group like never heard before or since.
The White Album does something no other Beatles album could have done. Hugely affected by their Indian excursion shortly before, from Donovan’s musicality to Lennon’s cynicism the group’s whole awareness had leveled up, about themselves and their situation. With it came a new subtlety and controlled recklessness. What should be definable, a contrariness, was indefinable. Whatever genius was bottled in this band was brimming over, and there’s no greater proof than in the off-cuts. Making an album from the rejected songs tells its own story…
- Back in the USSR
- Green Onion
- Wild Honey Pie
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- Martha My Dear
- Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
- Mother Nature’s Son
- Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
- Sexy Sadie
- Honey Pie
- Savoy Truffle
- Revolution 9
- Good Night
Now isn’t that an interesting album? How did David Quantick put it? The White Album is an album you can never get bored of…