The Beatles' White Album 40th Anniversary
[21 November 2008]
by PopMatters Staff
25. Revolution 1
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: May 30-31, and June 1-4 and 21, 1968 at Abbey Road
It doesn't matter if it's your first time: you turn to side four
expecting novelty, but you've heard this all before. Listening in
2001, it's the same tune you heard covered at a 9/11 benefit. In
1987, you recognized the distorted guitars from a Nike ad; two years
earlier it was a Ford commercial. Even if you got there as early as
anyone, on November 22, 1968, "Revolution 1" was hardly
revolutionary. The real surprise came three months earlier when, on
August 28, the Beatles released their "Hey Jude" single, carrying on
its b-side both a musical and lyrical jolt to an unsuspecting
audience. This version, recorded six weeks after the album take, is
how "Revolution" entered the world.
Lennon had wanted to release the original recording, but was
overruled by his band mates who all thought it too slow. All parties
compromised a bit, and a faster, rougher version was recorded and
released, though never as a single. This likely had more than a
little to do with McCartney's other objection to the song: its
political content which he deemed a poor fit for the band's style.
"Revolution 1" is the most overtly political song the band ever
released, and it's this distinction that, its many musical merits
aside, earns the song so prominent a place in the Beatles canon.
Why Lennon wrote "Revolution" in 1968 is no mystery. For such a
socially engaged artist to have made it through that tumultuous year
without commenting on events through his work would have been the
real surprise. "You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We
all want to change the world": These lyrics are now familiar to the
point of cliché, but when they first flew off the aft side of a
7-inch, they were hardly platitudes. Thanks to the success of three
straight masterpieces (Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band), the Beatles had largely shed the image
cultivated in their early career and revealed a more mature, yet
undeniably playful, psychedelic flower power ethos. "Revolution"
played brilliantly against type.
"You say you'll change the constitution / Well, you know / We all
want to change your head / You tell me it's the institution / Well,
you know / You better free your mind instead." In a sense, Lennon's
lyrics are small-c conservative. They express skepticism about the
wisdom and efficacy of rapid social change and lament the futility of
mere finger-pointing. The slower pace of "Revolution 1" emphasizes
this mournful undercurrent, while the b-side's unrestrained roar
provides an ironically triumphalist counterpoint. But this certainly
isn't a right-wing song, no matter how aggressively the forces of
reaction try to lay claim to it (National Review once laughably named
it one of the 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs).
"But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna
make it with anyone anyhow." These are the lines conservatives most
emphasize in their attempts at appropriation, but it doesn't take a
staunch anticommunist to be troubled by the Great Leap Forward, and
besides, these lyrics are primarily an appeal to pragmatism. You
don't win converts by praising tyrants. So, Lennon's words weren't a
broad assault against the counterculture movement nor were they a
blanket dismissal of anti-war protestors. This was, after all, the
man who'd go on to write "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance". What
"Revolution" represents isn't partisan vitriol or mindless
self-denunciation, but the thoughtful, measured sentiments of a
politically engaged man who knew which side he was on, but wasn't
always comfortable with those standing next to him.
But agree or disagree with this interpretation, one fact remains
uncontroversial: few listeners experience "Revolution 1" outside the
context of The Beatles. It's the b-side that gets all the glory. It's
that version that you remember, that you hear in your mind at the
mere mention of the song, that you recognize spilling out from the
earbuds of a fellow subway passenger, and yes, it's that version that
sells you sneakers. Poor, overlooked "Revolution 1" just has to
settle for being one of the very best songs on one of the very best
albums by the greatest band of all time.
-- Nav Purewal
26. Honey Pie
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: October 1-2 and 4, 1968 at Trident Studios
In the book Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs,
"Honey Pie" doesn't rank, but is mentioned once. It's described as
"somewhat ridiculous". Somewhat ridiculous? It is ridiculous: a
dive-right-in tribute to British music hall, something akin to
vaudeville in the US. "Honey Pie" is fluff, albeit fluff with a great
melody and sharp musicianshipnot unlike much of the Beatles'
discography. Of course the joy of playing fluff wears off eventually,
as it did with the Beatles, but in this moment, one preserved on
record for eternity, it sounds like they're having a ball.
