Sunday, January 12, 2014
Music Sunday: The White Album Edition
I've been spending time lately reading a biography of John Lennon ("Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music - The Definitive Life", by Tim Riley [2011, Hyperion; 765 pages]). One of the interesting things about the book is that Riley goes into considerable detail regarding the recording process for each album The Beatles recorded. Last night, I reached the part of the book where he writes about the recording of "The Beatles", usually called the White Album.
I have interesting memories of the time the White Album came out. It was 1968, and I was in junior high. I had a quite permissive gym teacher, and she allowed us to bring records from home and play them during PE class whenever we had class in the gym (which seemed like it was most of the time), and one of my friends in the class always brought the White Album, and we listened to it a lot. But I've always had a sort of love/hate relationship with that album - I love some of the songs, and I really dislike some of the others. The less said about the songs I don't like, the better, but I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the songs I really like from the album for today's Music Sunday.
The White Album was the ninth studio album the band produced, and things were beginning to fray a bit at the edges. The members of the band were not necessarily getting along very well; in fact Ringo Starr left for awhile, there was a certain amount of bickering over what would and would not be included on the album, and many of the songs did not include participation by all the members of the band. Additionally, producer George Martin took a vacation during the middle of recording, leaving a young and inexperienced record company employee with a note to "feel free to attend" the band's recording sessions if he wanted to. That turned out not to be a bad thing, however, and in the end Lennon insisted that the young producer get a credit on the album.
Critical reaction was mixed when the White Album first came out. Some critics were not happy with the band's use of satire and parody in the songs, while others pointed out where Lennon's and McCartney's songwriting had improved and approved of their "back to basics" approach rather than the technical pyrotechnics they used on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The band took it's lumps politically, from both ends of the political spectrum. The right wing accused the band of being "pro-Soviet" because of their inclusion of "Back in the USSR", while the left derided "Revolution 1" as a "betrayal", although by the time the band recorded the single version of the song, Lennon seemed to have altered his position about using violence as a tactic and changed the lyric to say "but when you talk about destruction you can count me out" with an addition of "in" at the end of the line after "out". In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine much later, Lennon explained that while his own personal preference was to not use violence, in some cases he didn't really know what he'd do.
Personally, I like the single version of "Revolution" to "Revolution 1" on the album. The album version is slower, sort of lazy and loopy and not really sounding like anyone wants to get up long enough to revolt against anything:
The single version, however, is faster, more energetic, and sounds like the band might actually be planning to participate in a revolution of some kind, even though they're still not sure if they want it to be a violent revolt:
I believe, but am not absolutely sure, that the clip above is the promotional clip recorded by the band in September 1968 and seen first in the United States on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on October 13, 1968.
"Blackbird" is an example of how the members of the band were, in some cases doing their own things on the White Album. This song is just McCartney, his guitar, and an overdub of birdsong:
I like this version of "Blackbird", of course, but one of the loveliest things I have ever heard is a live a capella version by Crosby, Stills and Nash when I saw them in concert once.
One of the simplest songs on the White Album is "Mother Nature's Son", another McCartney composition. He has been quoted as saying that it was inspired by the time he spent in India with the other Beatles:
Something that always takes me by surprise is that "Helter Skelter" is also a McCartney composition, and that it is considered to be an early manifestation of heavy metal music. Well, yes, it sounds like it. But, from McCartney? That's surprising to me for some reason:
Personally, I've always been fond of this cover of "Helter Skelter", by U2, which appears at the beginning of their concert film, "Rattle and Hum":
Much quieter is George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". This song is notable in that it isn't any one of the Beatles who plays lead guitar on the song, but by Eric Clapton: