Mac Wilson reflects on the Beatles' 'White Album' on its 50th anniversary


The Beatles - 1968
Three of four Beatles -- John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney -- gather in a studio in 1968. (Keystone Features/Getty Images)

When the Beatles' albums were reissued on CD in 2009, The Current staff reviewed each of their albums. I was asked to review their self-titled album, commonly known as "the White Album." I felt it was the one time I was ever able to encapsulate my feelings about the record into one written piece, so I was pleasantly surprised when our digital team managed to unearth it from our digital library.

The fact that we have a copy of this piece ties into my headspace at the time I wrote it: it was fall 2009, my wife had just given birth to our son, and it was a fresh opportunity to make sure the Beatles and their music lived on to a new generation. I made it a point to get each one of the Beatles reissues on CD, with the idea being that I would one day bequeath them to my son. In the way our brains work when we're sleep-deprived 25-year-olds trying to make ambitious plans for the future, a couple things never occurred to me:

1.) What if I have more kids? Do I go out and buy fifteen compact discs for each of them as part of their own inheritance? As our family has indeed grown by two in the subsequent years, this would be an issue, if not for the fact that…

2.) Everything is streamable now! I was cooking a pizza the other day, and I was able to start Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!" for the umpteenth time by tapping my phone. Barring a collapse of the streaming model, and/or EMP that wipes our digital data altogether (check back in 9 years to see which of these predictions have come true!) my kids will one day be able to dial up those Beatles albums whenever they like, which means those cherished CDs will most likely sit on their shelf in the basement, between the furnace and the toolbench.

On a structural level I'm not sure I'll ever be able to say more than I did in 2009; on a spiritual level, the major observation I've had about the album as I've grown older is its menacing undercurrent of violence. In my review of Mitski's Be the Cowboy earlier this year, I alluded to the ways various releases from 2018 have mirrored the White Album, and one allusion I didn't add to the piece was Courtney Barnett's newest, Tell Me How You Really Feel. Every shocking new news story from this year seems to reverberate around Barnett's guitar chords on the album, in the same way the events of 1968 reverberate around the chords of "Helter Skelter." I can't say that I'm excited that I can now more viscerally empathize with what it must have been like to be alive in 1968, but it also does allow me to grasp the magnitude of the Beatles' accomplishment: there's real terror and horror beneath the seeming frivolity.

The Beatles in London, 1968
The Beatles at St. Pancras Old Church in London on July 28, 1968. (Apple Corps Ltd via NPR)

The White Album got another reissue this year, this time as a deluxe box set with a remastered version, plus the fabled "Esher" demos and a wealth of in-studio outtakes. While there are some worthwhile moments of revelation, the "how" of the White Album still pales in comparison to the simple "what": these songs, their sequence, hearing them together as a whole as described in this piece. Every time I feel like I've said all that I can say about this album, I sit down to dash off "just a few more words" and suddenly we're 600 words in. Please enjoy my piece from 2009; the next time you hear about the White Album from me, for all we know, it may be a book.

It is August 2000. My knowledge of the Beatles is gradually expanding beyond the 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 compilations (colloquially known as the Red and Blue Albums) as my sister and I amuse ourselves by perusing the trippy booklet accompanying my father's Magical Mystery Tour vinyl. But I've been holding back in my thirst for exploring the Beatles' music, and my dad knows it. He comes upstairs, nods knowingly for a moment, and asks, "Are you ready for the White Album?"

It is August 2009. I am standing at the Minnesota State Fair with my month-old son, Theo, having just finished watching Jeremy Messersmith perform a handful of his Beatlesque songs at the MPR booth. As the sun begins to dip behind the trees in the late afternoon sky, I strike up a conversation with my boss, Jim McGuinn, about Theo's musical tastes. Jim is about to leave when he casually mentions, almost as an afterthought, "Oh yeah, your copy of the White Album is in your mailbox at work."

In 2000, I lift the first record from its sleeve (wait, the Beatles made a double album?) and carefully set it onto the turntable. As I drop the needle, I hear a familiar jet plane noise, but also feel like I'm being transported somewhere altogether new and unfamiliar…

In 2009, Theo has just gone down for a nap. As I remove the shrinkwrap from the brand-new, remastered edition of the Beatles' self-titled record, I slip on my headphones and press play, fully knowing every note of what is to come, yet feeling excited for the rush of re-discovery…

By 1968, the tensions within the Beatles had reached heretofore unforseen levels. The sessions for what would become band's eponymous double record, also known as the White Album, were fraught with all sorts of quarrels and disputes, leading to several instances of band members and producers quitting the band, albeit for temporary periods. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who once scored single after hit single by way of their songwriting partnership, had abandoned all but the vaguest pretensions of true collaboration (the famous "Lennon/McCartney" credit) as each man pursued his own ideas and sound. Only one song on the White Album features Lennon and McCartney singing together, and yet that song feels like as good a starting point as any: "Birthday." Written and recorded in a single day, McCartney and Lennon swap vocal lines while Yoko Ono (Lennon's controversial muse) and Pattie Boyd (George Harrison's wife) add backing vocals. Why? Because they happened to be in the studio that day. It appears, for just a moment, that the tension has drained away, but look closer: that's Paul McCartney on drums. Ringo Starr had quit the band a few days earlier and would not return until the band had recorded a handful of songs without him. Even on the album's loosest, most carefree and communal moment, there was a band member too peeved to participate. Such is one of the White Album's core paradoxes.

