In some respects, The Beatles (much better known as “The White Album”) is the anti-album: not only is it most certainly not any kind of “concept album,” it hardly seems to cohere at all (this despite the segues between tracks being quite tight – rather a curious choice, it would seem). It is, as many have noted, almost more like a series of solo songs than an album by one band.
All true…but one thing that seems to have gotten lost in that analysis is this: If you set aside the obvious bits of filler, solo stuff (good and not-so-good), genre exercises, etc., the remaining, full-band tracks present the Beatles’ loudest, hardest-rocking album ever. (It helps that Paul uses a very blunt, punchy bass sound here, one he uses pretty much exclusively on this album.) Imagine an EP consisting of the following White Album tracks: “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “…Me and My Monkey,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Yer Blues,” and “Savoy Truffle.” And consider that “Revolution” was recorded at the same time as The White Album, although released only as part of a single. Or fill it out with slightly less loud, full-band tracks (mostly John’s), and imagine a full-length single album called Revolution, with the following track listing:
- Back in the U.S.S.R.
- Dear Prudence
- Glass Onion
- …Me and My Monkey
- Sexy Sadie
- Helter Skelter
- I’m So Tired
- Yer Blues
- Savoy Truffle
- …Bungalow Bill
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- Happiness Is a Warm Gun
- Cry Baby Cry
- Revolution 1
Not quite as full-bore rocking as the hypothetical EP, and some fine songs from the actual White Album are missing (I’m sure people would have their substitutions), but such an album would have done two things: demonstrate a side of the band that had been if not neglected, certainly overlooked…and show that John was reasserting himself as a songwriter after a period during which Paul seemed to have been leading the band’s direction in the wake of Brian Epstein’s death.
So am I saying the band should have stuck to a single-album release (albeit one that’s 52 minutes long) and ditched the rest of the songs or relegated them to b-sides? Actually, not at all: first, as I said, some very good songs are missing, but more important, this is one of those kitchen-sink albums whose range and diversity are part of its point. In that context, even the apparently throwaway tracks (“Wild Honey Pie,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”…) have their place – and anyway, they’re nicely short.
Except, of course, the Frankenstein-monster of an elephant in the room: “Revolution 9.” If there a contest to list the “most obnoxious Beatles song,” this one would win easily (if we allow songs not officially released during the band’s career, the next few titles on that list would be “What’s the New Mary Jane,” and “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” – of course, I like them all). And while I’m sure many might think The White Album would be much better without it, I strongly disagree. Side 4 of the original LP release (from “Revolution 1” through “Good Night”) is an illustration of why…and how, ultimately, this is an album in the rock-critic sense of the word: just as “Revolution 9” is not a random assemblage but a thoughtfully composed orchestration of sound, The White Album is not merely a collection of songs.
“Revolution 1” presents a slower, vaguely country-ish, definitely stoned-sounding variation of the earlier “Revolution” single (although it was recorded first), which is followed by perhaps Paul’s treacliest genre exercise, the swing-band pastiche “Honey Pie.” So far, we just have a sort of wild contrast…but if “Honey Pie,” while charming, is a bit too sweet, it’s rather wittily followed by George’s “Savoy Truffle” – a song about the painful dental consequences of his friend Eric Clapton’s addiction to sweets (one of Clapton’s less-harmful addictions, it would prove). After the restless, dense texture of that song, John’s “Cry Baby Cry” follows: open-sounding, primarily piano, bass, and drums (plus that peculiarly wheezy organ used also on “Long, Long, Long” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), it’s a sort of vaguely unsettling reverie after the agitation of “Savoy Truffle.” And then comes “Revolution 9” (after an interlude that’s banded as part of “Cry Baby Cry” but which is really a fragment of an unfinished McCartney song, generally known as “Can You Take Me Back”). In fact the rest of the side has prepared us for this track (which developed organically from the long, extended jam version of “Revolution 1” – that version was widely available on the internet earlier this year), in its range of supplemental textures (brass backing “Revolution 1,” the woodwind trio under “Honey Pie,” the noisy, compressed saxes of “Savoy Truffle,” and the swirling background sounds on “Cry Baby Cry”) and stylistic promiscuity, it comes as a sort of summary, a dream/nightmare tossing-together of the ingredients of the rest of the sounds of this album, this side in particular.
And, of course, “Revolution 9” is followed by “Good Night.” While that song might itself earn a place on “most obnoxious Beatles song,” I think, first of all, it’s a fine melody. More to the point of The White Album considered as album, it could not possibly work anywhere else but following “Revolution 9.” The intentionally over-the-top blanket of orchestration certainly has a parodic element…but after the chaos of “Revolution 9,” it’s positively reassuring, Ringo’s everyman voice conveying a sort of return to normality. But if the orchestration weren’t slightly parodic, almost sinister in its sedate fifties decor sound, the effect of the sequence might be almost too conservative, too reassuring: that note of parody, of subversive wit, actually redeems the sequence from disavowing the chaos of the rest of the side.
You could, in fact, imagine the last three tracks in particular as a sort of homage to childhood: the strangeness of play, the terror of nightmares, and the reassurance of Dad that everything, in the end, will be . . . alright. And then you remember Lennon’s agonized screams of “alright!” in “Revolution 9,” and shiver. Cumulatively, despite the abundance of playfulness, nostalgia, tenderness, and reg’lar ol’ rockin’ on The White Album, there’s something of a nightmare underlying it, something odd, strange, and incomprehensible. Might be the tensions in the band, might be the tensions of the time…and while one certainly not blame the Beatles for the horrific excesses of Charles Manson’s interpretations, had Manson stuck to being a music critic, one cannot deny he was onto something. The stark, blank whiteness of the album’s cover conceals a troubling sense of unease, unsettlement, unrest.