Last month saw the 50th anniversary of The Beatles‘ self-titled album that would become known as The White Album. VH’s very own Beatles expert, Josh Langrish, takes a look at how the band’s most unusual album became a reality…
After the release of Magical Mystery Tour in the December of ’67, The Beatles were suffering from a severe case of creative fatigue. Several emotionally taxing and career-changing events had happened in quick succession: their first-ever critical failure had occurred with the surrealist film Magical Mystery Tour, they had decided to launch an entire music/film/tech company (despite not really knowing how to run one) in the form of the commercially doomed Apple Corps, and their manager and spiritual leader Brian Epstein had died. Also, post-Sgt. Pepper, the studio routine for the band had somewhat stagnated. Without having to report to Epstein with regards to album progress – combined with the fact that a budget and time-constraints were no longer a thing for them (not to mention the prevalence of drugs at the time) meant that a bohemian lethargy had set in, slowing the output of the band to a crawl. The Beatles seriously needed a break consisting of some sort of productive regime away from the debauchery and distractions of London to clear their heads. Having seen glimpses of a potential guiding light in the form of Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his lecture in Bangor, Wales in the summer of ’67, these times of mental, emotional, and spiritual turbulence convinced The Beatles to drop everything and leave England to study TM in the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India in mid-February of ’68 .
Accompanied by their girlfriends and wives*, the group lived their lives in this Indian meditation compound surrounded by jungles, the Himalayas, and the river Ganges. Their routine consisted of attending spiritual and philosophical lectures by Maharishi inside a large hall for all the students and guests to sit in, one-on-one lessons with the Maharishi to each of the individual Beatles, solitary meditating in each of their own bungalows to which they were assigned, and finally their usual diet of booze, LSD, and fancy London restaurant food was replaced with herbal tea, meditation, and rustic vegetarian meals. Evidently, the stripped down, simplistic lifestyle and peaceful surroundings proved restorative to The Beatles’ mindset, resulting in the band writing over thirty songs between them. However, that April, rumours of the Maharishi making sexual advances towards some of the female students there** started circulating around the ashram, at which point The Beatles up and left***, and returned to England. After a month of promoting their new company Apple in the US, the band met up at George’s house at the end of May to record the demos (known as The Esher Demos) of what would eventually become known as The White Album.
* Paul went with fiancée Jane Asher, Ringo with his wife Maureen, George with his wife Pattie, and John with his wife Cynthia. Having regularly been in contact with Yoko Ono since November of ’66, John was keen on the idea of Yoko coming to India too. Ultimately, and for obvious reasons, this didn’t happen. Instead, Lennon, unbeknownst to Cynthia, was corresponding with Yoko daily via post.
**The rumours were never confirmed. During Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview when they arrived on the subject, Lennon allegedly confronted the Maharishi to inform him that they were leaving and when the Maharishi’s asked him why, Lennon responded: “If you’re so fucking cosmic, you’ll know why”.
*** Ringo left after just two weeks based on his aversion to the food. Having brought a suitcase filled with clothes and another filled with tins of baked beans, he decided it was time to go when he ran out of beans. Paul left after a month due to business commitments. John and George stayed for over two months and left after they heard the rumours about the Maharishi.
(Photo: The Beatles, their wives and girlfriends, and other guests posing for a photo shoot arranged by the Maharishi in Chaurasi Kutia ((formally known then as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s International Academy of Meditation)), Rishikesh, India, taken at some point between Wednesday 21st February and Thursday 29th February, 1968)
Apart from its pure eclecticism, one of the main things that will strike you upon listening to The White Album is the proliferation of acoustic songs that permeate the record. Sonically, this shift in sound juxtaposes quite starkly with the layered complexity of the band’s previous three albums.
Lennon had learnt this fingerpicking guitar style (known as ‘The Clawhammer Technique’) from folk singer-songwriter Donovan who also stayed at the ashram in India whilst The Beatles were there. McCartney also learnt this technique from Donovan, however, whilst Lennon used it for songs like ‘Dear Prudence‘ and ‘Julia‘, McCartney uses it in the song ‘Blackbird‘ which utilises a rising and falling intonating structure influenced by Bach’s Bouree in E-minor that McCartney then altered and evolved. The effortlessly charming guitar is accompanied by a persistent and endearing foot-tapping, as well as lyrics which were, according to McCartney, written with regards to the civil rights movement in America; reassuring black people (or a black woman specifically i.e. “bird” being slang for a woman) at that troubling time that there’s hope*. It quintessential McCartney; effortlessly sweet lyrics, simplistic in terms of structure, but its melody is utterly timeless.