Clearly McCartney's baby, the song is a tribute to showtune music of
the past that keeps all of the goofy theatricality intact, right from
the intro, which sets the scene firmly within the world of show
business. And not showbiz today, but that fantasy world of
yesteryear. "Now she's hit the big time," McCartney announces, his
voice juxtaposed with the sound of a scratchy phonograph. When the
main tune rolls in on a piano, you can practically see McCartney
bounding across the stage with a hat and cane, that silly grin on his
face. The silliest part is McCartney's near-scat singing in one
section: a growl that turns into a falsetto cry. "I like this kind of
hot kind of music," he sings, seemingly on the fly, unable as always
to resist making a sentimental statement, even while hamming it up.
The song's a costumeone of many the Beatles wear on The Beatles. And
yes, the rest of the band is in on the act too. Lennon's contribution
is most notable. He goes at the jazz angle with a Django
Reinhardt-like guitar solo, a nimble one that almost slips into the
background at first, but becomes the song's secret star once you
catch on. It's the scene-stealer at the back of the stage, the one
the audience really remembers later on that night. Or maybe that
guitar solo just adds to the atmosphere, which is romantic but not.
"I'm in love but I'm lazy," runs the basic sentiment, and the song
itself doesn't seem to care much about love, at least compared to the
joy of grinning under the spotlight, or listening to someone else ham
it up through a fuzzy radio.
It's probably the kitsch factor that has made "Honey Pie" a cover of
choice for easy listening/vocal jazz types, like Barbara Streisand,
even. The song's goofy shuffle isn't about rock 'n' roll, though the
song does foreshadow the multitude of rock bands in years to come
willing to throw in non-rock horns or get theatrical. "Honey Pie"
dares to be goofier than any of those bands are likely brave enough
to be. It holds little back for entertainment, like those music hall
performers giving it all for the applause of the crowd. And though
"Honey Pie" is often cast aside as one of the album's low points, so
much of The Beatles is silly, goofy, corny. The Beatles are a corny
band, after all, and not just McCartney. Did you see Help? Yellow
Submarine? A Hard Day's Night?
The "putting on a show" quality of "Honey Pie", and the entire "White
Album", comes from that same place. The Beatles told dumb jokes and
wore costumes, not just in their early years but most of the way
through. Don't forget about that. Don't mistake their "ridiculous"
side for weakness or a lack of substance, either. Every tough-faced,
hard-living rock band is putting on just as much of an act, even the
Stones. But if the White Album is itself a variety show, and it is,
then "Honey Pie" could just be the heart and soul of the album. It's
at least as representative, maybe more so, of the double-album's
essence as any of the more serious or "classic" songs. "Honey Pie" is
a lark, but so is the album. It's Beatles on Vacation.
27. Savoy Truffle
Primary Songwriter: Harrison
Recorded: October 3 and 5, 1968 at Trident Studios, and October 11
and 14, 1968 at Abbey Road
Harrison's fourth and last contribution to The Beatles, "Savoy
Truffle" is probably the closest he ever came to writing a stupid
song, or a song about a stupid, absurd topic in the same vein that
his peers had long been doing, especially Lennon. Using a similar
writing technique as Lennon did when penning the lyrics to "Being for
the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (that is, copying names from a circus
line-up of acts), Harrison effectively decided to write about his
dear friend Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate. And in order to do
so, he copied the ingredients information from a box of Mackintosh
Good News chocolates.
Apparently, the chorus "But you'll have to have them all pulled after
the savoy truffle" is a direct reference to the deterioration of the
teeth because of eating so much chocolate. From this idea, I extract
two direct consequences:
1. Amongst other things, Clapton should be eternally grateful to
Harrison for not having to expend thousands on dentistry bills.
2. Monty Python surely got their inspiration for Mr. Creosote's
sketch in The Meaning of Life from this song. It has to be so, given
the friendship between Harrison and the sextet of comedians (Is it
necessary to remember that Harrison produced Life of Brian?) and
taking into account that the last thing Mr. Creosote eats before
vomiting and exploding is, yes, a tablet of chocolate.
Musically, it's interesting to notice that "Savoy Truffle" is the
last rock song on The Beatles. After it, there's only time for the
melancholy of "Cry Baby Cry", the artsiness of "Revolution 9", and
the tenderness of "Good Night".
