While this isn’t the longest it has taken me to write a review (I’m still trying to finish Be Here Now), this entry about the White Album has taken a solid month for me to get through. I started writing it in the early hours of December 19th 2022. It is now mid-January and this introduction is actually the last part that I am writing.
A double album like The Beatles was never going to hold my attention for a solid hour and a half because it is a striking mish-mash of songs to say the least. The genres that the band play with over the span of two discs change faster than British springtime weather. And, let’s get the main criticism out of the way, with thirty tracks on offer some of these are going to sound like filler. Songs made for the sake of it to pad out the discs. And with the boys now at the point where tensions were mounting between them, it was hard to keep songs like these in check.
Despite all that though, the White Album is typically one of the first albums you hear about when you touch upon the Beatles’ work. Heck, when I was getting to set to hear the fab four for the first time back in 2020, the White Album was the first I thought of tackling. That is until I saw its runtime and I thought better of it. But it must do something right if it’s one of the more famous efforts.
So, we’re nearly three years on, I’ve grown accustomed to the Beatles in the late 60s trying to flex their creative muscles, and I’ve gone through the White Album bit by bit.
Let’s see what holds up and what doesn’t.
Track #1 – Back in the U.S.S.R
As far as Beatles openers go this one is most definitely a favourite. Jaunty, easy to listen to, evokes the excitement of flying in a plane and preparing to touch down, and the droppings of the title (“Back in the US, back in the US, back in the U.S.S.R!”) aren’t going to leave your head in a hurry. Bonus points for being wonderfully ballsy for the time as I can imagine a song built on Soviet imagery and making the motherland a comparative heaven would’ve gone down like a cup of cold sick for many.
Track #2 – Dear Prudence
Influenced by the Beatles ill-fated trip to India in terms of both musical style and content, about Mia Farrow’s sister who locked herself in a room for days at a time. A relatable topic post-lockdown. Dear Prudence gets progressively tripper with the ‘aaaaah’s in the background, the repeat of “look around” and a brief increase in tempo influenced by the drumming. I feel like it should be a favourite but there’s something about it that feels tacked together, as if you can see the gaps between the pieces of the jigsaw. Speaking of which, Ringo’s not done any drumming yet.
Track #3 – Glass Onion
One book I’ve been reading on and off as of late has been Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head, an overview of the Beatles’ songs track by track (Sounds like a familiar way of doing things, dunnit?). During his analysis of the early albums it’s noted at one point that John Lennon didn’t really give a toss when it came to writing lyrics, with his mindset being tune first, words second. With that in mind it makes songs like I Am the Walrus and Glass Onion, songs designed to take the mick out of those who spend their hours poring over the Beatles’ lyrics, all the better. Love the swirly strings too.
Track #4 – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Ah, the infamous Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. I honestly don’t mind this, even as a guy who has a general indifference to Paul McCartney’s music hall-style numbers. It’s catchy but not overly annoying. Not single material though, not by a long shot.
Track #5 – Wild Honey Pie
54 seconds too long.
Track #6 – The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
A good friend of Cul-De-Sac Colin, Bungalow Bill’s story isn’t really a gripping one although I do love the whistles at the end that cement the folky sound of the song. I absolutely hated the applause on initial listen, I thought it was just self indulgent, unowned, and took you out of the moment. But then I discovered that was the point as the song was a derogatory tale about a hunter John came across in India. Felt like a bit of a div after that. Plus, in a meta sense, I guess clapping each other on is heartwarming considering this was when the Beatles were starting to drift apart, a fact that will become increasingly obvious as we go along. On a related note, it is a bit jarring hearing Yoko Ono on a Beatles record. It’s even more jarring hearing her actually sing.
Track #7 – While My Guitar Gently Weeps
On a musical level John Lennon is my favourite Beatle. But on a personal level my favourite is George as he brings a lot of heart and soul into his songs. There’s something fresh about them, the earnest nature of songs such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps seems genuine as opposed to the faux-love present in a lot of early Lennon-McCartney material. Having Eric Clapton play guitar most definitely helps. It’s the highlight of disc one.
