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“The White Album” Turns 50: Ranking The Beatles’ Behemoth – Stereogum

“The White Album” Turns 50: Ranking The Beatles’ Behemoth – Stereogum

“The White Album” Turns 50: Ranking The Beatles’ Behemoth – Stereogum
November 22
08:49 2018

“The White Album” was a neat little concept. Actually, it was a sprawling mess that defies concept, but still: clever idea to roll this one out when they did.

Fifty years ago this Thursday, in one of those left turns we’ve come to expect from history’s game-changing rock bands, the Beatles followed up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — widely viewed as the dawn of the album era, in which LPs were conceived not as a collection of singles but a cohesive artistic statement — with a self-titled splatter of ideas spanning two discs and countless stylistic permutations.

From their most meticulous, carefully crafted work they pivoted to an incoherent heap of ideas largely written in isolation during a transcendental meditation retreat in India. Many of those ideas were strokes of genius — others were “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” — but taken together, they became a monument to the Beatles’ boundless confidence and restless creativity half a decade into their reign as the biggest band in the world. To think the same group that played Ed Sullivan in ’64 was responsible for all this disparate noise, and were able to send it to #1 for nine weeks. (Thanks to a new 50th anniversary reissue, it’s back at #6 this week.)

This towering stack of songs also served as a document of the Beatles’ fraying group dynamic. On Sgt. Pepper, the palate of sounds was unified. No matter which Beatle was singing or which stylistic avenue they were pursuing, it always felt like the same band guiding you through a Technicolor LSD trip. It sounded, if you’ll excuse the extreme anachronism, like a series of snapshots processed through the same Instagram filter — or like watching a movie with a wide range of sets and characters with the same ornate framing around the edges of the screen. This aesthetic consistency partially resulted from Paul McCartney’s close watch over the project; it was his idea to escape the confines of the Beatles by performing as a fictional band, he wrote more than half the album’s songs, and he seized control of the recording sessions to an unprecedented extent.

On The Beatles, perhaps as a corrective against McCartney’s emerging control-freak tendencies, each of the band’s personalities gave each other space to experiment as they pleased. Essentially it was the variety-pack approach of Revolver blown out to a gargantuan scope with even less collaboration. McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison often recorded in parallel, recruiting Ringo Starr, George Martin, and other assorted musicians as needed. Starr contributed a composition for the first time, further contributing to the splintering of the group’s sound. Only 16 of the album’s 30 songs featured all four Beatles. Several involved only one Beatle, with no contributions from the other three. As such, the final product sounded like several solo albums spliced together.

That kind of splintering had been going on for years, as early as 1965’s “Yesterday,” but on the White Album, it seemed to be the point. From the blank-slate cover art to the lack of an album title, the double-disc behemoth served as a reintroduction to the world’s favorite rock ‘n’ rollers: Meet The Beatles All Over Again, this time not as a band but a loosely affiliated recording collective. In hindsight, the rejection of any and all constraints on what the Beatles could be predicted the rapidly approaching moment when the Beatles would cease to exist altogether. Yet the bursts of inspiration captured here remain thrilling and confounding half a century on.

Fifty years later the White Album hangs together, if only by the force of history, as a tracklist with its own internal logic and slipshod charm. It remains the go-to shorthand for a group pushing itself in every direction at once — as much an ur-text for the experimental double album as Sgt. Pepper was for the artful concept LP. Perversely, The Beatles feels like a batch of wildly varied songs meant to share space with each other. Like family members who’ve pursued their own paths but reunite at the holidays, these songs seem to go together because they’ve always gone together. (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way.) Listen to the White Album with an unsentimental ear, though, and you’ll undoubtedly notice the friction that set these songs ablaze. This was who the Beatles were now: four icons with irreconcilable differences.

Let’s continue that atomizing process by breaking down the tracklist song by song. Below, to ingest and digest alongside your holiday feast, is a ranking of all 30 tunes on the White Album. After such a long, long, long process, I’m so tired — and more than a little helter skelter — so don’t pass me by. Take a gander at the list and then let’s discuss: Which Beatle “won” The Beatles? Which of the project’s songs towers over the rest? Where would the concurrently recorded “Hey Jude” rank if they’d opted to include it? And how does the White Album stack up against The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which was released on the same day? Thank you, and good night.

30. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Catchy like the black plague.

29. “Revolution 9″

Lead vocals: John Lennon, George Harrison, Yoko Ono, and George Martin
A mostly unlistenable sound collage, but I give it points for audacity.

28. “Piggies”

Lead vocals: George Harrison
In many ways, the White Album is where Harrison came into his own as an equal to Lennon and McCartney. This centuries-spanning satire ain’t one of them.

27. “The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”

Lead vocals: John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Another sardonic message song disguised as a children’s sing-along, “Bungalow Bill” gets the edge over “Piggies” because Lennon was more adept at scathing social commentary than Harrison — also because that chorus really would have made a killer Saturday morning cartoon theme song with slightly less tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

26. “Wild Honey Pie”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
All I can say for this chickenscratch hoe-down is that it’s the best (and, mercifully, the shortest) of the three obscenely goofy tracks leading up to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a stretch of music that demonstrates how power fuels hubris. Only the most popular band in the world would dare to pile up that much obnoxiousness back to back to back, knowing full well that most people would power through.

25. “Honey Pie”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Sometimes McCartney was able to make old-timey pop ditties sound like cutting-edge genius, but “Honey Pie” is cloying and inessential. The Beatles were wise to bury it deep on the White Album’s fourth side.

24. “Don’t Pass Me By”

Lead vocals: Ringo Starr
Starr’s first composition to end up on a Beatles album is a charming musical steam engine that did little to suggest he would join his fellow Beatles as an elite songwriter.

