Thursday, 29 October 2009

The BEATLES: The Beatles


(#61: 7 December 1968, 7 weeks; 1 February 1969, 1 week)

Track listing: Back In The U.S.S.R./Dear Prudence/Glass Onion/Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da/Wild Honey Pie/The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Happiness Is A Warm Gun/Martha My Dear/I’m So Tired/Blackbird/Piggies/Rocky Raccoon/Don’t Pass Me By/Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?/I Will/Julia/Birthday/Yer Blues/Mother Nature’s Son/Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey/Sexy Sadie/Helter Skelter/Long, Long, Long/Revolution 1/Honey Pie/Savoy Truffle/Cry Baby Cry/Revolution 9/Good Night

“NORA: When I was a child, I loved Daddy more than anyone. But I kept thinking how nice it would be to slip down to the servants’ room. They never told me what to do. They were such fun to talk to.

RANK: And it’s their place I’ve taken.”
(Ibsen, A Doll’s House,1879; trans. Kenneth McLeish, 1994)

It was originally going to be called A Doll’s House. Then Family came along with Music In A Doll’s House so that was that. A shame, since the White Album is actually one (or two) of the darkest records in this tale and still one of the most psychologically and aesthetically elusive; it needs its poky corners, its suppressed furniture, its characters moving around or lying still in the dark. If Richard Hamilton’s cover might suggest the whiteout after the blast of “A Day In The Life” then these are thirty of the detached fragments fallen out from a previous world.

Much can be and has been suggested about the White Album, of course; its semi-detached detours, its artful jumpcuts (Lennon’s cheery “Hey up!” from “Bungalow Bill” cutting straight into “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and, most of all, “Revolution 9” suggest a forebear of the jump-cutting culture of our present age, scanning the screens, flipping from channel to channel, mousing from website to website, never really settling. It is a loping mess of an album whose sequencing took a continuous 24-hour session at Abbey Road to agree. The record’s fierce discipline undermines its air of indiscipline. There are multiple stories being told here, perhaps a separate one for every listener, but which are the easiest to touch?

The White Album could be seen as a record (in the word’s literal sense) of how a group begins to disintegrate, speaking largely to and for themselves; it is a record which starts without Ringo – McCartney plays the drums on both “U.S.S.R.” and “Prudence” – and ends with Ringo alone, as the last Beatle standing. It asserts a would-be cheerful air of business back to usual – both halves of the double beginning with a rootsy rocker to reassure doubters – before leading us down unforeseen avenues. It is the second double album to be assessed in this tale, and like the first (101 Strings) it does not quite seem of this world, albeit undoubtedly far more in touch with it. Indeed, most of its songs were written on acoustic guitars in India; visiting the Maharishi and deprived of electricity, the group was compelled to follow a different approach to songwriting, and the silent power behind the White Album was fellow Yogi lodger Donovan, who wasted no time teaching John, Paul and George the folk picking and tuning techniques he had learned from Bert Jansch and others. Add to this the subtly incalculable influence on British music in general of the Incredible String Band – more Scottish refugees – and the inescapable influence of Music From Big Pink (on Harrison in particular), and we are given some of the most basic tracks the Beatles had laid down since Please Please Me, all the better to support some of their most complex songs.

To the album itself: “Back In The U.S.S.R.” is a wry and vibrant pounder of a back to basics manifesto, partly inspired by Harold Wilson’s ill-fated I’m Backing Britain campaign, but mostly inspired by mischief; Peter Cook could have written the lyric but only McCartney could have delivered it with such unambiguous fire and good nature (and his piano is charmingly not quite in synchronisation with the makeshift rhythm section). Still, the song isn’t all it seems to be; it (and the album as a whole) is introduced by a strangely processed hiss of aircraft which persists throughout the entire song and lends it the air of a nascent Jesus and Mary Chain. The frantic one-note guitar squeals underscoring the final verse seem disproportionately anxious, and there was of course the attendant irony of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague by the time of the song’s release.

It is a Red herring; “Dear Prudence” leads us into the album’s more general ambience, Lennon gently attempting to persuade the song’s subject to come out of her darkness, move into the light, although McCartney’s musical efforts at encouragement are more forthright; note his impatiently nudging, bumping bass in the song’s second and third verses and his exuberant rush of drums at the song’s climax (Harrison’s characteristic Eastern guitar acts as a kind of mediator). The song wanders around its descending scale like a mislaid Lucy.