*There have been some suspicions that McCartney retconned the inspiration of the song, claiming at one point that it came from hearing a blackbird singing whilst meditating in India. However, on a rehearsal tape for Mary Hopkin’s LP from November 22nd, 1968 (the day of The White Album’s release in the UK), McCartney jams with Donovan, plays him ‘Blackbird’ and reveals it was written after McCartney read about the civil rights riots in the paper.
(The Beatles joking around between tracks. The White Album sessions, between June and October 1968)
In the conclusion of side two of the album, we find the aforementioned acoustic Lennon composition ‘Julia’ which, along with other Lennon songs such as ‘Yes It Is‘, ‘Girl‘, ‘She Said She Said‘, and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘*, is yet another addition to Lennon’s series of songs throughout The Beatles’ discography wherein the lyrics are centred around an imagined ‘dream girl’ who encompasses all of Lennon’s wants and desires but remains emotionally unavailable, elusive, and just beyond his reach – ultimately leading to his own ruin. As Ian Macdonald in his book Revolution in the Head correctly posits, this femme fatale/La Belle Dame sans Merci muse that keeps popping up in Lennon’s writing is without question his mother Julia; who, after being apart from Lennon throughout his formative years, remained an adored figure for him due to her zest for life, encouragement for his musical and literary exploits, and wit (which Lennon had inherited). After finally reconnecting with Lennon (who at the time had just founded The Quarrymen i.e. the first iteration of what would eventually become the biggest band of all time), Julia got killed after being run over by a drunk, off-duty policeman. The ripples of this loss can be heard throughout The Beatles and Lennon’s solo career in the form of this enigmatic, enticing woman constantly emerging in his lyrics, whether implicitly or explicitly. ‘Julia’ however is worth noting as Lennon addresses this muse, and some would argue his past’s demons, directly for the first time. In amongst the child-like sensitivity of Lennon’s delicate vocal delivery are lyrics alluding to Julia (obviously) as well as an “ocean child”. Despite Lennon claiming that the initial inspiration of the song came from a memory of walking with his mother along a beach, the fact that the name of Lennon’s obsession at the time in the form of Yoko literally translates as ‘ocean child’ is rather telling, suggesting a symbolic passing of the torch wherein Lennon’s endless search for his much desired but lost mother/female figure has ended with the arrival of Yoko Ono. The gentle, Travis-picked guitar hypnotically loops around, mimicking Lennon’s perpetual preoccupation with his mother Julia, thereby emulating his intense fixation of his lover Yoko**. Whilst Lennon adored a hard rock sound, he had a soft spot for easy-listening, silky-soft lullabies such as this.
Taking into account ‘Blackbird’, ‘Julia’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘I Will‘, and ‘Mother Nature’s Son‘, the prevalence of acoustic pieces might suggest that The White Album is a gentle record. Of course, this is highly inaccurate. There’s the joyous rocker ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey‘, the bluesy protest song ‘Revolution 1‘, the album’s opener ‘Back In The USSR‘, the celebratory ‘Birthday‘, the rather baggy ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?‘, and the startlingly raw ‘Yer Blues‘*** to name but a few. However, when discussing examples of hard rock in The White Album, The Beatles’ discography, and with respect to their musical versatility in general, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the song ‘Helter Skelter‘. Considered by many music scholars as arguably the birth of heavy metal, ‘Helter Skelter’ is a wrecking ball of distorted guitars, booming drums, and screaming vocals****. Despite Lennon being the undeniable “rocker” of the band, the many ironies of music history shows its face again in the fact that this song was created not by Lennon but by McCartney. After reading an interview with Pete Townsend of The Who claiming he had just made the “loudest, raunchiest” rock song anyone has ever heard (the song reportedly being ‘I Can See For Miles’), McCartney decided to do one better in the form of this song. Although enjoyable and easy to headbang to, McCartney’s voice seems to struggle to reach the rock’n’roll growl of Lennon, and the song itself sacrifices tonal variety in favour of loudness. What completely saves it, however, is the sheer thrill of the piece and the blatant exuberance and groove The Beatles evidently got caught up in; the third and final take of the song being the longest The Beatles ever recorded at a stonking 27 minutes 11 seconds – hence the infamous ending line from Ringo: “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”.
