I’ve gone a week without posting because this is going to be a huge one, and I wanted to make a big post my 400th one, rather than some tossed-off linkblog or something.
The White Album is a tremendously difficult record to write about, far more so than any other Beatles album. This is not just because of the sheer amount of material on there – though thirty songs is a lot by anyone’s standards – but because this is the first Beatles album that doesn’t feel like a coherent work by a group, but a rehearsal for four separate solo careers. Many of the tracks (especially Paul’s) are essentially solo tracks, Ringo quit the band for a while during recording, and even George Martin wasn’t present for a large part of it, leaving much of the production work to his assistant Chris Thomas (later producer of Never Mind The Bollocks, For Your Pleasure and Different Class, among other classic albums).
Despite that, though, there are a number of threads connecting the album together – in particular there’s a strong sense of musical nostalgia here. While every previous Beatles album had broken new ground and looked forward, this one is looking back. In a way, this is an extension of the childhood influence felt throughout Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, but this time they’re looking back to their teens, and to the simpler musical styles then – along with the music-hall influences that have already shown up, we now have the return of Little Richard, doo-wop, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and the early Beach Boys to the band’s musical palette.
In part, this reflects a general turn to ‘getting back to our roots’ that was happening throughout the pop-music world in 1968. The first sign of this was probably the Beach Boys’ late-67 R&B-flavoured album Wild Honey, but in 68 the music world completely turned towards ‘rootsy’, ‘bluesy’ music at the expense of pop artifice and ‘progressive’ sounds. This was around the time the ridiculous notion of ‘authenticity’ first took hold in popular music, leading to ridiculous ideas like the Rolling Stones being better than the Beatles because their music is more ‘authentic’ and ‘raw’ (because the ‘authentic’ music of white English LSE graduates is the same as that of black sharecroppers from Mississippi?)
Luckily, the Beatles were far too self-aware to fall for any notions of ‘authenticity’ (though Lennon would occasionally do so in his solo career, for brief periods), and so even though the bulk of this album was written during the most famous ‘getting our heads together in the country’ period of any of these bands – when the band went to stay in Rishikesh with the Maharishi – it’s as knowing, self-parodic, and downright funny as any Beatles album.
Back In The USSR, the opening track, brings a lot of this to the surface. Mostly written in Rishikesh (though the demo – recorded at George Harrison’s house in Esher along with demos for much of this album and several others by all the songwriting Beatles – is missing most of the verse lyrics), it’s a take-off of Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA.
It also, however, shows up the splits in the band. This is the first Beatles record since Love Me Do to feature someone other than Ringo on drums – Ringo having quit the band for two weeks, all three of the other band members supplied drums here, though it’s mostly Paul’s rather stiff style you can hear (giving the lie to John’s alleged quote – which I’ve never seen reliably cited – that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles). And in fact, the lyric shows up the general exhaustion with the band that everyone was feeling – it’s just heartfelt enough that it sounds like the relief of a musician home after an overlong tour.
The middle eight adds another influence – it’s not much of a conceptual jump to go from Chuck Berry to the early Beach Boys, especially given that Mike Love, the Beach Boys’ nasal lead vocalist, was with the Beatles on their retreat, so we get some Beach Boys pastiche (with some fairly good Love-esque bass vocals and much less convincing falsetto) in the middle eight. Mike Love has often claimed to have co-written this section – though McCartney has never mentioned this in any interview I’ve seen. And it’s noticeable that Love – who has shown no reticence about suing his mentally-ill cousin for such minor contributions to lyrics as ‘giddy-up’ or ‘good night baby/sleep tight baby’ – has never sued over this. Love also doesn’t seem to realise that this section is a *joke*.
But this track has a lot of clever little touches – from the balalaika-like guitar in the last verse (louder in the mono version) to the quote from Georgia On My Mind, and is also a fun rocker. The main differences between the mono and stereo versions are just the plane noises being in different places, though you can also hear a final drum thump under the fade-out plane sounds that isn’t on the stereo mix.
