Friday 4 July 2008

The Beatles "The Beatles" aka "The White Album" (1968) ('Core' Album #25, Revised Edition 2014)

The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Beatles Is Available To Buy If You Click Here

On which The Beatles cover more styles in 90 minutes than most bands manage in a career…

Track Listing: Back In The USSR/ 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/ Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey/ Sexy Sadie/ Helter Skelter/ Long Long Long// Revolution 1/Honey Pie/ Savoy Truffle/ Cry Baby Cry/ Revolution 9/ Good Night 

(First published July 2008; Revised edition published August 8th 2014)

Well, thank goodness 'The White Album' (or 'The Beatles' to give its technically accurate title) does come in a plain white wrapper - with so much packed inside the sleeve it would have blown even more minds if it had a 'Sgt Peppers' style sleeve. The longest studio album we cover across the whole of Alan's Album Archives(well, barring All Things Must Pass with its Apple Jam extra, whatever the hell is going on in Godley and Creme's monkeynuts album 'Consequences' and only just beating The Wall, Approximately Infinite Universe and Quadrophenia by a few seconds), it’s hard to know where to start when discussing The Beatles’ white album. A final resting place for all the throwaways the Beatles couldn’t quite bring themselves to stick in the rubbish bin during 1968, it's also - oddly - quite a cohesive record, thanks partly to the early writing sessions in India where Macca, Harrison and particularly Lennon were able to enjoy some peace and quiet and get their creative juices flowing again. Meditating for several hours a day, its no surprise that The White Album finds the Beatles returning to the childlike awe that made so much of their early material so great and went missing somewhere around the jaded and worldly wise Beatles For Sale – but with it there comes the growing sophistication and maturity that runs through all the Beatles’ career right up until they turn full circle on Let It Be. The White Album is in no way a concept album, but several ideas raised by the sojourn in India keep returning: how the past shapes the present (Julia), how the present leads to the future (Revolution) and how our futures might lead back to our past when we die (Long Long Long). The White Album is also quite a ‘ghostly’ sort of album, with the fabs mixing songs about themselves and the people they meet (Glass Onion, Bungalow Bill) with the growing sense that behind the façade of real life there must be something bigger, something more important just out of their reach (most of the other songs). As a result, for once all the Beatles are working towards this similar sort of feel and even if they get there in their own distinctive styles (and by playing on their own songs virtually solo at times) it seems entirely fitting that after nine albums the fab four finally chose this album to name after themselves (the name ‘white album’ is a fan/critical concoction that has stuck so well even the Beatles themselves have now started calling this album by that name). The album’s true title and its minimalistic cover work reflect both the back-to-basics approach of the sound and the fact that by using such a wide - and as covers go blank - canvas we get more of the Beatles’ personalities coming out than ever before.

 However, it wasn't always intended this way: the album’s original working title of A Doll’s House  and planned album cover would have been even more perfect had the group 'Family' not beaten the band to it and caused a last minute change of plan. The Beatles' months in India were the first extended length of time they've spent together since touring ended two years earlier - inevitably talk often turned to when the band had met, as teenagers, and what a bumpy ride it had been (Ringo, of course, left early but he only became a Beatle at the age of 22, later than the others). By this point John and Ringo have both become parents and there's nothing like watching a child grow to remind you of what life was like when you were that age (Paul becomes a dad for the first time in 1969, George not until 1977). Being in India was undoubtedly a return to 'innocence' in many ways - and yet the fact that the trip went 'wrong' (well, The Beatles thought that it did which is the important thing here). As a result 'The White Album's is a record that's very childlike at times: the wide-eyedness of 'Mother Nature's Son', John's first song to mention his family history with 'Julia' and simply the fact that no experience is filtered out: everything is here, no matter how good bad or indifferent - including some of the most outrageously 'bad' songs to ever make it onto record: lame comedy jokes about wannabe cowboys, angry rants against 'piggies', random chants of 'Honey Pie' - this is a child's eye view of a world they don't always understand but still experience. The fact that things went 'wrong' before the band hit the studio and the bad blood between the Beatles inside it results in some very 'creepy' readings of these songs sometimes though: 'Cry Baby Cry', for instance, is the most sinister child-like song put on record. Other songs have a good experience suddenly turn bad: 'Sexy Sadie', Lennon's dig at the Maharishi, is dripping with contempt, while 'I'm So Tired' is his busy Beatle brain trying to shut down and meditate but refusing, its owner too worldly wise to stop thinking. The 'doll's house' theme, then would have been perfect: The Beatles are both at play and conscious that 'they' and all of human life might be 'dolls' moved about by some higher creator who doesn't care for them that much.

As a result, The White Album also has a slightly sinister air for a Beatles album - especially for their late-period as usually its Macca’s sunshiney optimism that tends to break through the most. For all of the album’s up-tempo rock and roll nonsense songs (there isn’t this much frivolous fun on a Beatles album bar parts of Abbey Road ever again), there is undeniably the feeling of rot and decay on the White Album, of a good thing suddenly turned sour and about to kick you in the teeth even as the Beatles sing of the sweetness and light in the world. Even McCartney, wrongly labelled by history as a balladeer but rightly labelled as the band’s upbeat optimist to Lennon’s sarcastic disbeliever, sounds positively terrified in his song Helter Skelter while Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Cry Baby Cry are some of the eeriest Lennon Beatles tracks on record. No wonder it was this album that Charles Manson thought was whispering nasty messages to his sub-consciousness: the strangeness of 'The White Album' is how an innocent song like 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' can live on the same album as 'Revolution' (for the record it was 'Revolution' 'Helter Skelter' and 'Piggies' he directly referred to in his interviews with police - he also heard the 'right' in Revolution no 9' as the command 'rise'). People have often said that there's a great single album within the 'White Album's four sides and they're right so far as it goes: half the album is terrific, half of it in truth not that good at all. Some fans have cynically suggested that this record became a double simply to get to the 'end' of the band's restrictive record contract with EMI quicker, not something I buy (the band would simply have followed the 'American' format more and wouldn't have released 'MM Tour' as an EP if that was the case). 'The White Album' needs to be this long: it needs to be all-consuming, unedited, free-flowing and as close to the 'experience' of being humans on Earth in 1968 as it can.

Having said that, this album’s key strengths (its size and variety) is also its chief weakness and there is no getting away from the fact this album is in many ways a sprawling mess, full of songs of nearly every conceivable style, played in nearly every conceivable tempo on nearly every conceivable instrument. The Beatles were always staggeringly eclectic, but the yearning to adopt new styles that runs throughout their productive history really comes into its own on this album and - like many double sets – it’s in this album’s margins where its greatness truly lies. The fact that the two discs of this double album fit together so well is a testament to the magical running order, which balances the range of styles fairly cohesively and allows each Beatle to shine, roughly in turn. The track listing for this album was decided on by all four Beatles and George Martin at their longest ever session at Abbey Road – 26 hours in all – putting every possible track listing together they could think of. Only on Sgt Peppers and Abbey Road were the Beatles ever this concerned about the running order of one of their albums and they had more songs than normal to choose from here (but get the detail more 'right' than on either). Listen out for the ‘in-joke’ on side two where four very-different sounding songs associated with animals are almost strung together: Martha My Dear (a McCartney song named in honour of his sheepdog), Blackbird, Piggies and the spoof-Western Rocky Raccoon, an in-joke few fans spotted at the time. However, there's a real flow about these 93 minutes that somehow 'belong' together this way - hard as I try to start anywhere but side one track one, 'The White Album' only really 'works' played straight through in the right order.