* “It’s not an acid song. The imagery was Alice in the boat. And also the image of this female who would come and save me – this secret love that was going to come one day. So it turned out to be Yoko, though, and I hadn’t met Yoko then. But she was my imaginary girl that we all have” – John Lennon in David Sheff’s book ‘All We Are Saying’
** This Oedipal theme is even more evident as Lennon’s nickname for Yoko was ‘mother superior’; a nickname that appears multiple times in the lyrics of White Album tune ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun‘.
*** Lennon performed this tongue-in-cheek song of his for a 1968 concert show called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus wherein Lennon seamlessly performed the song alongside Eric Clapton of Cream, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, and Mitch Mitchell of The Jimi Hendrix Experience as one-time supergroup The Dirty Mac. The song also has a sound, vocal delivery, and unabashed emotional authenticity that is emblematic of his first solo album ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ which was highly influenced by Primal Scream Therapy created by Arthur Janov, of which Lennon was a follower in 1970.
**** Insane cult-leader and murderer Charles Manson, who didn’t know that a Helter Skelter was a type of slide/funfair ride in the UK, assumed it was some sort of prophecy for an apocalyptic race-war and, along with a plethora of other songs in The White Album, inspired the Manson Family to infamously commit a slew of murders.
(George and Ringo eating chicken, rice, and bread in the control room of Studio Two, EMI Studios, Abbey Road whilst overseeing the stereo/mono mixes for ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Ringo has milk and cookies and George drinks a bottle of Blue Nun; a wine that will prove essential to the track ‘Long, Long, Long’ that they’ll record the backing track to after this photo is taken. Monday 7th October 1968)
John and Paul weren’t the only ones that brought back a bushel of songs from India. George, who at this stage in The Beatles career, was beginning to stockpile songs he had written due to the small number of songs he was allocated for each album. The promise of The Beatles first double LP with The White Album meant that George could present a sizeable portion of his creative output to the band in the hopes of being a more prominent album contributor. The majority of the songs he had written in India, however, were rejected. Some of them appeared on his future solo albums, others remained as demos eventually released via The Beatles Anthology series, and one or two were given to other artists*. Despite having a total of thirty songs on the album, Harrison only managed to get a measly four songs on there; the most famous of the four being the song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps‘ which Harrison had written having been inspired by the book I Ching’s philosophy that there’s no such thing as coincidence. Opening a page at random, with the intention of writing a song based on the first phrase he read, Harrison saw the utterance ‘gently weeps’ and immediately set to work writing the song. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ emulates the same jaded, grandiose sentiments that are found in one of Harrison’s Sgt. Pepper contributions ‘Within You Without You‘ in that Harrison, observing the world with his reinvigorated love of Eastern Philosophy, comments and critiques on society and the nature of life (“I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping” and “With every mistake we must surely be learning”). The morose bluesiness of the track is created by the synergy of Paul’s piano motif, the heavy but measured thudding of Ringo’s drums, and the lead guitar modified specifically to imitate the sound of crying. The latter was achieved after Harrison found that the group wasn’t taking the recording of the song seriously and decided for Eric Clapton to play lead guitar on the record; a proposition about which Clapton was extremely hesitant. With a respected musician and outsider now in the studio, The Beatles bucked their ideas up and went to work on the track. Despite the excellent guitar, and vocal delivery by Harrison, the song’s rather dramatic sound and rather extravagant orchestration, brooding atmosphere, combined with the rather highfalutin themes in the lyrics, for some, gives it the unwelcome impression of insisting upon itself – majorly exacerbated by a repetitive verse structure and extended jam at the end of the song. It is my contention that the acoustic version found on The Beatles Anthology 3 is far more impactful. The humble simplicity of the instrumentation contrasting with the heavy philosophical themes of the lyrics makes for a far more engaging, contextually pleasing, and emotionally truthful composition.