And by the way, Ringo did eventually perform on a version of this – a live recording with the Beach Boys, on a charity record put out for Mike Love’s Love Foundation…
Dear Prudence is a gorgeous little song by Lennon (again featuring McCartney on drums). Based around a descending picking pattern all around a D-chord, this was probably musically inspired by the folk-pop singer Donovan, who was also in the group at Rishikesh and showed the band several picking patterns around odd tunings. However, the drone in the picking style (which probably comes from both Harrison’s interest in Indian music and Donovan’s knowledge of Scottish music – pipe-band music in particular bearing an almost shocking resemblance to Indian classical music at times) is offset by McCartney’s bass part, which while a fairly simple descending part that fits with the picking pattern, calls to mind more the baroque influence that had been seen recently in both the Beatles’ music and others’ (most notably A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum).
Lyrically, however, the song is a sweet message to Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister, who was *also* in Rishikesh, along with her sister), who was spending so much time in her room, meditating, that many of the rest of the people there thought she was suffering from depression and wanted to make her feel better. Farrow herself now says that she was fine, and found the song irritating, but it’s still a nice thought.
There’s no real difference between the mono and stereo versions of this song.
Glass Onion is the first track on the album to feature all the Beatles, and the difference is immediately apparent – even though this is not Ringo’s best drum performance (and in the mono version his tambourine part is *much* higher in the mix than in the stereo), the performance still has a groove to it that the first two tracks are lacking (competent as Paul’s playing is).
Of course, the song itself is a nothing, a deliberate joke at the expense of people hunting around in the lyrics of I Am The Walrus for ‘clues’ (when I Am The Walrus itself had at least started out as that kind of joke itself), but the joke is carried off with aplomb, and the arrangement has a lot of fun with recorder quotes from Fool On The Hill, a string part pastiching Martin’s parts for Strawberry Fields and I Am The Walrus but going ludicrously over the top, and Ringo’s little fills being semi-quotes from Rain, and then Martin’s out-of-nowhere string coda. It should be self-indulgent, rather nasty nonsense, but in fact it’s too much fun to feel bad.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, on the other hand, is just unpleasant. A cod-reggae track which features McCartney putting on an hilarious Jamaican accent, with a chorus line taken from a saying of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe (because all those black people are really the same, you know), it’s a patronising example of cultural appropriation – taking a few surface elements of the culture of Britain’s Carribean (and African) population and treating them as a joke. At a time when The Black And White Minstrels were mainstream evening TV, when Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant Rivers Of Blood speech had just caused national outcry, and where the reggae and ska the band are making fun of here were being enthusiastically taken up by the very same skinheads who wanted to ‘send back’ the black people who brought that music to Britain, it’s possibly a blessing that this track is affectionately patronising rather than hostile, but that’s all that could be said for it. See Get Back for more on this…
Of course, that could be excused somewhat were Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da in any way a good song – or a good joke – but it’s a relentlessly cheery song with the forced rictus grin of a suicidal holiday camp entertainer getting the audience to sing along to the Birdie Song, rather than having any spark of joy or wit about it. There are dozens of neat details in the arrangement or production, but I can’t face listening to this song again to note them down.
Wild Honey Pie on the other hand – an entirely solo McCartney performance, is, despite its tossed-off improvised nature, genuinely fun. Musically rather similar to Girl or Michelle if one looks at the actual musical elements (and bearing a striking resemblance to the Toreador song from Carmen), we have guitars sounding like harpsichords, the first example of the humorous steel guitar that would dominate much of McCartney’s first two solo albums, and Goon Show vocals. It’s only a shame that McCartney could toss off something as spontaneous and joyful as this in a matter of minutes, and then spend hours or days producing something as joyless as Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da…
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill is a singalong written by Lennon in Rishikesh, apparently about a fellow meditator who took a quick break from communing with nature to go and shoot endangered animals for fun. It’s another tossed-off joke song, but with a lot more bile and feeling to it – “he’s an all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” – although it descends into surrealism by the end with references to Captain Marbles [sic]. It’s actually quite close, lyrically, to the short story On Safairy With Whide Hunter from Lennon’s In His Own Write, while musically it’s simply pinched wholesale from the old standard Stay As Sweet As You Are.