It could have been all so different, with the genesis of 'The White Album' the trip The Beatles took to Rishikesh, India between February 15th and April 11th 1968. Those two months spent meditating and being together are key to the Beatles' story in 1968 - at first cementing and then breaking further the bonds John, Paul, George and Ringo felt with each other, the only time they lived together for any length after the end of touring in June 1966. What's more it was the last time that The Beatles could be 'innocent' and forget their problems, with this the last time that both Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher would be seen with John and Paul, who both make major changes to their home life back in Britain. The trip was at George's suggestion, who had become increasingly intrigued with the Maharishi, a Guru who promised the enlightenment he was searching for and - so George hoped - would get the other three to stop treating him as an 'outsider' and understand what he was on about (and who was already a good friend of quite a few of rock stars including The Beach Boys - Mike Love will be part of The Beatles' party for the trip although, with that band fragmenting even more than The Beatles, he comes alone. All four Beatles and their families enjoyed themselves to different degrees (Ringo hated the food, his wife Maureen hated the flies and they later compared Maharishi to Butlins holiday camp, but even they loved the chance to get away from the growing music and business pressures). Apart from a break in mid 1966, when the band went their separate ways, this was the band's first 'holiday' since 1962 and while all four were together The Beatles were close than they'd been for a long long time. What's more, the Maharishi refused all use of drugs - which didn't stop the band getting their management to occasionally smuggle a few things in for them via the local village, but for the most part the band were drug free for the first time since early 1965. The songs flowed for the three songwriting Beatles - that's partly why 'The White Album' became a double record - and some of the pieces they wrote here will still be doing the rounds years into their solo careers (including Paul's 'Cosmically Conscious' and George's 'Circles', unrecorded until 1993 and 1983 respectively; it's one of the biggest ironies of working songwriters - and a theme that crops up again and again on this site -  that the more deadlines they have, the less time they have to work on their main craft – give them time off when they don’t have to come up with anything they nearly always will end up writing bucket-loads, something that has happened time and again in popular music!)  George was a natural convert to meditation but for a time John loved it too (no matter what he said when he got back home) and even when Ringo left after three weeks and Paul left after six (keen to get back to work) there was some doubt about whether the others would come back at all. The end is murky, with a disillusioned Lennon challenging the Maharishi for getting rather too earth-bound with a female follower and even Harrison concerned enough to believe the rumours. Time though has been unkind to the Maharishi and it looks now with the benefit of hindsight that the only one who 'saw' anything suspicious - John's friend 'Magic' Alex, who flew out when Paul came home - may have made it up because he wanted the Beatles back paying his salary and wanted Lennon to himself. Perhaps The Beatles might have been better off questioning where The Maharishi's money was coming from (and whether rumours that he was about to get The Beatles to finance a TV project for him were true). The Beatles end the trip hurt and disillusioned once again,  with all the problems they'd been avoiding at Apple waiting for them on their return and with tensions rising between the four once more - in retrospect the Beatles very much entered Rishikesh a band - and left it as four individuals.  If that trip had not ended so sourly, if the Beatles had recorded their songs quickly in a few weeks instead of during sessions that dragged on for months on end and if they had been free of the business hassles waiting for them back home, The White Album could have been the start of a whole new Beatles ‘group’ ethos  - instead it's the project that almost broke them in two.

Even without the Rishikesh debacle four important facts had changed in the group’s (as opposed to the individual’s) lives since making 'Magical Mystery Tour' that directly impact on this album. The band were still dealing with the after-effects of the death of manager Brian Epstein in September 1967(although 'MM Tour' was filmed after his death it was the last project 'rubber-stamped by Epstein, as it were). After being 'led' and pushed for so long, the realisation that there was no one around to 'make' The Beatles get back together to make an album or TV special came as something of a jolt for the band. Secondly, 'MM Tour' was the least well received Beatles project up to that time: it had to come sometime but after five buys years the band finally know what 'failure' is - and for all their mammoth following and confident patter, it must have nagged away at them somewhere. After all, one of the things that gave The Beatles a head-start on their fellow rock bands was their ability to hold a 'mirror' up to the world and move forward without leaving anyone behind: by playing to a family audience on Boxing Day they'd recorded their first failure on this score. Thirdly the Beatles had set up their own record label Apple, a great theoretical idea that would have seen the band as part of an established 'family', with lots of people replacing parts of Brian's life and which would finally relieve some of that Beatle guilt about making so much money (the plan was to keep finding and nurturing 'the next Beatles', although in the end only Badfinger came close to this - and he was the discovery of Beatles roadie Mal Evans, not the band). Unfortunately too many people took advantage of The Beatles' name and success for too long and instead of being a utopia the label quickly became a headache, sapping The Beatles' energies, money and time (the production name ‘apple’ is mentioned for the first time on All You Need Is Love – the last Beatles single to come out when Brian was still alive– but the first true ‘apple’ releases are the Hey Jude single and this very LP).

Event number four is John meeting Yoko in early 1968 and instantly falling in love, an event that both saved his life and stalled it, thanks to further drug problems and distractions. This will change the band's outlook for the end of their days, with Yoko now at John's side throughout every session (in contrast to the long-held Beatles policy of 'no wives, friends or girlfriends' present at sessions). Say what you will about Yoko breaking up The Beatles, though, there's a case to be made that - for Lennon at least - she was the best thing that ever happened to the singer and came along at just the right time to save him from a drug-induced, directionless, creatively-spent slide (though as heavy a practitioner of drugs as her future husband, Yoko was at least a companion for Lennon when he was taking them and made him feel less cut-off). Lennon's songs are sharper, his words wittier and his ideas more colourful across this album than on any Beatles project since 'Revolver' and it speaks volumes that John's next low period of creativity (1972-73) comes when the pair are breaking up. In just a short space of time Lennon has gone from being a largely apathetic drug-addled apathetic rockstar with a slight weight problem, going through the motions and letting McCartney run the show, to an equally drug-addled but suddenly vibrant performer, lean mean and hungry and twice as confrontational and cheeky as he had been in the early Beatles days. The good news for The Beatles is that, at last, he's a proper creative foil for McCartney again and - along with 'Revolver' - 'The White Album' works as well as it does because both writers are more or less equal across this record instead of one making up for the other. McCartney too was going through changes, with his four-year relationship with Jane Asher heading to its natural end and a new one with soon-to-be-wife Linda Eastman just beginning. Eager to work and just as full of material as Lennon, Paul has often said how he was horrified at the way John and often George would go off into a corner and work on their own songs without telling the others – and yet there are more solo McCartney songs on this album than either Lennon or Harrison ones (Blackbird, Mother Nature’s Son, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, I Will and Wild Honey Pie). More than any other Beatles album, 'The White Album' finally makes good on the promise of 'Yesterday' and 'Eleanor Rigby' that all Paul needed for a hit song was an acoustic guitar and a microphone. McCartney is so on form in 1968 that he just adapts quickly to the situation around him, going from poetic philosopher to noisy riffing heavy metaller in quick succession, depending what Beatles are or aren’t around to help him out.

George Harrison, meanwhile, was growing more fed up by the day. After the India sojourn all went to pot his influence on his fellow members lessened and he became annoyed both at his lack of input on the other’s songs and at the fact that he himself only got four songs on the record (much of All Things Must Pass was in its early stages by this time and there are a good three or four fine songs of George’s apart from those released that could have gone on the album). A lot of the guitar parts people think of as classic George on this album tend to be either by John or Paul or - as in the case of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' - Eric Clapton. Two of George's songs are his weakest yet, filler about chocolates and pigs. However the other two suggest more than ever the creative flowering of the Beatles' final days and the early solo years, a time when Harrison reaches the peak that Lennon reached in 1964 and McCartney in 1967 (a fifth, 'Not Guilty', would have been here had The Beatles not struggled so hard to record it - even in an unfinished state it's one of the better unreleased Beatle songs). Easy-going Ringo, meanwhile, got so fed up of the bad vibes on the album that he actually left the Beatles for a week or so, believing that due to the lack of communication between the members they must somehow have been fed-up with his drumming (in actual fact, they were all pretty well fed up of each other). A lot of the time Ringo is out of sorts and on many of the songs (even when he was back in the band) he doesn't play - a result, perhaps, of the 'acoustic' roots of many of these songs first written in India. However, on the plus side, Ringo finally got his first composition on a Beatles album, a song mentioned as having been finished as long ago as a 1964 edition of radio show Top Gear!

All four Beatles had grown apart, a not un-natural occurrence in bands of such a vintage - the few that make it through 10 odd years together, as three of the Beatles had at least – and this album has a much more easily identifiable line between the songs written by all four members than normal. However, every review of 'The White Album' concentrates on the falling-out between the Beatles. While we can't ignore it (Ringo walking out and Paul feeling more split from John are big parts on the way this album turned out the way it did) the band aren't at each other's throats all the time. There's a lot of Beatle magic on 'The White Album', including some terrific no overdubs recordings ('Yer Blues' 'Birthday' and most impressively the tricky 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun', a song the band recorded in an Abbey Road broom cupboard!) that the band genuinely enjoyed and which in context make the similar plans for next Beatles project 'Let It Be' (also planned as a 'live' or near-enough recording) look like a good idea before the reality of cameramen and 8am starts get in the way. The outtakes for these songs reveal more band bonhomie than you might be expecting too: Paul sympathises with John when a take of his fully solo performance of 'Julia' break down; 'Bungalow Bill' features all the band and families joining in for a singalong chorus and the rehearsal take of 'Good Night' (as heard on 'Anthology Three') is one of the sweetest of all Beatle outtakes, all four Beatles gathered around a piano while 'Uncle Ringo' tries to sing a song. People often ask why The Beatles didn't just end in 1968 - when Paul was mad at John for being left out of sessions for 'Revolution no 9', when Ringo was mad enough to leave the band seemingly for good, when George was so tired of the sniping he brought his mates in and when John was mad at the world. But there were plenty of good times too: being a Beatle in 1968 was hard work, but it was often enjoyable work too and for now the band could fool themselves that they still had a future the next time they worked together. Unsure of itself, see-sawing from ecstasy to depression and varying from tight band performances to solo songs, 'The White Album' reflects its times neatly, an album that manages to be both sad and happy, contented and troubled, hilarious and deadly serious depending on what songs catch your ear the most when you play it. We said in our review for 'Revolver' that the album felt 'complete'. Well that goes - umm - double for this double album, although for many fans it is perhaps a little too complete for its own good. Prepare for one of the heaviest journeys it will ever be your privilege to take - even with the cul-de-sacs (and there are many, especially on side two) 'The White Album' covers more ground than perhaps any other album ever written, with its fair share of Beatle standards along the way.

