10 August 2014
A friend of mine lent me his Beatles record collection. At the moment, I’m listening to The Beatles, and that is what inspired this thread. I wanted to do a track by track review of The Beatles (colloquially known as The White Album ), but seeing as it might be my favorite album released by the group, I decided I would not list the tracks in order of favorites. Instead, i’m taking this opportunity to give a track by track analysis of the legendary double album in running order. I’m interested to hear other peoples opinions, supporting and dissenting. Let’s get down to business!
1. Back in the U.S.S.R. – I’m usually of the opinion that the lead track on any album sets the mood. This was true in the case of all the Beatles records, from the lead count off of I Saw Her Standing There , to John’s “I dig a pigmy” from Two of Us. Here, the track is exceptional and does an excellent job of punching the listener right in the face. A rocker by traditional standards, and a bit of a parody of Back in the USA by Chuck Berry, it showcases a few peculiarities of the group. Notably recorded when Ringo was absent, Paul takes over drum duties here and does a pretty good job. He’s never been known as a great drummer, but he can keep a beat and be imaginative at times (See Band On The Run ). Another unique feature is Paul on lead guitar. Though he was known to pick up a 6 string here and again and show case his fantastically loud and unique playing, it didn’t happen as often as it perhaps it should have. Then again, when you have George Harrison , why would you use anyone else? That aside, this song is full of fun and energy, from the jet airplane fade in, to the Beach Boy-like refrain, to the wild solo, all the way to the jet airplane fade out. A great way to start a great album.
2. Dear Prudence – Written by John for Mia Farrows’ sister Prudence, this song showcases the sweet nature John didn’t always embrace, though when he did he gave us wonderful pieces like this. The fingerpicking pattern is one he learned from Donovan while in India, and the wonderful atmosphere gave him the inspiration for the vivid lyrics he sings. Though he wrote it with someone in mind, I like to feel the song is universal in nature, telling everyone to enjoy the time they have and not spend it locked away in solitude. John often said that all of his songs are inevitably about himself, and the same could apply here. A special shout out has to go to Paul for his bass playing and drumming. I like to think of Paul as being the most successful “one man band” out there, next to no one, except maybe Prince, and several songs showcase this fact. Paul worship aside, let’s move on!
3. Glass Onion – Here we are treated to a bit of fun by John. In this quick trip thru Beatle land, we are treated to the fates of Strawberry Fields, The walrus (who was Paul, apparently ), Lady Madonna , and The Fool On The Hill . I feel this is another case of John writing a song he knows is going to be analyzed, so he takes the time to load it up with lore just to confuse everybody. It’s a great song, featuring a great vocal by John, and the bizarre string outro winds us down, only to be shocked back to life by…
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – … a hammered out piano chord intro, written by John himself while (allegedly) drunk. This McCartney number showcases his love for fun, upbeat numbers. John apparently hated it, though his unintentional contribution to the song does make it better. Early takes just sort of started, but this one announced to the world that it was here. This song doesn’t have much to say, but it’s so charming and unoffensive that you have to forgive any shortcomings it might have. Some may call it terribly sweet, but I chalk it up as Paul being Paul, bearing his pop sensibilities for all the world to see.
5. Wild Honey Pie – An outtake from the Honey Pie sessions, this strange number is, sadly enough, filler. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, but rather that it’s unnecessary. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is one of the numbers George was thinking of when he said some of the album should have been forgotten or made into B-sides. Either way, the mellotron guitar selection segues nicely into the next track..