And of course the fact that Yoko Ono becomes the first non-Beatle to sing a lead line on a Beatles track, in character as ‘mommy’, has a whole new resonance when one realises the Freudian elements of their relationship…
While My Guitar Gently Weeps takes us back to more ‘meaty’ musical matter after four joke songs in a row, and unfortunately is a little too ponderous in this arrangement (which I always liked – until I heard Harrison’s original acoustic demo of the song).
As with many of Harrison’s songs, the finished record owes a lot to other people – not only Eric Clapton’s famous solo (to my ears much better than almost anything that most overrated of guitarists did elsewhere, with the exception of his playing on Cold Turkey), but McCartney’s piano and organ part make up a large part of the sound of the track. But the fragile little song at the heart of it is more-or-less overwhelmed by the dense arrangement – possibly because this was the first track ever recorded at Abbey Road with an eight-track machine, they went a little overdub-crazy on the track.
In the mono version, the main differences are that Clapton’s guitar is more audible after his solo, and that the fade lasts quite a bit longer.
Happiness Is A Warm Gun… where to even start with this one? Like so many of Lennon’s best works, it’s so idiosyncratic and personal a song in its construction that even if one dissects it bar-by-bar and examines every little detail, it’s impossible to see *why* it works, but at the same time it’s as affecting a piece of music as any ever recorded.
In its two minutes and forty four seconds (the same length to the second as Back In The USSR, which opens the side this closes – an example of the kind of little details, conscious or not, that go into the sequencing of something as mammoth as this), Happiness contains as many ideas as many entire albums by other people. This is another of those songs that I point to when people say that Ringo can’t drum, as well, because metrically this is *astonishingly* difficult – just to break down the ‘jump the gun’ section, we’ve got that oddly stressed melody (which I strongly suspect was ‘inspired’ by America from West Side Story) which would be tricky enough itself, but every *second* repetition throws in an extra beat, so for every two ‘mother superior jump the gun’s you have five bars of 3/4 and one of 4/4 (or four threes and a seven, which is how it sounds to my ears). We also get odd single fives thrown in (like ‘a soap impression of his wife…’)
On top of this we have Lennon’s most sexually charged lyric to that date – even the ‘nonsense’ opening section has the man with mirrors on his boots (to look up women’s skirts), let alone the parts about jumping the gun and feeling ‘my finger on your trigger’.
But ultimately, this is the kind of thing that makes me feel the truth of Zappa’s dictum that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and is why ultimately I feel more overawed by Lennon’s talent than McCartney’s. With McCartney, even his best songs I can sit down and examine them and say ‘he did this, for this reason, and that’s why it’s so good. I could have thought of that, if I’d been clever enough to think of that’. With Lennon, on the other hand, at his peak, in songs like this, or Walrus, or Strawberry Fields, or Tomorrow Never Knows, one can analyse the songs for entire books (and people have) and still be none the wiser about why they’re so spectacularly good.
The mono mix to this is very different to the stereo one. While the only differences I can put my finger on are that there is an organ part in the intro that’s not there on the stereo version, and they didn’t accidentally leave some vocal in on the instrumental ‘need a fix’ part, everything sounds subtly different, and clearer. It’s just a mix that’s had *more time* spent on it, and while I can’t point to many individual distinct differences, it is *far* superior in mono.
Side two opens with Martha My Dear, which couldn’t be more different, even though it too has metrical irregularities (note the five-beat bar at the end of the first line, to allow that lovely ascending phrase). One of the really interesting things about the White Album is that we see the band members trying out their solo styles, and this is *exactly* the kind of thing McCartney did in his early solo career, especially the ridiculously-out-of-his-range notes in the middle section.
And indeed, it is a solo track, with McCartney playing piano, guitar, bass and drums. George Martin’s arrangement is spot-on here, with a lovely combination of ‘Northern’ brass band and ‘classical’ strings. The song is facile and empty, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else – it exists purely to sound pretty, and does the job exceedingly well.
