White And Bright
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:19 December 2018
WHITE AND BRIGHT
A whole lot of songs. Amazing variety. So much to digest.
That was a common reaction to The Beatles (aka White Album) when it was released in November 1968 and it’s a reasonable response half a century later. Gone are the thematic links (musical, visual) of Sgt Pepper, long gone are the suits of the early mop top days; here are four individuals, spreading their wings, looking both inwards and outwards… and yet still co-operating with exhilarating results.
The world was changing and The Beatles were too. The sojourn in India, observations of the Vietnam war, maturing relational needs; these were just some of the factors that flowed into the songwriting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Even Ringo chipped in with “Don’t Pass Me By”, his first solo composition for the band.
George managed to get a song on each of the four sides of The Beatles, and if none are quite as sublime as side one’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, all add to the musical marbling of styles and voices across this sprawling double album. But it is the inventive, restless song craft of Messrs Lennon and McCartney that drives the White Album high into the pantheon of sixties classics.
Opening with a Chuck Berry homage (tongue firmly in cheek), “Back in the U.S.S.R.” literally arrives like a jet plane. The transition to the limpid beauty of John’s “Dear Prudence” immediately gives notice of the variety to come. Sure, there’ll be songs that some love to loath (for me it is “Ob-La Di, Ob-La-Blah”) but the old chestnut of reducing the White Album from a double to a single record—Producer George Martin is on record with this opinion—is nonsense. As Paul memorably observed in the Beatles Anthology documentary (1995), “It’s the bloody Beatles White Album, Shut Up!”
Many and varied highlights make The Beatles an album that entertains for a long long long time. Gorgeous ballads such as Paul’s “Mother Nature’s Son” or John’s “Julia” rub shoulders with the despairing rage of “Yer Blues” (Lennon) or the brittle hysteria of “Helter Skelter” (McCartney). There’s even avant-garde experimentalism in “Revolution 9”. Perhaps in addition to all their other achievements, The Beatles also discovered the fragmentary yet connected nature of the post-modern world.
A major part of the excitement around this re-issue of The Beatles attaches to the first official release of the pre-studio recordings known as the Esher Demos. George had a neat home recording setup and the lads gathered at his place to share their new songs. Although some relish peeking behind the scenes to see favourite songs unclothed, generally I’m happy to go with what the artist finally decided to give us. The Esher Demos are a notable exception. Beautifully remastered for this re-issue, these versions of well-known songs are revelatory. Oh, you say, Paul changed the words there! Gee, John hasn’t got far with that idea yet, but how amusing to hear his vocalisations! George singing the song he gave to Jackie Lomax? How brilliant! And so on.
Whether you spring for the super deluxe version of the White Album, the lovely 4 LP boxed set, or the double CD, the combination of the original album’s timeless energy with a folio of early sketches is irresistible.
A whole lot of songs. Amazing variety. So much to enjoy.
Bruce Jenkins © 2018