There must be an explanation for all of these recent Beatles album reviews. Click on the above image to get it!
The Beatles (a/k/a “The White Album”) – Released Nov. 22, 1968
(I have previously written a blog entry about “The White Album.” Click here to read it.)
Back in the U.S.S.R.: Another superb rocker from Comrade McCartney. When first released, some left-wingers regarded this song as a crude endorsement of Communism (which, in post-Cold War hindsight, can be seen as Boris Badenov-ish malarkey). It’s really just a stylish pastiche of U.S.-happy songs such as Chuck Berry’s In the U.S.A. and the Beach Boys’ California Girls — though it’s catchy enough on its own to make you wonder if Ukraine girls really do knock you out (in the figurative, non-spy sense). Terrific.
Dear Prudence: Lovely, understated John Lennon song, reportedly inspired by Mia Farrow’s shy sister on John’s trip to India. Decades later, the song was turned into a literal mess in the Beatles-inspired movie musical Across the Universe.
Glass Onion: Like much of the self-referential cinema of the late 1960’s and beyond, this song might not mean much if you don’t get the Beatles references within. That said, the superb musicianship adds more depth to the song than it ultimately deserves. (Just what is a glass onion, anyway?) Not exactly a “goal,” but a pretty good kick at least.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: The story of Desmond and Molly Jones as told via the reggae-pastiche stylings of Paul McCartney. A nice enough song, but to these ears at least, the Anthology 3 version of this song is preferable (despite John’s derisive intro and closing to it), as it is more straightforward, with its cheeriness not so forced.
Wild Honey Pie: Although a later song on this album is titled Honey Pie, this wordless, nearly tuneless oddity has almost nothing to do with it. Instead, it sounds like some hillbillies on an acid trip. Thank heavens The Beatles didn’t do Wild Revolution 9.
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: John at his acidic best, sarcastically describing a ruthless hunter he observed during his trip to India. This song and the Lennon song that immediately follows on this album make John’s pacifist stand pretty clear, even before he started spending time in bed for peace.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps: George took a quantum leap forward in his songwriting with this tribute to his cherry Gibson. Bluesy wailing at its Beatles best (and it doesn’t hurt to have non-Beatle Eric Clapton backing him up).
Happiness Is a Warm Gun: John said that the song’s title was inspired by a headline on a gun magazine, and if he’d stuck with the gun-as-sexual-metaphor that rapturously closes the song (or even with that and the bluesy middle), the song would have been a total success. But then there’s more of that free-associational stuff at the beginning. (I don’t even want to know what “A soap impression of his wife, which he ate and donated to the National Trust” really means.) Endure the first part and enjoy the rest. (By the way, is that the “bits” that John left uptown, as the lyric sheet says, or is he indulging his misogynist side again?)
Martha My Dear: Paul’s contributions on The White Album are either utterly infectious or utterly annoying. This one is quite the former (addressed to his sheepdog, of all things), with charm to spare.
I’m So Tired: A perfect follow-up to John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” (on Revolver). The song and its delivery really sound as though John has been up for days on end pining for his true love. Excellent.
Blackbird: Paul at his lovely, understated best. According to Paul himself, it was a coded pro-civil-rights message, but its universal appeal makes it a very affecting song — unfortunately, not always in the best way (see the Charles Manson story).
Piggies: One British music writer dismissed this song as “nihilistic and sweeping in its condemnation of approximately half the human race.” I don’t think the song has that much on its mind. Its juxtaposition of “fruity” harpsichord with pig-grunt sound effects seems a minor (if catchy) swipe at upper-class bourgeois. George would get far more preachy in his solo years.
Rocky Raccoon: Another cutesy, old-timey song from Paul — less cloying than Honey Pie, but it doesn’t wear that well after a few listens.
Don’t Pass Me By: Ringo hadn’t gotten too many of his own compositions on Beatles albums at this point; by his own admission, his fellow band members would “go into hysterics” when Ringo would play a self-penned tune that had subconsciously ripped off someone else’s.
This one isn’t especially reminiscent of any songs, except in its cliches. The lyrics are pretty banal when they’re not head-scratching (“You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair”??). Listenable enough, but it probably didn’t make Buck Owens lose any sleep.
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?: Paul has always wanted to be known as just as much of a rocker as John was. On this one, he tries a little too hard, bleating over and over a single lyric about copulation out in a barren pathway. Eew.
I Will: Ever notice that when Paul is trying a bit too hard to sell his earnestness, he lingers in his upper register? (Listen to Here, There, and Everywhere for the same effect.) That said, this is a lovely song, with just enough sparseness to avoid bathos.
