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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

‘The White Album’: the epitome of excess that defined a decade

On the 50th anniversary of the record’s release, we look at whether the tracks justify its two-disc status

The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison, in 1967 Getty
The Beatles, from left, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison, in 1967 Getty

Released 50 years ago today, The Beatles’ The White Album is popular music’s quintessential double album. That doesn’t necessarily mean best – although The Fab Four’s eponymous entry surely ranks among a handful of contenders for that title – but simply the ultimate; the epitome of excess. The most representative, referred-to and replicated case of the beleaguered 2LP package.

Double albums are stereotypically bloated, ego-fuelled, idiosyncratic, genre-hopping, directionless affairs as baffling as they are beautiful – all of which might serve as a fitting introduction to The Beatles’ ninth LP. Both the cause and effect of infamous infighting, which would tear the band apart two years later, The White Album was the sound of fragmentation, of not one, but three different bands – or perhaps more accurately, two bands and two halves. In the words of their most prolific voice, John Lennon, “the break-up of The Beatles can be heard” in these 30 tracks – of which, tellingly, just 16 feature all four band members performing.

Unveiled inside a plain white sleeve in November 1968 – with the only indication of its contents the band’s name lightly and lopsidedly embossed – The Beatles was technically an eponymous/untitled release, but was almost instantly embraced as The White Album.

Coming after the lavish, Technicolor tableau of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a year earlier, pop artist Richard Hamilton’s cover was a grand stunt for sure, but the two-disc format had precedent. Legend anoints Bob Dylan as the forefather of the rock double two years earlier – but his career-high Blonde on Blonde was simply a longer set of similar-sounding songs, which crucially doesn’t chime with the most oft-repeated double-disc adage: that every good double album should have been a great single album – and every great 2LP set could have been a timeless standalone release.

A perfect single disc?

The White Album may be timeless now anyhow, but it inspired the peculiar fandom pastime of hypothetically programming a “perfect” 45-minute set from its scattershot contents – in which The Fab Four shed their recent psychedelic skin and renounced the mop-top pop of yore, bouncing haphazardly between everything from ska (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) and soul (Savoy Truffle) to music hall (Martha My Dear) and country (Rocky Raccoon).

For the first time, The Beatles were arguably following trends rather than setting them. What emerged loudest from The White Album were two prevalent styles that would come to define late-1960s pop: overdriven blues-rock (Birthday, Yer Blues, Revolution 1) and earnest, confessional acoustic folk (Dear Prudence, Julia, Mother Nature’s Son). Jarringly cut together, without the conventional three-second gap between tracks, amid these 93 minutes of music there rests some unashamed filler: Paul McCartney’s 52-second Honey Pie and two-line R&B pastiche Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?

Then, of course, there is Revolution 9 – John Lennon’s eight-minute sound collage, inspired by the work of serialist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, which acts as both the most compelling argument the whole thing should have been cut to a single disc – and perhaps the greatest evidence of The Beatles’ prophetically innovative status.

Newly unearthed

The list-makers and chin-strokers have plenty of new material to play with, following the recent release of an epic anniversary Super Deluxe reissue, unearthing about 77 extra demos and out-takes from the album’s notoriously frenzied sessions.

Beyond the oft-amusing, occasionally insightful, studio banter, ploughing through this six-disc set reveals the studious intent – and prolific inspiration – driving The Beatles in 1968. The music might have lacked coherence, but it was clearly planned that way.

The bulk of the material was penned by primary song-writers Lennon and McCartney during a stay of a few months in India, where our four recovering hippies joined (and one-by-one dropped out of) a celebrity-packed transcendental meditation course. Legend has it the only western instruments present were acoustic guitars – the stimulus for The White Album’s raw, rootsy return.

Most revealing is the reissue’s haul of 27 basic acoustic demos – of which 19 made the final album – recorded at George Harrison’s country home shortly after The Beatles’ return, which showcase seemingly throwaway ditties such as The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey) emerging in almost complete form at this embryonic stage. McCartney scats the exact solo to Back in the USSR he would end up playing on electric guitar, while the contrasting cut-and-paste chunks of Lennon’s Happiness is a Warm Gun were in place long before the studio marathon to come.

As chaotic as The White Album sounds, The Beatles knew what they were doing all along.

In the studio

The reissue’s 50 studio out-takes reveal a very different side of the process. Before the strings were added, the orchestral Ringo Starr-sung sign-off Good Night is toyed with on a single guitar, while Helter Skelter began life as a mellow, meandering 12-minute blues jam, before McCartney cranked his amp to notorious criminal Charles Manson’s beloved proto-metal stomper.

It’s clearer than ever that The White Album exists only because EMI allowed its best-selling boys to block book Abbey Road Studios for the better part of four months to experiment at all hours of the day – with Lennon recording in one studio while McCartney held fort simultaneously in another – an indulgence unheard of for any other act of the day.

Harrison’s Not Guilty was recorded 102 times, but never made the final cut – a far cry from The Beatles’ 32-minute debut Please Please Me, bashed out in the same studio in just a single day, six years earlier, for the cost of £400 (Dh1,881).

Hidden messages

All these factors played a part in The White Album’s dramatically untethered musical approach – but they cannot explain its semantic diversions and divisions.

Lyrically things verge disturbingly from Lennon’s unflinching confessionalism (Julia – a tribute to his mother, mowed down by a car 10 years earlier) and seemingly blatant drugs references (“I need a fix ’cause I’m going down”), to a collective, wilful embrace of flippant silliness.

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A whole series of songs, to a casual listener at least, appear to concern the exploits of often-cartoon-esque animals – the outlaw cowboy Rocky Raccoon, the singing Blackbird, skittish Piggies and Martha My Dear a portrait of McCartney’s dog – while there exist copious coded references to food: Honey Pie, Glass Onion and Savoy Truffle (inspired by guest Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate).

At the time it was chic to criticise this detachment as a deliberate attempt to dodge the political turbulence of the day. Now, while we approach the tail end of 2018, a year rife with its own violence and division that invite inevitable parallels – it has instead become fashionable to magnify The White Album’s socio-political overtones.

The disengaged singer of Revolution 1 – released as a speedier single simply titled Revolution – can be read as either ironic commentary, or mantra. Lennon’s Happiness is a Warm Gun and The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill sound like anti-firearms pleas, while Piggies is quite obviously a ham-fisted Orwellian satire.

The greatest debate has flared over The White Album’s most enduring moment – McCartney’s Blackbird, a finger-picked, Bach-inspired ode, widely interpreted as an expression of solidarity with the American civil rights struggle – sadly as powerful, poignant and pertinent today as it was 50 years ago.

The Beatles’ The White Album Super Deluxe is out now