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THE BEATLES

The Beatles

 

Proto-Prog

4.15 | 538 ratings

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JLocke
Prog Reviewer
5 stars The Beatles' White Album is one of the most talked-about Rock albums of all time. Some say it's the best thing the band ever did, while others say it was crammed full of filler and could have benefited from being trimmed down in length (among the latter group of people is Beatles producer George Martin). Over the years, I have become more and more inclined to agree with the former opinion, and the simple reason is that after years of listening to The White Album, it has sunk in to a point that my listening experience of it is now just as personal and important to me as any key event in my life.

But what makes this release so special? Well, transport yourself back to 1968, if you can. At the time, Rock fans were only just beginning to get their feet wet in the bottomless pool of creativity that we now seem to take for granted. This single piece of work featured within its ingenious gatefold cover a large variety of musical styles including Space-Rock, Avant-Garde, Pop, Folk, Symphonic Rock, and even a quick romp in the realm of early Metal. To mesh so much varied content together on a single release was daring as hell, and still scares people away today. You name any other mainstream Pop-Rock artist popular today who even comes close to being this diverse on any of their albums. You can't of course, because The White Album is in some ways peerless in that regard. No other Rock album has ventured so far in every direction-- and succeeded like this one does.

The bulk of the material heard on this release was written while the band went on their retreat with the Maharishi in India. Much of the lyrics are also direct references to people, places and incidents encountered while staying there. As a result, so much material was brought back to the studio that the band chose to release a double-LP. Daring was this choice, but it was also the best one, in my opinion. I know some people think the album could have been a lot better had it been condensed, but personally, I don't know how you can condense something so rich with content like The White Album is. True, a few songs here and there sound a bit underdeveloped or like mere goofing off, but even those tracks have their charm, and the complete experience of listening to The White Album from beginning to end is such that I honestly couldn't imagine any of the tracks on the record being removed. It all plays a role in making this one of the most enjoyable Beatles records-- not just for me, but for many many others.

The listening experience of this album is too precious to spoil through play-by-play descriptions (and even if I would attempt something like that, I wouldn't do any of the songs justice), so rather than do that, I'm just going to give a quick overview of the album to give you an idea of just how vast a musical plane the influences span.

The album begins with an ode to the Beach Boys-style Pop music in the song ''Back in the U.S.S.R.'', then instantly goes into one of the band's greatest ballads, ''Dear Prudence''. Follow that up with John's playful ''Glass Onion'', Paul's happy, fun-loving Pop tune ''Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'', and the random, off-the-wall ''Wild Honey Pie'', and you're already getting an idea of all the varied, rich content this release has to offer.

''The Continuing Story of Bungalo Bill'' starts off with an impressive guitar lead, then jumps into the main song, which sounds like an old tune from the south. By the way, keep in mind that all this time, many different instruments and orchestrations have already been implemented, and we are only six songs in. ''While My Guitar Gently Weeps'' is arguably the best Beatles-era George Harrison song, and it features a soaring, wailing guitar solo from Eric Clapton. Clapton was brought in by Harrison in order to ease tensions the band members were feeling at the time, and the paring of two monumental artists resulted in on of the greatest Hard Rock ballads of all time.

John Lennon's ''Happiness Is a Warm Gun'' starts off in one place, and ends on a completely different note. His lead guitar work about fifty seconds in to the track is so good and heartfelt, and sounds more like a human being's voice than it does a stringed electric instrument. The man was a genius in every sense of the word. The odd-time vocal section chanting ''Mother Superior jumped the gun'' always gives me chills.

''Martha My Dear'' is a gorgeous piece from McCartney, and features classical instruments heavily along with the drums, bass and guitar. A short and sweet symphonic journey. It all sounds very British to my American ears, but who knows, It's damn good, that's all I know. Paul's bass line that comes in during the final verse is also quite masterful and climbing. John's ''I'm So Tired'' is a nice soft rocker that sounds influenced by the 50s doo wop styles, but builds into a more raw presentation as John strains out the words ''Stupid git!''.

This is the section of the album that I refer to as the 'animal section'. Three songs in a row where animals are the main subject matter. ''Blackbird'' shows off Paul McCartney's acoustic guitar chops quite well, as he finger-plucks away and sings in his smooth, gentle voice about a bird learning to fly and escaping its surroundings. A nice little song. Then, ''Piggies'' is the symphonic track which features a glorious outro filled with powerful cellos and violins. ''Rocky Raccoon'' is without a doubt the funniest song of these three, and tells the wacky story of a raccoon who is on a quest to take back his girl from his thieving rival. It's a folk song full of harmonica, traditional acoustic guitar strums and a ragtime piano. A must-listen.

''Don't Pass Me By''. If there IS a weak track to be found on The White Album, I suppose it would be this one, of any at all. Nothing is wrong with it, really, but it's a Country song about waiting up late for a lover to arrive home who has long left town and/or died in a car accident (at least that is my impression based on the lyrics). The fiddle leads are the highlight of the song, and Ringo's voice is the downside. I personally like Ringo's voice a lot, but this particular song shows his limitations as a vocalist, for whatever reason (he will redeem himself later with the lovely ''Good Night'').

''Why Don't We Do It in the Road?'' is a raw, hard rocker that talks about . . . well, I think you can guess the subject matter. Good song, if perhaps a little underdeveloped and short. McCartney is on top of his singing game on this track. ''I Will'' is a light-hearted ballad featuring vocal bass lines, and a southern-style guitar. ''Julia'' is the greatest song John Lennon ever did solo while still in the band. it is about his estranged mother, who died before he had a chance to re-connect with her. It's sorrowful, beautiful and full of heart. His playing and singing are both top-notch, and this song serves as the perfect, gentle ending to the album's first half.