6. The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill – This track has a distinction. Here we have the introduction of the love of John’s life, and the woman who would occupy his time and ultimately lead him to the conclusion that there was life after The Beatles. Singing backing vocals and one line of the lead vocal is Yoko Ono. I’m not a hater of Yoko, but i’m not exactly a fan of her music or singing. Here, her voice is used to nice effect. The song itself is a fun romp and seems like something that should be sung around a campfire. It makes me wonder why it isn’t played more for that purpose. Given the choice of this or Kumbaya, I know which I would choose…
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Ladies and gentlemen, we have a masterpiece. The lyrics are complex on so many levels, but on the whole, I interpret this song as the first case of George’s dissatisfaction with the group. The verse omitted here, but included on the LOVE version and Anthology version, furthers this theory, likening the groups antics to a drama: “I look from the wings at the play you are staging While My Guitar Gently Weeps , as I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging, still my guitar gently weeps.” The sessions for the song didn’t help Harrison’s angst with the band, and he famously brought in Eric Clapton to try and relieve the tension. It worked, and this song has proven to be one of the best tracks on the album, as well as one of George’s best songs of all time.
8. Happiness Is A Warm Gun – I’m not sure about this one. I like it, to be sure. It’s the second track to feature the Donovan picking pattern,and superficially, it’s a typical “weird Lennon track,” complete with drastic song shifts and crazy lyrics. Looking a little deeper, drug references pop out (Ones which John denies, but here it’s a bit obvious what he’s talking about). Still deeper, you find a love song, albeit a completely non traditional one, written for his recently found partner Yoko. Add in a bit of hilarious commentary (Happiness Is A Warm Gun in your hand, implying you just shot something) and you’ve got yourself a legendary track. Is it the best thing John ever wrote? No, but it does show he always has something up his sleeve and never to count him out. The backing vocals by George and Paul (Bang bang, shoot shoot.) provide a bit of comic relief to the song, which starts out very serious but lightens up near the end, as if John himself were winking at us thru his music. A good bit of fun, and certainly not the worst way to end up side one.
1.Martha My Dear – Paul said in the One Hand Clapping documentary that there are quite a few songs he wrote in anticipation of ending up as a cabaret act. I tend to think this may be one, as well. Though it has roots that are undeniably british, the fast paced drumming by Ringo and the addition of electric guitar make this Ode to a Dog a thoroughly enjoyable tune.
2. I’m So Tired – This song is nice to listen to, though I don’t find the verses too thrilling. The chorus is a much more fantastic experience, with an almost angry sounding John telling somebody (who?) he’ll give them everything he’s got for a little peace of mind. I have to admit the vocal performance on this song is nothing short of spectacular. I love it.
3. Blackbird – Written in response to the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and based in part on Bouree by Johann Sebastian Bach, this tune has become almost synonymous with McCartney. It’s a beautifully simple song with an uplifting message. The addition of Paul’s shoe tapping and bird noises adds to the ambiance of the track. One of the better acoustic numbers.
4. Piggies – I like this one. The harpsichord and bass line gives this song an air of undeniable British pomp. I though this was a child’s song growing up, though my favorite line has always been “What they needs a damn good whacking!” (provided by George’s Mother ). It’s a bit of social commentary, though pretty hilarious, it isn’t considered one of the better songs on the album. To the people who say they don’t like this song, I say bugger off! I like it and i’m not afraid to admit it.
5. Rocky Raccoon – A bit of Americana from Paul (Maybe he had America on the brain?), this folk song tells us the daring tale of Rocky Raccoon and his attempt to steal his girl back in a song that’s half cowboy, half dancehall. I think this song would make a fantastic elementary school production (Don’t steal my idea! I call dibs!) and it’s good fun to listen and play. I may be biased, since this is one of the only McCartney songs I can actually sing without sounding daft, but I still think this is great fun and one of my favorite tracks on the White Album .
6. Don’t Pass Me By – After weeks of meditation, Ringo finally wrote his first song. I won’t call it anything too special, but his drumming really shines here. I’ve shown it to my drummer, and half the time he can’t believe what Ringo is doing, and doesn’t understand how he can do it without falling all over himself. The violin is a nice addition, and the instrumentation makes this quite possibly the first psychobilly song, though it is a quite upbeat one. I love Ringo’s voice here as well. I should hate this song, and I did when I was younger, but as I’ve grown up, I find myself liking it more and more. Maybe Ringo is just that charming. I like to think so.