Ringo’s fervent “I’m back!” knock knock of drums announces “Glass Onion,” a disquieting song, not merely for the sinisterly ascending strings, harsh breakbeats and Lennon’s menacing “Oh yeah!” which make it sound nothing like 1968 – its subsequent re-use on The Grey Album confirms its advanced status – but also for what the song appears to be mourning, or trying to tear apart; this is supposed to be the pulling of the curtain to reveal the diminutive jobsworth Wizard, Lennon eating himself by quoting and rebuking previous songs; until it occurs to the listener that all the songs to which he is referring were written and recorded while Brian Epstein – along with Stuart Sutcliffe, one of the ghosts haunting the bleached corridors of the sleeve insert – was still alive, when the Beatles could still (if only just about) be considered a coherent group; moreover, by shifting the onus for explanation to his colleague (“The Walrus was Paul,” against a nauseous inroad of 101 Strings pseudo-sweetness and a rhythm construct which hasn’t quite got “Drive My Car” out of its system), Lennon is attempting to wrench himself away from any remaining bond with McCartney. Two years before he announced that the dream was definitely over, Lennon was already making preparations for a new (if not solitary) life; the deliberately plodding string procedural at song’s end representing the dwindling circle in which the Beatles might find themselves were they to carry on (as well as mocking dimwitted don’t-understand-the-words/where’s-the-tune recidivists and apologists).

“Ob-La-Di” strays in with its rays of sunshine like a jolly neighbour who finds out just too late that he’s stepped into the wrong house and the wrong party; McCartney has much fun with the jerky Mersey-ska setting (his broad Scouse “market”) but Lennon seems determined to subvert the song as much as possible, complete with his speeded-up tack piano intro (giving the tune a curiously logical link with the ending of “Tomorrow Never Knows”), the odd Cecil Taylor-ish up-and-down atonal zip (just before the second middle eight) and purposely absurd backing vocals. The Marmalade excised the irony, emphasised the jollity and jostled for the Christmas number one single position with the Scaffold’s “Lily The Pink” (both essentially Beatles records in disguise). It’s as “happy” as the White Album gets.

McCartney’s “Wild Honey Pie” acts as a nice coda to the mirth of “Ob-La-Di,” one-man-busking/skiffling it in the studio corridor (and sounding remarkably like Prince at one point), and then it’s straight into “Bungalow Bill,” a mordant comedy song Lennon wrote about an American visitor to the Maharishi’s lodge who disappeared to hunt tigers for a few weeks before returning to find himself once more. A lusty singalong with funereal verses, it’s not the only track on the White Album to reveal some kinship with the Bonzo Dog Band (see the latter’s contemporaneous “Hunting Tigers Out In India”) although its tune, perhaps unconsciously, borrows from “Stay As Sweet As You Are” (which, readers may recall, Nat “King” Cole performed on Love Is The Thing).

The merriment reaches a wall of not-quite-blank grief as it collides with “While My Guitar,” George’s first word on the album whose stark sobriety strikingly counterbalances the previous jolly frolics; ringing piano and Churchill burial drums seem to sink deeper into their self-imposed mud as Harrison mournfully surveys the world around him and isn’t quite sure whether it’s worth bothering with. I still consider his solo acoustic demo, with its crucial extra verse (“And I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing”) and its Purcell-like medieval structure, to be the superior version (it appears on Anthology 3), but the slippery gravity of the track provides a pronounced full stop to the proceedings thus far; Eric Clapton makes his belated debut in this story, putting his Gibson Les Paul through Leslie cabinets and ADT to make it sound like – of all logical influences – the Band (and in particular “Tears Of Rage”); here Ringo’s drums are as solemn and gravelly as Levon Helm’s.

Side one ends with one of the Beatles’ finest performances as a group (one of very few to be found here) and it doesn’t really matter what, if anything, Lennon intended “Gun” to mean since it works on every sane and deranged level; it sums up the album’s progress, moving from that mournful folk picking to sea shanty R&B (remember “Baby’s In Black”?) via some very 1968 stop-start rock tropes (the “Mother Superior” section) before blossoming out into a glorious C major (in marked contrast to the gloomy A minor key which had hitherto been dominant in these songs) of doo wop slavering and barely concealed sexual hunger (Lennon’s RELEASED “finger on my trigger!”). “Happiness is a warm, yes it is…” Lennon prepares to come….then like a surprised child on Christmas morning he coos a babyish, high register “Gu-ah-un!” as the group works to an elevatingly cathartic coda. As with much of this side, and the White Album in general, there is a palpable American influence, very different from the Victorian/music hall Englishness which dominated Pepper, and this may well have contributed to the record’s status as the biggest-selling Beatles album in the States, although I will be looking at another, perhaps more crucial, factor later on in this piece.

