Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Beatles (1968)

As noted earlier on this blog, John, Paul, George and Ringo would have been a better title.
The Beatles - colloquially known as the White Album for its minimalist white sleeve - is easily the most varied album the Beatles ever released, its music encompassing every form of pop in the English-speaking world, with straight rock and roll, lush ballads, folk, country, blues, pre-war jazz, and even reggae and a sound collage.  The double album was barely a group effort, though, making its official title ironic.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney, once a solid songwriting team, had developed their musical styles in different directions, and only the occasion of one composer suggesting a line or a change to the other's song kept the Lennon-McCartney composing credit that was still appended to their songs from becoming a complete fiction.  George Harrison was getting frustrated with his allotment of two songs per LP, and Ringo Starr was so frustrated with his efforts to contribute that he walked out on the White Album sessions and stayed away for over a week.  George Martin was more of an executive producer, while the Beatles themselves and engineer Chris Thomas took over the day-to-day session work.  Sometimes only one Beatle or a partial lineup appeared on a track, and when all four played together on a song, its composer treated the others as a backing group.  The final effort produced music that reflected their individual pursuits so much that it sounded like a sneak preview of their solo careers.  Small wonder that the White Album sprawls over two long-play records, clocking in at 94 minutes.
The Beatles were nearing the end of their partnership by the time this album was released in late 1968, and they were constantly arguing over what would be recorded.  And yet, they produced a musically rich album, with the many facets of their music blending seamlessly from one song to another.  The subject matter was more diverse, with vivid, incisive lyrics about tiger hunts, materialism, chocolate candy, Western gunslingers, and insomnia.  Most of these songs were written during the Beatles' study of Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's retreat in India, so they had plenty of time to think things through.
John produces some of his most introspective songs ever here, from his rumination on lost innocence, "Dear Prudence," and his tribute to his late mother, "Julia" (recorded solo but with Paul helping out from the studio control room) to the powerful rock of "Yer Blues" and the absurdist social commentary of "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," a send-up of American machismo taking a young man to task for shooting tigers in the wild; it might count as the first animal-rights activism song.  (John's smoldering, even more absurd "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" parodied the American penchant for violence and schlock culture even further, right down to a doo-wop coda slammed shut by Ringo's drums.)  Keeping his place as the  "romantic Beatle," Paul offers up charming old-time pop with "Martha My Dear" (presumed to be a heartfelt farewell to ex-girlfriend Jane Asher) and "Honey Pie," about a Liverpool lad pining for an old girlfriend who made it in America as a movie star (pre-dating the similarly concerned Fountains of Wayne song "Hackensack").  Paul throws in a couple of other sticky Valentines here, but he defies expectations with some incredibly sharp rockers, such as his spot-on Chuck Berry pastiche "Back In the U.S.S.R.", cheekily re-setting Berry's Americana to a Soviet setting, as well as the infectious power pop of "Birthday" and the blistering (ask Ringo) heavy metal of "Helter Skelter."  Paul also throws in some eyebrow-raising curves on his lighter numbers to catch the listener's attention.  In the cowboy melodrama "Rocky Raccoon," Rocky is shot in a duel over a woman and his doctor is so drunk, he lays himself on the table, while "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," with its energetic Jamaican vibe, tells the tale of a pushcart vendor who marries a beautiful singer, only to become a transvestite entertainer and let his wife and kids tend to the pushcart in the market.
George, long the quiet Beatle, makes a lot of noise on the White Album with some of the best songs not only of his career but of the best Beatles' entire repertoire.  The ironic, stately parlor-room arrangement of the Orwellian "Piggies" and the biting rock of "Savoy Truffle" (about addiction to chocolate) are astonishing, and the Indian-flavored ballad "Long Long Long" has its charm.  It is, though, the blues-based "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - with a stinging guitar solo from Eric Clapton - that throws down the gauntlet to John and Paul and makes clear George's ambition to be taken seriously. Ringo, who's happy to be taken less seriously, finally contributes a song of his own with the charmingly unpretentious country tune "Don't Pass Me By," delivering an unassuming vocal that would become the trademark of his solo singles and the Ringo album.    
Even though the Beatles were at odds over the making of the White Album, the group still challenged each other and were able to anticipate each other's moves, from a sudden bass line from Paul to melding guitar riffs between John and George, or even Ringo's sense of timing.  They managed to produce a wholeness on the album from start to finish, with the impressionistic sound collage "Revolution 9" and the lushly orchestrated "Good Night" (with Ringo on lead vocals, offering up a droll tone in contrast to the Hollywood arrangement) ending the album as definitively as "Back In the U.S.S.R." begins it.  Despite the White Album's richness, though, the fractured nature of the overall album, with the Beatles at best working together as four individuals rather than in a tight group dynamic, is unavoidable.  The Beatles must have realized this, otherwise they wouldn't have considered naming the LP A Doll's House - after the Ibsen play that writer Michael Meyer described as expressing "the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person" - before Family's similarly titled debut, Music In a Doll's House, appeared first.  And the Beatles were clearly demonstrating a desire to find themselves apart from each other.    
(Once again, this is my last review for awhile. I need a break again, maybe now more than before.)

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