The Songs:

Back In The USSR is one of Macca’s better late-Beatles rockers, the perfect safe-but-not-too-safe start needed for an album this size. Lyrically, the song is a heartfelt Beach Boys tribute, spoofing the sun-drenched beauties of California Girls by talking about the girls in snow-filled Russia and doing a good job at offering a hand of friendship to the group’s growing communist fanbase in the Soviet Union along the way. Musically the song also harks backward, continuing the Lady Madonna trend of getting the Beatles back to their 50s roots and Macca belts out the track as if he’s the long lost cousin of Fats Domino or Chuck Berry. USSR is one of several Maharishi-era tracks, possibly written in honour of the Beatles’ guest Beach Boy Mike Love who continues to be a keen Maharishi and meditation pupil to this day. This was also the first of two consecutive songs recorded when Ringo has temporarily left the group (with McCartney filling in on drums), an unfortunate incident that nevertheless meant the other Beatles had to work their sock off on this track – the result is an impressive start to the album, with dubbed on engine noises making for a suitably engrossing and enticing opening.

The next track Dear Prudence wouldn’t have been written without that stay in India. Although his school teachers would never have believed it, Lennon’s attention span suddenly quadrupled overnight when he went to Rishikesh with the other Beatles and he nearly outclassed the devoted Harrison in his ability to sit thinking about life for hours on end. Casual Beatles fans may be surprised to learn that Mia Farrow was part of the Beatles party staying at the Maharishi’s camp in India to learn about meditation. Many of them will also be stunned at the revelation that this song was written for Mia’s sister Prudence, another visitor to the camp who was rather deeper into her meditation than most of the followers there ((Prudence spent two whole days meditating in her tent while the Beatles were there, taking no meals and not even seeing her sister.) John, caught between his very genuine belief in the Maharishi and his naturally short attention span, was already in two minds about the whole experience by the time he came to write this song to coerce Prudence out of her tent to be with the others. Perhaps seeing something of his own obsessive nature in Prudence’s predicament, Lennon wrote this sensitive ballad to get her out of her introspective mood and remind her of all the great things she was missing in the outside world – which means that 'Prudence' is either Lennon's most peaceful meditation song or already a warning to self to get the hell out of India before he's brainwashed for good. Like Across The Universe, it finds Lennon at a rare peace with the world, but the haunting other-worldly middle eight (‘look around round round’) and the closing repeat of the first verse - which sounds as if weights have been tied to his feet -  suggest that something foreboding is at work here too. In many ways its the most 'McCartney' of Lennon songs with optimism that 'the sun is out, the sky is blue, it's beautiful - and so are you' - although typically Lennon, he sounds less convinced by all this by the song's end after a few curious harmonic touches (did he start off writing like Paul before returning to something he was more comfortable with). In ‘Dear Prudence’ you can hear the Beatle wondering out loud whether having such a large devotion to any belief system is good for you – and yet all the things he uses to coerce Prudence out of her shell are natural and not manmade – ‘the sun is up, the sky is blue’. Along with almost everything else the Beatles learnt during their stay in India, folk singer and fellow Maharishi devotee Donovan thinks the fab four learnt everything they know from him (conveniently forgetting that he adopted a much more ‘Beatlesy’/ ‘White Album’ sound after their meeting, not before). But this track is perhaps the strongest candidate for having Donovan’s fingerprints all over it – it’s certainly not like Lennon’s usual work, which either celebrates life indirectly by using surreal imagery or grumpily dismisses it and everybody in it. Lennon sounds genuinely happy in this recording, even though it was recorded at the worst of times – not least because the Beatles had fallen out with the Maharishi after some unproved and probably false allegations of misconduct, causing Lennon to write one of his most scathing songs, ‘Sexy Sadie’, especially for his former ‘guru’. All the other songs Lennon wrote in India, however pretty they sounded as demos, had also turned into biting snarling rockers by the time they ended up on record (‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘…Me And My Monkey’) or ended up sounding dead depressed (all the above plus ‘Julia’). Yet intriguingly Lennon never changed a note of this song despite his bad experiences. Another track recorded with Macca filling in for Ringo on drums, its curious that these two tracks should have been programmed together, although they do share similar themes of universal togetherness on an album that’s often too introspective for its own good. In truth, it's an interesting choice given that pretty much all these songs (except perhaps 'Revolution Number 9' 'Why Don't We Do It?' and 'Julia' ) were ready to record. At this point the 'Threetles' still aren't sure whether  Ringo would change his mind and rejoin them after just a week or whether he'd packed up his drums for good. How ironic then (or was it deliberate?) that the band chose to record this lovely song in Ringo’s absence- the epitome of the optimism, companionship and sheer magic that nervously asks their old partner if he'd like to 'come out to play'.

Glass Onion is a Lennon track that divides followers; it's really a list of in-jokes referring to other Beatles tracks (Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields etc) and some leftover lyrics like ‘cast iron shore’ that Lennon had been trying to shoehorn into a song for years. The brief single-line chorus is also uncharacteristically dismissive and the word ‘onion’ has one syllable too many to fit the tune. Yet some of the ideas are Lennon at his wittiest, recalling his In His Own Write collection of doodlings with their play on words and John’s pay-off line – that the world is see-through and on the surface seems to make sense, but has so many onion-like layers that it peels right down to nothing – is classic Lennon. The ringing guitar-work, heavy Ringo drums and especially George Martin’s eerie string arrangement help make it one of the band’s most neglected recordings. This track was born for analytical Beatle anoraks like me. In fact, this song is Lennon’s spoof of all monkeynuts collectors who tried to see things in the Beatles’ work that their four composers never intended to be there. After teasing us with oodles of rare references to past Beatle songs (Lucy in the sky, walruses played by Paul, Strawberry Fields – ‘the place where nothing is real’ etc) Lennon gives a musical giggle and tells us that all these ideas just peel away to nothing when you analyse them – that they are just a ‘glass onion’. In its original demo form (as heard on Anthology Three) this is a jokey song more in the style of Bungalow Bill than the Helter Skelter-ish recording we got on the White Album. So why the change? Was Lennon just in a particularly angry mood that day, did he think the recording would never work in its original acoustic-meets-sound effects demo form (though it sounds pretty fine to me) or is he fanning the flames, making us think there’s more to this song than there really is? Whatever the intention, ‘Glass Onion’ is a fascinating mystery, full of inside-jokes like ‘the cast iron shore’ (which is really a rather messy and shingle-filled beach on Merseyside) and ‘bent back tulips’ (a table decoration favoured by one of Lennon’s friends, who bent back the stems of tulips for table decorations) which Lennon had been trying to shoe-horn into a song for years. No other Lennon song is such a wonderful catch-all of gibberish (we’ve already covered the reasons why ‘I Am The Walrus’ isn’t gibberish several times on this website – see review no 99 for more and I could stake a claim to the same for ‘I Dig A Pony’ too) and yet so urgent is the music and so dynamic the performance, it still feels that there’s some hidden meaning to this song – even though Lennon categorically stated several times that the whole point of this song is that there isn’t a point to it at all.

Ob-LaDi, Ob-La-Da has a similarly chequered reputation among Beatles fans, a silly McCartney nonsense song with a delightful piano riff that doesn’t really have much of story to tell but has great fun narrating it in the process. The title came from Jimmy Scott, a friend of Macca’s who used the phrase to mean ‘ca la vie’ (or ‘Let It Be’ perhaps?!, simply meaning ‘what does this problem matter? Life goes on’) However he later  sued Paul for using his phrase without paying him royalties! Ob-la-di, ob-la-da indeed. A sweet interlude of merriment, heightened by Lennon’s clever improvised piano lick – fuelled by weeks of sitting through torturous sessions for this song and coming up with everything he could think of in an attempt to placate McCartney who (wrongly) considered this the band's next instant hit single (Marmalade did take this song to number one, but it's hardly on a par with 'Hey Jude' or even 'Lady Madonna', the other Beatle singles out that year).  The result is a clever song that tries a little bit too hard - you can see why Lennon got fed up with it and, fun as it is, the track really isn't worth the extra friction it caused within the band. In fact this is one of those rare Beatles tracks that sounds great the first time you hear it - but largely grates for all the times after. Personally I prefer the first version anyway, with has a much more 'Jamaican' flavour to it and doesn't have Paul's 'mistake' in the vocal (he accidentally sings that 'Desmond does his pretty face' instead of Molly - oops!)

 Wild Honey Pie, a precursor to the albums McCartney and McCartney II, is the bassist simply messing around and confusingly has nothing to do with the forthcoming Macca track Honey Pie harmonically or melodically. Left on the record because Maureen Starkey liked she must be about the only person who did given its unloved reputation among Beatles followers over the years (where this song regularly came bottom in polls, usually along with 'Why Don't We Do It In The Road'?) Sketchy and angular, it sounds nothing like McCartney’s usual work and is highlighted by an unusual pinging guitar riff that formed the basis for the jingle on McCartney’s company MPL’s productions 20 years or so later, although the template it really sets is for the microphone-testing jams on Paul's first solo album 'McCartney'.

