Beatles: The White Album

The Beatles release what was called The White Album but was officially called The Beatles. The cover had no picture or artwork, just The Beatles and each copy of the original pressing had a number.

Poster from the album.

Musical groups did not release double albums in those days, this was a rarity.  The Beatles were not your typical group.  In those days, solo artists or groups were required to release a lot of product, at least one album a year, sometimes more.  The Beatles also released singles that often were not on albums.  Releasing 20 new songs in a year was not unusual, so having a double album of material was something they could do.

In 1968, the Beatles also released “Hey Jude”/”Revolution” as a single.

The Beatles had been off to India and they were all in a very creative period.  When they began the recording process for this album, unfortunately, tensions within the group were high.  During this period, both Ringo and George walked out at different times.  As is documented in several sources, the Beatles used multiple recording studios at Abbey Road and Trident Studios to work on the album.  Each Beatle worked on his songs with the others principally as a backup band. Only 16 of songs the contained all four Beatles.

Photo shoot during the recording sessions.

When the record was finished, producer George Martin tried to convince the boys to be selective and release just one really good single LP, not a double LP set.  The album is uneven, there are some throwaway songs, but in the fifty years since it was released, even the lesser tracks have a history and charm.

Let’s look at each track.

Side one

  1. “Back in the U.S.S.R.”  Written by Paul McCartney, this is a rocking Chuck Berry-like tune with Beach Boys harmony on the chorus.  It is a great start to the album. Paul on bass, piano, electric guitar and drums, John on electric guitar and drums, George on electric guitar, six string bass and drums.
  2. “Dear Prudence” Written by John Lennon, there is an overlap between the previous song and the start of this one.  Prudence was Mia Farrow’s sister, who they saw in India. John on guitar, George on lead guitar, Paul on everything else.
  3. “Glass Onion” Another good mid tempo Lennon rocker with ambiguous lyrics. Lennon specializes in guitar grooves and weaving his voice around his songs. John acoustic guitar, George on lead guitar, Paul on bass, piano and recorder, Ringo on drums.
  4. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” A bouncy, reggae flavored McCartney tune, perhaps the hardest Beatles’ song to perfect.  Lennon hated the song and his temper flamed as they did take after take to get the version that McCartney was happy with. Paul on bass, John on piano, George on guitar, Ringo on drums. Everyone on hand claps.
  5. “Wild Honey Pie” McCartney with another throwaway, more like a snippet than a song. Paul on everything.
  6. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” Lennon was a very good storyteller.  This is not a classic but it is a very good song.  Not every Lennon song had a message, sometimes he was just clever. John on guitar and organ, George on guitar, Paul on bass, Ringo on drums, Chris Thomas on mellotron.
  7. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Perhaps the best George Harrison song on a Beatles album.   This a classic, a rocking song with a great set of lyrics.  Harrison invited Eric Clapton to provide the solo.  According to legend, Clapton was weary to play at a session, but the result is absolutely electric. George on acoustic guitar and organ, John on guitar, Paul on bass, piano and organ, Ringo on drums, Clapton on lead guitar.
  8. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” Again, a brief segue between songs.  Lennon was criticized for writing a song about heroin but he said it was inspired by an advertising poster he way.  It is a rocking, blues tune.  The White Album has both the softest, gentlest guitars and the most harsh, distorted guitars of any Beatles album. John on lead guitar, George on lead guitar, Paul on bass, Ringo on drums.

Side two

  1. “Martha My Dear” A bright and breezy McCartney song, one of his best on the album.  Still one of my favorites and a song most people overlook.  McCartney is one of the best songwriters of creating a defining melody in under three minutes that will stick in your head. Paul on everything except George on 2nd guitar.
  2. “I’m So Tired” Lennon writes these songs so effortlessly.  At first you think it’s a throwaway but then you discover how clever and irresistible it is. John on guitars, George on guitar, Paul on bass and electric piano, Ringo on drums.
  3. “Blackbird” McCartney is a very good guitar player and this is one of his most memorable guitar songs.  Simple arrangement but powerful in performance.  Most musicians would kill to write such a lovely and lasting song as this.  Just another song for McCartney. Paul on guitar.
  4. “Piggies”  The worst song Harrison ever wrote.  Dreadful. George on guitar, Paul on bass, Ringo on drums, Chris Thomas on harmonium.
  5. “Rocky Raccoon” Not terrible, but not a very good McCartney song. Paul on guitar and bass, John on bass and harmonium, Ringo on drums, George Martin on piano.
  6. “Don’t Pass Me By” Ringo had been working on this song for several years.  Passable but hardly up to Beatle standards. Ringo on piano and drums, Paul on piano and bass.
  7. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” Again, McCartney in low gear.  George Martin was probably thinking of this song when he suggested trimming it down to a solo disc. Paul on everything except Ringo on drums.
  8. “I Will” Another McCartney acoustic song, as effective as his others on the record. A simple but memorable tune, short and sweet. Paul on guitar, John and Ringo on percussion.
  9. “Julia” Lennon’s ode to his mother. A moving, quiet song with poetic lyrics. A very effective local performance, Lennon had a very adaptable voice for conveying emotion. John solo on guitar.

