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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.
Ok, so in part one of this feature, we discussed the first 17 tracks of the Beatles epic double album known affectionately as the "White Album". Now we will continue with the remainder of this musical masterpiece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of it's release this month.
The Beatles don't hold back and keep things going with another hard hitting rocker to start off this second half, one that's also got an ironic twist. "Birthday" is exactly what you'd expect... a rock and roll birthday song, like the Beatles own version of "Happy Birthday". It may sound strange and a little too gimmicky if you're unfamiliar with this album, but it's a rocker for sure, and infectiously fun and silly to boot. Lennon takes a bit of a shot at the British blues scene in "Yer Blues", which although a bit satirical at heart, is still a pretty killer blues song that is soulful, powerful and gritty. This one is another personal favorite of mine because it just feels so authentic and has a great driving blues style. If you ever get the chance to check out the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus footage, there's a sweet live take of this song featuring Lennon, Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards... I shared the clip from that footage way back in the early days of this site. You can read that post here: Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus on PBS
McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son" is another beautifully folksy track. The additional horns hearken back slightly other earlier albums, but they don't become overbearing and add color while maintaining a bit of the stripped down feel that is the most noticeable thing about this album when comparing it the rest of the Beatles works. They return to rocking out with the hard hitting "Everyone's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey", with it's complex interwoven and syncopated guitar parts and lyrics developed during Lennon's time in India with the Maharishi. This song is another personal favorite of mine because it's actually pretty complex musically and rhythmically, but locks in so well that it doesn't necessarily seem like it and just rocks out and is a lot of fun instead.
"Sexie Sadie" is another song developed during Lennon's time in India, this time perhaps taking a direct shot at the Maharishi (this one was supposedly written after Lennon thought the guru was taking more than a spiritual interest in Mia Farrow and was even initially titled "Maharishi"). Motivation aside though, the song is bluesy with a soulful melodic progression, especially in the vocal parts that works really well as in a bit of contrast to it's more biting lyrical content.
And then of course there's "Helter Skelter"... a song that will forever remain in infamy as part of the madness of Charles Manson... although the entire "White Album" is connected to him really... but also as so much more than that.
This is one of my favorite Beatles tracks of all time, another favorite from this album and is the hardest, heaviest song on the record. Screeching fuzzed out guitar lines and a pounding driving bass, it is at the very least proto punk, and you could argue almost borderline proto metal in it's intensity. I've heard songs that have guitars a thousand times heavier and more distorted than "Helter Skelter," yet they can't even come close to touching it for sheer raw rock and roll power. The background horns and sound effects as the song fades in and out speak not only of the psychedelic experimentation of the past, but also of the noise rock of bands like the Stooges that would come in the future. An incredible song that was very much ahead of it's time, and still sounds powerful and intense to this day.
By contrast Harrison's "Long Long Long" is soft and sweepingly beautiful in it's subtlety and fragility, while still maintaining a touch of eastern flavor and mysticism. The more bluesy version of Lennon's classic "Revolution 1" follows. Where as the single version has screaming fuzz guitar and matches "Helter Skelter" in terms of bordering on proto punk, this version is more pulled back with blasts of horns emphasizing the melody, acoustic guitars and more subtle electric leads. The message still comes through perfectly clear though, but where the single version is like being hit upside the head with a hammer, this is more like a gentle tap and push in the right direction.
"Honey Pie" is like the counterpoint to "Wild Honey Pie" with it's jazzy feel and upbeat style that still sounds straight out of the 40s or earlier, just more out of a classy club instead of the backwoods. Harrison comes back with another rocker in "Savory Truffle" that seems to be the most connected to his later solo work with massive saxophone sound, gritty guitar textures and tons of soul. Lennon's "Cry Baby Cry" is another personal favorite of mine. It has a something of a subtle bluesy-ness to it that I really like, plus some lyrics that are really beautiful in their simplicity.