Julia: Another achingly beautiful love song from John Lennon, this one unusual as it would seem to be dedicated to his late mother (named Julia). Potential Oedipal connections notwithstanding, the song is quietly touching and seems almost a bridge between Lennon’s macho-man poses and his later primal-therapy songs (unflinchingly revealed on his great solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). A low-key gem.
Birthday: If Happy Birthday to You (to which, I believe, Paul McCartney now owns public performance rights) is the Number One birthday song ever, this one heartily qualifies as a close second. With its driving beat and joyous delivery, one hardly needs John’s command to “Dance!” that occurs in the song’s middle (though that’s a nice touch too). One of The Beatles’ all-time great rockers.
Yer Blues: Other than that enigmatic title (yer blues, as opposed to mine?), this one is a pull-no-punches, unrelenting blueser from John, complete with a name-check of his hero Bob Dylan. It’s done even better on John’s Plastic Ono Band album Live Peace in Toronto, though this version is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Mother Nature’s Son: One of Paul’s ballads that has way too much heart on its sleeve. Later covered by John Denver, which gives you an idea of how deadly earnest it is.
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey: Now, how can you not love a song with a title like that? Producer George Martin once said that The White Album double-set should have been whittled to a single high-quality album, but when asked which numbers should have been cut, Martin couldn’t come up with a final answer. Yo, George, over here!
Sexy Sadie: Another of John Lennon’s priceless character-assassinations, this one of India’s Maharishi who disappointed John when he was found to be putting the make on one of his female followers. Memorably wicked melody and lyrics.
Helter Skelter: John is best remembered as the all-out rocker of the group, but this song (named after a British roller-coaster ride) amply demonstrates Paul’s chops as well. The roller-coaster metaphor is carried perfectly throughout, right up to the fake-fade-out-and-return. I got blisters on my Mp3 player!
Long, Long, Long: Another grating George Harrison tune (They kept George’s song Not Guilty off The White Album and put this one on it instead??). Full of ostensible pining-for-love lyrics that sound boringly whispered by George, with an apocalyptic ending that comes out of nowhere. Very strange indeed.
Revolution 1: This is to Revolution what Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles album, is to Sgt. Pepper, the Bee Gees movie. Compared to the power of the “singles” version, this song is downright namby-pamby, right down to John’s oft-critiqued sentiment “Don’t you know you can count me out…in.” (John often said this yin-yang expression was because he thought he might actually be open to a revolution. Biased Listener says it’s because he couldn’t summon enough energy to sing the song right.) Despite some beefy horns and a blast of a guitar intro, this doesn’t hold a candle to the “real” version.
Honey Pie: Mr. Show-Biz Paulie rears his ugly head again. An old-fashioned ditty about a boy whose girl abandoned him to get into the movies, the song is, like most middle-level Paul, cute but cloying.
Savoy Truffle: Inspired by his friend Eric Clapton’s sweet tooth, George delivers a tribute to junk food that, ironically, is almost as sugary as one of Paul McCartney’s more sappy numbers (and the song even name-checks Paul’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da). A wicked solo in the song’s bridge saves it from over-the-top cuteness.
Cry Baby Cry: Another of John Lennon’s blase, let’s-string-random-rhymes-together songs. A perfect prelude to the mishmash that follows it. Can you take me back where I came from?
Revolution 9: Probably the most universally reviled Beatles song ever, and not without reason. Those backwards-tape experiments (Rain, Tomorrow Never Knows) that were so successful, and which made everyone say “This could have been a disaster if done wrong,” obviously made John Lennon go over the top in his supposed aural depiction of a revolution. Among other justifiable criticisms of the song: It’s unlikely that anyone’s revolution will end with a soccer-game crowd yelling “Block that kick!” Not without some individual interesting moments, but proceed at your own risk.
Good Night: In their Beatles book, music critics Roy Carr and Tony Tyler write, “Only McCartney could get away with this one.” Surprise! It was actually John who wrote this song to accompany Ringo’s somber vocals. The syrupy strings and (in John’s word) “Hollywood” production should give Beatle-rockers every reason on Earth to be mad, except that the song is just too charming. As lullabies go, it’s a beaut. Maybe only Starr could get away with this one.
What do you think of “The White Album” and/or any of its songs? Let your voice be heard in the “Comments” section below.
Coming tomorrow: The soundtrack for the animated film Yellow Submarine.
Also on tomorrow’s blog entry: Look for details on the easiest Beatles contest you will ever enter!