The Beatles' White Album 40th Anniversary
[20 November 2008]
by PopMatters Staff
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: September 18, 1968 at Abbey Road
With all the past pop culture revisionism going on, it's easy to
forget the Beatles' basic rock 'n' roll roots. This was a band
formulated not on puffy psychedelia, bawdy British musical hall, or
pure song craftsmanship (though they excelled at them all). No, the
neophyte Fab Four found instant common ground as lovers of classic
American iconsElvis and Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly
Brothers. Whenever they needed to recharge their creative batteries,
so to speak, they returned to the raw, unbridled energy of the sounds
that inspired their adolescent affections. McCartney would later
admit that he "borrowed" a bit of his favorite '50s rave-ups to craft
this simplistic sing-along. But there is much more to "Birthday" than
a backward "Lucille" with a splash of "(Oh) Pretty Woman".
"Birthday" may have been meant as a big, brassy group hugeven
current gal pals Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison sang backup, a first for
the all-boy bandbut there is something somewhat sinister about Side
Three's opening track. It's a call out to party, but at the same
time, it suggests a quartet being forced into the position of host.
One can just imagine the boys belting out the track, their
animosities sidelined for the time being in order to create a new
rock 'n' roll take on a creaky old standard. Rumor has it that the
Beatles halted rehearsals on the song so that they could head back to
McCartney's and watch the Jayne Mansfield gem The Girl Can't Help It.
If one listens carefully, you can hear that film's title tune
peppered throughout "Birthday"'s basic blues progression.
The entire effort has the feeling of preplanned anarchy. The first
thing you hear before sound even settles is Starr's resilient
drumming. After a fumbling fill that feels part well practiced and
part improvised, the boys run in with their Penni-Orbison riff. It's
a memorable hook, but also one that appears incomplete. Like most of
The Beatles, it has a tossed-off quality that countermands the
group's previous studio fastidiousness. Soon, McCartney is doing his
best rockabilly howl, with some recognizable help from the superior
shouter, Mr. Lennon. With its Moon/June/Spoon lyricism further
wicking away the complexity, we wind up with the world's most famous
pop artists playing jam band.
But it's the break where things get interestingvery interesting
indeed. As Starr rocks steady and someone counts down the time, we
learn of the imminent celebration. Voices mix and harmonies merge,
once again bringing in the influences of the past. As an
effects-laden guitar joins a treated piano as quasi harpsichord (more
honky tonk, actually), McCartney's voice bellows for the listener to
"take a ch...ch...ch...chance" and "dance". In between each stanza, a
wistful, melancholic responsorial from the gala of the track's title
resembles the last breathy sigh of a dying ghost. Its inherent
eeriness countermands the song's sock hop sentiments. The freaky fade
out of the treated keyboards further amplifies the sense of dread.
As a result, when "Birthday" comes bellowing out of your speakers (or
in these post-modern technological times, your iPod), it more or less
fails to remind one of a Bo Diddley date with Fats Domino and the
rest of the roots revivalists. Instead, what the Beatles managed here
was indicative of their entire career. Instead of copying other
musicians, recreating their approach with student-like seriousness,
they took the signature styles and made them wholly their own. This
is Elvis as envisioned by his fans, except in this case, said
devotees were geniuses of sound and structure. If they were sad that
their take on the syrupy annual sentiment didn't instantly replace
the jerryrigged "Good Morning to You", originally composed in 1893,
they never showed it. Instead, "Birthday" remains the anthem for
every proto-punk's impending maturation. It signaled something very
similar for its creators as well.
19. Yer Blues
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: August 13-14 and 20, 1968 at Abbey Road
For all that chatter about The Beatles predicting the band members'
solo work, only two of its Lennon tracks would be of a piece with his
Plastic Ono Band, arguably the defining post-Beatles disc. One is the
muted, tender "Julia"; the other, the searing, spooky "Yer Blues".