The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, with its simple whimsical chorus sung by everyone available at short notice at Abbey Road and featuring Lennon at his most vocally charming, is a strange song, a true tiger in sheep’s clothing. It was inspired by a similarly contrasting event at the India retreat where a fellow Maharishi student left the meditation centre where he had learned about peace and love to, erm, go and shoot tigers. Lennon thought the idea of idea of someone shooting animals for sport after finding one’s ‘inner purpose’ was hypocritical, despite his calls of armed Revolution on this very record, but like the hunter he sings this song in a very innocent way despite the obvious disgust in the lyrics. Listen out for Yoko’s cameo appearance as the hunter’s, ahem, ‘mother’ (on the line ‘not when he looked so fierce’ – more on the relevance of that role-play later on in this review) and a group chorus featuring just about everyone in the Beatles' extended family including wives, girlfriends and roadies, but with Ringo singing so loudly you can barely hear anyone else. The switch between the rather interesting tension-building verse and rather banal chorus is typical of 'The White Album', as if The Beatles aren't sure when they're on to a good thing anymore. Fans of comics might notice Lennon comparing Bill sarcastically to 'Captain Marvel' here - both John and Paul were big comic fans and McCartney will go on to record 'Magneto and Titanium Man' for Wings' 1975 LP 'Venus and Mars'.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps comes next and finds George characteristically rising above the half-whispered opinions, outward-looking topics and half-hearted sarcasm of the last few tracks by singing a seemingly personal-sounding song from the heart. Yet While My Guitar is similarly as angry and critical as the past few songs it has such a pretty tune and wistful and such a magnificently clever rhyming scheme that its easy to forget its actually one of Harrison’s more critical put-downs of the world in general and boy are there a lot of those on his solo LPs. Eric Clapton does a fair job of becoming a temporary ‘fifth Beatle’ on his guesting guitar solo, but for my money this song always sounded better in its acoustic format as heard on Anthology Three (and overdubbed with some slightly overpowering strings on the Love album), bringing out more of the regret and head-shrugging of George’s lyrics out in his vocal. This clever song still packs quite a lot into its few minutes though: McCartney’s desperate wail of a piano riff which stabs its way through the song, the unusual rhyme scheme made up of words like ‘aging’ ‘converted’ and finally the use of a guitar to musically express the very weeping heart of George (who very possibly did have a guitar for heart, so personal are his songs and his guitar solos at times). In fact, much has been read into this song’s title which probably shouldn’t have been: George, intrigued by an Eastern philosophy book that told him about the importance of random thought and the inability to have such things as co-incidences in a planned universe (possibly the I Ching again but we don’t know for sure) reached out for two other nearby books and took out two words at random: ‘guitar’ and ‘weeps’, writing one of his most highly regarded songs as a result.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun finds Lennon back where he was on Bungalow Bill, but instead of being. this song is subtly different in that the hunter only got his kicks from dangerous weapons; in the context of the rest of this highly charged track it sounds like Lennon is also making either a sex or a drugs reference (or music – where a guitar is often referred to as an ‘axe’ for instance; probably all three). A deceptively simple song that's actually amongst the most complex the band ever played this is a love message to Yoko hidden within a lot of lyrical ramblings and a ridiculously complicated time structures. Famously, it was recorded in a broom cupboard. The four most famous musicians on the planet and they record the best group performance of the White Album – or indeed of any of their post-Revolver LPs – in a cubby hole that used to be used for hanging coats. There’s a famous Beatles line that Lennon and McCartney used to work ‘eyeball to eyeball’ when writing their early songs, before they got further and further estranged from each other in more ways than the geographical – but, more to the point, the Beatles used to record eyeball-to-eyeball too, all huddled round the same microphones and all playing at the same time, right up until about Rubber Soul. This rare return to the Beatles’ early recording days really brings out the best in each Beatle – the complicated jumps of time signatures are handled with ease by all four and this peculiar Lennon collage comes out sounding much more than the sum of its parts. In order of section we get a newly-in-love Lennon singing a paean to Yoko (who has never been summed up better than on the opening line ‘She’s not a girl who misses much’) before moving on to surrealist gibberish (‘She’s well acquainted with the touch of a hand, like a lizard on a window-pane’ indeed), onto a typical Lennon moan circa 1968 (‘I need a fix ‘cause I’m going down…’), a rockier take on Yoko’s character and the way she helped Lennon bring out the peaceful rather than warlike tendencies in his character (‘Mother superior jumped (ie beat) the gun’) before ending with a sarcastic hymn to the gun culture mob, stolen from a magazine belonging to George Martin. It’s a great shame that Lennon’s about to embrace simplicity pretty much for good after this track because - even more than Lennon’s other epics – this song is working on several levels at once. Johnny Rhythm is in love and – if you take the gun imagery as a euphemism – in a lustful mood, plus he’s comparing his romantic (and not so romantic) feelings with his need for drugs and the highs both give him, plus he’s preparing a stinging attack on war and military minds which is about to come into its own with Give Peace A Chance in two year’s time. In other words, this is Lennon’s poetic, romantic side at full odds with his baser, human instincts; whether having a warm gun really is satisfying to his ‘animal’ spirit– or whether instead he would feel more fulfilled thinking intellectually about peace and poetry.

Remember the first album review for With The Beatles where we said Lennon’s every thought and impulse dictated the next moment in a song, rather than creating a smooth-flowing ‘complete’ composition? Well, by 1968 Lennon had learnt a lot about smoothing away his rougher edges and had created some of the Beatles’ most sophisticated and rounded songs in 1967, but after meeting Yoko and having her encourage his own inner instinct that every thought and feeling was ‘art in itself’, he reverts back to type here, meandering through so many changes and ideas that the listener struggles to keep up. This song really tests The Beatles’ ensemble playing to its limits with its time changes (something like 9/7, 10/7, 12/7, 4/4, 3/4 on the opening two segments alone) but the group are just too good to let the song down – in fact, its no wonder they agreed to do the Let It Be project on the basis of this song; stuck in Abbey Road’s smallest studio, playing eye-ball to eye-ball and unwilling to use any overdubs, the band pull off one of the best performances of their entire career. The song itself is another scrambled Lennon epic where ideas about music, drugs and Yoko (but not necessarily in that order) get jumbled up together to sound as if they mean the same thing: Lennon needs his ‘fix’ of each in his life. The middle section then takes us through the surrealist part of Lennon’s creative brain, with some stream of consciousness lyrics confusing the listener even further (some are nonsense but some of these passages are real – the guy with hobnailed mirrors on his boots was apparently seen by Beatles press officer Derek Taylor and told to Lennon as an anecdote). Of all the writers on this list, none enjoyed the pure sound of language more than Lennon and John clearly relishes confusing the listener with these phrases in the bargain (I Dig A Pony and I Am The Walrus both plough this same field, but surprisingly there aren’t really any examples of this style in his solo work). The song then twists one last time by branching out into the horrifying title sequence, one that Lennon found in a magazine about guns that George Martin was showing round the control room. Without actually reading the article itself (this phrase was in the headline) the phrase was enough to make Lennon stop in his tracks, so far did the sentence fly against the peace and love era as to seem like a distant relic, horrifying him with its imagery of something being robbed of life for pleasure, not even for war. In other words, happiness isn’t just about having a warm gun – it’s about having a warm heart too. Finally, We’ve always been told that the difficulties of this track meant the Beatles enjoyed having to work together again for something so complicated and skilful - however Linda McCartney was a special guest at the session for this track for the first time that night so could it be Paul was in a good mood and John was desperate to show the sort of courtesy he felt the others weren’t giving Yoko?)

