Jack Hues on The Beatles

I associate the White Album with Easter (even though it was released in November 1968)… pocket money would not run to purchasing a double album and I must have needed something else for Christmas, so I think my parents bought it for me as an Easter present (yes, my parents bought me a present for Easter… ) so that would have been 1969. The Whiteness has some sort of Easter quality for me… pagan rebirth rituals, Wagner’s “Parsifal”, another White Album?  Wagner’s “Parsifal” and The Beatles “White Album”  as  representations of rebirth and regeneration – discuss…

So the cover is white… but the embossed individual number – who has No. 0000001? (Ringo – Ed)  – then the black inner record sleeves with the new Apple label on the discs. And you drop the records in the top of the cover rather than sideways, as it were… But even more important than that – the beautiful high quality gloss photographs of each Beatle. The whole presentation/choice of those images was very much about showing you 4 individuals, rather than a band. And that poster! With John naked talking on the telephone sitting on a bed with Yoko asleep next to him! Paul in the bath!! It was/is very alluring in the sense of showing you an inner world, the private Beatles world. Very different from their usual polished presentation.

And that is what the “White album” is all about to me. The music is unfiltered, the veil of professional “production” is removed and John, Paul, George and Ringo are doing it for themselves. The article recently circulating that George Martin was frozen out of the production process rings true to me. These days we are encouraged to think of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour as “psychedelic” albums. This is partly true, but it infers that the whole process of making the records was one long “trip” that The Beatles authored – How could a straight guy like George Martin have any creative role in that sort of thing? In reality (…) the concepts and songs might have been conceived through LSD, but the execution of them in the studio was meticulous and technically advanced. When you consider that “A Day in the Life” was recorded using a 4 track tape machine… you don’t get a track sounding like that if you can’t tell which way the wind blows, so to speak – so George Martin, Geoff Emerick and the tech guys would have been key to achieving those albums. And the aftermath of those records for The Beatles was that they were perceived to have either a) gone soft (the Liverpool perspective), b) gone too arty (the Daily Mail perspective) or c) were falling apart (the Beatles’ Brian Epstein-less perspective). So the sense among the lads that they had given away too much power to George Martin and his team would be very likely. And now with no father/Epstein to be disappointed in them, they could do what they liked…

Also, Bob Dylan had released “John Wesley Harding” in December 1967. A record that sounded like it was recorded in a wooden room somewhere near Woodstock with one microphone and a rubber band… it was an uncompromising two fingers up to “psychedelia”. The times were definitely a’changing. And John had met Yoko who had confronted him with a white room, a step ladder in it leading to a note on the ceiling which said “yes”…  Much as we are encouraged to see Yoko as a negative influence on The Beatles, she was exactly the liberating influence John needed – intelligent, politically astute, hip, self-aware and an Artist, in the modern Tracy-Emin sense of someone self-determined. That must have been like a glass of water to a dying man for John.

So the White album for John was the beginning of his journey out of the Beatles to Plastic Ono band and that amazing first solo record. We get the unsurpassed beauty of “Dear Prudence”, the gentleness of “Julia”, the nuttiness of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide…” and the silliness of “Bungalow Bill”, the earnestness of “Yer Blues” and the virtuosity of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”.. This is multi-faceted John in his hobnail boots and I love it all. And loving a piece of music isn’t just about having something that reflects you back at yourself looking good, or intelligent, or whatever the fuck you think you are. It’s about perceiving “the other”, what you are not and what you might be… and loving that too. And being led there by a great musician like John or/and Paul – we were all extremely fortunate to have them as our guides.

Paul is into role-play on the White Album – “Honey Pie”, “Obla-dee, Obla-da”, “Rocky Racoon”. But then some of the role-play is just exquisite – “Blackbird”, “Martha My Dear”, and then there is “Helter Skelter”. Perhaps Paul is most challenged by this open country, less able to relax and just be himself. That would have to wait for his first solo album.

