Friday, 20 June 2008

White Noise


What would you do if faced with the prospect of following up one of the most culturally important albums ever? Good question. If you are The Beatles, you do the following. A) Bugger off on a long holiday somewhere hot like ooh…India. B) Write a whole load of acoustic guitar based songs whilst convening with the likes of Donovan etc C) Come home and release the whole lot on a huge sprawling double album despite people telling you that a judicious pruning would produce a much better single album. D) Watch it become, little by little, one of your best loved albums.

Yes, I’ve rediscovered the White Album after at least 20 years of its being discarded in a cupboard with a load of other ‘Oh, God did I buy that’ albums. So what do I think of it now? Yes, it could’ve been edited a bit and yes, it’s got some real clunkers on it but without them, it just wouldn’t be the same and thereby lies the appeal. Funny how it has crept up those ‘best of’ charts that appear from time to time so that it is close to being the best regarded fabs album.

From my viewpoint, I like it because it is such a mixed bag. You’d be hard pushed to find another double album that has so much musical variety, real quality rubbing shoulders with utter rubbish and a listen-to-once-only avant-garde musical collage. The only other double LP that comes anywhere close that I can think of immediately is Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and that, perhaps advisedly, left off the collage.

But the one factor that has struck me after reacquainting myself with the ‘White Album’ is how playful it is. It is a million miles from the critical earnestness of ‘Sgt Pepper’ and seems to display a band who are unaffected by the pressure of success and have actually transcended the need to succeed. In other words they are free to experiment and have a good time doing it. Either that or they have lost the plot entirely under the influence of certain substances – you choose. It’s the little things that make me laugh. It’s John’s raucous ‘Eh-up!’ just before plunging into George’s ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps’ and the snatch of intricate classical guitar that prefaces the jaunty singalong of ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ which still make me smile.

But it’s not all whimsy. There are some real gems on this album, like McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’ and ‘Blackbird’ and Lennon’s ‘Revolution’, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and the immaculate ‘Sexy Sadie’. Without them the album would fall into the trap of being too irreverent and mediocre but being the Beatles, there is always enough real invention to keep you listening. How did they do it?

12 comments:

Jayne said...

I know just what you mean with the White Album. Back in the day when I first listened to it I wasn't totally sure, and then little by little, up it crept. It's definitely up there in my top three Beatles albums, and I like it for just the reason you say (and I think this sums up the album perfectly):

it seems to display a band who are unaffected by the pressure of success and have actually transcended the need to succeed.

That to me says it all, especially the latter point. It's also an incredibly relaxing album - considering that the time of making it was such a turbulent time for all the Beatles. And such lovely songs on that album - hard to say favourites, but I do have Dear Prudence and Rocky Racoon on my ipod, sadly next to Requiem by The London Boys. Ah well.

musicobsessive said...

Yes, it's funny how it has become such a well loved album when in reality it is a ragbag of underdeveloped songs and flashes of brilliance. I think it's the unstructured nature of it that appeals - it's not trying too hard to be loved. It's a sort of 'take it or leave it' album rather than a 'buy me!' type.

Not sure about the London Boys though...

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Happiness is a Warm Gun has always appealed to me for some reason ....

musicobsessive said...

Hi Barb. Yes, me too. Try having a listen to Tori Amos's version on her 'Strange Little Girls' covers album, it's...er, different!

Charlie said...

I agree. I love the White Album. It's definitely one of The Beatles best. While it may be a bit weird and nonsensical at times musically it is superb and ranks among their 3 best discs. A sloppy, mewssed up masterwork.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Charlie. It must be one of the few albums in the world that everybody agrees is not perfect yet they all love it! Strange.

Adrian said...

Like most everything put on record by the Fabs (excluding perhaps cetain things Spectorized), the music on the White Album is honest. And it represents four distinct musical personalities and talents. Who else would follow "Why Don't We Do It In the Road" with the very different-toned "I Will". And that sort of juxtaposition is all over the album.

The Beatles - and some others in their era - created a cultural journal. Whether it be the flirtations of the Maharishi, or Ringo's country leanings, or anything else that inspired them, the music has integrity and inventiveness. None of it is the calculated, passionless, "product" churned out by many of today's acts.

Block that kick! Block that kick!

musicobsessive said...

Absolutely agree. I think the reason that this album and many around that time have so much musical diversity is that they are not trying to conform to a marketing specification. Instead, it is the (as you say) honest outpourings of a true musical soul.

There are one or two artists who still fit this type today and who produce richly varied albums but most recent stuff is of the 'heard one, heard them all variety'. Shame.

Adrian said...

It's Joni Mitchell who so concisely says: "Now, this is all calculated music. It's calculated for sales, it's sonically calculated, it's rudely calculated."

Just heard Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla" on the radio. (Last night, inspired by this White Album thread, I was hearing Eric Clapton on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".)

With "Layla" you have Clapton writing a song about his feelings for Patti Boyd Harrison. He wrote and performed a song about those feelings, and people responded. It became a hit, but that wasn't the purpose.

In the current environment, songs by committee, songs by calculation - that sort of honesty has been bred out of much popular music.

I do like to get in that rant occasionally. Thankfully, if artists choose to free themselves, we're now in an age when it can be about music, once again.

TR1-Guy said...

I have a sister who is 4-years my elder and she was a HUGE Beatles fan and ACTUALLY saw them perform in 1966 in Chicago on their last tour! Too cool and I'm totally jealous... of course I was like 9, so I couldn't go.

Anyway, I have always liked the White album because it was NOT a normal album. Today, you read "stories" the boys were not getting on very well and yes, were drunk/high most of the time. But, McCartney's "Back in the USSR" shows they can still rock and George's "Guitar" is one of his best with the Beatles. (The other is "All Too Much" which is so psychedelic). I had the actual record album with the numbers and embossed logo and everything and SOLD it in college to one of those "used record" shops as I was into putting everything on cassette then (which have all self-destructed 30 years later unlike vinyl!) I'd give good money to get that album back, but eBay gets enough of my money it is!

Nice memory! Thanks!

musicobsessive said...

Adrian - The do-it-yourself culture has certainly improved matters and artists can free themselves from the straitjacket of commercialism - hoorah!

Byron - You sold a numbered copy!!! Mine was bought in the mid-70s and turned out to be a cheap French re-pressing (without numbers) but it still sounds OK, it just doesn't have the history. Like you, I sold a load of things when I was a penniless student and some I regret, others not so much and some I have re-bought on CD. Why did we all think cassette was going to be the future? All mine from that era are unplayable now.

TR1-Guy said...

I know (re: selling an original copy of the White Album) what a twit, eh? Who knew? Like you said, I was a silly college student needing some beer money or money to buy something for the bands I was in. Perhaps I will go over to eBay and what's up there... this has got me going... Nuts! :)