I’m So Tired is one of my personal favourite Lennon songs, but doesn’t lend itself to very much analysis – I just love the anger in the bridge/choruses, which anyone who has suffered with insomnia will know all too well (at least Lennon, if he lay awake til 6AM, didn’t then have to get up and be in work a couple of hours later…). Lennon came up with very few lines much better than “Curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get”. The main difference between the mono and stereo versions is that McCartney’s harmony is louder.
Blackbird is an example of McCartney doing what he does best, but all too infrequently – writing very sparse, precise melodies that nonetheless carry an inordinate amount of emotional weight. This kind of folky song is something McCartney more or less abandoned once he discovered the power ballad, and it’s made his music much worse.
The only real difference between the mono and stereo versions here is that the bird noises are dubbed on in a slightly different place.
McCartney himself has said that this was based on Bach’s Bouree in E minor, but I really can’t hear much of a similarity at all, and it seems more to be the kind of song that arises from playing with tunings (as the band were at the time) than out of conscious emulation of another piece. Much like his later claims that the song was about civil rights (something he only started saying *after* various over-interpreting analysts read that into the song) this seems to me like McCartney retroactively trying to make his songs seem more profound than they would otherwise appear.
However, the song *does* contain baroque elements, which makes the segue into Piggies (also the second of three animal-themed songs) all the stronger. I think I’m the only person I know of who actually thinks that Piggies is Harrison’s strongest contribution to the White Album by quite a long way.
The song gets a bad press, primarily because it’s seen as Harrison being preachy, but to be honest the attitude of ‘look at those squares with their boring lives’ was pretty much endemic in popular music around this time – if we’re going to attack songwriters for that, we probably have to start with Ray Davies, but *everyone* was doing it, from Frank Zappa (Plastic People etc) to Pete Seeger (Little Boxes).
The Ray Davies comparison is actually quite apt, because this track could quite easily fit onto The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, the title track to which it resembles musically (both bands were recording at the same time, so it’s unlikely either was inspired by the other). A large part of the interest comes from Chris Thomas’ pseudo-baroque harpsichord and ‘cello parts, but the various joke voices Harrison puts on (this is one of his finest vocal performances, one of the few times he really shows just what he could do as a vocalist – every verse is sung in a different voice) show that Harrison wasn’t taking himself too seriously here – the song is clearly intended to be something along the lines of Harrison’s friends The Bonzo Dog Band (whose Equestrian Statue has something of the same feel as this track) rather than a profound moralistic statement.
And seen in that perspective, this is quite a fun little grotesquerie – a caricature, yes, but nowhere near as mean-spirited as its detractors would claim.
The main difference between the mono and stereo mixes is that the pig noises are in different places.
Rocky Racoon is just a bad shaggy dog story. It’s pleasant enough, but I’ve done more than 3200 words on this album already and I’m not even half-way through yet, so I’m not going to waste space on it.
Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition for the Beatles, and he really could have done with some help from the other band members – if nothing else, this is one of the longest songs on the album (at 3:45 the mono version is longer than anything on the first disc except Dear Prudence and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the stereo version plays slower and thus even longer), and would have been better if it had been cut at around 2:45 (where the false ending comes in).
This is one of the few examples of the mono version being definitely inferior to the stereo version. While neither is by any means a masterpiece, the mono version is sped up by what sounds like a tone, giving Ringo’s voice a very peculiar sound, and most of the instruments sound vaguely Joe Meeked, but not in a good way. The violin part also continues even longer after the end of the song. Given that Ringo had been working on this song for three years, it wouldn’t have hurt the rest of the band to spend a bit more time to get a performance that wasn’t so sloppy. Thankfully Ringo’s material has been served better in his solo career, where at least at first he made some perfectly pleasant records.
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road is almost entirely a solo Paul performance, with Ringo on drums, and is just a twelve-bar blues with two lines of vocal. Not much really to talk about. The mono version differs from the stereo only in that there are no handclaps on the beginning.