Then "Revolution" returns, but this time in the form of "Revolution 9" an ultra experimental collage of tape loops and snippets that range from spoken word to orchestral, to weird bits of indecipherable backward sounds... and it goes on for about 8 minutes. Surely some people will be unable to tackle the sort of musical acid trip that is "Revolution 9", but it isn't entirely without merit. I would urge any open minded music lover to give it my soon to be patented "headphones in a dark room" treatment as there's something amongst the bursts of noise and the chaos that creates something beyond psychedelic, bordering on chilling at times and crossing that border into almost frightening in others. It's the ultimate conclusion to the earlier experimentation of songs like "Tommorrow Never Knows" and "A Day in the Life" and although perhaps not the easiest listen, is certainly a testament to the band's creativity, innovation and commitment to creating something artistic and new.
In sharp contrast to that, the schmaltzy "Good Night" closes the album. Ringo sings this one softly as strings craft a dense orchestration that somehow still doesn't lose that stripped down feel despite being so rich. In many ways, this is the perfect close to an album so varied and adventurous, serving as sort of the subtle warm and fuzzy coda, or the sweet deep sleep after the dream/nightmare of "Revolution 9".
And there you have it... the "White Album" in all it's glory, and yet you can look so much deeper than just the musical surface.
As I mentioned in part one, I find that the satirical nature of many of these songs is part of what makes them so good. The Beatles were always known as having a great sense of humor and allowing that to come through in their work, but on this album its a little different. Songs are delivered in a manor that they come off as just being straight forward rock songs, not necessarily revealing if they are satirical on first glance. With songs like "Back in the USSR", "Yer Blues," 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" you might have to ask yourself if they're really being serious... but then will quickly agree that these are obviously tongue and cheek. Other tracks like "Martha My Dear" (McCartney's tribute to his dog) and "Birthday,", the very act of writing the song is a bit of satire... I mean come on in the age of intelligent progressive rock and roll that the late 60s were... A song written about your dog even if it doesn't appear to be about said dog? A new "happy birthday" song? Absurd... just absurd all over the place. And lets not forget "Glass Onion", written purposefully with as many fake clues and images as possible to give conspiracy theorists something to struggle with... when really the whole thing is a laugh... I mean how ridiculous is that?
It's that kind of use of humor, satire and irony in their songwriting that I think make this album so unique and innovative. On their earlier works, they experimented with psychedelic imagery and different rock and roll styles, and although they have written songs with a satirical edge before ("Taxman" comes to mind), they never had to quite this extent. Instead, here they're experimenting with different perceptions and what songwriting can be by writing serious songs; songs that appear to be serious, but aren't; songs that sound about one thing, but are really about another and songs that are completely absurd. And then they put them all on the same album creating something of a satirical concept album of sorts, sort of mocking other concept albums for being so serious all the time.
Of course, that also makes for an album with a large range of material, something that some people might consider a bad thing, making the album feel more like a collection of songs from different songwriters or one that could have used to serious editing. I don't think either of those are the case though. Instead, I think the range of material and styles, combined with the humor and satire, make for a very accurate portrait of the Beatles personalities... sort of like a window into their world, nix editing, censorship and explanation... just raw snapshots we're left to decipher or try to at least.
Now, as always, maybe I'm reading into things a little bit... maybe not.. who cares, music is what you make of it. Still, I can certainly understand why some people can't get into this album... it is definitely one of the less accessible of Beatles albums on first listen. Still, I think that most people will find at least a few tracks they like, and many more will really dig the complete work in all it's satirical, varied goodness.
Plus, it's the freakin' Beatles "White Album"...even the name is legendary... it's gotta be a must have, and in my book it most definitely is.
So, on this upcoming anniversary of The Beatles (lets call it be it's true title at least once)... get out those headphones and let it play straight through. If perhaps you've never listened to this one... well that is pretty shocking... I think it's time to take a listen. If you're a long time listener like I am, then I hope that by hearing my thoughts you might have been inspired to look at it in a new way, one you haven't before.
The cover may have only been white, but the music it contained was some of the Beatles' richest, most colorful and most interesting from their entire catalog... Here's to the "White Album", as it turns 40.
You can go back to part one here: Rock and Roll Feature: The White Album, Part 1
You can check out this album from Amazon here directly: The Beatles (The White Album)