And Then There Were Four

The White Album

Ringo had called Sgt Pepper a “great album where I learnt to play chess” but now it was time to “shake out the jams” and be a group again. In May 68 they gathered at George’s house and put together a tape with 27 songs on it, they had 35 ready, before going to George Martin. Partly influenced by Donovan (the Beatles were influenced by everybody, that was part of their genius) this started off as their Unplugged album but it became a gift from the garden in the foothills of the Himalayas to the flower children.

In fact George Martin coped with this cornucopia by setting up three studios and working on the songs in parallel, it was Paul backed by John, George and Ringo and so on. Four individual geniuses working shifts, who were now so creative and confident that they didn’t function as The Beatles any more,  bashing out an album with a bit of everything, full of great playing and loads of studio effects. No studied perfection like Eleanor Rigby or Day In The Life but loads of creativity, innovation and fun. The pleasure in the White Album isn’t in any one song but the smorgasbord of possibilities it offered to middle class students thinking of forming bands rather than working in an office. It was an early, revolutionary template for “middle youth.”

As ever the Beatles open the White Album with a zinger, the wonderful Back In The USSR, driven by Chuck Berry with harmonising courtesy of the Beach Boys, what’s not to like? Well it was banned in large parts of America for promoting Communism! Well irony in harmony doesn’t scan but it knocked the Ukraine Girls out; and me and most everyone in little old England. You don’t have to be a communist to singalong and enjoy.

Side One of the White Album, the first album on the Beatles new Apple label and fabulously packaged by Mr Pop Richard Hamilton but the first not to feature a group photo, was brilliantly segued. The fade into the reflective, supportive Dear Prudence calmed us down after the rock of Назад в СССР. A lilting chorused work with chiming guitar by George it’s a come-down track setting up the daisy chain of wonders ahead so we can smile like a little child.  

And then just to make it quite clear we get John’s Glass Onion, another “there is less than there seems to be” in all this, its just great Beatles music not the answer to the Universe; it’s a glass onion not 5000 spirits. Still it’s a solid rocker and designed to delivers us to the following song. Here’s a clever video by damian8591 using the song for inspiration and, as you can see, the Walrus was Paul.

And then there was the Jamaican market place which is Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da which was a huge hit in England in a cover version by Marmalade. Loved and reviled it was the fourth track and a fourth style. I always think it works as part of Side One but I’m not bothered to listen to it on its own. Here’s a fun video providing a fresh approach to reggae karaoke; nice one.

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill followed the taster of Paul’s Wild Honey Pie. Written in Rishikesh about someone who meditated for peace and harmony in the Universe and then went hunting tigers. An enjoyable mash up of a track but a good pick up on side one of the album.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps was the first mid-album track I noticed on the White Album the first time I heard it in 1968 the day after it was released. It does feel fully realised and George’s song, written after returning from Rishikesh, and the performance still make it sound like a classic. It felt very contemporary at the time.

And then one of the songs using that characteristic late Beatles technique of fusing more than one song in the studio with surreal brilliance, Happiness Is A Warm Gun. I remember hearing it at the time and not being able to process the imagery as it tumbled out of Lennon’s head and our speakers pulling the trigger on Side One; allusive dense and confusing. Made mercurial by brilliant musical performances and John’s vocal, here is a suitably witty video by aDayInTheLife56

After the classic Beatle Band mix of side one the cornucopia went on for ever. In my view if you play any track and listen then they are the very model of modern music making. Musical craft is at a premium; this is what they would have sounded like if they had been signed in 1967 and this was their first album. Even so I find side two weak overall, despite a few classics. Martha My Dear is well arranged and cheerful and I’m So Tired is I’m Only Sleeping overseas.

For me the only two songs that work on side 2 are Blackbird and Julia. Blackbird is Paul’s allusive May 68 masterpiece. Inspired by various events in the Civil Rights movement, 1968 was the year of assassinations in the USA, it wistfully encouraged Blackbirds to fly. Here is an simple studio video from TheBeatles56 who has a great range of Beatles videos on YouTube, check them out too. 

Julia was written for John’s Mum who abandoned him to his Aunt Mimi and was run over when crossing the road after leaving him after a visit when he was 17. This is part of his coming to terms with her loss, which he released more fully on Mother on the Plastic Ono Band album (“Mother, you had me/but I never had you“). This video is built around a picture of Julia;

Suddenly its side 3 and you’re gonna have a good Beatles Band time again, you say it’s your Birthday and the side opens with this classic Beatles rocker. Here is a witty video that fits in with its mood of joyful invention;

Yer Blues, as in hello British Blues Boom is this what you are agonising over? We found it reverberatingly powerful at the time. Here is Lennon playing live and bossing Eric Clapton, Keith Richard and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Incidentally Hendrix preferred Lennon to Clapton as a guitarist as “Clapton couldn’t play rhythm and lead”. Big performance by “Dirty Mac” a month after Cream split up. (Here is the Beatles version.)

Paul clears the palate after much sixties heaviosity with Mother Nature’s Son, an immediate response to a Maharishi lecture on Nature up in Rishikesh. Paul’s organic, George Martin’s rustic brass come together beautifully and here is an arts project video set to it by industrialbirds

Side 3 closes with George’s beautiful and much under-rated (Richie Unterberger) Long Long Long.  About finding God this is George’s May 68 soliliquoy and it is a spiritual reflection on his place in the universe. Here is a loving tribute video by beatlesholic.

John’s May 68 comments were covered by three versions of Revolution. The live version on David Frost’s TV show mixes some of the harmonies from Number 1 with the rockier B-side version which I prefer. This is the Beatles playing live and sounding like a great live band, which mattered a lot in 1968 where you had to prove yourself at the Marquee

I am not really a fan of side 4, the White Album is more of an album that you listen to than write about, so by way of compensation here is a Beatles White Album Mashup using an image from an earlier version of the sleeve. The original name of the album was A Doll’s House but Family released a great album called Music in A Doll’s House so they dropped that and Richard Hamilton came up with the cover idea at short notice instead of this original full colour cover. Oops video removed, so here are some White Album sessions;  

Phew, so I think I would make the White Album just a mega single album. Leave the iconic Side 1 as it is, drop Side 2, keep side 3 but cut Helter Skelter and Sexy Sadie and replace it with Blackbird and Julia, so you end with John, Paul, George Unplugged. What about you? Double or single album?

 

 

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2 Responses to “And Then There Were Four”

  1. […] Poll, 30 tracks, please comment if you want one. There is a YouTube version of this post on A Beatles YouTube Album. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Word is LoveWe Wanna Be Your BandPlease […]

  2. […] that George had a very clear role in expanding their musical palette. He was critical in making the White Album happen in the deep and complex form in which it finally emerged, he brought Let It Be to conclusion […]

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