And although Lennon did not participate in the recording, Harrison's
song sounds like a band effort, with McCartney's bass and Starr's
drums resounding in full force. The sound the trio achieved on that
occasion seems to make sense as a direct precedent to Harrison's solo
material: "Savoy Truffle" is closer to any of the rock numbers in the
Phil Spector-produced All Things Must Pass than to anything Harrison
ever did with the Beatles. "Savoy Truffle" is more "Wah Wah" than
"Taxman", much more "What Is Life" than "I Want to Tell You". No
wonder that Harrison stuck with Starr on drums for his solo albums,
'cos part of the vibe in his last songs within the Beatles clearly
comes from the genius of the underrated drummer. In "Savoy Truffle",
Starr gives a master class of his art, with the help of a bit of
delay in the snare microphone (this is something that's pretty
obvious at the start of the song, and in the middle break).
Indeed this song has a groove like no other on The Beatles, a cadence
closer to bossa nova, jazz-funk, and/or acid jazz, thanks to the
importance and adherence of the syncopated melody line that the
saxophone sextet draws. This is even more palpable in the cover
version that Ella Fitzgerald recorded just a year later, in 1969. But
the rhythm pattern sustained by saxophones, bass, and drums is so
integral to the song, that it persists not only in that one, but in
absolutely all the cover versions of "Savoy Truffle" that I have
listened to, including the most improbable of them all, one by They
Might Be Giants. It's funny, though, taking into account that
Harrison decided to distort the sound of the saxophones, to great
displeasure of the original players.
It's not just the saxes, but the falsettos, too, the way some of the
guitars double the vocal melody, and the knife-like guitarswith that
one that howls at a very high pitch rate during the second chorus
acting as a farewell to rockalways made me think that this was one
of the songs with the most modern vibe in all the Beatles'
repertoire, second only to "Tomorrow Never Knows". And now that I
revisit it again and listen to it more closely, it strikes me as
having some kind of Franz Ferdinand-ish quality, to look for some
modern reference. Would they ever dare to cover it?
28. Cry Baby Cry
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: July 15-16 and 18, 1968 at Abbey Road
"Cry Baby Cry" is the kind of song Beatles fans love to pick apart.
Its cryptic singsong lyrics reflect an absence, like the blank canvas
adorning The Beatles' album cover. The characters and actions of its
verses beg to be deconstructed, but defy certainty of explication. It
is pluralistic and discursive, a cryptographic cipher and addlepated
collection of gibberish all at once. Lennon himself, in one his final
interviews, called the song "rubbish" and disowned it to McCartney.
Yet, it remains on many fans' favorites lists and has been revered
enough to garner a handful of reverent covers by artists as diverse
as Ramsey Lewis, Throwing Muses, Phish, and Bardo Pond.
The verses, about the affairs of royalty (both perfunctory and
extramarital), mime the old nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence",
but with an explicit role reversal. In "Sing a Song of Sixpence", the
extravagances of the lavish king and queen, counting their money and
feasting, take their toll on the worker in garden (the maid), who has
her nose pecked off by blackbirds that were baked into a royal pie.
Lennon's verse imagines a royal family with fealty to the younger
generation, who can command the mother to sigh, make the queen play
them parlor songs and paint them pictures, and haunt their elders
with séances of history repeating. With the '60s so focused on the
incoming generation, the adult world was at their behest, awaiting
each next step.
Lennon's "cry" is a privilege of the young (who are known here as
"baby", a term of both puerility and endearment), but Lennon insists
it be used tactically. The cry could be a mournful weep, a rejection
of principles, a call for change, a spoilt whine, or a barter (Lennon
took the line from an advertisement which implored children to "Cry
baby cry / Make your mother buy"). In any of the above instances,
it's enough to make your mother sigh. Mother is old enough that she
should see in her young a kind of reciprocity of demand. The
expectations instilled in the baby boom generation, the first
generation of Beatles fans who were given to enough leisure time to
decode their indoctrination, gave them over to cries for freedom,
peace, equality, and revolution. Yet, mother is resigned to sigh. She
begrudgingly accepts the world at face value, unwilling to peel back
the layers of the glass onion for fear of disrupting the status quo.
In a sense, "Cry Baby Cry" is clearly representative of the ironies
and the dualities of The Beatles as a whole. The Beatles is a
cross-genre smattering of cultural, historical, and theoretical
bricolage. "Cry Baby Cry" is a standout on that album only in its
clever infusion of unconscious psychodrama, which masquerades under
the subdued bathos of inconsequentiality. Much has been made of the
double album's apparently arbitrary track placement, but it's no
small mistake that "Cry Baby Cry" was placed directly before the
musique concrète pop culture pastiche "Revolution 9", perhaps the
most radically abstract song ever produced by a mainstream pop group.
The nursery rhyme juvenilia lulls the listener into a false sense of
security, the falseness perpetuated by the undergirding darkness of
the seemingly innocent lyrics, which hint at bastard children,
infidelity, and impotence.
