50 years today The Beatles released their eponymous and arguably most famous revolutionary album. Jamie Riley explores the complex significance of the album so long since first conceived and analyses its perplexing mastery.
The opening moments of a Beatles album always seem to serve as a peculiarly apt synopsis for the project as a whole. McCartney’s jubilant “one-two-three-faw” on Please Please Me kicks the door open to the band’s energetic debut album; the theatrical extravagance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is prefaced by the sounds of an orchestra tuning up; and on The Beatles – known colloquially as The White Album – the group’s most sprawling musical journey commences with a literal plane taking off.
Of course, this metaphor may strike the sceptical listener as more of a premonition than a promise: the beginnings of a flight that lead the band too close to the sun. Indeed, the disparate nature of The White Album has been retrospectively linked to the personal disparities erupting within the group at the time, rather than a too-immense musical ambition. Certainly the songs are more individualised than in previous albums, but this perhaps lies more in their origins than in the conditions in which they were recorded. Much of the album was written during the band’s respite in Rishikesh, India, where they sought a spiritual rejuvenation through the practice of Transcendental Meditation. To that particular end, each of the group’s results varied, but more consistent – and more impressive – was the group’s musical rejuvenation: collectively writing an estimated forty-eight songs during their stay, some of which (‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Sexy Sadie’) directly reference events which took place there. Consequently, the recording sessions for The White Album may be some of the most productive for any band ever, producing – in addition to the thirty tracks on the album – hit singles ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’, future album tracks ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Across the Universe’, and even future solo songs for the group, including ‘Child of Nature’ which Lennon would later rework into ‘Jealous Guy’.
However, it is still unfair to dismiss the album as merely a haphazard compilation of the band’s individual efforts. The group certainly enjoyed an increased musical autonomy during the recording sessions, but they were not isolated from one another. The 50th anniversary edition of the album in particular reveals the band’s persisting passion and mutual admiration, including multiple bonus discs of studio jams, alternative takes and most notably the Esher demos. This collection of twenty-seven tracks – so named for Harrison’s home in Esher where they were recorded – sees the Beatles at their most relaxed and jovial, encouraging and cheering each other throughout their performances – providing an especially soothing salve for anyone saddened by the grim period that was to follow.
The White Album does, of course, have its individualist tendencies – in fact, these provide the foundation for the album. Calmed and sobered by their meditations in Rishikesh, the group’s songwriting develops a clarity and maturity of expression only scarcely seen on previous releases. That their egos are so manifest in each track is not only to be expected, it is to be revelled in: it creates an almost psychoanalytical space in which the Beatles’ own identities are repeatedly reconstructed, re-examined and reinforced by their own music. McCartney, for example, blurs the lines between tradition and modernity in his music hall pastiches ‘Martha My Dear’ and ‘Honey Pie’ (dismissed as “granny music shit” by Lennon). In these, he probes the very concept of innovation, cultivating a kind of avant-garde status by actively opposing the avante-garde. Harrison, meanwhile, juxtaposes the almost uncomfortably vulnerable but lyrically opaque ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ with the ironically detached yet politically potent ‘Piggies’, exposing the limits of tradition modes of representation and advocating for alternative means of communication. Indeed, as Lennon muses in ‘Julia’: “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you”. The Beatles are playing games on The White Album, but not just for fun – rather, they are pitching, exploring and shaping entirely new methods of musical expression.
Lyrically, too, the Beatles are in their prime. They have always been underappreciated lyricists, approaching clichéd topics of love and relationships with much greater nuance and insight than many give them credit for, but The White Album crosses this thematic threshold entirely to engage with complex, sometimes harrowing topics such as the civil rights movement (‘Blackbird’), suicide (‘Yer Blues’) and even borderline-Oedipus complexes (‘Julia’). Even some of the sillier songs on the album construct surprisingly thoughtful and sophisticated narratives. Bungalow Bill is a positively literary character: a sardonic satire on the hypermasculine heroes of Hemingway, with Lennon expertly blending allusions to Jungle Jim, Buffalo Bill and Captain Marvel to paint a profound portrait of the ideal American man – and all the ignorance that entails.
What then is the culmination of all this development, innovation and growth? Nothing. Everything. The most striking feature of The White Album is how it sounds like both the apotheosis of the Beatles’ body of work and an entirely fresh start. A complete overhaul of all tradition and convention as well as a mere compilation of their best ideas throughout their discography. Viewed in retrospect, the trajectory of the Beatles’ career seems almost meticulously planned, it runs so smooth. Each new release integrated just enough of their previous material to avoid isolating their existing fan base whilst also allowing the group a space to explore alternative musical avenues. The White Album splits this particular atom within the album’s DNA entirely and a musical fallout emerges.
In the bridge of ‘Dear Prudence’, for example, the deep, reverberating echoes of “round, round, round” similarly seem to echo the thousands of monks Lennon sought to conjure on the Revolver track ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – yet while the latter song never expounded much beyond essentially stoner wisdom, in the former the words transform from a simple plea not to get lost in one’s own mind to a mantra enforcing a kind of universal consciousness. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ too is perhaps the only other Beatles song to match the sheer existential horror of ‘A Day in the Life’, countering the near-nihilism of Lennon with an achingly human despair from Harrison, flawlessly embellished with Eric Clapton’s wailing guitar solo. It sometimes feels like the Beatles are trying to perfect themselves. Then something like the wonky, delirious guitars of ‘Wild Honey Pie’ will come and go. Then something like the tinkling, staccato harpsichord of ‘Piggies’ will come and go. Then something like – well, something like ‘Revolution 9’ will come and always, always, always go.
It really is no wonder the album is often considered a postmodern masterpiece – it both demands and absolutely defies any attempts to extract meaning from it. To listen to The White Album is to experience musical whiplash, without ever being certain if it was worth it. None of the risks the band takes ever develop enough to reveal the result; none of the changes in direction keep moving in that direction; more than an album, it feels like a collection of songs vaguely floating around a centre of gravity marked The Beatles. Perhaps that is the key. Perhaps referring to the album as The White Album has always been a mistake. This is just The Beatles. As in, this is just the Beatles. No more, no less – and as they proved over the course of ninety minutes, that is all you need to create one of the greatest albums of all time.