The White Album – 50 Years On

Perhaps the most experimental and artistically intriguing of The Beatles’ albums is their 1968 offering, ‘The Beatles’, best known today as The White Album. Coming off the success of their 1967 masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their less successful Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album was to be the first purely artistic album with little concern for hits and singles. Despite this, the album reached number 1 in the charts worldwide. But has it stood the test of time?

If Sgt Pepper’s was an album of creative wonder and Magical Mystery Tour was the wacky romp into the land of LSD, then The White Album was the album of firsts. This was first album to contain solo work from each of the band members, the first of their albums to be released in stereo as well as mono, and the first album to feature the talents of John Lennon’s new partner, Yoko Ono. Needless to say, this was also the first album to signal the beginning of the end of The Beatles, for relationships between John, Paul, George and Ringo were beginning to decline. Is this apparent in the music? One could argue that it is, as I feel the album has a sense of disconnection from the times, an indifference to the common desires of the public — something The Beatles had always concerned themselves with before this time. However, as far as musical collaboration and unity go, the music is as fine, fun and friendly as ever.

The White Album is a double album consisting of 30 separate songs, each with their own spark and vibrancy, from the incredibly gutsy opening track, ‘Back In The USSR’a track which romanticises cold war Russia — to the earliest form of heavy metal in McCartney’s track, ‘Helter Skelter. The album also includes such classics as ‘Blackbird’, ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, ‘Revolution 1’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. There are pepperings of romantic songs such as ‘I Will’, ‘Martha My Dear’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, which echo their earlier work.

What makes The White Album, however, are the fab four’s further dive into the experimental. Gone is the conventional safety of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘Penny Lane’, musical history turns another page with George Harrison’s ‘Piggies’ and McCartney’s ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill.’

But the biggest leap of The White Album, for me, lies in the penultimate track, ‘Revolution 9 — a psychedelic mash of sounds and disjointed voices, clocking in at over eight minutes. This track really showed how far The Beatles had come in re-working the laws of music, showing just what one could do with four-track tape recording equipment.

The White Album’s major achievement is, in my eyes, the breaking of convention and the exploration into the foundations and limits of music. It is this that has enabled it to remain fresh-sounding, bold and unique fifty years on. The Beatles’ skill and craftsmanship would once again change and grow, resulting in their proceeding album, Abbey Road. However, The White Album may have been a major cornerstone in The Beatles’ history, but it was also the beginning of their decline. In just two years The Beatles would break-up to a heart-broken world, but their mark on musical history would remain in the hearts, souls and ears of generations to come.

 

(Picture: my own original pressing of the album)