The song ends with McCartney asking "Can you take me back where I
came from? Can you take me home?" Having been shown childhood and the
curdling tears of a weeping child in "Cry Baby Cry", McCartney begs
to be taken even further back, back to birth, back to where it all
started. It's fitting then that he should use a blues guitar, the
very seed of rock 'n' roll, as a way of communicating this desire. He
repeats the two lines, but upon repetition addresses his questioning
to Brahma, god of creation (though some will dispute that he says
"Brother" or "Robert", as in the Beatles' psychotropic pharmacologist
"Doctor Robert", one of The Beatles' many self-reflexive references).
"Brahma, can you take me back?"
The listener is then taken perhaps further back than anyone could
have anticipated, back to the primordial ooze of "Revolution 9", an
acid-soaked nightmare, preliterate, precognizant, and defiant of any
solid perimeters or structure. America and Britain regressed back to Pangaea.
"At twelve o'clock a meeting 'round the table for a séance in the
dark / With voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children
for a lark", goes the last official verse of "Cry Baby Cry". The
"voices out of nowhere" foreshadow the random spectral spoken-word
snippets that float through "Revolution 9" like ghosts at a séance.
But was it all a lark, the whole album, the whole Beatles catalogue,
the whole decade?
Years later, when the jaded Lennon would look back and say "nothing
changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same
bastards running everything" and singing "I don't believe in
Beatles", he hinted at what he might have been insinuating with the
whole lark that is The Beatles. It was a rejection of everything, not
least of all the ultimate authority, that which had become an
institution, a sacred idol even. The Beatles themselves. The "White
Album" was the Beatles' anti-bible, an episteme of future thought
forged through the purging of the past.
29. Revolution 9
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: June 6, 10-11, and 20-21, 1968 at Abbey Road
"Revolution 9 was an unconscious picture of what I actually think
will happen when it happens; just like a drawing of a revolution."
-- John Lennon
"A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting
a picture, or doing embroidery… A revolution is an insurrection, an
act of violence..."
Except for Charles Manson, every Beatles fan seems to despise this
musique concrete track the most. But if they listen closely, they
might understand that the song really is a revolution, just not
necessarily the kind that they imagined or wanted to know about.
The musical roots of "Revolution 9" come not only from Ono's Fluxus
background, but also theatrical compositions from avant composers
like Berio and Kagel. McCartney and Harrison had been skewing song
form (with the unreleased "Carnival of Lights" and the soundtrack
Wonderwall Music, respectively), but their experimentations were not
being included on official Beatles albums. Even the band had made a
habit of screwing with the conventions of 4/4 time and verses and
choruses on "Tomorrow Never Knows", "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", and "I
Am the Walrus" (all Lennon tunes, too). "Revolution 9" is an
extension, or logical conclusion, of these outré urges from what was
the world's most popular band.
If you think about the song conceptually, what was Lennon really
saying? For all extensive purposes, it's a political song, but not
one that takes sides or preaches viewpoints. It's more like the
Stones' "Street Fighting Man", the Mothers of Invention's "Trouble
Every Day", or Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On", describing problems
and divisions, but in a more graphic way here. In some ways,
"Revolution 9" is akin to Dylan's early electric phase where he
rejected protest songs and crafted surreal songs of spiritual and
But in a way, "Revolution 9" is about something more personal for
Lennon. (He was doing similar experiments along with Ono at the same
time, which would soon turn up as their Two Virgins album.) McCartney
and George Martin hated the song and begged Lennon to keep it off the
album, but he refused. He didn't care if it would alienate or confuse
fans. Lennon wanted to make a statement by keeping it on a Beatles
record. In a way, it's saying what the rest of The Beatles is only
telling its listeners obliquelyfor all extensive purposes, the
Beatles were finished.
It wasn't just that "Revolution 9"'s anarchic structure blew apart
the band's image or sound; it was also loaded with references to the
Beatles themselves. Just as "Glass Onion" gleefully picked apart the
group's myth with all sorts of sly lyrical references, or "I'm So
Tired" told of Lennon's spiritual malaise, "Revolution 9" contains
torn bits of "Revolution" and "A Day in the Life", and supposedly
tapes of Beatles fans screaming for them (as well as the dead
McCartney clues, if you want to believe those). In some ways, Lennon
was recycling and digesting these Beatles snippets and salvaging them
for the madness that they had become. You could argue that Lennon
wasn't just describing turmoil in the streets, but also in his own
group. Just as he was ambivalent about the idea of insurrection on
"Revolution 1", he was also torn about the Beatles themselves. Within
a year, he would quit the group, effectively spelling the end of the
band. His first "proper" solo album, 1970's Plastic Ono Band, would
be a purging of his persona and the group.