"Yer Blues" is the only officially released Lennon-McCartney original
to be christened a blues, and one of few to strictly follow a 12-bar
blues structure. Furthermore, while many Beatles songs grapple with
death in some form ("Run for Your Life", "Eleanor Rigby"), "Yer
Blues" is the band's only track to explicitly discuss suicide.
And why? Lennon never expresses "the reason why", other than to
contemptuously grunt, "Girl, you know the reason why." But given that
this is a man who, three tracks later, will feminize the Maharishi in
order to eviscerate him, who earlier in the album bitterly blamed
some woman for his insomnia, whose entire oeuvre (and biography) is
peppered with problematic gender interactions, he might as well be
saying, "Girl, you are the reason why." Following in the grand blues
tradition of women doing wrong and leaving a man in pain often simply
by leaving him, Lennon seethes in heartbreak. But his introspection
(call it his utter self-absorption) turns the misdeed inward, and the
song focuses on his reactions rather than whatever wrong she
supposedly committed. This is not a revenge story, or an attack on an
unfaithful woman. This is instead an attack on the man who, through
some or many unspecified flaws, doomed himself to solitude. Typical
of Lennon, the girl is a scapegoat but secondary, even irrelevant.
Lennon is who matters here. Like many of his most personal
compositions, "Yer Blues" bridges the roots of rock 'n' roll with the
incipient singer-songwriter solipsism.
"Yer Blues" is, paradoxically, both ephemeral (like life) and eternal
(like death). Its cyclical four minutes feel as though they could be
drawn out and repeated ad infinitum; this is a song that some
overindulgent rock band could turn into a 20-minute opus, full of
false endings and (hopefully) unexpected left turns. The track begins
with a count-off in which two is the first audible number, and
Lennon's vocal starts with an authoritative "Yes, I'm lonely", as if
answering a question never posed. What follows is an in-the-moment
snapshot of a shattered psyche, with few of the preceding details
filled in. What brought him to this extreme state? Beyond some
parental info ("My mother was of the sky / My father was of the
earth"), little insight is offered or needed. The immediate feeling
is more important, the spontaneous laments of a man who feels like a
decomposing corpse, right down to the animals pecking away at his carcass.
With such a sparse lyrical base, "Yer Blues"'s chief impact is
musical. It is a fairly abrasive Beatles song, laced with feedback
and white noise; after the psychedelia of 1967, it is refreshingly
raw and tough, perhaps influenced by the electrified blues of bands
like Cream, and sonically not that far removed from the blues-based
hard rock that Led Zeppelin would perfect a year later. The song
actually sounds like the death its singer anticipates. Lennon's vocal
is throat-shreddingly intensewhen he asserts "I am of the universe,
AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT'S WORTH", the Nietzschean despair in his scream
suggests it's worth nothing. Being of the universe is scant
consolation, nor is his lifebloodLennon identifies with Dylan's
notoriously square Mr. Jones, the purported antithesis of rock 'n'
roll cool, and even music fails to provide solace. In fact, once he
confesses that he "feel[s] so suicidal, EVEN HATE MY ROCK 'N' ROLL",
the slow, foreboding 12/8 blues speeds up into a juke joint shuffle,
from which Lennon quickly retreatsleaving a frantic, blood-rushing
jam that conjures an injurious adrenaline rush, capped with a weeping
guitar solo that sounds like bleeding.
He never fully returns; when the song reverts back to the initial
tempo, Lennon's vocal is off-mic, a buried echo, the final whimpers
of a man about to transcend this earthly plane. He is fading, and the
music is about to fade with him, leaving an ultimately unsettling
message: a man will disappear, and eventually so shall his creations.
A message that, 40 years later, "Yer Blues" has successfully refuted.
20. Mother Nature's Son
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: August 9 and 20, 1968 at Abbey Road
By 1968, folk rock had become a well-established notion. Bob Dylan
embodied it a number of different ways while hybrids of pop and
old-world Anglo-Saxon swirled about the British scene in the form of
Fairport Convention and the Pentangle. The Beatles' folk rock tracks
on the "White Album" certainly reflected all of this while looking
directly toward the upcoming singer-songwriter movement.