The underlooked Harrison piece on The White Album, however, is the song ‘Long, Long, Long‘. Whilst the tone in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is that of tired disappointment with the intention of conveying sadness, ‘Long, Long, Long’ with its delicately whispered vocal assisted by a sitar-tuned guitar, and rushing, revelatory drum crescendos evokes an intense feeling of wistful sorrow that is so effectively communicated that I cannot listen to it lest I find myself suddenly plunged into melancholy. The song’s lyrics concern Harrison’s exhausted relief with finding God in India, having felt detached and isolated from him for years. The ambient nature of ‘Long, Long, Long’ is of particular note as the track concludes with an instrumental freakout consisting of a furious drum-roll from Ringo, aggressively scrapped guitar strings, the ethereal wailing from Harrison, and a persistent creak/rattle created by the spookily played Hammond organ of McCartney wherein a bottle of Blue Nun left atop the organ’s Leslie speaker began to vibrate when a certain note was played. When this happy accident occurred, the group looked at each other with excitement and immediately began to set up mics to better capture the sound of the bottle rattling with another take.
Speaking of weirdness, The White Album is far from lacking in that department. Amongst the various oddities found within the album, we find the self-referential Lennon composition ‘Glass Onion‘. The song is worth being pointed out as, like with ‘Julia’, it’s another example of Lennon addressing his own writing. The Beatles were, and are an international phenomenon. Few bands had reached the insane popularity of a pop group only to elevate themselves to the heights of experimental rock and the avant-garde, and yet somehow they were able to juggle both audiences. This birthed a strange science experiment wherein the obsessive nature of your average avid pop-fan, created by Beatlemania, mutated with the increasingly complex and abstract nature of the band’s lyrics and music. Needless to say, never had any other band, before or since, had so much of their lyrical output put under a microscope by so many people. The Beatles were well aware of this. Lennon, in particular, was excited by this concept. Ever the artistic prankster, Lennon frequently dropped “clues” in his lyrics for obsessed Beatles fans to go crazy over, leading them on an endless goose-chase of mischievous lyricism**. The exceptionally groovy song ‘Glass Onion’ addresses this “game” The Beatles had been playing with the audience for the first time, referencing – both musically and lyrically – other Beatles songs e.g. “I told you about strawberry fields/You know the place where nothing is real”, “I told you about the walrus and me, man/You know that we’re as close as can be, man/Well here’s another clue for you all/The walrus was Paul”***, as well as references to McCartney tunes ‘Lady Madonna‘ (which itself makes a reference to ‘I Am The Walrus‘), ‘The Fool On The Hill‘, and ‘Fixing a Hole‘. Self-referentialism aside, the song also demonstrates Lennon’s talent for double-entendre and socio-economic commentary with the lyrics: “Looking through the bent back tulips/to see how the other half live“****. The title ‘Glass Onion’ is perfectly suited to the psychedelic imagery Lennon loved, as well as the ideal metaphor for both the subject of audience transparency as well as the multi-layered nature of their songs.
* These rejected George compositions from India, and of that period were: ‘Sour Milk Tea‘ (Given to Jackie Lomax), ‘Circles‘ (Released on George’s 1982 album ‘Gone Troppo’, ‘Dehradun’ (never released), and ‘Not Guilty‘ (eventually released for The Beatles’ ‘Anthology 3’).
** This game of using their absurd level of fame and ambiguous lyrics to confuse listeners and fans became a rather dangerous one, unintentionally inspiring the Manson Family murders in 1969, the assassination of John Lennon in 1980, as well as a vicious knife attack on George Harrison in 1999. It also sparked a famous and surprisingly long-lasting conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died via a moped accident in 1966 and was replaced with a look-alike; The Beatles apparently “leaving clues” of the swap in a bunch of their songs, album covers, and music videos. Whilst McCartney did have a moped accident in Liverpool on Sunday 26th December 1965, it just resulted in a split lip and a chipped tooth. McCartney grew a moustache to hide the scar; both the scar and the chipped tooth can be seen in the music videos for the 1966 songs ‘Paperback Writer‘ and ‘Rain‘ filmed in late May of that year.
*** Lennon claimed in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview that, whilst in the “love cloud” of his relationship with Yoko, the ‘walrus was Paul’ line was added to say “thank you” to Paul for keeping the band together at the time. However, in the David Sheff book ‘All We Are Saying’, Lennon claims the line was added to apologise to Paul for leaving the band for Yoko. Two additional twists to this are the fact that Paul claimed in a 1980 interview that, for the music video of ‘I Am The Walrus’, he was the one who actually wore the walrus costume because it fit him the best. However, set photos of that day show that Paul wore the hippo costume which means he either misremembers wearing the walrus costume, is lying, or John and Paul both wore it in different scenes. The second twist is that in the 1970 Lennon solo song ‘God‘ he says ‘I was the Walrus but now I’m John’. So we’re none the wiser.