Onto side two and the songs are beginning to lessen in quality a bit. Macca’s Martha My Dear is an under-rated track, however, if not quite a classic.  Anyone who owns more than, say, two books on the Beatles with pictures will already know the ‘real’ Martha intimately, though perhaps not by name. For Martha was Paul McCartney’s old English Sheepdog, bought during the early phase of the Beatles’ recording career and who stood at Paul’s side throughout the Beatles’ break up, Wings and a good portion of Macca’s solo career. You know the saying that all pets look like their owners after a time? Well, Paul only ever had hair as shaggy as his pet in the 1970 period, but to photographers Martha was every bit as photogenic as her master and seemed to appear in pretty much every ‘informal’ pic taken of the Beatle when he was off duty from recording or performing. This song is, however, the only time she seems to have inspired Paul to write about her in his work. Martha the song is just as playful, but far worse behaved.  throwaway lyrics mix the name of the author’s beloved sheepdog with a tale of an old girlfriend, suggesting Macca probably didn’t think too highly of it but he should – among Martha’s many plus points is her gorgeous brass-filled tune that deserves to be better known than it is. The fact that this song was written for an English Sheepdog has rather undermined its value in the mind of scholarly Beatlenuts. But in truth it’s a fine song, full of dramatic twists and turns between chorus and verses that shouldn’t go together but somehow do (Macca manages to outdo even this example of the genre on his first solo single ‘Another Day’ by the way). Like many of Mccartney’s unheralded ‘story songs’, it’s a forgotten classic that tells us almost nothing about McCartney’s thought process a la most of Lennon’s late 60s songs and absolutely nothing about his beliefs and spiritual request a la Harrison. In the song Martha is not a sheepdog but the narrator’s ex and – unlike Lennon’s stinging attacks on supposed past girlfriends in song – he still feels warmly about her, worried not about his own feelings but the idea that Martha might forget him and all the good times they had together. Macca probably never meant this song to have any relevance to his own life – but dig deeper behind this song’s sweet little tune and you can see more than a touch of Paul’s relationship with actress Jane Asher here. The pair were in the process of splitting up during the White Album sessions despite announcing their engagement as late as Christmas 1967 – his new partner Linda Eastman was already part of his life, meeting the other Beatles for the first time at the recording session for ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. Does this account for this song’s sweet but sad nostalgia and its bittersweet feeling of changes on the horizon, even though the narrator doesn’t sound overly sad at losing the first love of his life? The only thing that stops this track from being a recognised classic is the sudden switch of moods in the song – one minute Martha is being called ‘my dear’, the next its ‘look what you’ve done you silly girl’, although to be fair this is a common McCartney trick with contrasts next heard on his first solo single Another Day (where the joyous upbeat verses give way to a middle eight that screams ‘so sad’ at us, with no apparent change in circumstances taking place).

I’m So Tired and Julia between them do a good job of signposting where Lennon’s head was at in 1968: alternately half sarcastic and dryly humorous while undergoing torture and half regretful and mournful while under going torture. I’m So Tired was a less optimistic take on Lennon’s sojourn in India, written late one night while realising perhaps for the first time what a 'weight' being a Beatle had been for him now that he had some breathing space and that his brain was too full to empty on command. Even though Johnny Rhythm still had his sense of humour intact - cursing Walter Raleigh for ‘discovering’ the cigarettes he wasn’t allowed to have in India and whose withdrawal symptoms was keeping him up at night - the song still seems very real and powerful, thanks to a charging middle eight agreeing to give up everything ‘for peace of mind’. This song was surprisingly popular within the Beatles themselves (Macca can be heard singing it pretty well in a break from the Let It Be sessions) and – throwaway that it is in both writing and performance terms, as there's no resolution or change from song's beginning to song's end – it's so very Lennonish it’s hard not to suppress a smile.

Blackbird is a lovely song; one of the album’s surprisingly few celebrated out-and-out classics known to the public at large (USSR, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and – at a pinch – While My Guitar Gently Weeps are the only other really well known songs here), with Macca’s optimistic and empathetic lyric writing and gentle acoustic guitar playing at its very best. For several decades Beatles fans always accepted that the imagery was about a girl overcoming obstacles and learning to ‘fly’ and find her own ‘wings’ – but when Macca’s book of lyrics Blackbird Singing came out in 1999 he suddenly announced to the world that it was a message of support to the civil rights movement, something I don’t think any Beatles scholar had guessed before that time, obvious as it seems now. Whichever way you hear the song – and it works equally well whatever way you read it – it remains one of its author’s best-loved compositions for good reasons: realistic, yet tirelessly aiming for something better, Blackbird is this album’s real tour de force for all of its sparse performance (a singing blackbird sounds effect and a McCartney acoustic guitar part is all you get) and its brevity (barely two and a half minutes).  Typical of McCartney's work, it sounds so perfectly formed it's amazing to think there was ever a time when this song didn't exist - 'Blackbird' says a lot in very few words and like 'Let It Be' to come manages to be comforting without sounding patronising or flimsy.

Piggies, however is flimsyness personified. A George Harrison song that typically condemns everybody without properly telling us what it is we’ve actually done wrong, set to a backing track of annoying harpsichord and pig grunts, it's the kind of thing that will give his later solo career a bad name (it's only a small jump from this song to 'The Lord Loves The One Who Loves The Lord', George's most outrageous lyric). The trouble is we don't really know who we're attacking: I 'get' that Piggies is a metaphor for greed and that the harpsichord setting (played by 'de facto producer' but normally tape engineer, Chris Thomas, while George Martin was off on holiday) sums up lounging Victorian aristocrats. But compared to, say, 'Taxman' (where we knew exactly what George was on about) the lyrics are vague. Dare we say it, we might even be the 'Piggies' George is talking about, pretending that we're 'better' than we are by listening to works like 'The White Album' and thinking it was 'art' (is this George's response to Lennon's fan-baiting 'Glass Onion'?) The best line of the song ('what they need's a damn good whacking') isn't even by George but an improvement suggested by his mum! Says it all really - George's sourness only really works when matches to something uplifting or beautiful or a great beat. 'Piggies' has none of these things. The demo of 'Something' later included on 'Anthology Three' was recorded this same day. Chris Thomas is on record as pleading with George to record that song instead and save us all from this miserable fate. Even a tired take 103 of 'Not Guilty' would have been an improvement on this...

Even worse is Paul's unfunny comedy Rocky Racoon, which like most of the Westerns it spoofs goes on for far too long, long after the joke has grown tired. Improvised one night under the Rishikesh stars, you can see that this would have been fun at the time - a spoof of all the 'Western' ideas that suddenly seemed so shallow in India (British imperialism gone mad, with a cowboy who doesn't even know what he's fighting for anymore). However in the studio this song drags really badly, full of Paul's 'witty' quick snapping rhymes that don't add much to the plot ('Her name was McGill but she called herself Lil, while everyone knew her as 'Nancy' - this is an Austen novel, not a song lyric!) Rocky, inevitably, is shot by his rival Dan and is laid to rest in an empty hotel room where the only thing he can see is one of those travel bibles provided to hotels across Britain by religious publishers 'Gideon'. In The Beatles' world, though, Gideon isn't some anonymous benefactor but a person who 'helps with good Rocky's revival'. So what does all this mean? Is this a rare case of a religious McCartney song? ('Let It Be' was about his mother Mary, not Mother Mary, before we get started on that!) Or is it simply a cop-out ending to a cop-out song - the first that Paul could come up with? An even lazier take on Anthology Three shows a very bored band backing a rather out-of-it McCartney who, unusually, gets his own words wrong ('The doctor came in, sminking of gin...') At least the 'White Album' take is better, with a jolly performance overcoming what the song itself lacks, but it wouldn't have made the cut on any other Beatles record.

Don’t Pass Me By is a fair attempt at a first song from Ringo which is sabotaged by an out-of-control recording that is promising, but needed another take to properly gel. There's also a silly last line about the narrator’s fiancé being injured and losing her hair that undoes much of the lyric’s good work at building up the drama. Ringo had had this song knocking around since at least 1964 (when Paul starts busking it during a radio session for 'Top Gear' and adds that he wants Paul to sig it for him - his colleague doesn't seem best pleased!) The drummer had tried hard to write songs, but used to find that he'd unconsciously plagiarised some old standard - something that became a running joke between the other three. There's no chance anyone else could have written such a weird song as this one though: for a drummer the timing and tempo is oddly all over the place, the repeated see-sawing on two piano chords almost awkwardly simple and the violin solo by Jack Fallon sloppy (he claims that the band recorded a 'rehearsal' without his knowledge and used that instead of the 'proper' solo - a very Beatles thing to do). This is a third straight song that wouldn't have had a hope on getting onto a Beatles album - and yet 'Don't Pass Me By' is actually better than either 'Piggies' or 'Rocky', a song that was at least daring to push the envelope slightly (if more through Ringo bluffing his way through blindly than any great songwriting instinct). The second song recorded for the album (after 'Revolution'), its wobbly feel and slightly hysterical tone rather sets the mood for the rest of the album (despite what some people think, it was recorded before Ringo left the band not after and wasn't a 'condition' of his return).

Next we have the throwaway, surprisingly blunt Macca piece Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? ,which pretends to study the effects of society but is really just a chance to make a basic Lennon-ish grunt. The famous story that Paul was 'hurt' when the others did 'Revolution no 9' without him makes more sense of this song when you learn that this was his 'reply': a song performed  entirely by Paul and Ringo in Lennon's natural style (harsh and loud).   (this ‘song’ was resurrected by the Grateful Dead in their 1980s concerts, believe it or not!) A simple blues progression designed by its creator to be vague enough to refer to any great human function (although naturally  given the raucous way it's sung people assume the couple are having sex, not eating or drinking), it is - like many 'White Album' songs - a sly dig at Western civilisation from the point of view of someone whose just come back from an impoverished India and seen all human nature in the street. However the mood is just that little too threatening and the song that little bit too short for the effect to really work.

By contrast next comes Paul McCartney being more Paul McCartney than he'd possibly ever been before in his life. The rather bland but sweetly sung I Will is unusually unknown amongst fans for a full blown Macca ballad, perhaps because it sounds like a distillation of so many others without quite having its own identity. In another era it would have been given to someone else to sing (possibly Cilla) as it's charming without really being moving. Still, even on auto-pilot Paul is a great creator and the rounded melody is filled with many fine touches (the ringing acoustic guitars, all played by Paul, that suddenly shine through the song and the finale where the song suddenly goes through more keys in its final bars than it has all the way through). No less an authority on great songs than Art Garfunkel considers this to be his favourite Beatles song - while I wouldn't go that far (the song is a little too contrived compared to, say, 'Eleanor Rigby') it does deserve more recognition than to be the song nobody remembers from The White Album side two.

The last song on the first album and the last recorded for the album as a whole, Julia is particularly noteworthy as Lennon’s first attempt to sing a song that had been on his mind ever since a car accident had killed his estranged mother back in 1956. As the first person to give John an instrument and encourage his playing, as well as the most fun-loving relation in a group of rather traditional stiff-upper-lip sisters, Julia isn’t the yearning outpouring desire for maternal guidance in the way that many Beatles scribes suppose (and in the way that Paul’s ‘mother’ song – Let It Be with its ‘mother Mary’ McCartney - is). In her son’s mind Julia meant un-stifled creativity and freedom – something that the composer had been looking for lyrically for much of his song-writing life and had only just found in Yoko. John’s two nicknames for Yoko were ‘ocean child’ as used in this song – the definition of her name in Japanese according to one Beatles book – and ‘mother’, something that speaks volumes. Indeed some scholars have gone so far as to claim that Yoko was the perfect mixture of his freedom-loving mother and strong silent Aunt Mimi, two sisters Lennon greatly admired in rather different ways. Julia is also notably full of the ‘clouds’ and ‘sky’ images that were Yoko’s signature ideas, suggesting this song is at least partly about her too. Many of the words in all of the verses apply equally to both and are a much better tribute to Lennon’s love for his new partner than, say, The Ballad of John and Yoko. As part goodbye to Julia and part hello to Yoko, the song Julia is almost unbearably poignant, the first evidence since Help! that Lennon was a brave writer who sang about his real life whenever he could, even in the biggest public eye there has ever been in music. When you know the full story behind the song – and hear the absolute stream of emotions her death caused Lennon on later solo albums – this song is very touching indeed.

Side three is consistently impressive, however, and this time it’s Macca’s turn to shine, at his rocking best on Birthday and Helter Skelter and recreating the acoustic magic of Yesterday and Blackbird on Mother Nature’s Son. Birthday is another ridiculously simple rocker, written practically on the spot at a session and deliberately recorded in a hurry so the Beatles could go and watch the first TV showing of The Girl Can’t Help It film in the afternoon. It’s another of those White Album songs that sounds nothing on paper, but gets transformed into a tight rocker courtesy of some fine band inter-play in the performance and completed by a screaming Macca vocal that sound mighty fine considering that this song celebrates its own 40th birthday later this year (yes we may well be going to an online party, party later in the year and we’d like you to dance. Not that we’d be able to see it or anything. White Album soundtracks optional).

Similarly, is 'Yer Blues' a genuine cry from the heart or a pastiche of all the American blues 78s that Lennon and McCartney used to collect in the 1950s? Almost a prototype for the ‘primal scream therapy’ songs that Lennon will follow in 1970, this is an early example of the Beatles returning to basics after their psychedelic sojourn, recorded by all four members playing in a broom cupboard. Although written at the Maharishi’s in India, with first wife Cynthia by his side, this song has Yoko Ono’s fingerprints all over it and is the other side of the coin to ‘Revolution Nine’s complexity. Yoko’s early work is all about simplicity, about stripping away an idea back to its core to extract the essence from it, and these ideas really began to strike a chord with the former rocker Lennon after he got to know the Japanese artist better. Stupidly transparent as it is, there is no substitute in the whole of the Beatles’ canon for the chill you get down your spine when Lennon yells into a deliberately broken-down, muffled microphone ‘Yes I’m lonely, wanna die’ (although the opening to the similarly Yoko-like ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ runs it close). Lennon’s later response to this song is also fascinating. When asked about individual Beatles songs, John was almost always 50: 50 split between declaring them works of genius and some of the worst hack songs ever produced in modern music. To the best of my knowledge he never ever staked a claim to ‘Yer Blues’ being great, which suggests he saw it as a throwaway – but the work chimes in well with Lennon’s immediate post-Beatles work and it was one of his few Beatles compositions to be revived in concert (at the Rolling Stones Circus jamathon, with Mitch Mitchell on drums, Keith Richards on bass and Eric Clapton on guitar – if that line up’s just made your mouth water I strongly recommend you to look out for the DVD). By Lennon's standards it is a rather average song, but one that's transformed into an extraordinary howlingly real masterpiece with one of the band’s best group performances on the album. (By contrast, the multi-star version on The Stones’ Circus with Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards just shows the limitations of the song, however much of a storm the artists individually cook up). Many Beatles scholars deride the song for its sloppiness and recording faults, especially for some reason the instrumental’s deliberate faux-pas (Lennon singing into a dead microphone just out of earshot), but the guitarist more than knew his craft by 1968 and this section successfully brings the song down to earth for a chilled-out refrain, unlike the other un-caged animals that don’t quite get back into their box on this side’s unusually high quota of chaotic rock songs.

As for Mother Nature’s Son, this is another stroke of under-rated genius to come out of the sudden peace and quiet in India after years of noise and screaming fans. With its typically perfect cyclical melody and its beautifully understated horn accompaniment, its one of its composer’s more neglected works and is the first of a long string of McCartney odes to the countryside that suddenly became very important to the singer after meeting his wife Linda and realising the two had several country-loving interests in common. Son then is the first in a long line of songs that takes in most of the Ram album and Mull Of Kintyre, although whereas later tracks simply give thanks to a breathing space, this song is slightly more religious and awed-sounding than that. Inspired by a Maharishi lecture on how we are all sons of nature and none of us have the power or the right to place ourselves above her, McCartney makes the even the most simple things around him sound positively majestic and magical on this track, especially his fine, rather humbled buried-in-the-mix vocal. Nowadays when we think of Paul McCartney, we quite often think of Macca the country lad, enjoying life on his Mull of Kintyre farm with Linda, some horses and a ram or two. But back in 1968 Paul had lived all of his life in big smoky cities – indeed, he was the only Beatle to continue living in London with Jane Asher right through to the dying embers of the fab four’s career, despite the others moving out to the suburbs of Surrey as early as 1964. While Macca had always had an interest in animals from childhood and housed an assortment of pets throughout most of his Beatles career, the start of Paul as a simple nature-loving character rather than a town-loving industrialist largely began here on this unfairly forgotten ballad. Like many White Album tracks, this song began life during the Beatles’ stay with the Maharishi in India and was directly inspired by one of the guru’s lectures, one about how mankind is only one part of the great cycle of nature and shouldn’t get ideas above his station. Like many of Paul’s simple songs from this period, its subject is about dropping the ego and becoming humble, seeing if there is something ‘more’ to life than the narrator’s senses tell him, but acknowledging that spiritual presence in every small detail he sees. However, Paul sounds content here – much more so than on the song’s closest cousins; the delightfully scatter-brained Two Of Us or the half-joyful half-pained Heart Of The Country, sure at last that he’s found his place in the world as he sits, for the benefit of others, ‘singing songs’. A beautiful reflective two-minute sojourn on the White Album’s otherwise uncharacteristically aggressive side three, this is Paul putting the LP’s other songs in perspective, with that typical Beatlesy mix of the deep and the accessible.   

Not to be outdone, Lennon is also at his rocking best on Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey where Lennon’s riff and Ringo’s cowbell appear to meet at some magical partnership which somehow just is the sound of the Beatles – whenever you hear that a track is ‘beatlish’ its usually this sound they’re trying to recreate, with or without some extra harmonies! Nobody ever seems to mentions this Lennon rocker, not because they think it’s particularly bad but simply because they don’t understand it. Surely the creator of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ couldn’t write a song with a chorus as banal as ‘the higher you fly the deeper you go, so come on’? Well, ‘Monkey’ is exactly the sort of song you can take as lightly or as deeply as you want. Like many a sloganeering solo Lennon track (‘Power To The People’ is the best fit, though ‘Give Peace A Chance’ fits too), this song has a chorus made as simple as possible for people to follow, but some of the other lyrics are pretty complex both to sing and to understand, as Lennon tries to solve the complex problems of a complex world by getting us all to sing along with a catchy, memorable chorus line. Let’s take a look at that title for a start – it has no lyrical relevance to the rest of the song and its very noticeable paranoia seems at odds with the happy-go-lucky recording of the song. But could it be that Lennon is talking to us here about that very difficult bridge he felt between his simple work and his complex work? Everybody else has something to hide, says Lennon, but ‘me and my monkey’ – we are ‘free’, are not afraid of hiding our true selves or copying our former styles like so many of our compatriots and – despite a number of in-jokes and made-up-on-the-spot-ditties – the White Album is as ‘honest’ and revealing an album as the Beatles ever made. Nasty reviewers who should know better sometimes say that Lennon is laughing at his muse Yoko here, likening her to a performing monkey (some reports have him taking this description from a less than flattering review of one of her art shows) but I'm not so sure - Lennon would hardly mince his words in song as he does here. It might be that he's actually picturing The Beatles as performing monkeys. Or, more likely, is that he's singing about drugs and his growing heroin addiction ('monkey' is an old blues term for 'heroin' - that's why The Hollies sing 'Look Out Johnny (There's A Monkey On Your Back)' and why David Crosby once had a fight between 'The Monkey and the Underdog' after he fought off his own addictions). He may not have come up with many lyrics to go with his message, but for Lennon this is announcement to the world that he will no longer play ball with anyone anymore and the note-perfect Beatles backing track – with all four members playing in the same room for once on this album – is marvellously urgent, with Paul’s rattled cow bell perfectly setting the tone. Lennon’s double-tracked vocal is urgent, exciting and energising, whipping the band up into another tight White Album ensemble performance. The song also harks back to the Yoko-influenced ‘first thought best thought, everything makes sense somewhere’ philosophy that both helped Lennon in creating some of his best tracks (I Am The Walrus and even the under-rated I Dig A Pony) and robbed him of his accessible bite. Still, another deeply under-rated song.