7. Why don’t we do it in the road? – “Well, she might scratch up her bum,” Eric Idle once quipped in response to this lyric. Monkeys have no sense of shame, or at very least, the two that provided Paul the inspiration for this song didn’t. This features one of my all time favorite vocal performances from Paul, he gives us a few nifty bass guitar licks, and his guitar playing is quite good and effective. John said that he felt hurt Paul didn’t include him on recording this song, which leads me to believe John really loved this song. It’s one of the more hilarious songs recorded by The Beatles, ranking up with You Know My Name (Look up the Number), but despite that fact, my band still refuses to cover the song. Someday…
8. I Will – I like to think that it was Paul’s idea to follow Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? with this little number. A simple yet pretty love song written in India, it showcases the opposite end of McCartney’s vocals from the last track. The song took a reported 67 takes, one of which provided Cry Baby Cry with its musical coda Can You Take Me Back? I enjoy this song for what it is: a short, unassuming and inoffensive love tune played quite well by The Beatles.
9. Julia – If the White Album were one disc, this would be the track I would end it with. Another track that uses the Donovan picking pattern, this song pulls double duty by acting as both a love song for Yoko, as well as a spiritual crying out for his mother Julia . John’s vocals are so sad yet sweet, singing in the most honest way he had ever done up to that time. What results is quite possibly the prettiest song John ever wrote, and certainly the most beautiful track on the whole album. It brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it.
1. Birthday – Today is your birthday, and we’re gonna have a good time. This song sounds like a good time, and I’m sure it was one of the more fun tracks on the album to record. Based around a simple blues riff, this song showcases the attempt by the group to write a new birthday standard. They arguably succeeded, though the song is often seen as one of the more lackluster numbers without much substance. To its’ dissenters, I quote Paul McCartney : “It’s the bloody Beatles White Album . Shut up!”
2. Yer Blues – Sometimes you can’t tell when John is joking and when he’s serious. Here, it’s both and neither. Recorded in a small room during the White Album sessions as a live band (Much to Ringo’s delight), this song sounds like an updated blues standard, and despite a Dylan reference or two, it sounds like it could have been written by the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson or Robert Johnson. The song has a loose (Read: sloppy) feel, complete with yelling on the track, incorrect guitar chords, and possibly the most electric solo ever recorded (it sounds like Yoko’s distorted yelling), but I quite like that about the track. It sounds as if at any moment, the entire thing could come to a crashing halt, but that’s what makes the sound so brilliant. Whether or not it is intentional is irrelevant; this song is pure Beatle goodness. Another one of my favorite tracks.
3. Mother Nature’s Son – I don’t think that anyone is going to argue that Paul McCartney can write pretty songs. Having said that, I think there is more to this track than meets the eye. Inspired by his stay in India and it’s rustic surroundings, Paul wrote an ode to Mother Nature. Where as most of Paul’s pretty songs are superficial and generic, this one portrays an almost child like innocence to the lyrics. In this innocence brilliance exists, and I truly feel connected to something bigger than myself when I listen to this track. Whether that something bigger is Mother Nature or the monster that is The Beatles legacy, I cannot say. What I can say is this: It’s one of my favorite McCartney tracks, and another of my White Album favorites.
4. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey – This is what the song is about, so I won’t spare you any more details. As far as instrumentation goes, the best part of the track for me is the bass line. It’s not a bad track, but just another case of John taking someone else’s words and making a song out of it, much like he did with Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. It’s a nice track, but it wouldn’t make the cut on my one disc version of the album.
5. Sexy Sadie – An attack on the Maharishi brought on by allegations from the always seedy Magic Alex, this song has some nice piano to it, and the vocals are very nice. I can’t say much more for it, but not much against it either. It’s a good song, but certainly not the best on the album. Perhaps with a bit more work lyrically, it could have been more interesting. Then again, I’ve never felt that John’s attack songs were ever great, but acted more as therapy.
