Title: It was going to be called A Doll’s House, but then another band put out an LP with a similar name – so the Beatles instead went eponymous. The entire world chose to call it The White Album, thanks to the…
Cover: Just the band’s name embossed on a white background.
Best song: I’m going to break my own rules here and not pick one. I’ll explain why in the review section.
* Back in the USSR (written by Paul) opens Side A and is a trad rocker with witty lyrics.
* Dear Prudence (John) is the first of many lovely examples of finger-picking guitar work on the album. (It’s also one of four White Album songs recorded at Trident Studios in Soho, just a minute’s walk from my office.)
* Glass Onion (John) has lyrics that reference previous Beatles songs, mocking fans who look for hidden codes, and a pleasing chug-chug bassline.
* Ska pastiche Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Paul) has really grown on me over the years (I used to hate it, as John, George and Ringo did at the time, but now find it fun).
* FM-radio-friendly While My Guitar Gently Weeps is George’s best song since Revolver and features a guitar solo from Eric Clapton, an outsider brought in by Harrison to try to improve morale in the camp.
* The mysterious Happiness is a Warm Gun (John) is a number of song ideas skillfully bolted together – apparently, everyone involved really enjoyed tackling the challenging structure.
* The laconic I’m So Tired (John) will always have a place in my (long-time insomnia sufferer’s) heart.
* Blackbird (Paul) is a stunningly beautiful guitar piece.
* I Will (Paul) has a cute sung bassline.
* The delicate Julia, John’s paean/farewell to his dead mother, is heartbreaking.
* Yer Blues (John) is brutally raw and a tight ‘live’ performance.
* Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (John) is throwaway but worth it for the terrific section near the end featuring garbled singing, a relentless cowbell, a heavy guitar riff and a mixed-highly bass.
* Sexy Sadie (John) is classy doo-wop done as a rock ballad. (The song is about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation guru who the group followed for a time. Lennon – probably incorrectly – came to believe that the Maharishi was a dirty old man, and the original lyrics were: “Maharishi, you little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.” Harrison suggested being more opaque.)
* Helter Skelter (Paul) is fantastically raucous, loud and ‘punk’: the Beatles at their wildest since Twist and Shout.
* Long, Long, Long (George) is largely dull but I love the ending – during the recording, Paul’s sustained note on the Hammond organ audibly rattled a wine bottle in the studio and the band improvised a banshee-wail of a climax.
* Honey Pie (Paul) is an accomplished exercise in style: I easily picture bob-cut flappers dancing the Charleston at the Ritz.
Worst song: Come on, who actually listens to Revolution 9?
Notable outside contributions: Lots of pals provide backing vocals (Yoko Ono even gets a line to herself in The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill), while the group was by now routinely employing session musicians to provide trombones, trumpets, clarinets, cellos, violins, saxophones, tubas, French horns, stumpf fiddles, flugelhorns and the like. The most famous playing on the album by a non-Beatle is Clapton’s guitar solo.
Review: John, Paul and George wrote a cache of new songs while staying in India for a few weeks in early 1968, enough in fact for a double LP. There is plenty of good stuff here, but nothing to equal the best of 1965-67. Instead, the album’s joy comes from a) its rambling, eclectic nature (brilliantly, listening to one track gives you no idea what the next one will be like), and b) the fact it’s significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Producer George Martin has said he wished they’d cut away the flab and made one really strong single LP. I don’t agree. Meaning and power lie, as it were, ‘in between’ the songs: there’s a nebulous cumulative effect, helped by the smart running order worked out during the Beatles’ only ever 24-hour studio session. That’s why I struggle to name a standout track – The White Album is a successful football team with no star players. Ironic, then, that there wasn’t much teamwork behind the scenes. The recording sessions were famously tense. Lennon and McCartney rowed often, George Martin found excuses not to be around, Paul grew more patronising, Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio caused resentment, and Ringo even quit the band and fled to Sardinia (he was convinced to return a few days later by his contrite colleagues). Many songs were recorded essentially as solo pieces: only 15 of the 30 tracks feature all four Beatles. The long break-up had begun.
Nine all-American, bullet-headed Saxon mother’s sons out of 10.