Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My two most vivid memories of childhood were the Kennedy Assassination in November 1963 and the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. I was 7 years old and both events had a huge and lasting impact. The JFK Assassination was my loss of innocence. The Beatles emergence, at the time, seemed exciting and rebellious, and presented an alternative way of being compared to the mainstream conservative American values that were prevalent.

Recently, Rolling Stone ranked the 100 best Beatle songs and A Day In The LIfe was number one. It is the ultimate Lennon-McCartney collaboration. The final song on Sgt. Pepper's, it sounds as if the world is falling apart. Lennon's lyrics come from a newspaper report about a car wreck, and also alludes to things in his own life as he had recently been in the film How I Won The War. Lennon wrote the basic song, but thought it needed something else. McCartney had a song fragment that was inserted into the middle (Woke up, got out of bed) with orchestral elements including a cacophonous interlude between their two parts that seamlessly connect, what are almost two completely different songs. The whole thing ends with another orchestral buildup and a 53 second piano crash and a weird vocal fragment. Its a strange, unique, intense, experimental song that also has a sweeping emotional impact. The first five Beatle albums were basically rock and roll love songs done extremely well. Rubber Soul and Revolver is where the song structure experiments started, coming to full expression on Sgt. Pepper's, the most influential rock album ever. It is a great album among many great ones by the Beatles, but my favorite, and the one I find the most interesting is the WHITE ALBUM.

THE WHITE ALBUM came out in 1968, when there was reportedly turmoil within the group. It is a collage-like album that combines parody, traditional rock and roll, intimate ballads, jazzy music-hall sounds, avant-garde experimentation, political statements, and dada-like nonsense, spread across a double album.

It starts with a bang with Back In The USSR, written by Paul McCartney. The song opens and closes with a sound of a jet landing and refers to a flight from Miami to the USSR. The title is a tribute to Chuck Berry's Back In The USA and the background vocals pay homage to the Beach Boys. There is a pun on the song Georgia on My Mind, but here McCartney is talking about the Soviet Republic of Georgia. An odd combination of different elements it is a killer rock song, propelled by McCartney's high energy piano and lead guitar riffs. Back In The USSR segues into Dear Prudence, a beautiful John Lennon ballad that he wrote in India when the Beatles were staying with the Maharishi. Prudence Farrow was also there and wouldn't come out of her room because she was constantly meditating. Next comes Glass Onion, also written by Lennon. It references several other Beatle songs Including Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus, and Lady Madonna. One lyric "Well, here's another clue for you all, the walrus is Paul." This contributed to the Urban Legend that Paul had died during the recording of Sgt. Pepper's and had been replaced by a double who looked and sounded like him. Glass Onion is followed by 3 childlike tunes. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is upbeat but quite strange. Things get creepier with the one minute Wild Honey Pie. Next comes The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, written by Lennon about a man named Richard Cooke an American, who was staying at the Ashram in India at the same time the Beatles were. He went on a hunting expedition and shot a tiger, for which at first he was quite proud, but Lennon challenged him on it and wrote the song mocking what he saw as Cooke's unenlightened and life-destructive attitude. Next comes While My Guitar Gently Weeps, written by George Harrison, one of the most beautiful and emotional Beatle songs ever, that includes a lovely guitar solo by Eric Clapton. The first side ends with Happiness Is A Warm Gun. A brilliant song written by Lennon, it also packs an emotional punch but with a much darker quality. Musically, it frequently shifts time signatures and tempos and has some interesting distorted guitar work. The song came about when George Martin showed Lennon a gun magazine with the title on the cover. Lennon tied this to shooting up heroin and created the opening surreal imagery. It ends with a doo-wop vocal refrain of the title, with a sarcastic back-up vocal - bang, bang, shoot, shoot. 