But other than this historical drama, "Revolution 9" shouldn't be
seen only as an annoying, useless noise-fest. For one thing, there
are some nice musical bits submerged there (the intro piano, lulling
mellotron tones, the frantic strings) and plenty of humor toowhen
Alarm Will Sound recently covered it live for their 1969 series,
these two points finally became clear; playing it alongside
Stockhausen gave the piece the context it usually lacked alongside
the other Beatles songs on the "White Album". And the song definitely
had fans outside of Manson's Family: Nurse With Wound, Negativland,
Ground Zero, and others all seemed to take "Revolution 9"'s m.o. as
their blueprint, and maybe have the tune to thank for helping to open
up the avant world to the rock/pop world. That might be the song's
real legacy, detractors be damned.
And not surprising, the song does sound even creepier backwards, as
you can hear here. It really does sound like some guy is saying,
"Turn me on dead man."
30. Good Night
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: June 28 and July 2 and 22, 1968 at Abbey Road
Beatles fans have always considered Lennon the smart Beatle, the
intellectual whose cleverness offset the pop sensibilities of
McCartney, the spirituality of Harrison, and the goofiness of Starr.
Listeners believed Lennon was the witty Beatle, the one who made the
band bright and brainy. This may be true, but John was more than
that. He was also the sappy Beatle, the one who most wore his
emotions on his sleeve. Nowhere is this more evident than on The
Beatles' closing song.
Lennon composed "Good Night" as a lullaby for his five-year-old son
Julian. Lennon never recorded a version, although McCartney told an
interviewer about the time when Lennon sang it to the band in order
to teach it to Starr. McCartney said Lennon's singing of the tune
revealed the tender, loving, generous side of Lennon and is one of
McCartney's favorite memories of the deceased Beatle.
Starr sings "Good Night" on the record, and is the only Beatle who
performs on the track. No other Beatle sings or plays a note. George
Martin arranged an orchestra that consisted of 12 violins, three
violas, three cellos, three flutes, one harp, one clarinet, one horn,
one vibraphone, and one string bass. The Mike Sammes Singers provided
back up vocals.
Lennon wanted the song to sound soft and lush. "Good Night" follows
the wild weirdness of "Revolution 9" and like all lullabies, it is
meant to soothe the listener. This is evident from the first notes.
The strings softly swirl and crescendo in welcome. Something
celestial happens, as if dreamland is a place right next to heaven,
if not paradise itself.
The lyrics are simple and easy to understand. From the very
beginning, the meaning is clear. "Now it's time to say good night /
Good night, sleep tight," Starr croons in a hushed tone. He never
raises his voice. Starr wants you to slumber and rest easy. The most
commonly repeated phrase, in a song full of calming redundancies, is
"dream sweet dreams". The corniness of the sentiments border on
self-parody, but Starr's richly sung intonations make it clear that
the song is meant to comfort. The interplay between Starr's voice and
the grand instrumental arrangements that surround him heighten the
effect. If Starr's voice is a yawn, then the orchestrations are a
sigh. Sleep is the time when all people can be the gods of their
This impression is reinforced by the softly whispered, spoken word
ending, "Good night, good night everybody / Everybody, everywhere,
good night". Note that the record that began with a song called "Back
in the U.S.S.R." ends with a call to "everybody, everywhere" and
acknowledges the band's global audience. The Beatles know that
millions of people across the earth are hungrily waiting to hear what
the band has to say. And the Beatles say now is the time to chill.
The Beatles released this album into a world of wars and civil
unrest. In America, the nation had recently elected a conservative,
Republican president, Richard Nixon, instead of a liberal Democrat
for the first time during the '60s. There were revolutions of one
sort or another happening here, there, and everywhere. Several other
songs on the album reflect that the Beatles were aware of this
unrest, but here they are asking their listeners to relax. "Close
your eyes / And I'll close mine," Starr intones in a dulcet voice.
Yes, this is Lennon offering words of comfort to his little boy, but
when Starr sings it, he is talking to all of us. There will always be
problems. We will always need to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, and
as another closing song written by Lennon from a previous album says,
tomorrow never knows.