To put the songs into that latter context, though, feels a bit like
saying Keats' odes foretold the dime novel craze. This is not only
because they distinguished themselves through inventive guitar
playing, crafty chord sequences, and melody to spare, but they were
also such singular performances. "Blackbird" and "Julia", for
example, seem like pieces simple enough for the everyman to sing and
play, but you'll never hear them at a campfirethey're just too
complex as compositions and self-contained as recordings.
"Mother Nature's Son" is another one of these and it's a standout.
McCartney wrote the song during the group's summer with the Maharishi
Mahesh Yogi, whose lecturing about nature had inspired both McCartney
and Lennon to write one song each. Lennon's "Child of Nature"
eventually morphed into "Jealous Guy", which appeared on his 1971 LP,
Imagine (hear the early demos on bootlegs like The Alternate White
Album). McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son", of course, flourished into
the fully realized pantheist hymn that appeared on side three of The
Beatles. It's an utterly simple, almost inconceivably beautiful
track. Acoustic guitars trickle playfully like the mountain streams
he sings about. English horns echo throughout ancient hills, while
solitary drums rumble over distant, grassy peaks.
"Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies," sings McCartney,
who's at once as sweet and melancholy as he'd ever sound. These
contradictory qualities lend the track so much of its unique
atmosphere. Beatles histories like Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles
Recording Sessions, of course, have told us that intra-moptop tension
characterized this album's late summer/early fall studio dates.
Here's engineer Ken Scott about "Mother Nature's Son": "Paul was
downstairs going through the arrangement with George and the brass
players. Everything was great, everyone was in great spirits. It felt
really good. Suddenly, halfway through, John and Ringo walked in and
you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. An instant change. It was
like that for ten minutes and then as soon as they left it felt great
again. It was very bizarre."
We can speculate endlessly on the reasons for the hard feelings, but
we needn't ever doubt their musical benefits. (Lennon and Starr were
apparently working that day on Lennon's nerve-rattling "Yer Blues",
which happens to precede "Mother Nature's Son" on The Beatles and
perpetuates forever the McCartney-as-softie conception.)
While singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, among
others, could certainly rival the Beatles in the sophisticated
folk-rock department, none of that ilk could match their ability to
sound so effortless and simple. And John Denver, nowhere near their
level on any count, turned "Mother Nature's Son" into a live staple
during the '70s by bypassing the song's more complex and melancholy
layers altogether. Such is the pastoral elegance of the Beatles'
original recording of "Mother Nature's Son" that nothing calling
itself folk, folk-rock, or any other such thing, has ever epitomized
the oft-recurring "nature's child" motif to the same degree before or since.
21. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: June 26-27 and July 1 and 23, 1968 at Abbey Road
The recording of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My
Monkey" can be seen as the moment when Lennon-McCartney turned into
Lennon-Ono. To shamelessly mix metaphors, if the Walrus was Paul,
then the Monkey was Yoko.
In June of 1968, Lennon's affair with Ono was quickly overwhelming
every aspect of his life, including his marriage with Cynthia Lennon.
The other marriage in Lennon's life, his songwriting collaboration
with McCartney, was also in shambles. The days of sitting in the same
room and finishing each other's songs were over. Ono quite literally
moved into Beatle territory by becoming the first outsider ever
allowed in the studio.
It's important to note the double meaning of the titular "monkey".
1968 was the year Lennon and Ono descended into heroin abuse, at once
isolating Lennon from his band mates and solidifying his bond with
Ono. This monkey on the back showed up in the lyrics ("the higher you
fly, the deeper you go"). As Bob Spitz states in his landmark
biography, The Beatles, the new level of drug use "manifested itself
in John's adversity and craziness, but the underlying influence had
also crept insidiously into the songs".
"Adversity" and "craziness" are two words that could easily sum up
the manic freakout that is "Me and My Monkey". One can hear a sense
of urgency in Lennon's pleas to "come on" and "take it easy".