Side 2 opens with Martha My Dear by McCartney and he is the only Beatle to appear on the track. It features a music-hall style piano that recurs throughout and a brass band. It is inspired by his Old English Sheepdog named Martha and an ex-love interest Jane Asher. This is followed by Lennon's I'm So Tired which was written at the ashram when he couldn't sleep because he was missing Yoko Ono. Blackbird is Paul on acoustic guitar and was inspired by racial tensions escalating in the United States in the spring of 1968. Musically, it is inspired by Bach's Bourree in E Minor, a well-known classical guitar piece. Piggies written by Harrison is a social commentary on class and greed, and is deceptively simple even though it includes a harpsichord and a string quartet that at one point plays an unexpected blues riff. Rocky Raccoon is McCartney's spoof of the folk singer centered around the story of a love triangle with an western-style honky tonk piano part played by George Martin. Don't Pass Me By was Ringo's first solo composition and his sung by him. The song employs a  three-chord blues structure with a violin being played throughout by Jack Fallon. One lyric "you were in a car crash and lost your hair" also contributed to the urban legend of Paul's death. Why Don't We Do It In The Road by McCartney is a short and simple 12-bar blues featuring Paul's increasingly raucous vocal. I Will by Paul is a light love ballad for his future wife Linda. The second side closes with Julia, written and totally performed by John Lennon. The song is about his mother who was killed by a drunk off-duty police officer when John was 17 years old.

Birthday opens up side 3, and was written by Paul, but the lead vocals are shared by him and John. It has a more traditional rock and roll feel. The song has one of McCartney's most intense vocal performances with John carrying the lower harmony. Yer Blues written by Lennon is an intense dirty blues with suicidal lyrics. It references Dylan's Ballad of Thin Man and Lennon's own psychological demons. Mother Nature's Son was written and performed by Paul and was inspired by a lecture the Maharishi made while The Beatles were in India. It also includes a brass arrangement by George Martin. Everybody Has Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey was written by John about the paranoia that surrounded him and Yoko who were in the glow of love. Sexy Sadie was written by Lennon about the Maharishi after John witnessed him make a sexual advance on one of the women at the ashram. Helter Skelter was written by Paul and was a deliberate attempt to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible and is known for its proto-metal roar an unique textures. Helter Skelter means - in a disorderly haste of confusion. Paul was reacting to the charge that he only wrote ballads. It ends with Ringo screaming "I got blisters on my fingers." The song also came up when Charles Manson and his followers were arrested for a series of brutal murders in LA in 1969. Manson claimed Helter Skelter was the coming race war between whites and blacks, but of course this was his own twisted interpretation. The final song on side 3 is Long, Long, Long by George. It is an ambiguous love song where he could be singing to his lady or his Lord. It is an odd mixture of jazz waltz, folk, and psychedelia.

The final side of the album opens with Revolution 1, Lennon's comment about the political protests of 1968, and some of his doubt about certain tactics. At one point he sings "if you are talking about destruction, you can count me out." but a moment later says "in" as he wasn't sure where you draw the line. He wanted to see the plan of those who were calling for social upheavel. The version on the White Album is slower than the more chaotic and faster version that was the B-side to the Hey Jude single that was also recorded during these sessions. Honey Pie written by Paul is a direct homage to the British music hall style. Savoy Truffle by George is about his good friend Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate. Cry Baby Cry is a Lennon song where some of the lyrics are taken from advertisements and George Martin plays a harmonium. It ends with the Paul vocal Can You Take Me Back. This leads into Revolution 9, the experimental sound collage that includes tape loops, sound clips, reverse sounds, and sound effects. Lennon was mainly behind this track and George and Ringo participated. It is influenced by the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Yoko Ono was probably the main influence as she was heavily involved in the avant-garde art world. Some people find it unlistenable, but I find it quite fascinating and scary. In high school my friends and I used to hand turn the record backwards where "Number 9" became "Turn Me On Dead Man". Another reference to the Paul is dead rumor. The album ends with Good Night a lullaby Lennon wrote for his son Julian. George Martin arranged and conducted the lush orchestration that is reminiscent of a Hollywood produciton ending. It ends with Ringo whispering "good night...good night everybody....everybody, everywhere....good night."

THE WHITE ALBUM depicts a world that is strange and schizophrenic, moving from child-like wonder to creepy paranoia. It is open ended and ripe for interpretation. It is unlike anything else to emerge from the rock era. Take this brother, may it serve you well.

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