Track #8 – Happiness is a Warm Gun
Ok the title aged like milk but the song’s a good ‘un. John can always be relied upon to add grit and depth to Beatles records and here he definitely delivers.
Track #9 – Martha My Dear
The opening few seconds sound like the theme tune to Postman Pat. I couldn’t take it seriously after that. Less so when I read up the fact the titular Martha was Paul’s dog. Even less so when he’s the only credited Beatle who worked on it, again because of the strained relations between the fab four at the time. It all kind of feels like a bit of a pisstake.
Track #10 – I’m So Tired
I’ve talked a couple of times already about how there’s something disingenuous about John’s lovely-dovey lyrics from past Beatles records. This time though he truly means what he says (The way he calls himself a stupid git sums it up) and we get a romantic number about being unable to get someone we love out of our heads to the point we lose sleep over it. I might make it sound melodramatic but it’s sweet, really.
Track #11 – Blackbird
We shift gears a bit and get our first political song since Back in the U.S.S.R, disguised as a stripped back acoustic number. And I love it, for both the tune itself and the double meaning between the call of the blackbird and the show of support for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Hands down one of my favourite songs from Paul McCartney.
Track #12 – Piggies
In truth, there was no better song to follow up Blackbird than this song, continuing the Beatles’ dipping their toes into late 60s politics by contrasting the clean and elegant Blackbird with the dirty and classless Piggies. As hero worship has evolved over the years this would be a good song to use to take the piss out of them. Unfortunately Charles Manson kind of scuppered that one…
Track #13 – Rocky Raccoon
So far on this album we’ve had Chuck Berry-esque rockers bathed in politics, music hall dashed with ska, a folk pastiche, and now we’ve got a murder ballad to the tune of country music. Talk about a melting pot. Rocky Raccoon is decent, I like the tale it tells and the tune is simple enough that it doesn’t overshadow Paul’s singing. Not for the first time though, it’s a Beatles song written by Paul that I would probably prefer if it was covered by Nick Cave (The other is Maxwell’s Silver Hammer).
Track #14 – Don’t Pass Me By
Sound the filler alarm because holy cow is this a prime example. It was written by Ringo several years prior and it does sound like a throwback to the faux-love lyrics penned by Lennon and McCartney in the early to mid-60s. The carney-style tune is also just plain irritating. Better was to come from Ringo down the line.
Track #15 – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
It’s about monkeys shagging. What else is there to say?
Track #16 – I Will
Perfectly pleasant if not a little one-dimensional, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome at under two minutes. I’d say I Will is a step up from the last two songs.
Track #17 – Julia
A heartstring tugger to finish the first disc. While the gradual splitting of the Beatles is often to this album’s detriment, this song most definitely benefits from it. This is John’s song to his Mum and his alone. Just him and his acoustic guitar, pouring his heart out for a few minutes and gently calling out his mother’s name. It’s impossible not to love this one.
Track #18 – Birthday
Let’s see here. Catchy guitar work, a quick and upbeat tempo, and rock-n-roll style scratchy lyrics? This is the right way to open up disc two. Kudos for capturing the excitement of a birthday.
Track #19 – Yer Blues
“Yes I’m lonely/Want to die”. Well tell us how you really feel, mate.
Track #20 – Mother Nature’s Son
The Beatles’ trip to India and all the spiritualism that washed over them while they were there manifests itself in Paul’s sweetest song on the album. Very much one for the hippy wishing to relax in their quest to contact the Earth.
Track #21 – Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
To my relief, not another one about monkeys bonking in the road. To my annoyance, it’s not really one that gives me a lot to talk about. Let’s just move on.
Track #22 – Sexy Sadie
It’s impossible to talk about this one without going over the context, and why the Beatles’ time at the spiritual retreat came to an early end. While Dear Prudence was holed up in her room it was alleged that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had made sexual advances to sister Mia, leading to John writing the song as he prepared to return home.
Once he calmed down a bit, he swapped the Maharishi for Sexy Sadie and what we get is a cynical song about someone the narrator clearly once thought a lot of but now has nowt but disdain for. With that little bit of energy fuelled by the lingering disgust, Lennon and co. turn in one of the better songs of the second disc.