A Beatles White Album, signed and drawn on by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, is held on display at Christie's Auction House, November 21, 2005 in New York
John Lennon and Paul McCartney promoting their new company, Apple Corps, in May 1968. (Stroud/Getty Images)

Even for a longtime fan of the album, one of the record's delights is identifying the ways particular songs play off of one another, sometimes back-to-back, sometimes separated by 25 songs. The album's eclecticism laid the template for virtually every double album since: any artist who wishes to make a "sprawling" album with many diverse songs usually references the White Album. While many have tried, very few have even come close to capturing the Beatles' spirit.

The White Album is a continual game of one-upmanship: Lennon and McCartney present similar songs, as if to invite subconscious comparisons. Both men present their own versions of 12-bar blues, acoustic love songs, sharp rockers, odes to animals, and demented children's songs. For as agonizing as it must have been to properly sequence the album (McCartney has said that the sequencing was done in a single, 36-hour session along with Lennon and producer George Martin), the band is able to keep the listener engaged and interested at all turns. Sometimes things veer into the pretty, sometimes into the bizarre, but even after a hundred listens, the element of (pleasant) surprise allows the record to flow perfectly: the White Album is the ultimate display of the maxim "an album where you don't skip a track." By six songs into Side 1, the band has already thrown everything on the table: a sterling opening pair of songs with the "classic" Beatles sound, Lennon's brief yet messy trip through the band's past on "Glass Onion," before veering into the silly with "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Wild Honey Pie" and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." A reggae experiment, a minute-long joke song, and a jaunty, Vietnam-by-way-of-Kipling fable may lead the listener to roll their eyes a bit: Oh, those silly Beatles are having a joke. Which makes it all the more jarring (and satisfying) that we are then pummeled with one of the most artistically serious songs of the album — hell, in the history of rock: George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The song feels both like a harbinger of wonderful things to come in Harrison's career and the capstone of his life's work. "Guitar" feels more monumental to me every time I hear it, maybe because Harrison was 25 [my age in 2009] when he wrote and recorded it; even more startling, Eric Clapton was just 23 when he added the famous guitar solo.

George Harrison adds a much-needed dose of sanity to the record, also adding "Piggies," "Savoy Truffle," and the terminally underrated "Long, Long, Long." Even Ringo adds spice to the record with "Don't Pass Me By," delivering the funniest line on the album ("you were in a car crash/and you lost your hair!") as well as the closing lullaby, "Good Night."

George Harrison and Pattie Boyd in 1968
George Harrison and Pattie Boyd in 1968. (Michael Webb/Getty Images)

The most notorious song on the White Album may very well be Lennon's nine-minute sound collage, "Revolution 9." It is every bit as strange as its reputation would imply; in the CD/digital era, it could very well be the most-skipped song of all time. There is a certain beauty to its disjointed bizarreness, with its own distinctive series of nooks and crannies ("El Dorado," the baby's gurgle, "block that kick!"); after 28 disparate songs, it feels like the last imaginable avenue for the band to traverse on the record. In Alan W. Pollack's indispensable Notes on the Beatles series, he writes, "You can derive, as if by corollary, the notion that the 'White Album' would not be improved by the omission of 'Revolution 9' but rather would be somehow lacking something essential in that case." It's an infinitely strange piece that could be pored over until doomsday, but I was struck recently at how the Beatles effectively prime their audience as the album progresses for the colossal mess towards the end. Lennon's own "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" patches together several discrete pieces into one two-and-a-half minute song; Side 2 whirrs by in a blur of many brief (two minute or so) songs; and Side 3 slowly ratchets up the tension to the crash at the close of "Helter Skelter." The record's last side, Side 4, begins with the stripped-down "Revolution 1" and gradually allows each of the three principal songwriters to exit one by one. McCartney leaves us by journeying back to the 1920s in "Honey Pie," Harrison supplies the inexplicably intense "Savoy Truffle," and Lennon the creepy fairytale "Cry Baby Cry." There's a ghostly, unbilled McCartney interlude, and before you know it, "Revolution 9" is in full swing. By the time Ringo shows up to end the show with "Good Night," we realize we've been had: Side 4 has been an extended curtain call, and we didn't even realize it until it was over. Even 50 years later, the Beatles haven't lost the ability to surprise us.

A Beatles White Album, signed and drawn on by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, is held on display at Christie's Auction House, November 21, 2005 in New York
A Beatles White Album, signed and drawn on by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, is held on display at Christie's Auction House, November 21, 2005 in New York. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

I haven't fully delved into Charles Manson, Yoko Ono, the Maharishi, or whether or not "Hey Jude" should have appeared on the album. You'll find plenty of books written about the White Album and the circumstances surrounding its recording, but what makes the White Album so endearing to me is its distinctiveness. Each listen is a journey anew through its many twists and turns; anticipation of particular songs often makes the surrounding songs even better. In a nutshell, the White Album is the quintessential example of the old cliché, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Rock music doesn't get any bigger, stranger, or more wonderful than the White Album.

2000. My father comes into our living room when the album is over. I am sitting on the couch, completely drained and stunned by what I've just listened to. "What the hell was THAT??…"

2009. I am finishing my review of the Beatles' self-titled double album, a draining experience that has nonetheless allowed me to view the album in a new light. I look forward to many such instances of re-discovery when the remastered Beatles' catalog is issued in September [2009], but my time with the White Album remaster has come to a close. There is only one place for it now: I shall present it to my dad, as my own personal way of repaying him for that wonderful day a decade ago when I borrowed his double-gatefold vinyl and embarked on the journey of a lifetime.

External Link

The Beatles - official site

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