I Will – and coming to the end of side two, we find the strong songs appearing again. The first disc of the White Album is incredibly well-sequenced (something that’s not true for the inferior second disc) with the first and last few songs of each side being by far the best, so even when one’s listened to some fairly weak filler tracks, each side leaves the impression of being great.
One of McCartney’s loveliest melodies – though spoiled a little bit by one of his more incoherent lyrics – the arrangement here shows the typical White Album playfulness, with Lennon and Starr adding percussion, while the bass role is filled in by McCartney’s ‘vocal bass guitar’. The main difference between the mono and stereo versions is that this vocal bass doesn’t come in until the second verse in the mono mix – a definite improvement, as it makes the track less static overall.
And Julia is probably Lennon’s most personal song to that point, to the extent that I believe this is the only Lennon ‘Beatles’ track not to feature any of the other band members (as opposed to McCartney who regularly recorded either solo or with orchestral backing, or even Harrison who did a couple of tracks with only Indian musicians) – Lennon was far more attached to the idea of the Beatles as a unit than any of the others, and deeply resented McCartney knocking off tracks without him.
But here he’s performing entirely solo – and not only that, for, I think, the first time since A Hard Day’s Night, he’s doing a mostly single-tracked vocal without any real processing on it. Other than the harmonies and overlaps, this is the plainest vocal Lennon ever recorded, leaving in the cracks in his voice and the occasional slightly flat note. It’s a very *human* recording – down to the slight guitar flubs around the 0:20 mark (he appears to have tried to get slightly more complex with the simple picking pattern and to have thought better of it).
Of course, given that this is a love song simultaneously to his dead mother (with whom he had an… unconventional… relationship) and to his new lover Yoko Ono (‘ocean child’ is a fairly literal translation of ‘Yoko’), Lennon treating the song as so personal is understandable. In fact, much like much of Lennon’s early solo work, this is *so* personal that one feels almost uncomfortable listening to it, almost voyeuristic. But the song is so stunning that one is compelled to listen to every note anyway.
The only noticeable difference between the mono and stereo versions is that some of Lennon’s breaths are slightly louder in the mono mix.
At the end of disc one, what is immediately noticeable is how re-energised Lennon has become by the period in Rishikesh, away from the distractions of both the city and of his disintegrating personal life. In 1967 he’d written practically nothing – only five songs in total, in what was supposedly one of the Beatles’ most creative years as a group. Here, though, he’s already contributed six, including some of the best songs he ever recorded. McCartney, meanwhile, has become lazy, engaging in shallow pastiche and knocked-off jokes, and only rarely hitting the heights he’s capable of.
Side two starts with Birthday. Famously dismissed by Lennon as ‘a piece of garbage’, it’s slightly better than that. Written in the studio by McCartney and Lennon directly after watching the film The Girl Can’t Help It (a film which has special importance for Beatles fans as it features Eddie Cochran singing Twenty Flight Rock, the song which was essentially McCartney’s ‘audition piece’ to join the Quarrymen, but which also featured among others Little Richard and Gene Vincent) the song is one of the very few Beatles songs to be based around a straight twelve-bar blues. The band are obviously having fun – especially Lennon, despite his later comments, who also apparently played all the guitars on this track, although some sound like McCartney’s style – and it’s infectious enough to make the track listenable, if hardly up to the band’s normal standards.
The mono mix sounds stronger than the stereo, and reveals a lot more details, such as McCartney’s count-in/screams during the drum break, and the really bizarre reverb added to the piano in parts, which continues after the end of the song proper.
Yer Blues, the second twelve-bar (more-or less – the structure is slightly thrown out by the out-of-time guitar break after ‘if I ain’t dead already’) song in a row. In this case, the song is both a sincere cry for help and a parody of the same, in much the same way as I’m A Loser. Lennon seemed to feel up to this point that he couldn’t honestly express his depressive and self-loathing tendencies, something he only really gained the ability to do once he went through Primal Scream therapy – up until then he had to slather it in a thick layer of irony.
