For many, The Beatles had been omnipresent and all-powerful for most of the mid-60s, but the Fab Four truly hit their peak in 1968, the year after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had inspired a huge cultural and musical shift. That album’s combination of commercial success, critical acclaim and huge counter-cultural impact had elevated the band to previously unimaginable heights for a musical act; their opinions were sought on all manner of topics, their every move was documented, even their fashion choices were deemed worthy of front page news. By the start of 1968, The Beatles were more than a pop band – and the pressure and expectation of being something other than musicians would both inspire one of their greatest albums and ultimately lead to their demise.
Their ninth official album, The Beatles – forever known as The White Album, was recorded at a time of great turmoil within the band and one of global upheaval, revolution and war in the outside world. While The Beatles would be pilloried for not using their global influence to address the issues of the time on The White Album, on a meta-level, the tension and imploding relationships at the heart of the band powered many of the songs that critics would laud as some of the band’s best work.
The White Album is certainly the band’s most eclectic album; one which displays their artistry and range but also lays bare the fraying of the bond and the dilution of the vision. Here was a band at the peak of their powers but at war with itself. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the creative axis, would record in different studios with different engineers; George Harrison, an increasingly frustrated and underused songwriter of no little genius, would frequently let his explosive anger loose, while Ringo Starr became so disillusioned with the in-fighting that he quit the band during the sessions, leaving the others to share drumming duties on a number of tracks before he returned.
Yet despite – or in spite of – this growing animosity which created a singularly diverse collection of songs as each Beatle explored their own possibilities, The White Album is, for the most part, the complete Beatles collection. It is not, of course, a Greatest Hits record but it is a kind of Best Of…, not in the sense that it’s a cherry-picked selection from their back catalogue but it is the ultimate compilation of the styles and genres which inspired The Beatles and which became woven into the band’s musical fabric. That such a sprawling, unprecedented (for 1968) assemblage of tastes can sit so comfortably on one album is testament to that intangible greatness that made The Beatles what they were: four working class lads from Liverpool who went on to rule the world.
The White Album pretty much has it all in terms of style, which is its great strength and a large part of its enduring appeal but also one of the sticks critics have used to beat it with. It ranges from the whimsical (“Rocky Raccoon”) to experimental (“Revolution #9”); from tender (“Blackbird”) to tormented (“Yer Blues”). It takes in 1930s dance-hall music (“Honey Pie”), classical chamber music (“Piggies”) and country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). While it is admirable and impressive that The Beatles could turn their hands to all manner of genres and bend them to their own will with such proficiency, the diversity on show alienated some observers who wanted a more cohesive Beatles album. This was never going to happen with few of the songs being played by the full band and some even recorded solo.
And yet, as each individual member began to explore his own talent in the midst of this discord, some magnificent music is made. Lennon sounds torn and ready to burst out of his skin – and the role of a Beatle – on “Yer Blues” and as a result he produces one of his greatest and most authentic vocals he ever put down as a member of the band, while his acerbic attack on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on “Sexy Sadie” must be the most beautiful character assassination of all time. Elsewhere, Harrison touches the hem of Krishna with the sublime “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a reminder to the band’s central song-writing duo that they weren’t the only ones blessed with genius, and serves up a serious groove on the ridiculously catchy “Savoy Truffle”. McCartney, possibly at his most twee on tracks like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Honey Pie”, gets back to his roots and displays his considerable rock chops on the peerless “Helter Skelter” and balls-out stomp of “Birthday”.
Trying to recommend only a handful of tracks from The White Album is an impossible task considering the strength of the double album’s 30 songs but it would be tragic to skip through “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, “Revolution 1”, “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”… If one would have to skip any track, most people’s favourite for the chop would be densely layered eight-minute-and-thirteen-second sound collage “Revolution 9” which has inspired both awe and derision in equal measure. Its inclusion alone is evidence of the power The Beatles had at the time but also, perhaps, the waning authority of long-time producer George Martin.
The White Album went to number 1 in both the United Kingdom and the United States on its release in November 1968 but received mixed reviews from critics. In the months that followed the album’s release, relationships between the four band members and their inner circle soured further with Ringo Starr later referring to that post-recording period as the start of “months and years of misery” and Paul McCartney describing it as a turning point for the group. During that time, both George Harrison and John Lennon would privately leave the band, only to return after pleas from McCartney and Starr. The band would release a soundtrack to the animated film Yellow Submarine and the studio album Abbey Road in 1969 before their final record, Let it Be, was released in May 1970 – some five months after the official break-up of the band.
The White Album would go on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide and has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.
This article first appeared on: PULUCHE.COM