**** Fashionable London restaurant ‘Parkes’ frequently hosted the rich and famous back in the 60s. One of the common sights for the diners at the time were the table decorations that consisted of inverted tulips whereby the petals grew backwards; revealing the inverse side of the petals. Lennon referred to these tulips in the song with the phrase “to see how the other half live” to mean both seeing the other side of the petals as well as seeing how the rich side of society that populated the restaurant lived.
(Don McCullin’s photoshoot of The Beatles called ‘The Mad Day Out’. The group are relaxing in Paul McCartney’s glass geodesic meditation bubble at the bottom of his garden. McCartney’s house, 7 Cavendish Avenue, St John’s Wood, north London, Sunday 28th July 1968)
In terms of sheer strangeness, The White Album is full it; from bizarre edits, left-in outtake fade-outs, to entire songs. When we get to the last few tracks of the album, the peculiar nature of the album really starts to emerge. Firstly, we come to the Lennon composition ‘Cry Baby Cry‘ which just secretes this uneasy creepiness throughout in a rather surreptitious manner. What begins as a mildly flanged acoustic guitar introduction alongside Lennon’s trembling voice is quickly joined by a harmonium, as well as a time-signature interrupting verse that comes in one measure too early – already keeping the listener off-balance. As a mildly ominous descending chord sequence begins to play with the lyrics, “The King of Marigold was in the kitchen making breakfast for the Queen”, a piano segment (which concludes each verse) comes in with an odd effect, emulating an old piano played in a separate room. As what has been described as a “throbbing” bass line from McCartney ripples in, so does a driving drum beat by Ringo. The lyrics, that were greatly influenced by the nursery rhyme ‘Sing A Song Of Sixpence’, escalate with the music; referring to a seance in the dark and a duke having a problem with “a message” all the while a discordant theremin-pitched organ is played (cue flashbacks to the ‘Lavender Town’ theme). The child-like nursery rhyme lyrics combined with the eerie instrumentation of the chord sequences and sound effects create a disturbing tonal shift, much like how the sound of children giggling can turn from cute to horrifying on a dime by changing the scenery from a sunny playground to a forest in the dead of night. It’s also key to point out that the song is yet another example of Lennon revisiting his childhood, the subject of a mother-figure, emotional turmoil, and an over-arching haunting feeling. After the song ends, we are greeted with a hidden track – often referred to ‘Can You Take Me Back‘; an ad-lib from the many takes of the McCartney tune ‘I Will’ wherein the hidden track’s title is faintly warbled on a loop, perhaps, if we are to take into account the subject matter of the previous song, conveying a desire to return to the mindset of a child. Eventually, McCartney’s voice fades out until we hear what seems to be a quiet, private conversation between Beatles producer George Martin and Brian Epstein’s personal assistant Alistair Taylor:
Alistair Taylor: “- bottle of claret for you if I’d realized. I’d forgotten all about it George, I’m sorry…”
George Martin: “Well, do next time”
Alistair: “Will you forgive me”?
Alistair: “cheeky bitch.”
