Saturday, 28 November 2009

Top Five (Issue 13): 40 Years Of The Beatles' White Album #1




♫ And finally we end this week’s newsletter with a top five honouring the 40th anniversary of the White Album on Saturday. Now, considering this album has more than double the amount of tracks of any other 1960s Beatles release, its no surprise that many tracks have been unfairly forgotten while their more famous cousins (Back in the USSR, Blackbird, Revolution, While MY Guitair Gently Weeps, etc) get to parade through the nation’s consciousness in time-honoured Beatle fashion. So here are five under-rated White Album classics, discussed in greater detail than most books devote space to (for more, see review no 25): 5) Revolution Number 9: According to an old article in the much-missed Beatles Book, ♫ And finally we end this week’s newsletter with a top five honouring the 40th anniversary of the White Album on Saturday. Now, considering this album has more than double the amount of tracks of any other 1960s Beatles release, its no surprise that many tracks have been unfairly forgotten while their more famous cousins (Back in the USSR, Blackbird, Revolution, While MY Guitair Gently Weeps, etc) get to parade through the nation’s consciousness in time-honoured Beatle fashion. So here are five under-rated White Album classics, discussed in greater detail than most books devote space to (for more, see review no 25): 5) Revolution Number 9: 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. Whichever way you look at it, the fact that I can find so much to write about this track – and can’t think of anything interesting to write about, say, ‘What’s The new Mary Jane’, an originally unreleased avant garde Beatles song recorded near the same time – says oodles about this song’s possible depth to me and its bravery in placing unrelated pieces together is impressive. Eldorado. Take this brother, may it serve you well. 4) Cry Baby Cry: And here is that song’s predecessor. 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 vcent 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. 3) Mother Nature’s Son: 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. 2) Happiness Is A Warm Gun: 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 al 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 paen 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. In other words, happiness isn’t just about having a warm gun – it’s about having a warm heart too. 1) 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. Well that’s all for another issue – sorry this one’s been so long long long. See you all next week for some more news, views and – especially – music.

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