Lyrically, it's a defensive crouch that begs for empathy. The only
hitch, of course, was Lennon wouldn't return the favor for any of his
band mates. He had imploded his life from many to Ono and was angry
that anyone would question his motives. As Lennon himself later said,
"Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the
glow of love."
But for all the turmoil, the song never loses its joyful sense of
abandonment. A spaz-out of the highest order, "Me and My Monkey"
jettisons all limits in a maze of ringing bells, racing blues, and
shouted come-ons. In other words, it's Chuck Berry on crack.
Furthermore, though it might not have the typical makings of one, "Me
and My Monkey" feels like a punk song. It is aggressive and urgent
with a lack of self-consciousness. Sounds like a description for the
Ramones. Just another genre in which Lennon's influence can be heard.
As if it needed more help, "Me and My Monkey" also stands out for its
track placement. Sequenced between McCartney's pastoral "Mother
Nature's Son" and the lilting Lennon ditty that follows, "Sexy
Sadie", "Me and My Monkey" juts out like the markings of a polygraph
during an egregious lie. It is a true WTF? moment. "Love Me Do" this ain't.
In his selfishness and defiance, Lennon created a track for those who
complain the Beatles don't rock enough. It's useful to view "Me and
My Monkey" as a companion piece with McCartney's "Helter Skelter".
Where Lennon goes weird, McCartney goes foreboding, in effect
producing a funhouse mirror image of finger-blister freakouts.
(Further Listening: The blues-boogie version Fats Domino(!) recorded
in 1970. It's a great insight into Lennon's songwriting prowess. Even
in the most frenetic of songs, he provided a song structure to batten
down the hatch.)
22. Sexy Sadie
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: July 19 and 24, and August 13 and 21, 1968 at Abbey Road
Things you may not know about this song include:
1. Lennon wrote this little kiss-off as he was packing to leave India
in late spring, 1968, upset over his discovery that the Maharishi had
made a pass at one of the women in the Beatles' entourage.
2. Charles Manson thought that the song had been written about one of
his followers, the whacked-out soon-to-be-murderer Susan Atkins,
since he had nicknamed her Sadie Mae Glutz before the song came out!
(The logic is impressively lysergic on this one, no?)
3. This was one of my favorite songs for a couple months when I was
12, and also again when I was 17. It is not even my favorite Beatles song now.
4. Lennon's first attempt at the lyrics was outstandingly
straightforward in its anger and bitterness: "You little twat! Who
the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you are? Oh,
you cunt!" These lyrics were eventually softened to "Maharishi, what
have you done? You made a fool of everyone." Improvement?
5. When I first heard Radiohead's "Karma Police" I thought it was a
rip-off of "Sexy Sadie", and then Thom Yorke told people that it sort
of was. I still don't know how to feel about this.
6. Harrison persuaded Lennon to change the lyrics after they got home
from India because he found them to be offensive (and he wasn't
talking about the swearing! He was talking about using the name
Maharishihe suggested "Sexy Sadie" instead). So, instead of this
being a song about the crushing disillusionment Lennon felt at seeing
his idol revealed to be a false prophet, it ended up sounding like a
mean-spirited jab at a loose woman. See point #3.
7. Back at Abbey Road Studios, Lennon scrawled the lyrics onto a
piece of wood for some reason (which reason I'm guessing was
drug-related, since these were the fucking Beatles, so you'd think he
could have found paper and maybe even a pen if he'd wanted to) and
this piece of wood was sold recently at auction by Starr's one-time
wife Maureen. For a lot of dough.
8. The woman that the Maharishi made the pass at was not Mia Farrow.
9. I actually know someone (I am not making this up) who tried to
lose his virginity to "Sexy Sadie", but was detained, reasons
unclear, on the way to the, you know, forum, and he ended up having
what was already bound to be an awkward and anxious first-time sexual
experience to the cacophonic dissonance of "Helter Skelter". Burn.
10. At one point during recording, the song had been clocking in at
eight minutes. See point #9. He just might have made it.
