I got this idea from vlogger Glen From the Basement. Thanks Glen.
The Beatles’ White Album has always held a special place for me. The songs helped fill an emotional crevasse for me fifty-odd years ago. That album has never aged, even if I have.
The Beatles worked both as a band and solo in recording this album. They went into the studio following their trip to India, where they wrote like crazy, pouring out their stories and emotional journeys. A number of these songs were demoed at George Harrison’s house on his reel-to-reel Ampex tape machine. The Esher demos as they were known, were 27 songs, most of which ended up on The White Album.
The Beatles normally recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studio, but also worked at Trident Studios because it had 8-track recording. Engineer Geoff Emerick, who had worked with the band since “She Loves You” but quit working with them during these sessions because of the dynamics within the band. Ringo Starr actually quit during these sessions. Chris Thomas handled some of the sessions in producer George Martin’s absence, but the Beatles were working independently, often in several studios. Thomas would go on to work with Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, The Pretenders, Elton John, Sex Pistols and others.
George Martin lobbied the band to pare the collection of songs to a single disc, instead of double disc set. He felt there was filler that could be discarded, leaving a superb core of songs. Of course the Beatles refused, and what we got was a revealing collection of songs.
I have my favorites and those that I tend to avoid. One time I selected enough songs from the album to fit on an 80 minute CD, which meant cutting at least 14 minutes of material. That was easy, but imagine reducing the collection by half for a single disc to fit ~45 minutes of music.
So, here is my ranking, from least-liked to best.
“Why Don’t We Do it in the Road” – McCartney’s attempt at a barroom blues song is underwhelming. The suggestive song title doesn’t add much. It’s not horrible, just the nadir of his ability.
“Rocky Raccoon” – A story song, again, not particularly special. A bit goofy, McCartney can do much better.
“Honey Pie” – McCartney’s vaudeville song. He had a soft spot for these old time songs. While he song displays his songwriting ability, arranging credit goes to George Martin.
“Piggies” – I never liked this song and still don’t. The arrangement is interesting, but it ranks at the bottom of Beatle George’s songs.
“Wild Honey Pie” – somehow I like this song better than McCartney’s other lesser song on the album. Maybe it is because the playing on the song is so earnest. Still, this would be an easy song to cut.
“Revolution 9” – The avant- guard piece from Lennon, something totally unexpected. It has some interesting parts to it and is a remarkable creation.
“Don’t Pass Me By” – A Ringo Starr original. Not awful, just average. The production is a strong point.
“Revolution 1” – A slowed-down version of their blistering, feedback-laden rocker. Okay on it’s merits, but hard to compare to the original.
“Savory Truffle” – An ode to Eric Clapton’s sweet tooth. The music is better than the lyrics. An upbeat song that could have been even better, a bit too polished.
“Cry Baby Cry” – An underrated song by Lennon. His songs on the album were consistently good, but he had no classics. Everything he contributed on the album was solid.
“I’m So Tired” – I never really warmed to this song, but a slow and bluesy rocker. Lennon had the most expressive and variable vocal skill in the group, which is on display here.
“Goodnight” – A Lennon/McCartney song given to Ringo to sing. I always like the song and the arrangement. There is a pretty good version without the orchestra which proves it a strong song on its own.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide But Me and My Monkey” – Nonsensical lyrics, but the music is awesome. Lennon doesn’t write riffy rockers? He certainly does here. This would have been a terrific jam song.
“Sexy Sadie” – The Maharishi was just a bit too human. A nicely structured guitar song and vocal by Lennon.
“Glass Onion” – Another Lennon rocker with trippy Beatle lyrics. It’s amazing how few of these type songs he produced in his solo career. Here, he has a large group of them.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” – Supposedly based on a real person. It has a nice singalong structure to it, which segues in the mix to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
“Dear Prudence” – Lennon writing about the adventures in India again. Melodic, but with grit. Great Lennon vocal work.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” – This bouncy, faux-reggae tune is classic McCartney. Ear candy. Not great, but nice. Lennon supposedly hated it, especially since it proved among the most challenging songs they ever worked on.
“Yer Blues” – A thumping blues-rocker. Lennon had a voice that fit the blues like a glove. He was underrated as a guitarist too.
“Happiness is a Warm Gun” – Another bluesy rocker, it changes style for a more gentle sing-out, as it was two different songs joined together into one.
“Blackbird” – Perhaps one of McCartney’s most covered songs, definitely a classic. A great acoustic guitar song, nice fingerpicking style. Unfortunately, overplayed through the years.
“Helter Skelter” – McCartney rocking out, a jam song. Unfortunately forever linked to Charles Manson. Noisy and proves the Beatles could record hard rock.
“Mother Nature’s Son” – McCartney was a skilled guitarist and wrote many sophisticated ballads. Another haunting acoustic song.
“Birthday” – Written by Lennon and McCartney, a rocker, a great riff song. Often discounted as trite, the Beatles just made it sound too easy.
“Julia” – A tender song from Lennon about his mother. Haunting, acoustic ballad, one of Lennon’s loveliest and most underrated songs.
“Long Long Long” – A Harrison acoustic ballad. A lovely, haunting melody and vocal. One of my favorite Harrison songs.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – Usually picked as the best song on the album. Obviously a classic. A bit overplayed on radio.
“I Will” – One more McCartney acoustic ballads, this one zips along at a faster speed. The song has a simplicity that almost comes across as a throwaway, but it’s a keeper.
“Martha My Dear” – Overlooked, one of McCartney’s best piano songs. Okay, it’s about his dog, but has a great vibe and melody. I’ve loved this song for 50 years, a delightful tune.
“Back in the USSR” – One of McCartney’s most underrated songs. The best on the album? This upbeat rocker is great fun, with The Beach Boysesque vocals, and marvelous backing arrangement.
Okay, there you have it. My ranking. Even the lower ranked songs have value and are part of this album’s rich history.