By contrast, Lennon’s pay-off to the Maharashi on Sexy Sadie is surprisingly sophisticated given what a nasty and hurtful song the original draft was and Lennon’s obscure lyrics and broodingly angrily quiet vocal is far more powerful than if he’d treated the song as just another all-out rocker. In its final draft, when Lennon’s feelings had calmed down and when he realised what he’d written at first could be libellous, the song becomes a gently chiding song about being let down by someone and having them not come up to expectations (again! Lennon had a history of this sort of thing, or at least felt that he had) rather than the sneering put-down it could have been. With the first real instance of the piano-heavy echoey sound that’s going to dominate his early solo records (like Imagine and Instant Karma), the Beatles turn in another great group performance, adding sympathetic wah-wah-wah backing harmonies to soften the blow of Lennon’s devilish vocal. For some reason the band edited out a whole instrumental section of this song shortly before the finale, one that features much more ringing electric guitar and adds a nicely rough, earthy touch to the song.

Helter Skelter is less controlled but even more successful, written because Macca read a review of The Who’s I Can See For Miles which described it as ‘the loudest, dirtiest, out of control rocker ever recorded’. For those who know that song – and it’s just been mentioned on this list so you all should – the Who’s track is very loud and chaotic but in a tightly controlled dramatic tension-building sense and is quite unlike the brilliantly messy Helter Skelter. Macca though was inspired by the review, as it had been an idea running through his head for a while to make a totally out-there track and seized the opportunity to come up with the goods now that he really could be the first to do so. The Beatles largely succeed at creating chaos in the back yard too, recording a full throttle attack that (on the stereo copies at least) falls apart and gets up again several times over, such is the grungy half-learnt spirit with which The Beatles play it. Ringo even gets blisters near the end of the song as he charmingly tells us – no wonder, given the sheer noise and oompah going into this song. The lyrics, innocuous on the lyric sheet, also sound downright terrifying when Macca belts them out for all he’s worth on the record, with a rather boring fairground ride metaphor actually conjuring up all sorts of devilish activity in the minds of the listener.

Finally, George also finds time to provide one of his all-time classic songs that almost nobody remembers to round off the side: Long Long Long. Nobody seems to know about this song. Even to George Harrison fans, this is the song that everyone who doesn’t know the White Album left, right, upside down and right-way up always goes ‘I don’t remember that song – how does it go again?!’ Yet study it closely and this most understated of Beatle tracks is about the most mind-bogglingly thought-provoking that any of the four ever wrote. Like many of George’s songs of this period, it’s about death – or rather, it’s about the kernel of each person’s life that cannot be extinguished and is merely re-created in some separate form as part of a greater whole. Unlike most disgruntled philosophers, chomping at the bit over the 22,000 days most of us are given to fulfil our lives, George thinks the human soul spends a long long long time on earth and he’s impatient to re-connect with his creator and to get all of this money-making malarkey over with. The song only really bursts forth on the middle eight, but oh what a middle eight it is – ‘So many years I was searching, so many tears I was wasting’. All that fuss about the ‘material world’, says George, ‘and none of it mattered one iota in the end’. And does our spiritual narrator find peace at the end of the song? Well no, surprisingly. Thanks to a typically-perfect Beatles accident (a wine bottle on McCartney’s organ that accidentally vibrated when he hit the song’s closing note) the song turns into Armageddon, as this most beautiful and expressive of pieces descends into noise, with all of the narrator’s efforts and struggles throughout his life turning into nothingness as the song staggers to a lopsided end. Breath-taking in the extreme, this overlooked song rewards close observers greatly and stands as one of the most thrilling and powerful moments on any Beatles album. And, boy, is that saying something. The song is nothing short of a meditation about life and death, with the narrator looking back after several life cycles and howling at the mistakes he has repeated again, urging himself to remember next time that life and spirituality are what’s important and he shouldn’t get sidetracked by material values. Unlike most of George’s songs (‘Each day just moves so fast…’), the narrator actually has plenty of time to put things right here  - its been a long, long, long time since his karma was first sent to Earth all those lifetimes before. A very George song, it virtually sets the template for his early 70s recordings and with its warm, not-quite-there vocal and clever understated accompaniment deserves a better reputation among his many spiritual fans. Indeed I’d go so far as to say this was one of the top 10 Beatles songs ever, such is its quiet majesty, beautiful melody and controlled gentle philosophy. Long Long Long is perhaps most noticeable for the classic moment at the end of the song: after Macca hits a closing organ note to signal the end of the recording, a bottle of wine on top of the organ began vibrating, creating an otherworldly noise that Paul, Ringo and George join in with abandon, as if the grim reaper himself were on the horizon. Most groups would have shrugged and given up on the take, but the Beatles were more open than most to the sort of ghostly unconscious acts that make up inspiration (and never more was that gift more apparent than on the White Album) and all three Beatles (Lennon, as ever on George’s songs was missing) embrace the moment enthusiastically, almost as if it was expected. Totally unrehearsed, this ghostly moment fits the song’s tale of redemption through death and rebirth perfectly and suggests the old saying is true: The Beatles really were sent to us by Gods from another dimension who found that even their mistakes tuned into some ridiculously overflowing consciousness… …. (then again, perhaps I’ve just been listening to Revolution #9 a bit too much recently!) 

Side four is Lennon’s turn to be at his best, starting with the better version out of the guitarist’s two goes at his Revolution song. The slower tempo here suits the song’s swagger more and is better fitting to Lennon’s true philosophy than the first, confused take on the song which openly debates whether to support a predicted revolution or not. Lying on the floor to get a ‘breathier’ vocal, the song’s laid back stance and apathy is a million miles away from the stinging screamer that came out on the back of Hey Jude but for once, in this case anyway, less is more. Still, the fact that this is about the fifth undeniably edgy Beatles song on the album’s second half alone does worry the listener despite Lennon’s new feelings of calm that its all going to be ‘alright’ – no wonder that it was this album that Charles Manson chose to explain away his Tate Murders! (I’ve not gone into detail for the simple fact that every Beatles writer seems to have gone mad over this detail recently. However, in a nutshell, Charles Manson was a struggling musician, ‘friend’ of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and head of a hippie colony who decided that the Beatles were ‘speaking’ to him on this record about a forth-coming revolution that he would be leading and the rest of the world had to prepare for. Murdering several leading figures in Laurel Canyon along the way, Manson left messages at the death-scenes, quoting song lyrics from Revolution and Helter Skelter, attributing the four Beatles to the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ and stabbing one of his victims to death with a fork with the message ‘death to pigs’, long assumed to be a reference to Harrison’s innocuous track Piggies. Manson was sent to prison for a very long time and remains there still, although his one recorded album remains locked up in a studio vault where only a few intrepid bootleggers can get to it).

In contrast Macca offers us one of his worst ‘Call me Paul twinkle toes 1920s jazz band McCartney’ songs in Honey Pie – creating nostalgic sounds for a time he never lived in simply to prove that he can rather than because he has something interesting to say (watch out folks, there’s another of these songs coming on the list later). Once again the song is partly rescued by some clever period touches: George Martin really 'gets' this era, even if Paul doesn't, and the crackly '78' touch is a clever move (perhaps the whole song should have been done like this?) Interestingly the roaring twenties were briefly 'hip' again in 1968 thanks to this song and Mike Nesmith's companion piece for The Monkees 'Magnolia Simms' (a song that beats The Beatles by a nose for sheer eccentricity).  There is, though, quite a sweet melody on the choruses which in a more 1960s setting might have been a lovely song. This isn't even the best McCartney variation on a theme - even the rather limp 'You Gave Me The Answer' from 'Venus and Mars' is better than this monstrosity!