George starts to get the space he needs to open up and delivers “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a truly appalling lyric, but a great showcase for Eric Clapton who brings something of the world outside The Beatles into the studio. And “Long Long Long” nodding affectionately to Dylan and to a different musical language. And “Piggies” and “Savoy Truffle”. There are new flavours here for a Beatles album.

Ringo actually writes a song with “Don’t Pass Me By”. Listening to it is a somewhat numbing experience, but as part of the flow of Side 2 it sort of works. As the Country fiddle tries to play the phrase right at the very end of the fade, the drums that start up “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” are full of promise. The album experience in those days taught you patience – you couldn’t fast forward “Don’t Pass Me By”… for better or worse.

Listening to an album in those days was very much about taking the rough with the smooth. The running order, the transition of one track into another, how the track before makes the track after sound, slower or sadder, sunnier or more intense. Beatles albums were always full of massive contrasts. Even the supposedly more cohesive albums were nothing if not eclectic. Think of Side 2 of Sgt. Pepper – “Within You, Without You” into “When I’m Sixty-Four” into “Lovely Rita”. Albums were journeys through landscapes where you grew to love songs you thought were just ok when you first heard them and to lose interest in those that attracted you in a more superficial way on first listening.

I remember reading a review of the Aphex Twin Album “Druqs”. “Druqs” alternates tracks that are calm, electronic, ambient with others that are hyper-active, distorted – about as anti-social as Aphex Twin gets – which is VERY anti-social. So the reviewer tried to describe this amazing album but eventually exploded with “What is this Album for???” In other words, what mood, what activity does it enhance, what does it do for me? This attitude pervades modern attitudes to art, music – almost everything. What’s in it for me? “Druqs” (and The White Album) are albums that you have to go to. You listen to them and allow them to lead you where they will. You listen… and you get it somehow… as I said in my own song, “Abducted By The 80’s” – but I digress…

All this leads me to to consider that the White Album is a great meandering journey through English eccentricity, Americana, Ancient and Modern, kitsch and authentically creative, acoustic and electric – all of life is there really. John, Paul, George and Ringo take it in turn to lead us into new territories… and eventually they lead us to the Underworld. The sequence on side 4 allows us to experience leaving the known world behind. The Earthly delights of Revolution 1, Honey Pie, Savoy Truffle. Then the Maeterlinck-like world of “Cry Baby Cry” – Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande? – then the introduction to Revolution 9 – “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back?” – a Macca stroke of genius if ever there was one.This is the descent into the Underworld as it is depicted in Book 6 of The Aeneid…

At the time Revolution 9 was confusing, even confronting, although it intrigued me and led me to endlessly experiment with overlaying recordings on my Dad’s old Telefunken reel-to-reel tape recorder, which in turn led me to Stockhausen. I fully accept that John’s intention with R9 was to take the piss out of Stockhausen and all the poncy, musique-concrète types, a classic “Anyone can do that” stance. But, when I listened to the White Album all the way through recently, Revolution 9 stands for me as the dark heart of this record and it is every bit as good as “Hymnen”, Stockhausen’s big work using tape collage techniques. in fact it’s better because John’s ear for the beautiful, or unique, or just plain catchy, is a sure guide through this particular hell.

And then the Disney-esque consolation of “Good Night” – more problematic for me, but a lovely thought from John – yes, this sugar-coated confection is a John song, not one of Paul’s Romantic pastiches.

So I am giving the White Album a lot of latitude and much of what I find in it was never intended. But then works of Art are not necessarily defined by their Artists’ intentions. They go out into the world and become themselves. This album is one of the great, groundbreaking records of the late 60’s. Hip to what was coming, rich in it’s mastery of what had been, worldly, yet uncynical. So if you are coming to this album for the first time, or returning to it after a long time, remember that, if you were a Beatles fan in 1968, The White Album was considered to be their crowning achievement. Perhaps we need to reconnect with that assessment today and simply listen…

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