Even after decades of familiarity with the record it still comes as a small shock to realise, retrospectively, that side two is largely about animals, or life as animal metaphor. McCartney gently pushes off proceedings with his sheepdog tribute “Martha My Dear” (also covered very well at the time by the Wolverhampton group then still known as Ambrose Slade), although his general demeanour and George Martin’s jaunty yet stately brass band and string arrangement contribute to the feeling that he too is making plans for life after the Beatles; “Martha” seems to carve a pretty straight path towards the likes of “Admiral Halsey” a couple of years later; it feels like the solo McCartney performance it in fact is, although, as with “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” the song’s irregular and discontinuous metre divide illustrates either an advancement on Lennon and McCartney’s early rhythm-dividing experiments or a relaxation of their quasi-formal approach to songwriting, the structures now more conversational and quixotic.

Two of Lennon’s most overtly passionate vocal performances on the record derive from his experiences being holed up, bored and frustrated, in India – he is now Prudence, in the dark and not too willing to emerge – and given the flimsy structure of “I’m So Tired,” effectively the jouissance-indolence interface of “I’m Only Sleeping” left to melt in the ennui of “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” and turn sour, it’s surprising how committed Lennon’s voice is here, building up to the amused rancour of his comment about Walter Raleigh, with joltingly violent cutoffs and restarts along the way.

Thereafter McCartney gently reintroduces the animal-as-metaphor theme with “Blackbird,” taking a motif from Bach and placidly turning his meadow-borne meander into a quietly powerful analogy for racial awakening. Nina Simone would catch the song’s subtext more openly in her subsequent reading, but (pace MacDonald) McCartney has confirmed that the black power/civil rights metaphor was present from the moment of conception; when this album lowers its voice, it is to pronounce the profoundest truths.

Then we reach Harrison again, this time smilingly indignant about his “Piggies,” fuming about inflated social strata fears in the clear manner of Graham Chapman’s irritable Army major cutting short sketches on Python – and structurally and vocally, the influence of Neil Innes and the Bonzos is again called into visibility with young Chris Thomas’ earnest harpsichord fills, the left-in-the-air ending and the somewhat apostolic string section coda. Even so, it’s perhaps a mistake to read too much into this – I accept that in the light of Manson’s interpretation of this song in particular, this is perhaps the biggest understatement you are likely to find in this tale – given that it was written and recorded barely two years after Harrison’s “Taxman.” But I will return to the question of questionable interpretations later. The subsequent passage into “Rocky Raccoon” may seem slightly incongruous but the same message remains, albeit far more subtly hidden; McCartney trots through his shaggy cowboy story, but then note how Rocky does not actually die after being shot – his shoulder-shrugging “Doc, it’s only a scratch” is one of the album’s key lines, and I’ll explain why later (does that “later” look increasingly threatening?).

Then, with “Don’t Pass Me By” we finally get Ringo the songwriter, and what a debut; a self-assembled Lego kit hybrid of bluegrass and reggae with charmingly stumbling lyrics and performance – Lena compares it to a Blackpool version of The Band, with veteran Canadian fiddler Jack Fallon returning from “Hello Goodbye” to improvise amiably atop Ringo’s mock-despair. The pace then steps up briefly with the great “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?,” Paul and Ringo yelling and banging out some minimalist Situationism.

But the album, as it approaches the end of its first half, falls back for two of its deepest songs. “I Will” was the first song McCartney wrote specifically for Linda and its carefree caring, combined with its cunning internal rhyming schemata – note the singer’s tender emphasis on the word “endear” and wonder how and why you don’t hear that word more often in pop – could have stemmed from the days of “I’ll Follow The Sun.” But, as with the Lennon song which follows, this clearly sketches out the prospect of a life, not just beyond the Beatles, but without them.