George, meanwhile, is restricting his compositional muse to listing all the different chocolates he can spot in Eric Clapton’s favourite box of sweets on the brassy and rather unfinished-sounding song Savoy Truffle. Like much of the album, these tracks make up in performance what they lack in compositional merit - the backing track for this song, sadly only available on bootleg again, is one of the band's best: all driving horns, blaring guitars and Ringo's thudding drums. The problem comes with the lyrics, which are all 'soft centres' - sustaining the metaphor that 'life is a box of chocolates' a quarter of a century before 'Forrest Gump' is fine for a line - spread out to a whole song the simile gets runny and melts long before the three minutes are up. All George really means here is what he's already sung on so many other Harrisongs - that if you have your treat now, you'll have to pay later (with a painful visit from the karma dentist!) Like one of George’s chocolates, this song is a bit of a rum deal.

The spooky Cry Baby Cry is classic Lennon too – never has such a pretty song with such childish words sounded so creepy. His paper-thin voice, at once sympathising with the worn-out mother in the song and chiding her for giving in to her children’s demands too easily, is dressed up to sound like another confused memory from his own childhood and confused parenting, although the chopped up nursery rhymes/ soap operas on the verses are classic Lennon gobbledegook. The song dovetails perfectly into Lennon’s other two songs of ‘childhood’ on the album, Revolution #9 and his slightly-too-sentimental lullaby to son Julian Good Night. Inspired by an advert (what for, nobody’s quite sure) that ran something along the lines of ‘Cry Baby Cry, Make Your Mother Buy’, this song started in Lennon’s head as a straight lampoon of commercialism before becoming a lot more surreal. The song is sung surprisingly straight by a weary-sounding Lennon, even though its nonsense lyrics and jingle-like tune could have seen it performed as a pastiche a la ‘Bungalow Bill’ or ‘Glass Onion’, which suggests it meant something more to its creator than these family fun tunes. Nearly every reviewer of the White Album has called this childish song ‘creepy’, which is odd given that the characters in the song do little more than count their money and put on plays ‘for a lark’. What this song implies, and unusually for Lennon never states out-loud, is either that life is all downhill from the childhood present in the song (a regular theme for Lennon, especially the hints here that absurdity in childhood is funny, but absurdity continued through to adulthood is frightening because you are afraid of having nothing of any reliable value to hold on to, something you accept as a child when all the world seems peculiar) or - via the primal therapy that’s about to take over Lennon’s creative life in a year or two- that the baby’s cries are mirrored by the other character’s wasted lives in the song, as if none of us ever stop physically crying throughout our live, we just vent our feelings with words instead of mournful cries. A true one-off in the Beatles’ canon, this relatively obscure song truly has more layers than a Glass Onion. 
I could write a whole book on Revolution #9, as its one of its composers most underrated and misunderstood tracks, way better than any of the other avant garde pieces he would go on to record in his Unfinished Music series. According to an old article in the much-missed Beatles Book, this is the most widely owned avant garde track in history, the song that introduced tape loops and vari-speeded sound effects to more music lovers around the world than Stockhausen ever dreamed of doing. According to another Beatles Book article, it’s the most skipped Beatles track in their whole catalogue. You can divide Beatles fans pretty neatly in half as to whether they think this seven-minute marvel is a masterpiece or a master-con - whether it’s the most forward-thinking spot-on description of real life that John Lennon ever made or proof of how ego-mad even the fab four got when giving full reign to their imaginations. There has been masses of speculation as to what this song is about, the favourite of the moment being that, as Lennon himself sequenced the song between his childlike ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and childish ‘Goodnight’, it represents some sort of speculation on childhood, with the many criss-crossing fragments representing the babble that babies hear before they are old enough to distinguish and understand language. What we do know is that the ‘number 9’ of the title is no throwaway title and its repeated mantra throughout the song - extracted from an old examination tape raided from the Abbey Road archives - is no loss of imagination either. The number 9 was always important to Lennon who was big into numerology in this period (as are many AAA artists incidentally – Cat Stevens did a whole concept album of the stuff) and firmly believed in the importance of the number, being the ‘highest’ point you could reach before you began repeating yourself and using the same numbers over again. Macca’s gift of an unused riff from the I Will sessions (‘can you take me back where I came from?’) is the perfect hypnotic enticement to Lennon’s memory of his babyhood, listening to the sounds around him and trying to decode their meaning while being too young to understand the words. Born at a time of great change (1940 when WW2 was at its height) Lennon may here be saying that he and his generation are reaching towards peace because they still sub-consciously remember the horrors of war so well from their childhood. The use of a record engineer’s repeated phrase ‘number 9’ spins the song in another direction though, referring to Lennon’s growing belief in mysticism during the psychedelic era - the number 9 is incredibly important in these circles, being the highest ‘level’ you can reach before you repeat yourself and go onto ‘10’ – and in the context of the White Album’s other tracks dealing with death and birth implies a life starting from the beginning all over again. Nine was also Lennon’s ‘lucky’ number – both John and Yoko were born on the 9th of a month (as was Sean in October 1974) and depending on the time system you use (British not American) he also died in the early hours of December 9 1980 (There are several other links Lennon followers have quoted over the years, but these get a bit more dodgy so I’ve given you the highlights!!) It may also be not entirely co-incidental that this is Beatles album number nine (if you follow EMI's ordering system and don't count 'Magical Mystery Tour') - the significance would not have been lost on someone with a love of the number as Lennon was - is this the highest he feels The Beatles can go before they repeat themselves (if so then it's a pretty accurate piece of fortune-telling as it happens). Stuffed full with tape loops of classical pieces, sound effects and spoken interjections from John, George and Yoko merely add to the weird, unsettling vibe of the song – played in a jumbled-up heap exactly how a baby (or a visiting alien)! would hear them because they have not yet learned to separate the different types of sound into distinct things. The references to revolution take on a separate meaning, however, with many critics thinking that it refers to the battle going on in Lennon’s (or anybody’s) head between the dark and the light of human nature rather than any straightforward outside revolution. In the context of my interpretation, however, this sounds more like the children of the 60s, growing up in the tightly-controlled world of the 50s, still debating whether to break free of the elder generation’s control or not, worried about the new enemy that might be lurking there (think of the lack of discipline in Cry Baby Cry for instance). Coming at the tail-end of the psychedelic era, this is Lennon knowing full well that all you need isn’t love – but unable to give up on the idea of peace or at least a peaceful revolution because he still thinks salvation through it is possible (if unlikely). Most of this is only speculation of course (and Lennon himself would probably dismiss it as ‘rubbish!’ while murmuring ‘that’s interesting’ at the same time), but there’s no doubting the fact that Lennon believed in this song far more than his other avant garde experiments which either came out as poorly-selling solo releases, as a last-gasp Beatle B-side (You Know My Name, Look Up The Number) or not at all (Mary Jane). Take this brother, may it serve you well.

The album then ends on a rather confusing note, with the most mainstream track on the album. Good Night is sung by Ringo which is fair enough – his crooning is well suited to this type of song at least, even if the pitch is rather too high for his voice. It’s the ownership of the song that most confuses people: its rounded melody-line, treacly string arrangement and seemingly heartfelt simple lyric meant most fans of the day assumed it was a McCartney song (especially given that every Lennon or McCartney track was always credited to both, irrespective to who really wrote it). Actually this is a 100% Lennon track, written as a lullaby for son Julian (then aged five), but its possible Lennon is writing about his own childhood too here, waving goodbye to it in a much more nostalgic straightforward way than the confused mixed messages of the last few tracks. Lacking the strong tune and the bite its author has always been well known for, Good Night is still a pretty song and Ringo’s whispered ‘good night’ is a fitting way to end one of the longest and hardest-going but also one of the most rewarding journeys in rock. 

So is the White Album a sprawling mass of undercooked leftovers the Beats wouldn’t have dared to stuff on a single LP or one of the greatest, widest breadths of musical vision in 60s pop? My money’s on the latter and I’m sure I’m not the only fan who thinks this, even the poorer stuff on this album is special and certainly the album’s off-cuts are head and shoulders above what most bands were putting out in this period. Very few records ever offer something for everybody in the way that this eclectic set does and yet, by dint of its magical running order and genuine India-period camaraderie, it seems as if the Beatles really were all working to one overarching theme. Never again would the Beatles have such an outpouring of talent on one record, never again would they be able to combine their strengths in the way they do here. Magical stuff.  

A now complete list of Beatles links available at this website:
'Rubber Soul' (1965)

'Revolver' (1966)
'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' (1967)

'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967)

'The Beatles' aka 'The White Album' (1968)
'Yellow Submarine' (1969)
The Best Unreleased Beatles Recordings

A Complete AAA Guide To The Beatles Cartoons
The Beatles: Surviving TV Appearances
A 'Bite' Of Beatles Label 'Apple'
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part One: 1958-63
 The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Two: 1964-67
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Three: 1968-96
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part One: 1962-74
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part Two: 1976-2013
Beatles Bonuses: The Songs John and Paul Gave Away To The World/To Ringo!

Essay: The Ways In Which The Beatles Changed The World For The Better
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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