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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The White Album

1967 was a mixed bag for The Beatles. On the one hand they released two wildly acclaimed albums and three gold singles, had begun dabbling in transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and were kings of the rock domain. But on the other the film Magical Mystery Tour had flopped big time, and, worst of all, in June of 1967 their Manager Brian Epstein died of an unintentional overdose.

Now, because these reviews have centered mostly on the music of The Beatles, Mr. Epstein hasn’t been mentioned at all, but I must say at this point in the discussion that The Beatles wouldn’t have ever gotten out of Liverpool if it wasn’t for the marketing and merchandising expertise of Brian Epstein. It was he who recognized their potential and put them in matching suits, and allowed them to grow out their hair, who arranged their early UK tours, who bought insane amounts of their early records to make sure they charted, who got them their test recording session with George Martin, who guided their success into, and through, the frenzy of Beatlemania. In short, Brian Epstein took a ragtag group of cover musicians and helped turn them into one of the biggest musical phenomenons of all time. So, it can not be overstated how devastating his death was to The Beatles. They lost their manager, their friend, and the guiding force behind their overwhelming success.

It should come as no surprise then that the boys were in need of some guidance when they hitched their wagon to the caravan surrounding the charismatic transcendentalist teacher, Mahesh Yogi in mid-1967, ultimately following him to India later that year and into 1968. At his retreat in Rishikesh all four Beatles began a period of intense introspection and creativity, amassing the wealth of material that would be released later that year as The Beatles, or colloquially, The White Album.

Part of this introspection, though, was necessarily a burgeoning individuality among the group. Paul was getting more and more into arrangements; in fact, in 1966 he and George Martin collaborated on the film score for The Family Way and he was becoming increasingly interested in classical composition. John had begun his love affair with Yoko Ono, and had begun tackling head-on the traumas of his difficult childhood. George would subscribe the rest of his life to the teachings of Mahesh Yogi, long after the rest of The Beatles gave up on it, and his interest in spiritual matters was reflected in his music. Ringo finally began writing music of his own and contributing as a songwriter, the short-term effect of this newfound talent being that he became increasingly concerned about his place within the group.

When The Beatles reconvened in mid-1968 at Abbey Road studios to begin recording The White Album it became clear that something had happened in India. Whether it was the lingering shock of Epstein’s death, or the introduction of Ono into the recording process, or the constant debate over The Beatles’ financial future, The White Album sessions were fraught with tension the likes of which had never been seen in the whole of The Beatles’ career. Much of the album was recorded over several studio rooms, with each Beatle recording their parts separate from the others. The tension culminated in Ringo actually leaving the group over his feeling that the other guys no longer thought him necessary. After some cajoling and apologizing he was persuaded to rejoin the group, and the sessions were finished in relative peace. The near-miss of Beatles apocalypse apparently helped unify the group enough to finish the sessions.

Much ado has been made about Yoko Ono’s role in the break up of The Beatles and certainly she had a large part to play in the drama of those last years. But I argue that this is a simplified version of an extraordinarily complex social situation. The Beatles were not just friends, they were business partners, and they had also been Beatles for their entire adult lives. For eight years The Beatles had been a very small and insular group with little influence from outside forces, a necessary function of the unique pressures of being the most important rock band of all time. In reality the band was less a business and more a marriage, so it is natural both that as John matured he would seek an escape from The Beatles, and also that the rest of the guys would feel a little put out by the sudden invasion of their bubble by a relative stranger. For the purposes of explaining the psychic backdrop of The White Album’s recording, it must be stated that Yoko Ono’s influence on the sessions was palpable but no more influential than any of the other distractions hovering on the periphery at that time.

Yet, despite all of the difficulties the band faced during 1968 they still managed to achieve more than most groups achieve in twice as much time. They started up their own record label, Apple Records, lent their voices to the animated film Yellow Submarine, loosely based on the titular song, and recording and released The White Album, a singularly madcap collection of songs (the only Beatles double-album) that in many ways more closely fit the “concept” behind Sgt. Pepper’s*.

Despite the arcane similarities, The White Album is very much the anti-Sgt. Pepper’s: It eschews psychedelia, instead focusing on nearly every other type of pop form; it was a collectivist effort, not collaborative; and even the plain, white sheen of the album cover suggests a rebirth, or austerity, that was missing in the bombast of Sgt. Pepper’s.

As quickly as The Beatles had embraced the Love Generation in 1967, by 1968 they only repudiated the escalating militancy of the Anti-War Movement. John Lennon in particular wrote the most incisive arrow, with his acerbic “Revolution”**, but the other two songwriters were no less hard on their contemporaries. George Harrison, with both “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Savoy Truffle”, conjures a somber reflection of society, and his witty “Piggies” skewers the British upper classes. Paul, continuing to churn out the largest output, goes for a more subtle approach with songs like “Back In The USSR” and “Helter Skelter”.

There are so many competing ideas and musical styles on The White Album that it is easy to simply throw one’s hands up and get lost in the tangle of the forest. To borrow from Forrest Gump, The White Album is indeed like a box of chocolates, and though every morsel might not be for everyone, there is certain to be something for everyone. So open wide, my friends, and take a bite. I, for one, especially like the McCartney Trifles.

*The breadth of the album’s subject matter and arrangements suggest that there were multiple bands playing on this album, which is not too far from the truth. In some respects this album is less a collection of songs from one band, and more a collection of songs from four solo acts.
**Which shows up on The White Album as a slowed down folk number, as opposed to the incendiary Rock of the single version.