Side three

  1. “Birthday” McCartney and Lennon teamed up to write this song. This song is a knockoff for them, not brilliant, but instantly enjoyable. Paul on bass and piano, John on lead guitar, George on lead guitar, Ringo on drums.
  2. “Yer Blues” Lennon was often referred to as the rocker in the group, he certainly had a sensitivity to blues. John on lead guitar, Paul on bass, George on lead guitar, Ringo drums.
  3. “Mother Nature’s Son” Another beautiful McCartney acoustic guitar song. A nice horn arrangement by George Martin. McCartney can rock when he wants but his strength are his finely crafted pop songs. Paul on everything.
  4. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” Lennon wrote some amazing electric guitar songs. The words don’t mean much but the music is quite interesting. John on guitar, Paul on bass, George on guitar, Ringo on drums. Everyone on percussion.
  5. “Sexy Sadie” Lennon wrote this about an experience in India. One of his best songs on the album, he was on a creative high. Lennon was not given much credit as a guitarist but he was quite talented at phrasing and chord progressions, and varying the sounds from his guitar. He wasn’t the technical pianist that McCartney was but again, he had a creative ear for chord sequences. John on guitars and organ, Paul on bass and piano, George on guitar, Ringo on drums.
  6. “Helter Skelter” McCartney had a wild hair to write an aggressive rock around that phrase. Unfortunately popularized by Charles Manson. Far from a classic, the song does show the Beatles with their hair down. Paul on electric guitar, John on bass and saxophone, George on guitar, Ringo on drums.
  7. “Long, Long, Long”  One of Harrison’s most beautiful songs, quiet and powerfully effective. George on acoustic guitars, Paul on bass and organ, Ringo on drums, Chris Thomas on piano.

Side four

  1. “Revolution 1” Lennon slowed down the original version released as a single. It loses the impact behind the song but it an acceptable variation. John on lead and acoustic guitars, George on lead guitar, Paul on bass, organ and piano, Ringo on drums.
  2. “Honey Pie” McCartney wrote many beautiful songs on this set but this isn’t one of them. A true throwaway. Paul on piano, John on guitars, George on bass, Ringo on drums.
  3. “Savoy Truffle”  Harrison’s final contribution is fine but nothing special. It’s better than the lesser songs in the collection. It hinted at more, but seems written to fill out the album. George on lead guitar, Paul on bass, Ringo on drums, Chris Thomas on piano and organ.
  4. “Cry Baby Cry” Another Lennon story song, and a good use of instrumentation, in this case the harmonium. Does it raise the quality of the record? No, but not a disappointment either. John on acoustic guitar, piano and organ, Paul on bass, George on lead guitar, Ringo on drums, George Martin on harmonium.
  5. “Revolution 9” Lennon was a great experimenter. Not so much a song as a patchwork of sounds and ideas. It was very avant-garde when it was released. John, George and Yoko on tape effects.
  6.  “Good Night” Lennon wrote this for Ringo to sing. It was for Lennon’s son Julian.  Schmaltzy with the strings, but a good vocal performance.  George Martin wrote a good string arrangement. A nice coda for the album. Ringo vocals, George Martin on celeste, orchestra.

The Beatles did not often uses outside musicians on their songs unless it was a horn or string instrument they couldn’t play. Eric Clapton, then later Billy Preston, were exceptions. On this album with more keyboard parts, George Martin and engineer Chris Thomas added various keyboards as needed, in addition to Lennon and McCartney.

The album sold several million copies at release and spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard chart.  It has sold more than 19 million copies in 50 years.

Let it Be is usually the Beatles album people point to what talking about the Beatles without gloss, but The White Album is a better example. Not a lot of strings or horns or over the top arrangements. Lots of guitars and a rougher sound.

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