Both “I Will” and “Julia” are about the process of growing up, out of delayed adolescence and into the not-as-frightening-as-you-thought-it-might-be world of adulthood and commitment. If Paul’s song is brisk, tender and optimistic, John’s – the only song in the Beatles catalogue entirely performed by Lennon alone on record, double-tracking his own voice and acoustic guitar – is transformative, transcendent, petrified, bold. McCartney has commented that it was a pity that Lennon gave “Good Night” to Ringo to sing because he was worried about being seen as a softie but here is Lennon, as tender as he ever allowed himself to be on record, a shade too personal for comfort perhaps, gracefully and guiltily allowing the supersession of one muse – his mother after whom the song is named – by another, the one whose name, translated serenely into English, means “ocean child.” Here Lennon wrenches himself away from the protected memory of his mother towards a newer, more alive embrace; half of what he says may well be meaningless (although really it isn’t) but the important function, as with so many of his other contributions to the album, is to reach a point of tactile contact which to an extent flies above reason and logic; the point at where the song moves to G minor ninth and seventh, and Lennon’s voice rises with reluctant poignancy to meet the top note of that seventh, is one of the most shiver-inducing moments in the Beatles’ work. As the first half of the White Album concludes, in quiet light, we know that we are moving somewhere – but is it bound to be somewhere nice?

“Birthday” kicks off the second half with apposite raucousness, and as with nearly everything he had to say about this album MacDonald is fundamentally wrong; provoked by imagined demons to read virulent anti-meanings into everything on offer here, and not realising that sometimes singing “take a chance” means precisely that, one of the oldest rock ‘n’ roll tropes to rhyme with “dance,” rather than a further invocation of chaos theory and supposed incitement to mass murder and assassination. The focus of John Oswald’s most famous Beatles breakdown/cut-up, and written as a tribute to Little Richard prior to a TV screening of The Girl Can’t Help It later that evening, it gusts along like a fine North Shore breeze, and there is even a “Dance To The Music” influence apparent in Ringo’s drum/tambourine break together with a nod to Cream (the steeplechase guitar/bass unison).

“Yer Blues” finds Lennon once again as Prudence, in the dark and hilariously suicidal (“Wanna die – if I ain’t dead already!”). Needing to be heard in tandem with his furiously patient nine-minute reading in the company of Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell as part of the Stones’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Circus broadcast and the almost as pained version (again with Clapton) heard on the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace In Toronto a year later (the only Beatles song Lennon essayed on that album), Lennon roars and rants, finally wailing into a bust microphone. His two-note guitar solo is as definitively minimalist as Shelley’s on “Boredom”; Harrison’s subsequent eruption ringing the alarm as though Knightsbridge were burning. Partly a send-up of the emergent heaviness of British blues-rock music of the period, partly a proto-primal scream, “Yer Blues” finds Lennon as loudly despairing as he had ever sounded this side of the seventies. But his echo chamber is still that of Gene Vincent; in many ways Lennon never really escaped Hamburg, or indeed “Heartbreak Hotel.”

McCartney takes the temperature down – and conversely warms the proceedings up – with another bloomer of bucolic pacificity, “Mother Nature’s Son,” its patient imperturbability only briefly disturbed by unusually forceful timpani and a curiously forward brass section. Then the Beatles invent the Pixies with “Me And My Monkey,” one of their best and most exuberant latter-day rockers, Ringo’s cowbell pounding away as though Penny Lane had been newly liberated, guitars and sense melting away into an irresistibly angelic delight of lateral thinking rock. “Sexy Sadie” finds Lennon growling darkly about the Maharishi (but, for legal reasons, not as darkly as he would have wished), the circuitous melodic and harmonic line sounding like a bored spirit walking around in continually decreasing circles (but which would eventually lead to, amongst other things, Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle,” something that Lennon sounds as though he would devoutly wish to do in the course of this song).

Now McCartney erases all doubt with his frontal assault on reason, over stammering, pregnant guitars, before “Helter Skelter” detonates the White Album into meltdown. The fairground of Mr Kite being warped into a nightmarish ecstasy, a track which takes rock beyond the dreams of the proto-metallists of ’68, straight into the next generation noise-feminisation work of Sonic Youth and especially My Bloody Valentine. Apparently inspired by the Who – the exact track which inspired McCartney has never been revealed but I would wager “I Can See For Miles” to be a fair guess as it is a similar attack on notions of gravity and tactility in “rock” – this storms and stumbles through its own mirrors, McCartney’s guitar solo instantly recalling Revolver, though his furious octave leaping bass on the bridge smashes the song back into its wintry presence. Such as the song is done, McCartney mumbles and murmurs from channel to channel as Harrison’s guitar scrambles down a slide of gelignite, mysterious horns bleat their way into the middleground and tonality goes to shreds and someone is applying the Cecil Taylor forearm technique to the piano again – it fades in and out like a sneeringly unending chasm of a dream, presumably influenced by the similar tropes which conclude Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today,” before finally running to ground – Ringo screams about blisters on his fingers and a knife of a guitar slashes the scene to black.

But out of this blackness, this – void; was “Tomorrow Never Knows”’ notion of a void ever intended to be dark? – light emerges, and George finally reveals his self to us, even though his voice on “Long, Long, Long” is mixed down so far low that you have to crouch down to listen to him, hear him, breathe his love in; he sings about culminating love, his shame at having wasted so long a time searching for facades (Chris Thomas’ sardonic stuck needle piano in the middle eight), before surrendering to worship over McCartney’s caressing, Robert Wyatt-esque organ. George’s “I Will” and “Julia,” and perhaps deeper and bolder than both; a wine bottle atop the organ rattles by accident, McCartney gets an idea for a coda, Harrison sighs the most frightening yet liberating sigh he ever expired in his life (see the coda to Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings From Michigan for comparison purposes), Ringo closes the door on this world with his tom-tom rolls, and…out of nowhere?...George finds the minor variant on that “Hard Day’s Night” chord – having toyed with the chords to “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands,” this album’s only explicit allowance of a Dylan influence - and by so doing exceeds himself.

On its fourth and final side the White Album turns to face the world. “Revolution 1” is sterner yet softer than “Street Fighting Man” – and it really is too bad that Beggars’ Banquet only peaked at #3 in the UK but we’ll be getting back to the Stones at pretty much the right time, and in not too long a time either. Over a lazy, gloriously slack roll of a rhythm and a similarly slacking horn section (one of whom was the ex-6.5 Special stalwart Don Lang, he of the Frantic Five), Lennon considers what he’s for and not so much for and very pointedly states “You can count me out – IN.” In fact the electric variant of “Revolution” with its unambiguous “OUT” was recorded subsequently but this version appeared later; did Lennon really ever make up his mind? Only in relation to wanton mindlessness and wilful, undirected destruction; it may well be that Yoko was still extracting him from his recent Weybridge commuter self but finally he is simply happy to roll with the wheels, in whichever direction they feel like turning; his “all right”s at the song’s long climax give up any appeal to rationalism and revel in the warmth that at least something, even if it’s not entirely to his liking, is rumbling and happening.

After that McCartney is back with the good-natured twenties dance band pastiche “Honey Pie” – its wilderness shorn, so to speak – and with its plaintive pleas for the girl across the ocean to come back “home,” this can readily be interpreted as another Linda song (even if the song’s subject does come from the “North of England”). Great fun, especially McCartney’s hearty whisper of “I like that!” after a particularly snappy facet of George Martin’s period arrangement. Then we have the final word from George; “Savoy Truffle,” with its beat so crisp that Dangermouse sampled it on no less than three different tracks on The Grey Album, is a jokey tribute to Clapton’s passion for newsagent chocolates (Rowntree’s Good News, duly acknowledged in the lyric) and his subsequent need for extensive dental work, with or without a potential drug subtext (the tenor/baritone-heavy sax section – including Ronnie Ross, later to solo on “Walk On The Wild Side” – really does sound like the equivalent of a semi-munched bar of Toffee Crisp).

But then Lennon immediately subverts the TV advert appeal with the foreboding “Cry Baby Cry,” apparently inspired by a commercial with the slogan “Cry baby cry – make your mother buy” (no, I don’t remember it either, but what a conceit if it did happen!). Moving with a busy gloom through variants on E minor – the Jansch/Donovan technique of deriving a descending chord sequence using just one chord on the guitar – with occasional, disturbing forays into a bluesy B flat, its Grimm notions of magic are noticeably darker than the childhood conjured up in Pepper (“She’s old enough to know better”). We still don’t quite know what sort of ending we are approaching.