At which point the album arrives at perhaps the greatest oddity in popular music history. Of course, I’m referring to the polarising behemoth of elusiveness that is ‘Revolution 9‘. Described by Lennon as ‘painting, in sound, a picture of revolution”, ‘Revolution 9’ is a hellish soundscape consisting of tape loops, sound effects, spliced and backmasked song fragments, noises, ambience, and random phrases and words yelled and spoken by Lennon, Harrison, and Yoko. Emulating the likes of experimental musique concrète musicians John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, ‘Revolution 9’ is a virtually impenetrable eight-and-a-half-minute audible fever-dream; not a song but rather an experience, although its aim isn’t clear to this day. The introduction of avant-garde artist Yoko Ono into the band’s daily life, combined with the fact that she was involved in the making of this track, plus the band’s dabbling in the world of avant-garde music previously, in hindsight, makes the creation of something like ‘Revolution 9′ somewhat inevitable*. Lennon’s lifelong adoration for the absurd and the surreal merged with the political activist in him that had been purposely discouraged by McCartney and Epstein throughout The Beatles’ career**, opening up a whole new avenue for Lennon’s recalcitrant creative inclinations and applying it as a function of influencing society and correcting its ills. It isn’t a surprise then why Lennon and Ono saw one another as kindred spirits considering the fact that Ono was part of several socio-political artistic movements in the 60s such as Fluxus, and the Situationist International; both of whom being offshoots of Dadaism and the surrealist movement. Their working theory being that society’s ability to protest was being deliberately inhibited by a zombie-like trance of apathy created by overexposure to mass media and the bourgeois nature of capitalism and that the best way to break out of this stupor is via art, film, performance, and music that aims to disrupt and deconstruct institutionalised thought, thereby breaking the mental chains that the establishment had subconsciously imprisoned people in. Lennon had unknowingly been swimming in these waters for years, with the likes of songs like ‘I Am The Walrus‘, ‘A Day In The Life‘, ‘She Said She Said’, and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows‘ to name a few. With this in mind, ‘Revolution 9’ gives off the characteristic of tuning in and out of multiple radio frequencies within Lennon’s own head; audible glimpses of Lennon’s psyche. Contextually, this makes complete sense given that the theme of “tuning in” and the psychological metaphor of radio frequencies has popped up a handful of times in Lennon’s work – particularly the surrealist works of Lennon listed above; the dramatic live radio performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear in ‘I Am The Walrus’, the high-frequency 15 kilohertz sound that only dogs can hear at the end of ‘A Day In The Life’, the childhood ruminations of Lennon in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ with the lines, “No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low/That is you can’t, you/know, tune in/But it’s all right” (which was originally written as “No one I think is on my wavelength“) and, in ‘Revolution 9’ at 6:58, after Lennon says “Take this brother, may it serve you well” we hear a clamouring intro to ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ followed by the whistling of a radio frequency tuning into the voice of Yoko Ono (“You become naked“). For Lennon, the world as a child was this scary, whirling, insanity that nobody else could see with him, thus creating a deep sense of isolation from everyone else; an isolation that was eased by his mother Julia then, and his lover Yoko now. Therefore the track ‘Cry Baby Cry’ followed by the ad-libbed song ‘Can You Take Me Back’ that introduces this mental childhood soundscape of Lennon’s is quite apt. The philosophy that logic, reason, and rationality were tools of the establishment to limit and dull the potentially rebellious tendencies of society (the philosophy promoted by the surrealist movement) had undiscovered deep emotional roots in Lennon, touching upon mysterious feelings that he had pondered ever since an early age. As Lennon himself described in a 1980 interview for Playboy:
“Surrealism had a great effect on me because then I realized that my imagery and my mind wasn’t insanity; that if it was insane, I belong in an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms. Surrealism to me is reality. Psychic vision to me is reality. Even as a child. When I looked at myself in the mirror when I was 12, 13, I literally used to trance out into alpha. I didn’t know what it was called then. I found out years later there’s a name for those conditions. But I would find myself seeing hallucinatory images of my face changing and becoming cosmic and complete. This thing gave me a chip on the shoulder; but, on the other hand, I wanted to be loved and accepted. Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic musician. But I cannot be what I am not.”
“Alpha” or “The Alpha State” is allegedly a relaxed, hypnotic state of consciousness where the brain goes into a trance, thereby encouraging greater imagination, openness, and intuition. This state can be induced via various mechanisms i.e. in one of the first stages of sleep, psychoactive drugs (of which Lennon and The Beatles were well aware), as well as meditation (which they experienced in India). As is pointed out by Alex Caldon in his book A Quest for Truth: On Finding The Holy Grail, you hear about it when writers and artists talk about how they produce work, often saying how, when inspiration comes their way, they find that the piece comes out of them; their bodies nothing but an antenna for some external entity that sent it their way. You see it happening with musicians often closing their eyes in the midst of their passionate performance, or, as former F1 racing driver Jackie Stewart discussed in the Martin Scorcese documentary George Harrison: Living In A Material World, being so in-tune with your surroundings during a race that consciousness is entirely replaced with a high state of intuition. This is perhaps why Harrison, who initially referred to the avant-garde as “avant-garde a clue”, helped work on ‘Revolution 9’, as perhaps, for him, this alpha-inducing soundscape was not a brain state but rather the very essence of feeling connected to God.