(This was actually more common in the Brit-blues people than is commonly thought these days – Peter Green, one of the few Brit-blues musicians to be anything other than a stale pasticheur, has expressed bafflement that his similarly depressive ‘Man Of The World’ was taken as entirely straight, pointing out that he was singing the ‘my life’ parts in a stereotypically Yiddish voice).
The song also bears quite a resemblance to You Can’t Do That (astonishingly, one of only two twelve-bars Lennon had written prior to this, the other being The Word), with its traded-off guitar solos (once again, Lennon is presumably the one who is just slashing chords, while Harrison is the more melodic solo), but the whole track feels far more of a joke than that one, right down to the very obvious splice after the guitar solo – here the start of a different take is pasted in as the end of this one (although Lennon’s vocals are mixed out, but you can hear the bleed on the other tracks). Not quite successful as either a genuine blues track or a joke, the track obviously meant a great deal to Lennon, as at his first two solo live performances (on the Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus and Live Peace In Toronto) he performed it (though this may have been as much to do with the ease with which it could be taught to a scratch band as anything else).
The mono version lasts several seconds longer than the stereo.
Mother Nature’s Son is another of McCartney’s pastoral attempts, very much a musical relation of Blackbird, though incongruously featuring a brass band (which normally conjures up much more industrial images). This is definitely the weaker song, though, being one of the half-finished songs (gorgeous melody, practically no lyrics) that would be McCartney’s stock in trade for the next few years. (The long scat sections show you exactly why Nilsson covered this one).
The mono version has much more reverb put on McCartney’s voice from the second verse onwards, allowing the vocal to live in the same sonic world as the brass band, rather than being distanced from it as it is in the stereo version, giving the track a much more unified feel. The result is still filler, though, albeit nice filler, and it’s a shame that this kept Lennon’s similar-but-better Child Of Nature off the album.
And Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey is yet more filler. It’s enjoyable-enough filler, especially the way McCartney’s bell-shaking interacts with Ringo’s drumming, and the babble of overlapping ‘come on’ vocals towards the end (much more prominent here than on the stereo mix), but this is the kind of thing that would normally have never got past Beatles quality control, and at this point – with this being the fourth song in a row that doesn’t feel like it’s got a real reason for existing – the goodwill that one comes into the album with is fast evaporating.
Luckily Sexy Sadie is much better – although most of the interesting musical points (the leaps into falsetto, the backing vocals) come from the song Lennon was ‘writing off’, I’ve Been Good To You by Smokey Robinson (the first two lines of which, in particular, are almost word-for-word and note-for-note identical with Lennon’s song).
Written about the Maharishi, this is easily Lennon’s bitterest song to this point, with lines like “you’ll get yours yet, however big you think you are” carrying a real venom – possibly more than the Maharishi deserved given the minor nature of the supposed transgression which caused his break with Lennon. Surprisingly, given Harrison’s apparent dislike of the song (he remained a supporter of the Maharishi until the end of his life) this features some very nice guitar work from him, in the arpeggiated style that would later become a major feature of much of Abbey Road.
On the mono version, pretty much *everything* sounds like it’s been put through a Leslie speaker, something that’s far less noticeable on the stereo one, and the bass comes in much later.
Helter Skelter, another piece of nothing, has some of the most significant differences between the mono and stereo versions. The lead guitar is almost inaudible in the mono version for the first half, which sounds much more like a straight band performance (albeit with a ton of reverb) than the overdub-heavy stereo version. After the false ending, the fade back is a different section of the performance, with sound effects over the top, and finishes more than a minute earlier than the stereo version. All told the mono version is a much tighter, more structured track, rather than the freeform wankery of the stereo mix, but that’s not enough to save what is ultimately a non-song – especially since the mono version is missing Ringo’s exclamation of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”, easily the best thing about the track.