6. Helter Skelter – Pete Townshend was promoting The Who’s newest single, calling it the loudest, rowdiest, most raunchy record ever (It wasn’t.). Paul heard this, and in a bit of friendly competition, he proceeded to write a song that blew Pete’s out of the water. After a few blues-influenced takes, Paul took his lead guitar playing to the next level, and John took his bass playing levels up from terrible to pretty bad. The take used on the album was done after 18 hard hitting takes, prompting Ringo’s claim at the end of the track “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” This song is the heaviest the Beatles ever recorded, and features Paul’s vocals at their most psychotic. I love it.
7. Long, Long, Long – George’s contribution to side 3 is a slow acoustic “ballad”, if you could indeed call it that. I like it, but a lot of people I know don’t. I think it’s more notable for its drums and sound effects than anything lyrically related, but it makes the cut on my one disc White Album , if only because it’s so unique.
1. Revolution 1 – The original version of Revolution . Politically charged, but much more subdued that it’s faster and rockier single mate, this song features some nice blues played by one of the best dance hall bands to ever grace the earth. The extended fade out of this track was recycled for the sound collage later on the album, aptly called Revolution 9 . I like this song, but I can’t call it my favorite track on the record. I much prefer the single version, but that’s just me. I do admit though, the song is much better with the “Shoob-e-doo-wops.”
2. Honey Pie – Another cabaret piece and a tribute to the songs Paul used to listen to as a child. On vinyl, this effect is heightened by the presence of needle scratch. This song is charming and full of nostalgia, but I don’t usually give it too much thought aside from that. On the other hand, it does mark the first time Paul used his fluttery old man voice, a full 30 years before he actually became an old man
3. Savoy Truffle – This song by George is easily overlooked due to poor track placement, but I think it’s a gem. A song about Eric Clapton’s chocoholic adventures and the eventual dental misery to come, it features some of the best horns ever recorded for a Beatles tune. Though not exactly full of substance lyrically, it’s still a great song that fills me with desire to try the Savoy Truffle .
4. Cry Baby Cry – In my opinion, this is the strongest track on the 4th and final side of what is arguably The Beatles best album. The fairy tale charm belays the overarching darkness that fills the track. Indeed, this song is downright unsettling depending on the situation in which it is listened, but that adds to the greatness of the track. The coda taken from an unused take of I Will fits in perfectly, and in my opinion, this is one of the overlooked masterpieces done by The Beatles. Even if John considers it fluff, I must disagree with the master. This is art, unintentional or not.
5. Revolution 9 – I can’t…I don’t even…How do I???.. It’s just-…maybe it’s about…Erm…El Dorado?
Seriously. I have no idea. I’ve read the Anthology 5 or 6 times, read articles about this track, including the ones from Beatles Bible, and I’m no closer to figuring this out than I was before. If anything, I’m further away. I imagine John’s pitch went something like this:
Right, so George, Yoko, and I have made this sound collage for the album. We think it’s quite brilliant. What do you guys think?
There are some funny bits in here, particularly the opening conversation in which someone calls George Martin a ‘cheeky bitch’. At times, it’s unsettling, and usually, it’s hard to listen to. If somebody asked me to show them what the Beatles were about in 2 songs, I’d show them Strawberry Fields Forever and this song. Though that may only give the impression of batting 500, it does indeed show the creative gambit which they ran. I won’t knock it, really. It is what it is. The White Album wouldn’t be ‘White’ without this song.
Also, dude, it totally says “Turn Me on, Dead man” if you play it backwards. Whoa.
6. Good Night – There’s something about this track. Maybe it’s because it comes on after Revolution 9 . Maybe it’s the orchestration. Maybe it’s Ringo’s slightly nervous vocal take. This song…it’s beautiful. Genuinely beautiful. It’s like the lullaby I never had. It’s so grandiose, so fantastic, so over the top, it actually works. After the chaos that was Revolution 9 , it feels like reassurance from Uncle Ringo that everything is going to be alright. In a way, it feels like reassurance for the breakup, even though it was still a year and a half off. Maybe i’m looking too far into it. In any case, I feel like whenever Ringo performs live, this should be the song he is required to close with. And I mean required.
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Favorite Beatle of the moment: Paul McCartney