Part two of The White Album kicks things off with another hard rocker called ''Birthday''. ''Yer Blues'' is, you guessed it, a bluesy Rock song about loneliness. John's rough vocal stylings serve the music well, here. Such diverse voices these men had. Switching gears completely once again, a beautiful Folk song titled ''Mother Nature's Son'' serves as one of the album's many highlights. ''Everybody's Got Something to Hide'' is a story about addiction told at a frantic, schizophrenic pace. John talks about his own personal 'monkey' on his back, and the breakdown at 2:05 is truly of the great Rock 'n Roll moments.

''Sexy Sadie'' is said to be written about the Maharishi. John Lennon apparently learned of an attempted rape of Mia Farrow by the Maharishi, and the group announced that they were leaving their retreat in India immediately after learning this. I personally have no idea how true that is, but I've heard it enough times from enough different sources to assume that is indeed what Lennon was singing about. In this case, names were changed to prevent lawsuit, and Sadie is the Marishi.

''Helter Skelter''. Alright, here we go. The heaviest song The Beatles ever recorded, by far. This is early Heavy Metal, and they pull it off brilliantly. Everything about this track just makes me groove. Once again, it's Paul McCartney showing just how diverse and capable he is as a vocalist, and while his screaming and raw-cut singing style may still not quite match the caliber of John's infamous ''Twist and Shout'' performance, it's pretty damn good. In reality, the band jammed on this idea for quite a long time before reaching the final product, and one early version of the song wasn't metal at all. I'm glad they chose to go this route, because it once again shows how the band was capable of pulling off any musical idea they chose to pursue.

''Long, Long, Long'' is another folk song of sorts, featuring one of the most memorable, haunting guitar openings in Beatles history (notice there a lot of 'most' moments on this record for me; another reason why I believe it to be essential). However, unlike its peers found in here, this one is much more psychedelic and progressive, and is possibly the only true 'Prog Folk' song on The White Album. It actually puts me in mind of some of the stuff John Martyn would do a little later. ''Revolution 1'' is, in my opinion, not as good as the single version, which is the most remembered, and a hard-rocker. This album version is much slower and more laid back. However, that IS only an opinion, and this version is still absolutely wonderful. It's got a bit of a Swing influence, and is in reality more varied and creative than its faster-paced counterpart.

''Honey Pie''. Remember ''Wild Honey Pie'' from much earlier on the album? Yeah, this song is nothing like that. Sounds like something Al Jolson would sing. It's great, of course, but the name similarities with the aforementioned track is apparently just coincidence. ''Savory Shuffle'' is a brilliant Funk track that also boarders on Big Band at times. Sounds like it could have influenced Chic's ''Dance, Dance, Dance'' track. Another winning track, but just as unusual as the previous one, at least for Beatles music. ''Cry Baby Cry''. It's a hint of the type of musical style The Beatles would later fully develop for the Abbey Road record. The final thirty or so seconds is a haunting mini-ballad courtesy of McCartney.

''Revolution 9''. Here it is. The single most important track on this entire record, and the one reason you should own it. I'm not kidding when I say that this track is extraordinary. Avant-Garde through-and-through, this is an anti-song. It has no set structure or influence, nor does it seem to say any one particular message. There ARE words here, but they are disjointed, unrelated ramblings, typically consisting of profane, agitated stories or nonsensical poems. Nearly everything you hear on the lyrical front is spoken-word, and anything else is just lifted from other sources. Not only is this the most unconventional, forward-thinking track the band ever did, it is also one of the most disturbing listening experiences I encountered during my early days of experimental listening. It still stays with me. I don't really want to point to anything specific, because I think if you haven't heard this track yet, you need to experience it fresh, without any prior knowledge of exactly what is contained, here. I think even the most avid of Beatles haters must admit that this is one hell of a progressive track. Nothing quite like it existed before in popular music, and this was a huge step for music. Now we were moving into the realm in which 'music' was no longer made up of conventional ingredients. This is a 'song' that had me looking over my shoulder in my house at night for a few days after first hearing it, so I guess that means it's effective. I'm not going to say anymore-- buy this album, and listen to ''Revolution 9''. Period.

Well, after the undoubtedly unsettling listening experience of that last track, The Beatles decide to end things on a calmer note, and the Symphonic ballad ''Good Night'' is where we end up at the end of this vast, varied, sometimes unsettling musical sojourn. The light at the end pf the tunnel as it were is this track, and not only is it probably the most melodically beautiful track on the album, but Ringo does a dynamite job of being the singer. This is nothing more than a peaceful lullaby; no tricks, no Avant-Garde weirdness, no hard rocking surprises . . . just beautiful music. It is the perfect way to end this monster of an album.

So, now the question is . . . does The White Album rank among the very top Beatles releases? My answer to that is absolutely. There is no way this album will ever drop below my personal top five for the band, and I often find myself wondering if The White Album is not in fact their best work. I think a lot of good cases have been made for that claim. After all, the band took the most musical risks, here. Also, a large amount of the band's very best songs are on this release. I honestly can't say whether or not it IS their best, but it's ONE of their best, for sure. The sheer bravery that they displayed by taking their music in so many different (and often uncharted) directions shows what a monumental piece of work The White Album really is. Love it or hate it, you can't deny that it's The Beatles' most diverse record, and I think most fans of the group are inclined to feel the same way I do about it. It's just so full of treasures that you would be doing yourself an incredible crime to not listen to it. I would assume most people here already have, but for those of you who haven't (especially if you are one of the people who actually think The Beatles were nothing more than a Pop group), you need to pick this one up right away. In my opinion, it is indeed essential, simply because of its attitude and varied, unconventional content. I wish a rating higher than five existed for albums like this one. Truly one of the most masterful works I have in my collection.

Very, very happy listening.

JLocke | 5/5 |

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