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This is the twenty-second in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
When it comes to the rock and roll pantheon, there are few albums that can attest to covering as much range as this month's feature. First appearing on the scene in late 1968, this double album hints at styles ranging from rock, reggae, folk blues and country to proto punk and progressive experimentalism. To some, this is a mark of an album without focus or one that could have been better edited, but when the band is the Beatles, you have to at the very least take second look.
In November of 1968, the Beatles released their most expansive album to date, a slightly stripped down departure from some of their more orchestral moments that reflected the times (post summer of love). Although actually self titled, it would come to be known simply as the "White Album". Come around November 22, it will be the 40th anniversary of this monumental release, and so it seemed appropriate to make it this, and next, month's feature... that's right, this is just so big that it's going to be a two month feature.
When it comes to Beatles albums, there's such a wide range to pick from, and although I like them all for different reasons, their later works seem to be the ones I tend to gravitate to, especially this album. I might be slightly jaded because I'm such a big Beatles fan in general, but I might even consider this as one of my top ten favorite albums of all time. There's just something I like about the stripped down, yet still complex textures, varied styles and unique, often times satirical, or slightly absurdist, charm that I really like. Sure, it may be more of a combination of their individual songwriting rather than a cohesive group effort, and yes... it may have served as inspiration for one of histories most disturbing individuals... but I still think that there are enough classic tracks, and solid rock and roll contained on this album to make it a great complete work and a must have for just about everyone.
Because this isn't just a double album, but a rather long one at that (30 tracks), I decided to break up this feature into two parts. This first part will deal first 17 tracks, with part two concentrating on the remainder as well as some analysis etc.
Of course, the greatest rock and roll band of all times starts off their most expansive album with a rocker, but a unique one at that. "Back in the USSR" combines stripped down driving rock and roll with a touch of surf (just a touch of both, Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and the Beach Boys "California Girls" to be exact) and giving it an ironic twist. The humor, satire and irony are what I think goes most often overlooked about this album, and are a big part of what makes it great, but more on that later.
Blended seamlessly with "Back in the USSR" is one of my favorite Lennon songs. "Dear Prudence" with it's chimey sound and sweeping texture is sort of a dreamy psychedelic number that is complex, but still feels more minimalist and simple than some of the Beatles earlier works. "Glass Onion" is also a rocker, with a bit of psychedelia thrown in and maybe a little British R&B beat (maybe), but it's Lennon's dense imagery laced lyrics that make it really interesting. There's reference to at least five different Beatles songs as he crafts something designed to feed some of the Beatles more conspiracy minded fans. The fun of "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" comes from it's lighthearted reggae infused beat and bouncy style, plus it's just a killer sing-along. The ultra short "Wild Honey Pie" continues the fun in with a uniquely folksy, but raw kind of charm sounding straight out of the 40s, while Lennon's absurdist hunting tale "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" is a genuine folk stomp... and another sing-along. The latter of those two is also one of my favorites from this album because it's just so bitingly absurd and funny, while not sounding too over the top, or falling short or ironic.
If I was going to pick one defining track from this album though,it be tough, but surely 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps" would be in the running. One of Harrison's best songs from his entire career in my opinion, it's bluesy, haunting, beautiful and psychedelic all at once. Top it off with a guest appearance by Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and you have a timeless masterpiece from start to finish. One of my favorite Beatles tracks, if not one of my favorite songs of all time... just incredible. As a guitarist, I'm especially fond of Clapton's lead work on this one as in my opinion it is one of the best statements of his mastery of the subtleties of the electric guitar outside of Cream.
Lennon follows that one up with his own classic track, and another favorite of mine: "Happiness is a Warm Gun". Bluesy, trippy and complex with shifting melodic ideas, tempos, styles and lyrics, it was originally written as at least two separate songs then combined, and in fact some demo versions feature additional sections that aren't in the final recording. Lennon's lyrics are at his most biting, sung straight faced, but with perhaps a touch of a sneer and definitely with a laugh following. It's a pretty sharp contrast on first glance to McCartney's "Martha My Dear", a sweet bouncy number with horns and a rolling melody. On further inspection though, these two might seem more tied together through humor and irony than one might expect, especially when you find out that "Martha" was McCartney's dog at the time.
"I'm So Tired" is a bluesy number that's got a great chord progression and beat, especially as it shifts towards the harder sections with gritty guitars and vocals. Although it's not nearly as high profile as some of the classics, I think this is one of the best songs on this album... even if it isn't say... "Blackbird", which follows.
One of the more misunderstood songs (at least in my opinion and experience), McCartney's "Blackbird" with it's folksy guitar and imagery laced, soulful lyrics hide the songs true focus: a tribute to the Black Power movement of the late 60s. Political undertones aside, it's still a beautiful piece through and through, which explains why it's still one of the Beatles, and McCartney's most well known songs.
Harrison takes a stab at political and social ideas himself on his delightfully amusing "Piggies," complete with massive closing chords and animal sounds throughout. "Rocky Raccoon" on the other hand, takes a story, sets it to folksy guitar, honky-tonk piano and harmonica and creates a sort of absurdist cowboy shootout complete, just maybe, with a touch or two of social comment and tongue and cheek.
Ringo gets his turn to shine with the swaying, rollicking "Don't Pass Me By", which also has a bit of folk and country to underpin it's upbeat feel, before McCartney returns with the delightfully raunchy and jokey "Why Don't We Do It in the Road"...another short, but thumping rocker, that is also a bit of a satirical shot... if you chose to view it that way. "I Will" and "Julia" (a stirring tribute to Lennon's mother) on the other hand are both just simple folksy ballads, with the first being a touch more lighthearted, and the latter just hauntingly beautiful. I'm especially fond of both of these songs as I think they're both great examples of some of the best songwriting from each of their writers, McCartney and Lennon respectively.
With that we've concluded the first 17 tracks of the infamous "White Album". Sure you could argue that there are some songs that could have been edited out to create something more cohesive, but there's a definite charm to all it's diversity.
And it only gets more diverse, more satirical and biting... some might even say stranger and more difficult to listen to... but also more rewarding, as we delve into the second half.
Check out part two of this rock and roll feature here: Rock and Roll Feature: The White Album, Part 2