For most of my life, or at least for the greater two-thirds of it, if somebody mentioned “The White Album,” everyone knew immediately what was meant.
It had to mean the only double LP the Beatles released during their existence as a band, in November 1968. I was in the 12th grade in the very small town of Smithers, in north central British Columbia.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” had been released the year before. That album exploded into public consciousness. I remember reading Time Magazine praising it at the time (in the issue that had the Beatles on the cover in September, 1967). That was unheard of for a mainstream publication to pay such attention to the evanescent and juvenile world of rock music. My mother was even impressed, who typically preferred Broadway musicals and Louis Armstrong.
We played Sgt. Pepper’s over and over again on on the little battery record player in our log cabin.
And the album “Abbey Road,” which is my favorite of the Beatles’ works, arrived a year after The White Album, in September, 1969, just after I graduated high school.
It would be hard now for anyone not of that time to understand how important the music of the counterculture, and especially the Beatles’ music, was to many of my generation. It wasn’t just music to us multitudes who were affected. It was promise and hope and an undercurrent of something profound stirring.
The Beatles themselves were even caught up in it: the self-referential lyrics, mysteries associated with Paul, obscure ideas about the egg man…. I think John Lennon’s vehement rejection of the Beatles’ mythology after the band fell apart was mostly because he had been captured by the force of that mythology as much or more than anyone else.
But back in the fall of 1968, the Beatles’ creative power was still flowering and on display in The White Album.
The summer and fall of ’68
That summer I had worked hard with my younger brothers and with the similar aged sons and daughters of a neighbouring prosperous farmer on his large spread. Us kids (teenagers now) all went to school together. Hired for a few bucks an hour, we labored long into the hot summer nights putting up hay bales in a number of barns, sweating, covered with chaff, falling about with the bales as we stacked them.
With the summer’s efforts over, my brothers, mother and I visited the farm family one evening that November. My mother and the mother of this large brood of earthy children were friends who made wine and canned meat together.
The oldest son of the family was a renegade. I think he dropped out of high school several years before, and supposedly was working in a local mill, but he had a reputation for being involved with drugs and local criminals. He drove a flash pick-up. He always seemed to consider us younger ones, including his siblings, as beneath his notice.
But I remember his long greasy hair in a red handkerchief bandana as he beckoned us unexpectedly and excitedly up the stairs of the farmhouse to his room on that evening visit. Young and old, the kids of his family and my brothers and I hurried up. He had The White Album! In his large bedroom there was a fancy turntable all ready to go. He was eager to play the first LP for us. The barriers among us of age and attitudes fell away a little. And that was the first time I heard The White Album. We were all amazed by it. It was an event. “Listen to this!”
I’ve recently found a remastered CD version of the album, after a long time of it being completely unavailable in that format. After the excitement of the album’s reception that long-ago winter, I never played it nearly as often as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Even the Beatles’ last album (in terms of release) of “Let It Be” was listened to more often.
So it’s been a pleasure listening and rediscovering it again.
From what I’ve read, most of the songs came from a period when the Beatles went to India to follow the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation. The band had come out of a period of ingesting LSD and smoking a lot of pot, and decided they wanted to get away from that experimentation and play it (mostly) straight.
But they eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi, apparently in part due to rumours of the holy man’s sexual escapades, and returned to the studio with a wealth of songwriting material instead of enlightenment. Unfortunately, there was often great tension between the members of the band, and the sessions were often difficult.
There is a lot of material online (for instance at the Beatles Bible) about every song that the Beatles ever did, including those on this album, so I won’t repeat that.
But I would like to note the songs that appeal to me and make a few observations.
The Ukraine girls really knock me out
Of course the opening song on Side 1, Back in the USSR, remains a complete rocking pleasure with its Beach Boy borrowings (apparently Mike Love of that band was in India with the Maharishi at the same time as the Beatles) and “the Ukraine girls really knock me out.”
Dear Prudence, the next song, is apparently John Lennon’s plea to the sister of Mia Farrow, who also was in India with the Maharishi, to come out of her cabin where she isolated herself while she meditated furiously in hope of some kind of swift awakening.
There are quite a few songs on the two discs with female names as their inspiration, and every one has its own personality. They aren’t bland love songs, possibly because they are not always about what you might think. For instance, the Martha in Martha, My Dear, was Paul McCartney’s old English sheepdog.
And the Julia in Julia, is about John Lennon’s mother who had left him as a boy and reconnected with him when he turned 17, only to die sometime later in a car crash.
One of the dominant impressions of listening to the entire work now is how astoundingly diverse and creative it is. The moods shift from joy and celebration (Birthday) to deep depression (Yer Blues) to domestic bliss (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.
I’ve grown to prefer the swinging doo-wop tempo of Revolution here rather than the faster rockier version that came out as a side on a single with Hey Jude (not on this album).
Quite a few songs, even back in the day, were rarely or never heard on the radio. I’m thinking of Rocky Raccoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, and Cry, Baby, Cry (which really sticks with me now).
And of course there are the songs of greatness: Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Revolution, Back in the USSR, perhaps I Will; and I’m sure others might have different candidates for that status.
I still don’t get why Helter-Skelter, which was written to prove the band could rock as hard as The Who, should have appealed to the demented, murderous, and failed songwriter Charles Manson so greatly. He probably could have twisted around any song to fit his predilections.
Number 9, Number 9, Number 9
And then there is the track Revolution No. 9, a sound collage, which as teenagers we were impressed by, but couldn’t be bothered to pay any attention to. It was mainly famous for the voice intoning, “Number 9. Number 9. Number 9.”
I had the impression back then that the track was quite short, perhaps a minute or two. Maybe that’s how fast I tuned out when it came up. I’ve realized now, it goes on for over eight minutes. And, surprise, it’s quite interesting to try to understand what’s going on in it. There’s everything from orchestral remnants of “A Day in the Life” to honking, conversation scraps, sport chants, and even Yoko Ono’s voice (I know now) quietly saying “You become naked.”
It used to be that following up anyone’s chance statement about a number 9, by saying “Number 9. Number 9.” was immediately recognized as a reference to the White Album and that infamous track. Not any more. I did that the other day at work, and the young man looked at me quite blankly, and seemed bewildered about what I could possibly be going on about.
It’s amazing to me to realize that the White Album is almost 50 years old now. Back in 1968, a similar look back would have made music from 1918 or so of interest, which it didn’t seem to be, even for those who could have remembered it at that time.
It does become bittersweet that all the music I grew up with, and which brought meaning to my younger years, is headed towards the mists of history in the same way, although it’s taking a little longer.
The Beatles. They were a force.