Whilst never included on anyone’s Spotify playlist, and often cited as the worst piece of work The Beatles have ever produced, solace can be taken by the fact that there were some in the art movement, particularly in the avant-garde scene, who had the condescending and elitist attitude that only the upper-class intelligentsia should have access to “higher” artistic works as anyone below this status would be not only unworthy of experiencing art of this kind but probably unable to understand it too. The Beatles, working-class lads from Liverpool, roundly mocked this attitude, consistently pointing out that music and art were for everyone; producing works that ranged from simple, bubblegum pop and hard rock, all the way to classical and experimental music. As David Bowie said of Lennon in a 2003 interview:
“(Lennon) would rifle the avant-garde and look for ideas that were so on the outside – on the periphery of what was the mainstream, and then apply them in a functional manner to something that was considered populist and make it work! He would take the oddest idea and make it work for the masses. I thought that was just so admirable. That was like making artwork for the people and not sort of having it as an elitist thing”.
The fact that an avant-garde sound piece was exposed to tens of millions of people rather than a handful of intellectuals in a few art exhibitions is yet another victory for The Beatles in the history of music.
* This wasn’t their first avant-garde soundscape piece. In the December of ’66, David Vaughan (of the designer trio Binder, Edwards & Vaughan), who helped paint a psychedelic design for McCartney’s piano, asked McCartney to contribute music for an electronic music and art festival called ‘The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave’ held at the Chalk Farm Road Roundhouse Theatre. During the recording of Sgt. Pepper in January of ’67, the band created an experimental piece nearly fourteen minutes in length known as ‘The Carnival of Light’. The track has never been released, leaked, nor found its way onto the internet, and has only been heard by a handful of people (they include noted Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, and author Barry Miles). Never has a Beatles song been so sought after and gained such an enigmatic reputation by Beatles fans.
** Lennon’s views on religion that he brazenly discussed for a magazine interview in 1966 caused the now infamous ‘More Popular Than Jesus‘ quote, resulting in Beatle memorabilia bonfires, outrage, and death threats. Lennon, in particular, was always keen on speaking his mind, regardless of the climate at the time, and was encouraged to hold his tongue by the band in order to not cause a fuss. Well aware of their reach, they were hesitant to be controversial, but often found themselves being controversial anyway, whether it be their desire to speak out about the Vietnam war (the infamous Butcher cover) or their use of LSD (which, ironically, Paul became the face of for The Beatles in this interview, despite him being the “well behaved” Beatle and the member of the band most hesitant to take the drug in the first place).
(John and Paul messing with the mixing board in the Abbey Road, Studio 2 control room. The White Album sessions, Between June and October 1968)
Impressive boundary-pushing, excellent songs, and superb versatility simply don’t obfuscate the fact that The White Album is littered with sub-par songs. These tracks, that back in the disciplined days of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver would have remained as scrapped projects or private in-jokes The Beatles would frequently play in between takes to loosen them up, are instead worked on and added to the final track listing of their biggest album to date. Songs like country-pastiche ‘Rocky Raccoon‘, jazz throwback ‘Honey Pie‘, and Animal Farm influenced ‘Piggies‘ are so corny that they aren’t enjoyable even in a self-aware way whereas other tunes like the confectionary-based ‘Savoy Truffle‘, the ska-influenced ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da‘, raucous sing-along ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill‘, and love song ‘I Will’ are shockingly forgettable and artificial for a band known for musical originality and memorability. ‘Wild Honey Pie‘ on the other hand could straight-up be a lost outtake except, for some reason, it made the cut for the final mix. It was producer George Martin’s contention at the time that The Beatles should cut down the number of tracks to make an exceptionally strong single LP, rather than bloat it with average songs to make a double LP. Egos and friction in the band made The Beatles disagree and go ahead with a 30-track album.