And Long Long Long rounds off side three with easily the strongest song on this deeply underwhelming side. Recorded essentially as a live performance by Harrison (acoustic guitar), McCartney (hammond), Starr and Chris Thomas (piano), with only a few simple overdubs, the arrangement here still sounds much fuller than on many of the more complex earlier tracks, in part due to little touches like the out-of-nowhere honky-tonk piano in the middle eight, or the acoustic lead guitar part played with enough harmonics to make it sound almost like a sitar. Of course the most famous aspect of this song (the rattling wine bottle on top of the hammond organ at the end) was an accident, but even so, this track makes a rather lovely end to an utterly underwhelming side three.
(Has anyone ever tried comparing the structures of double albums with those of Doctor Who four-parters? The third part always seems by far the most tedious in both cases).
The mono version of this has what sounds like a different vocal take for the lower-in-the-mix part of Harrison’s double-tracked vocal – it comes in two ‘longs’ later than on the stereo mix, and sounds slightly different from then on, though it’s hard to be sure.
Side four opens with Revolution 1, an odd choice – this was the early attempt at what later became Revolution, the B-side that had already been released before the album came out, and would normally have been regarded as an outtake. That this version was included is possibly because of Lennon’s indecision about one line – “count me out” in this version being “count me out – in”. When the band had performed Revolution on the David Frost show to promote the single, Lennon had changed the lyric back to ‘out – in’, and they’d also included the ‘bom-shoo-be-doo-wop’ backing vocals from this version (the David Frost version is actually my favourite performance of this song, and it’s a shame it’s never seen a full legitimate release (or even been bootlegged much)).
This is definitely a weaker version of the song than the B-side version, but it’s still a great song, and one of the only overtly political statements the Beatles ever made as a band. Some of the ‘revolutionaries’ of the time objected bitterly to Lennon’s seemingly-conservative attitude here, with Nina Simone in particular berating Lennon in an answer-record (though one can see how a need for ‘revolution’ might have seemed more pressing in a USA that was still electing segregationist politicians to national office and sending a generation off to fight in imperialist wars, than in a Britain going through an economic boom and with one of the most small-l liberal governments in history in power (note for my Lib Dem friends – I’d argue that the first Wilson government was one of the very few truly liberal governments at least in social policy – legalising homosexuality and abortion, while getting rid of capital punishment and theatre censorship and introducing new universities) ). In the USA revolutionary rhetoric was driven by a genuine anger against real injustices, while in the UK (not to diminish the real injustices which of course did and do take place) the anger was mostly middle-class students wanting to upset mummy and daddy by worshipping genocidal maniacs as ‘countercultural’ figures.
So while Revolution/Revolution 1 might have seemed a deeply conservative track in the US, over here its measured approach was eminently reasonable – and it’s notable that almost as soon as Lennon moved to the US, he became for a while convinced of the rightness of the revolutionaries’ cause. Revolution 1 shows Lennon’s ambiguity on the matter more openly, but Revolution is still the better track.
The mono version of this track has a more extended fade, and one can clearly hear in this extended fade many of the sounds which would be used in Revolution #9, which we will come to shortly.
Honey Pie is one of McCartney’s pastiches, of the kind of 1920s song that his dad’s band would have played. But while he had a genuine affection for this kind of music, one suspects that the proximate influence was the success of Tiny Tim, whose Rudy Valee impersonation McCartney seems himself to be impersonating at times.
(Tiny Tim was, of course, far from alone in his resurrection of 1920s novelty songs, and mention must here again be made of the Beatles’ friends the Bonzo Dog Band, who had started out as a 1920s revivalist band performing songs like I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight, before the New Vaudeville Band stole their act and trumpet player…)
The song itself fits perfectly into its idiom, with the lyrics, about a local girl who has made it big and left the small North of England world behind her, being reminiscent of many, many other songs (see for example Jake Thackray’s Kirkstall Road Girl). It’s enjoyable enough, though hardly McCartney’s best, and shows that the album is now back on track.
Savoy Truffle, the first rocker for several tracks, shows George doing much better at creating an interesting riff-based rocker than his bandmates. Again performed with Chris Thomas but without Lennon, this driving rocker is in a style Harrison was briefly enamoured with – the track is almost fingerprint-identical at points to Sour Milk Sea, which Harrison wrote and produced for Jackie Lomax around this time – but never really returned to. A shame, as this is one of the Beatles’ less embarrassing attempts at hard rock, helped by the Fats Domino-esque horn section.