23. Helter Skelter
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: July 18, and September 9-10, 1968 at Abbey Road
We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and
really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and
said, 'No, it still sounds too safe, it's got to get louder and
dirtier.' We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end
you can hear Ringo say, 'I've got blisters on my fingers.' That
wasn't a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of
the take, he'd been drumming so ferociously.
-- Paul McCartney
Having written such popular mellow tracks like "Yesterday",
"Michelle", and "Blackbird", it was often assumed by casual listeners
that McCartney played the rosy-eyed sap to Lennon's rocker persona.
On the contrary, not only did Macca possess the best pure rock 'n'
roll voice in the band, but he was responsible for some of the
Beatles' most ferocious tunes, from "I'm Down" to "Why Don't We Do It
in the Road?" to the mother of them all, "Helter Skelter". Of course,
venturing into the heavier side of rock was never exactly the
Beatles' forte, especially in 1968 when band after band continued to
push the envelope, but that didn't mean they weren't up for a
challenge. After reading a Pete Townshend quote in which the
guitarist boasted about the rawness of the Who's "I Can See for
Miles", McCartney, in an inspired moment of "if they can do that why
can't we?", penned a track that would prove to be every bit as
primal, potent, and loud as not only the Who, but Jimi Hendrix,
Cream, Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, and White Light/White Heat-era
Velvet Underground as well. Yet again, it was proof that these four
astonishingly versatile musicians were capable of anything.
Initially recorded as a series of extended, slinky, blues-inspired
jams in July 1968 (the unreleased 27-minute third take achieved
legendary status among fans), by the time the band recorded the album
version on the night of September 9 with 21-year-old assistant
producer Chris Thomas at the helm in place of an absent George
Martin, "Helter Skelter" had morphed into a full-throttle rocker. No
fewer than 18 takes were recorded that evening, with the last one
making the cut. The sweat, the blood, and that uneasy balance between
adrenalin-fueled mayhem and late-night fatigue is all palpable
throughout the song's four and a half minutes.
That jarring staccato riff kicks it off, more dissonant than any
other Beatles track prior, McCartney joining in with his famous first
line, playfully referencing the children's spiral slide ("When I get
to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide"), his voice
ascending ominously ("When I stop and I turn and I go for a ride /
Till I get to the bottom") as Starr adds nervous snare beats,
McCartney then exploding into a maniacal, out-of-breath scream: "Till
I see you AGAIN!" On that cue, the entire band launches into an
absolutely vicious groove, McCartney and Harrison on guitar, Lennon
providing a thick bass line, as McCartney continues with one of his
greatest vocal performances, his voice ragged and hoarse, underscored
by the famous descending seven-note riff in the chorus. And like a
bunch of precocious kids fooling around while the headmaster's away,
Lennon and band assistant Mal Evans add some hilariously amateurish
saxophone and trumpet respectively during the outro, which fades out,
in, out, and back in again, in time for us to hear Starr add three
exhausted cymbal crashes, fling his drumsticks, and let out his
The ambiguity of the title works brilliantly throughout the song. Is
it about a person's descent into madness? The dizzying temptation of
pure, physical lust? Or just about a kid playing on a slide? On the
other hand, a creepy little dude in California named Charles Manson
had other ideas what the song was about, and after the grisly events
of August 8 and 9, 1969, "Helter Skelter" would gain more notoriety
than McCartney and the Beatles had ever intended. But in the end, the
song far outlasted that controversy, with many prominent artists
recording covers, and while U2's obnoxious 1988 rendition is arguably
the most famous, Siouxie and the Banshees' feral 1978 interpretation,
Mötley Crüe's pulverizing 1983 cover, and Hüsker Dü's cacophonous
1986 deconstruction actually come closest to equaling the pure, raw,
inimitable power of the original.
24. Long, Long, Long
Primary Songwriter: Harrison
Recorded: October 7-9, 1968 at Abbey Road
Following McCartney's twisted, gas-guzzling, heavy metal-incarnate
"Helter Skelter", Harrison, in an underhandedness that befits his
moniker as "the quiet Beatle", takes the stage: "It's been a looong,
long, long time." Floating in from the ethereal netherworld, the
Harrison of "Long, Long, Long" is a spiritually exhausted disciple,
quietly singing the praises of a higher being after having fumbled
through countless dark years seeking enlightenment.
Almost haiku-like in its exultation, hardly any of the words in
"Long, Long, Long" are more than a syllable long. Each verse has a
first line of seven syllables, followed by a second line of eight,
then a final phrase of four. Despite its lyrical directness, however,
"Long, Long, Long" is more than anything a subtle number. Subtle
meant "bad" in 1968, the year of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love,
Cream's Wheels of Fire, and the Velvet Underground's White
Light/White Heat. Yet with careful nurturing and repeated listens,
"Long, Long, Long" is unveiled as one of Harrison's most supremely
refined songs with the Beatles, and a gem on the "White Album".
Harrison's contributions to the Beatles from 1965-1968 reflected his
preoccupation with Hindu philosophy and Indian music, which
culminated in his taking up the sitar and leading his band mates to
India for a period of meditation in early 1968. Returning from the
upper echelons of 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The
Beatles (among other things) heralded the group's return to rock. For
"Long, Long, Long", this meant the ideal marriage of Harrison's firm
inner beliefs with the traditional instrumentation of rock 'n'
rollin the track, one can hear the blueprint for his entire solo career.
To understand the spare beauty of "Long, Long, Long", it is even more
important to grasp the chaos and conditions that gave birth to it.
The Beatles was the band's opportunity to project its growing
dysfunction and disassociation with the world at large back upon it.
Giving up touring in 1966 had the effect of confining the band to a
shell at Abbey Road Studios, in the company of only themselves and an
elite inner circle, working through nights to record their double LP.
Yet reports from this time generally agree on the fact that the group
were not getting on particularly well; Mojo magazine's anniversary
edition of this album sensationally labels it "the album that tore
them apart!" Out of this disassociation, eccentricity, and tension
emerged, in this writer's mind, the best collection of songs the
Beatles ever put to vinyl. Many disagree. But what no one can deny is
that unease is reflected in The Beatles's music unlike perhaps any
other album before or after it: it captures the dark underbelly of
the '60s before the Rolling Stones ever did.
Not that you would know it, listening to "Long, Long, Long". The
elusive hymn begins in the key of F major, yet introduces its verses
in a chord away from the tonic, mirroring Harrison's sense of "so
many tears [spent] searching". It grows from a lone, ponderous guitar
to the ethereal billow of a Hammond organ that distorts and shades
and provides an eerie cloak for his voice. Ascending to a surging
bridge, the song waltzes on jazzy ninth-chords, clumping drum fills
coloring the anxious harmonies: "Oh, oh, oh!" With that, the song
finally reaches its yearned-for climax, dying away. Then Harrison
resumes an absolute outpouring of worship: "How can I ever misplace
you? / How I want you / Oh I love you."
"Long, Long, Long" finishes on what the late, great Beatles scholar
Ian MacDonald describes as "the luckiest accident in any Beatles
recording": a wine bottle in the studio that would rattle when
certain notes were played on the organ, providing the backdrop for a
dissonant guitar scratch, an anguished, out-of-body wail, and a final
conclusion through a thundering drum roll. This majestic complexity
of a conclusion, he continues, signifies "death, a new beginning, and
an enigmatic question". It also shrouds the song in unearthly
mystique, touching the avant-garde and the spiritual, closing The
Beatles' third side with a graceful shudder.
Contrary to what one would expect given the song's heavily
theological overtones, the song was not written during the group's
retreat in India but from the studio. Contrasting this with
Harrison's bitter "Not Guilty", also from these sessions, or even the
manic charge of the track before it (a sequencing order that must
have provoked some chuckling when the album was being assembled),
"Long, Long, Long" proves that the key to transcendence through music
is a clear head and peace at the end of a long search. It is a gift
of the sublime.