#22: The Beatles - The Beatles (AKA The White Album), Super Deluxe Version (Capitol)
I was only a few months old when it was released so I’m in no position to comment, but I imagine that the arrival of The White Album in November 1968 would have raised more than a few eyebrows. Confronted with a 12 inch blank white square, fans must have wondered where the cheeky young Beatles band had gone to. One year earlier ‘Sgt Pepper’ was a brightly coloured confection but this was the antithesis of that, it felt like a two fingered gesture to the (apparent).whimsy that had preceded it. Just look at the stark mono images of the band on the back sleeve for proof that that the party was truly over.
The White Album has always been my favourite Beatles creation. Yes, it’s flawed, meandering and rather long (30 songs), but when the pieces fall into place, it’s phenomenal. The album represents the moment that (most of) the masks were removed (look at those images on the back sleeve again). It’s serious, awkward, avant-garde, sexy, confessional, political and sarcastic – and that’s just John Lennon’s songs. McCartney is frequently criticised for the tweeness of some of his contributions (such as the saccharine 'Honey Pie') , but he also contributed ‘Helter Skelter’ which.was the band's most visceral, exciting and cacophonous moment. McCartney wanted to create something that was louder than The Who, and he did, and he may have paved the way for Heavy Metal in the process. And then there’s ‘Blackbird’ – one of the most gorgeous and sincere protest songs ever recorded. And the albums most celebrated moment isn’t even a Lennon/McCartney song - but Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Weeps’.
But does The White Album need a 2018 tweaking from Giles Martin? Well, for the most part, yes. Harrison’s vocals are unnervingly close on ‘Piggies’ , Ringo’s quaintly sentimental ‘Good Night’ is cleaned up and transformed into a work of tear inducing beauty and McCartney's 'Birthday' is as scintillating as anything on 'Revolver'. On the down side, I’m not too certain about Harrison's amplified moaning at the end of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.'
As with the remainder of this box set, it depends on how much you want to see of a painters original sketches. Is there any actual musical value in hearing a band move with glacial slowness from first demo to finished product? The disc of acoustic ‘Esher Demo’s, (available with all formats) are mostly inessential, although there are some gems (Lennon’s ‘Glass Onion’ before he added it’s snarky ‘…the walrus was Paul’ line) and a handful of largely unknown songs, including ‘Child of Nature’ that would, one day, become ‘Jealous Guy’.
And then there are three (yes, three) discs of studio sessions. Although some of the instrumental run-throughs don't do much to enhances the appreciation of the finalised works, there are some essential insights. The ad libbed screaming of the 10 minute version of ‘Revolution 1’ (that features the Yoko Ono recording that appeared in ‘Revolution 9’) and the 13 minute blues jam that would somehow evolve into Helter Skelter are both mesmerizing. And there are some pleasant surprises: ‘Martha My Dear’ (without the gooey strings and horns) and an unfussy version of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La,-Da’, which is infinitely preferable to the final version.
Fifty years on, The White Album continues to polarise opinion. Did it capture the zeitgeist of a politically turbulent year or was it further evidence of a band disintegrating in public? It may have lacked the coherence of 'Revolver' or 'Rubber Soul' but it's by far their most mature, challenging, fascinating and occasionally 'fuck-you' defiant work. Long may it continue to raise eyebrows.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.