Track #23 – Helter Skelter
NOISE. BEAUTIFUL LOUD NOISE. SLASHED GUITARS. TWATTED DRUMS. RIDE THAT HELTER SKELTER. RINGO’S GOT BLISTERS ON HIS FINGERS.
I bloody love this song. It’s that earlier energy from Birthday turned up to eleven and the fab four are firing on all cylinders, most of all Paul screaming his heart out piece by piece with each word. And that final minute of music, what an outro. Dearly wish I could hear this one performed live.
Track #24 – Long, Long, Long
Before listening I was worried that after Helter Skelter this might be an abrupt comedown. Here are the notes I wrote after the song began:
- Ooh hello, psych rock, how I have missed thee.
- And some Hammond organ! I’m in heaven.
- Haunting reverb of Ringo’s drums keeps you on your toes, as does his rapid fire pounding during the last 30 seconds.
- Nice and spooky. Comedown, yes. But it fits the narrative.
Track #25 – Revolution 1
We’re back to political songs which have been a highlight so far. While the guitar work, both electric and acoustic, is fab as always there is something that is just not clicking for me. Maybe it’s the fact that the lyrics are a bit too on the nose. Think back to Blackbird and its double meaning of the Civil Rights movement and the beauty of the titular animal. Here it’s just 4 minutes of espousing ‘That revolution of yours? Sounds like bollocks’.
Maybe it’s just this version of the song specifically, as there is another version that serves as the flipside to Hey Jude. Once we’re at the end of the album I’ll listen to that and then compare. For now though let’s press on to the end because frankly I’m getting a bit tired.
Track #26 – Honey Pie
Oh God, not more music hall. Why is it that of all the genres that the Beatles have tried their hand at during this album, music hall is the one that we get again? At least Paul is clearly having fun doing his vocals and humbly showing off his range.
Track #27 – Savoy Truffle
The lyrics are beyond daft but I adore the music. If Quality Street was still worth buying then this would be great for an advertising campaign.
Track #28 – Cry Baby Cry
Unremarkable. File under ‘Filler’.
Track #29 – Revolution 9
Honest to God. I have been staring at my computer screen for the last twenty minutes trying to think of how in the hell you sum up Revolution 9. But you can’t. It is indescribable with mere mortal words. So instead I am going to express my opinion in a suitably avant-garde, off-the-wall, stitch-shit-together way.
Through the medium of Internet memes!
Track #30 – Good Night
Epilogue – Revolution (Single Version)
Oh my sweet God, that opening riff. That scream from Paul. It took exactly 6 seconds for this to become my favourite version of Revolution by a country mile. What was wrong with 1 was that it was missing was a rawness and a slightly faster tempo, it was far too squeaky clean.
Oh, and a bit louder for the folks in the back: THE GUITARS ARE DISTORTED TO F*CK AND IT SOUNDS AWESOME. While my earlier criticism about the lack of subtlety in the lyrics remains, this is absolutely one of my favourite songs that I’ve heard while I’ve been writing this review. And it wasn’t even on the bloody album.
So that’s the White Album. To listen to it, you need an open mind because there are songs that you are going to unconditionally love, and others that will inevitably make you shrug, cringe, gag, question your existence, or all four at once. It’s inconsistent to put it nicely, one minute you’ll be listening to some of the best work the Beatles have ever done, the next you’ll be listening to Wild Honey Pie. I think the problem is that these were songs from the Beatles that were designed to satisfy one man only, and that was whoever wrote that particular song. If it satisfied them, fine, they weren’t particularly interested in the opinion of the bandmates, the production team, or the listeners.
Make no mistake, if the Beatles had come together, conducted some quality control and knocked out the deadwood then this would have been a stellar album up there with Abbey Road and Revolver. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that this album is ultimately a step down as at this point in their careers they were maturing into musicians of their own accord rather than as bandmates. They were gearing up to leave the nest, and this album was them spreading their wings in preparation. Part of them wanted to stay together and make music, but another part of them wanted to split and do their own thing. And those two parts manifest to create the White Album.
As Roy Walker would say, it’s good but it’s not right.