23. “Cry Baby Cry”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Just a pleasant little Beatles song. “Cry Baby Cry” is probably not on anyone’s one-disc reimagining of the White Album, but it’s nice, especially the brief bursts of gnarled electric guitar at the song’s hinges.

22. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
A simple question begets a simple song.

21. “Rocky Raccoon”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Of all the childish goofs on the White Album, “Rocky Raccoon” is the most enjoyable for adults, with an engaging story, some loose and flashy saloon piano, and one of those timeless hooks that used to spill out of McCartney.

20. “Sexy Sadie”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
The chord changes are out of control on this one, and the arrangement gives every instrument room to shine.

19. “Good Night”

Lead vocals: Ringo Starr
This maudlin lullaby is the perfect respite from the abstract chaos of “Revolution 9.” After that song disorients you, this one tucks you into bed with extreme gentleness and dreamy orchestral flourishes out of an old black-and-white movie.

18. “I’m So Tired”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Relatable! Also, the surprise burst of intensity on “I’m going insane!” is realistic tired-person behavior.

17. “Birthday”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney & John Lennon
The instantly iconic guitar riff, the power-meets-finesse drum fills, McCartney’s hoots and hollers practically leaping out of the gang vocals: It’s the sound of an unraveling band having fun together like the old days. They supposedly wrote and recorded this one in one night.

16. “Savoy Truffle”

Lead vocals: George Harrison
A groove so tight it’s about to snap, an arrangement so elaborate you might not notice how many layers are sliding in and out of the mix, and a vocal melody piercing enough to compete with all those sharp stabs of sound: Who knew a song comparing sex to sweets could be so sophisticated?

15. “Revolution 1″

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Although the faster, louder “Revolution” that appeared on the “Hey Jude” single remains definitive, this easygoing blues-rock lope strikes an ingenious contrast between feel-good vibes and deeply cynical lyrics. It’s the most delicious irony on the album.

14. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Lennon channeled his bandmates’ paranoia about Ono’s presence in the studio into this obscenely fun cloud of buzzsaw guitar, clattering percussion, and the electrifying howls of a madman in love.

13. “Mother Nature’s Son”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
This gentle (and genteel) folk-pop suite really does sound like an unaltered landscape coming alive in the morning, and it charted a course for the stripped-down naturalism of McCartney’s first solo album.

12. “Julia”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Lennon’s achingly graceful ode to his late mother is one of many songs on the White Album that give his gorgeous fingerpicked guitar parts room to shine.

11. “Long, Long, Long”

Lead vocals: George Harrison
There’s so much going on within this tender, elongated sigh. Is it an ode to a lover or a paean to a god? Where did that orgasmic and/or celestial finale come from on the tail of such a minimal ballad? And who else could have so artfully merged Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Eastern spirituality with the seminal folk-rock of Dylan and the Band?

10. “Glass Onion”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
A string-laden psychedelic joyride that, in an attempt to poke fun at the Beatles’ mythology, only further entrenches it.

9. “Back In The U.S.S.R.”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Sometimes a parody is better than the real thing.

8. “Yer Blues”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
A blues howler that hits so hard, and is sung so fearlessly, that you really do wonder whether Lennon wants to die. Raw and exhilarating and viscerally painful.

7. “I Will”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
A simple, ramshackle, doe-eyed throwback to the Beatles’ early days as mop-topped heartthrobs. Love songs don’t get much prettier than this. (Some trivia: During one of 67 takes, McCartney ad-libbed the “Can you take me back?” song that became the introduction to “Revolution 9.”)

6. “Martha My Dear”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
This chamber-pop delight was initially inspired by McCartney’s dog. It gets bonus points for a middle section that basically wrote “Mr. Blue Sky” for Jeff Lynne.

5. “Blackbird”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Donovan’s fingerpicking technique plus Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor” plus a chance encounter with a winged creature in India added up to this bittersweet reflection on the state of American race relations.

4. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
A series of disjointed snippets plucked from Lennon’s own little garden of ideas, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is like the White Album reduced to a single song. Thanks to the careful collaboration of all four Beatles, his strung-together fragments cohered into a willfully transgressive epic. Five decades later it stands as one of the greatest, most ambitious tracks in the Beatles’ catalog.

3. “Helter Skelter”

Lead vocals: Paul McCartney
Charles Manson heard what he wanted in “Helter Skelter,” but you can’t blame McCartney for that. This is what I hear: a proto-metal crusher that literally takes my breath away every time. It’s crazy that the Beatles ever rocked this hard.

2. “Dear Prudence”

Lead vocals: John Lennon
Here’s a different sort of day in the life. “Dear Prudence” is a churning machine of a tune that sounds like the sound of the sun rising in all its glory, revealing new possibilities as far as the eye can see. Lennon’s stunning fingerpicking serves as the spine, but from there it spirals into such fabulous heights of psychedelic reverie that you’d think the whole universe was backing him up.

1. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

Lead vocals: George Harrison
It only makes sense that the finest song on the White Album would be one mourning the rapid disintegration of the Beatles. Troubled by the disharmony within the ranks and a creeping sense that his bandmates regretted joining him on the spiritual retreat in India, Harrison poured inspiration from the Chinese I Ching into this grand lament over “the love there that’s sleeping.” Famously, Eric Clapton was responsible for the guitar solo, a searing performance that really did evoke heartbroken tears. That performance grabs the spotlight, but its power would be limited without the rhythm section’s plodding, funereal undercurrent and Harrison’s dejected critique. Sadly, the Beatles were never able to fully reactivate that latent affection for each other, but if they had to break up, at least their conflict yielded masterpieces like this one.

Source: “The White Album” Turns 50: Ranking The Beatles’ Behemoth – Stereogum

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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