The White Album marks the beginning of The Beatles’ break-up. Firstly, as mentioned above, The White Album contains a handful of songs that could easily be songs from their solo albums rather than group efforts. This is supported by the fact that, during the creation of these songs, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison were frequently found in their own studio room working on their own tracks alone, as well as the fact that many songs that didn’t make it onto the album eventually found their way onto their solo albums*. Secondly, based on the shift from lush, complex, orchestration to a more stripped down, raw sound seems to convey this idea of tabula rasa or “starting again”. This is further supported by not only what was happening with the band contextually at that point in their lives, but is reflected in lyrics to each of their songs on the album; Lennon’s new lover Yoko and the song ‘Julia’, Lennon’s interest in the avant-garde scene and ‘Revolution 9’, Harrison’s rediscovery of God in his life with ‘Long, Long, Long’, Harrison’s burgeoning solo output and his plethora of rejected White Album material, and McCartney’s old lover Jane Asher and new lover Linda Eastman arguably referenced in the songs ‘Martha My Dear’** and ‘I Will’. The band were simply pulling away from each other due to different interests and priorities. This is made more evident by the various projects some of The Beatles enthusiastically indulged in individually away from the band; Harrison making and releasing the first Beatle solo-album with Wonderwall Music for the soundtrack to 1968 film Wonderwall, and Lennon making avant-garde album Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins with Yoko on Sunday 19th May 1968. Furthermore, tensions during The White Album got so bad that two key figures quit the group during the sessions. Ringo, after getting into an argument with McCartney, left the studio and went on holiday to Sardinia on Peter Sellers’ yacht***, forcing McCartney to play the drums on ‘Back In The USSR’. Long-time studio engineer Geoff Emerick, in the midst of recording ‘Cry Baby Cry’, got so fed up with the constant bad atmosphere and arguing that he resigned then and there, not returning to work with The Beatles full time until the recording of Abbey Road in July of 1969.
Ever the mercurial album, the rampant signs of disharmony are contradicted by The Beatles’ very own ‘Bohemian Rhapsody/Paranoid Android’ in the form of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun‘, the utterly delightful McCartney ditty ‘Martha My Dear‘, and the cynical and witty Lennon pieces ‘I’m So Tired‘ and ‘Sexy Sadie‘. The White Album is just an oddity; a deep, layered, sonic tome of music shooting in a thousand directions at once. It is no surprise then, as Ian MacDonald points out, why the band had originally desired the name ‘A Doll’s House’**** as the title for the album; rather fitting as it suggests a mysterious complex of rooms and corridors filled with strange, assorted curios; combined with a permeating sense of the sinister, and the results of when the la vie en rose present in the childhood introspection of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour are rudely taken off, stark and bare with the happy memories of the past blending with an encroaching melancholy of reality; perhaps influenced by the dissonance that was pupating within the once harmonious band. After the release of The White Album on Friday 22nd November 1968, despite having worked on an album for nearly 7 months straight, the rallying cry of an eager Paul McCartney to start recording a new album as well as an accompanying film project was heard that December, much to the other three Beatles’ exhausted chagrin. Within a month, The Beatles find themselves back in the studio, grumbling, tired, and uninspired, for the disastrous Get Back/Let It Be sessions.
Despite The White Album being troubled and birthed from a mildly toxic atmosphere, its greatness is still undeniable. Fifty years on, the album – as well as the newly mixed 2018 version – is still a huge draw for Beatles fans and music fans alike. You revisit the album, not like one would revisit a friend’s house that had that Nintendo 64, but how one would revisit that abandoned house at the end of your road to confirm the existence of a hidden trap door, or to double-check whether the children’s toy in the derelict nursery had moved again. You don’t listen to it – you investigate; perpetually unaware of what exactly you’ll find every time you listen.
* ‘Junk‘ which appears on Paul’s 1970 solo album McCartney, ‘Child of Nature‘ which eventually became ‘Jealous Guy‘ from John’s1971 solo album ‘Imagine’, and ‘Circles’ which appears on George’s 1982 album ‘Gone Troppo’.
** ‘Martha My Dear’ is actually about Paul McCartney’s Old English Sheepdog Martha. However, it has been pointed out by many how the lyrics can relate to McCartney passing on advice to Jane Asher as their relationship was breaking down. They terminated their engagement and broke up on Saturday 20th July 1968 when Asher announced it during an appearance on BBC Television show Dee Time.
*** Between Thursday 22nd August 1968 and Tuesday 3rd September 1968, during Ringo’s temporary quitting of The Beatles whilst on the yacht in Sardinia, after the captain served Ringo his lunch request of Fish and Chips in the form of french fries and squid, he told Ringo about how octopuses collected shiny stones and tin cans to make underwater gardens. This conversation inspired Ringo to write Abbey Road song ‘Octopus’ Garden‘
**** The Beatles changed the original title after progressive rock band Family released the album ‘Music in a Doll’s House’ in the July of ’68; two-and-a-half months into the making of what would eventually be known as The White Album.
The entire Beatles discography is available on Spotify, Youtube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Google Play, as is the newly released 50th Anniversary mix of The White Album.