Cry Baby Cry begins a run of three Lennon tracks to finish the album, which could not be more different musically, but all of which have a slightly skewed take on childhood. We see Lennon here returning to the Lewis Carrol and nursery rhymes which had inspired I Am The Walrus, here starting off with ‘the queen of hearts she made some tarts’ as a basis for a very eerie song which never quite makes sense until the last verse (“at twelve o’clock a meeting round the table for a seance in the dark/with voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark”). One of Lennon’s better tracks for the album, this leads into McCartney’s Can You Take Me Back improvisation (from the I Will sessions, which also produced the Step Inside Love/Los Paranoias track on Anthology 3), which in turn leads to…
Revolution #9. This is by far the most controversial recording in the Beatles’ entire career, totally unlike anything they’d ever done, and unlike anything by any of their peers except maybe Frank Zappa (when I first heard this track, my only point of reference for this).
Most people’s attitude to this kind of music can be summed up in Richard Herring’s line – “I never used to like that experimental, atonal stuff until someone locked me up in a room and played it at me for several days, but I get it now, although my psychiatrist says I’ve got Stockhausen syndrome”. I like mid-twentieth century experimental music of this kind myself – I love Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen, and others who were experimenting with what does and doesn’t count as ‘music’, and I personally enjoy Revolution #9 immensely – while I don’t have the musical vocabulary to talk about it in any meaningful way (my musical training at university extended to one year of a Popular Music course, which gave me tools to talk about three-minute pop songs, but not so much collages made out of tapes of American football crowds, backwards recordings of orchestras, and people reciting the names of dances, among many other elements) I can tell that despite its seemingly random nature, this is a carefully constructed piece. It flows, and has a ‘story’ to it, with peaks and troughs that come in semi-regular intervals. It’s put together by someone who has a very firm understanding of sonic structure, even if it’s apparently structureless.
But even if you don’t like it, even if it doesn’t appeal to you at all, I’d suggest that we’d all think less of the Beatles if they *hadn’t* done something like this, at least once. That the most famous and popular pop band (and the Beatles were definitely, above all, *POP* music, with an audience made up largely of teenage girls) of all time would put out a track so resolutely difficult as this sums up just why they were so special. Of the hundred million or so people who’ve bought this album, my guess is that ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand listened to this track no more than once or twice, and hated it. But the other thousand may well have loved it. And even those who didn’t love it will have been forced to think about their preconceptions about what does and doesn’t count as music.
Just by introducing *that many* people to avant-garde concepts they otherwise would never have known existed – by broadening their awareness of what is possible, even if they chose never to look at those possibilities – this track by itself does as much to justify the Beatles’ existence as any entire album they made.
The mono mix of this is actually a fold-down of the stereo mix, so there are no significant differences, but the clarity of this CD release allows me for the first time to properly make out the conversation between Alistair Taylor and George Martin that starts the track.
And to finish off both this album and the Beatles mono releases, we have Good Night, a lovely little lullaby by John that’s deliberately over-orchestrated into absurdity by Martin (it sounds actually exactly like the orchestrations on Let It Be about which McCartney complained so vociferously). By far Ringo’s best vocal on a Beatles record, this is a very silly, but sweet track, and a perfect closer to a wonderfully *im*perfect album.
And that’s the lot as far as the mono reviews go. I’m probably going to do the final two (stereo-only) albums in one long post, about this long, as their recording overlapped and the releases were backwards from the recording dates.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these, and if I do (as Pillock in particular keeps suggesting) expand these into a book, I hope you buy it – they’ve been a lot of fun but also a lot of work.
And if you’ve not had enough of the White Album by now, here’s two Spotify playlists. This one by my friend Tilt containing covers of every song (yes, including Revolution #9), while this one contains eight of the songs I’ve mentioned as influences or inspirations in this post.
Good night, sleep tight.