We know soon enough, however. From the corridor of “Wild Honey Pie” a distant echo: “Can you take me back where I came from?” in a phantom tollbooth falsetto; it’s the only time we will hear McCartney in this sequence, and indeed the last time we hear him on the album at all. Disappointed with the light, and perhaps with life, the urge rises to return, return, rewind, retune…

“And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

Those words were spoken by Glenn Gould, who was speaking about The Idea Of North, the first in his Solitude Trilogy of radio documentaries about Canada which played on CBC in 1967. I have no idea whether Lennon or Yoko ever heard any of these remarkable broadcasts but structurally and conceptually they do walk a strikingly similar path to “Revolution 9,” particularly with the multiple overlapping of different speaking voices, all telling different stories (this technique Bley and Haines would also put to use in the closing moments of Escalator Over The Hill – how apt that Paul Haines should eventually have become an honorary Canadian). Stockhausen’s Hymnen is also usually cited as a precedent, although a more fitting and far less brash comparison point may be Yoko’s one-time Fluxus co-conspirator, the late composer Richard Maxfield, whose tape cut-ups share some of the same strange serenity as Lennon’s piece; hear, for a very relevant instance, his “Pastoral” (collected on the CD The Oak Of Golden Dreams, which also includes some very early work by Harold Budd).

There is a softness to “Revolution 9,” even in its more seemingly violent moments, which, although never to be confused with flaccidity or complacency, does fill in perhaps the most important line to be drawn through the White Album, namely the task of filling the void between childhood and adulthood. If “Dear Prudence” is the embryo being coaxed to leave the womb and take their chances in the wider world, then much of the rest of the record has to do with the child’s struggle to stay a child, while at the same time trying to make sense of the world in which they have found themselves. Much of the piece’s sequence of soundbites, orchestral flourishes and codas, blended with the suspiciously gruff voices (the parents?) telling (bedtime?) stories in the next room, filters through the ear of the baby in the pram of forties Liverpool, catching smells, sounds and sights, not yet able to touch or feel any of them but already intrigued, perhaps even captivated. I am unsure whether it is the album’s key track – we’ll come back to that issue a little later on – but it is the track which best unites the various themes through which the album has been working. If, like myself, this was one of the first Bealtes tracks you heard – my father was an extremely keen enthusiast for new, as in avant garde, music – then this may have contributed to your own individual perspective on music and sense; but any revolution, as ever, is contained firmly within the head of the living receiver – through the babble and storms we hear increasingly frequent fragments of Lennon himself, mostly from the continuing coda to “Revolution 1,” gurgling like a proud newborn. Buried relatively deeply in the mix is also the voice of Patrick McGoohan, the would-be Starbuck who ended up overcoming his internal Ahab by declaring that no sense makes nonsense (or, at the very worst, “second childishness”). The sounds ebb like retiring waves before suddenly being swept back into the foreground, as the child hears these grumpy adult voices, talking about financial imbalance and the Twist as though one were of greater consequence. Then, the turnaround, after “Take this, brother” (or did that need a comma?) Yoko enters (possibly literally) into John’s life; they breathe together, succour, experience mutual sensations, and, like the upturned end of a cylindrical funnel from which all potential black holes could be reincarnated, the return to transcendence and beginnings: “If…you become naked.” The crowd calls (perhaps) for sausages but here is an impeccably and intensely structured meditation on life, what it means and whether its perception is still valid if only you can perceive it. But its underlying message is the same as that of “A Day In The Life”; the nakedness, the truth, is there for all of us and it is up to us to assimilate it and make good use of it. Blaming the White Album, as MacDonald essentially does, for the Manson family and even for Mark Chapman is foolhardy and maybe simply foolish; the Manson family and Mark Chapman were and are responsible for their own actions. One might as well blame the Bible for the Vietnam war (the track could properly be entitled "Sympathy For The Angel"). Randomness is all around us, as it was in the blue of 1968’s air, but even given the superficially nonsensical nature of many of the White Album’s songs there is still a craving for order, just as long as it isn’t the old, stifling one.

And, to close, a lullaby, the song John wrote for Julian and gave to Ringo to sing, accompanied only (only?) by George Martin’s strings and the Mike Sammes Singers. Simple, heartbreaking, and a key to the still encroaching darkness; as reassuring to the troubled listeners of 1968 as Mantovani’s “Moulin Rouge” must have been fifteen years previously to the survivors of our war. Ringo whispers, comfortingly rather than terminally, a good night to everybody, everywhere, and the child is once again father to the man.

Reassurance, a light to flee the void, comfort, even a security blanket – all of these contribute, I feel, to the reasons why, of all Beatles albums, the White Album is their biggest American seller (19 times platinum and counting). There is also, of course, the fact that the White Album bears a far more pronounced “American” feel than the indisputable Englishness of Pepper, but then this was the first major statement from the Beatles in some eighteen months. At least in the context of the long-playing album.

For, of course, the White Album came hard – or soft? – on the heels of “Hey Jude,” the missing piece in the White Album’s jigsaw puzzle. And we forget the context of those times at our peril. Remember how the Beatles made America happy again, maybe even live again, in 1964? Four years later, after another Kennedy had been assassinated, and the country was again in (arguably worse) turmoil, along came the Beatles again to reassure the USA. It doesn’t matter whether “the movement you need is on your shoulder” makes palpable sense or not; what does matter is that McCartney sings and plays “Hey Jude” – another lullaby written for the young Julian - as though everybody’s life depended on it, a tangible purpose which “All You Need Is Love” partially evaded. The long coda is needed, just as the length of the White Album is vital to justify and explain its story (of course it's a mess - you were expecting life to be straightforward?); they know they are about to enter a different and possibly harder decade, that the unity is bound to splinter, but for now they will do their best to keep everyone and everything together, McCartney hollering and pounding in direct acknowledgement of Little Richard – “Hey Jude” is the gospel song for which Penniman had been striving – to Lennon’s audible pleasure. This must be the first instance where the key song to an album is not actually on the album itself but its message is vivid and vibrant; everyone is free to join in and sing along, just as we promised the year before, and it’s all about nurturing the child, both the one within us and those to whom we would strive to become ancestors. It is the same story with Richard Hamilton’s cover design; in 1967 it was primary colour, stars of stage and screen, cutout moustaches, but here now is a whiteness which could represent the direst void or the most beauteous light. And there, etched in on the lower right hand corner, the imprint: “THE BEATLES,” a tabula rasa, a group who, having abdicated their own internal notion of a group, is now whoever and whatever you want them to be. And they are not simply for everyone, but by a curious process of osmosis are every one (or, if you were McGoohan, One). We give ourselves to you, our audience, and ultiimately become you; and even as we are bound to disintegrate, this is the message, the life, we are leaving for you to fill. May it serve you well; as well as the doll’s house which once gave you so much pleasure and purpose.

6 comments:

david said...

You excelled yourself with this piece, Marcello. Hard to credit that anyone could find so much new to say. Particularly liked your throwaway Pixies comment. I came late to The White Album (my parents stopped buying their albums for us after Rubber Soul, so I heard MMT and LIB before this, Abbey Rd and Pepper) which means that it's always retained a particular mystique for me. Indeed, I'm currently absorbing the differences between the new stereo and mono versions (to add to the two copies I already had). You think you've taken all the Beatles you can possibly take, then they pull you back in. I look forward to your 'Abbey Road'!

Anonymous said...

Good take on Revolution in the Head. It shows how bleak his depression was that he connected Harrison playing violin on All You Need Is Love with Manson and Chapman (blaming Harrison for inviting chaos and unpredictability into the music).
I'm inclined now to mix a version of Hey Jude that crossfades over 7 minutes into Revolution 9! Sort of like The Crucifixion by Phil Ochs.

Anonymous said...

Great piece Marcello.

Adam Roberts said...

To add to the praise: excellent.

There's a Paul Muldoon poem (discussed here) about this album, that ends: 'I’d never noticed the play on “album” and “white.”' Which is a nice observation, I think.

mike said...

Superb post. The remarks re. Python/Bonzos have particular resonance, as I bought The White Album (in 1975, aged 13) on the same day as a US repackaging of the second and third Python LPs. When I got home, I played both all the way through, in alternating sequence: Side 1 of White Album, Side 1 of Python, and so on. So the two have always been interlinked.

Robin Carmody said...

Outstanding, as ever.

But for the record "19 times platinum" in the US only means 9.5 million shipments for a double album (see also, if it only had been in the UK what it was everywhere else and therefore made it directly here, The Wall; the level of certification blows up their true sales, an RIAA quirk which the BPI sensibly hasn't copied).