Round about 1978 I began a complicated relationship with the Beatles’ White Album. As the owner of a car with a cassette deck (!) I was able to take the Beatles with me wherever I might go… practically here, there and everywhere! Two of their albums became my constant companions, Abbey Road and the White Album. These lp’s colored my late teens perhaps like no others.
In my dotage I tend to alternate between hot and cold feelings for those Beatles, but a recent listen reminded me of the brilliance that is the White Album. I don’t think anyone could sit down and write thirty impressive songs in varied styles any better than this. Most rock albums stick to a narrow range of musical language. But the White Album is all over the map: rock and roll, folk, experimental tape music, dance hall. And the really infuriating part is the songs are mostly brilliant. As a listener, it feels like the composers did whatever they felt like and did it outstandingly well.
The Beatles did a whole lot of tape manipulation in their music, back in those wild pre-digital days. I remember hearing once that bits of Strawberry Fields were created by cutting up some tape, randomly reattaching the bits, and playing it backwards. Revolution 9 takes this practice to new heights. There is nothing warm and cozy about this song, no melody, no easily-discernible form. If you wanna reach a new level of creepy, try listening to this one late at night at the end of a deserted road in your car. Number nine.
Perhaps you’d like to hear a little hard rock or proto punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges were exploring this style as early as the late 60s and on the White Album we find the Beatles up to their hip boots on Helter Skelter. It’s a brilliant foray into driving distorted guitar, wall o’ drums and a highly saturated sound spectrum.
Or if you’re looking for 6 degrees of separation from all that’s creepy and loud, you could always lindy to the dance hall crooning of Honey Pie. If Chico Marx had sung with Paul Whiteman on a spring day in Central Park, well, who knows what that would have been like. But there is a distinct vaudevillian feel to several of the album’s tunes. It’s as if the Beatles wrote a few for the kids and a few for mum and dad.
We could dissect each song, but the takeaway is variety and high quality. It would be inaccurate to call the White Album a rock album, although it includes plenty of rock. Nor is it solely folk or experimental or early jazz. But, it has a bit of each of these genres. Quite an accomplishment. And because it’s a double album, when you check it out from Everett Public Library you get 2 for the price of 1!