Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album), Disc 2

White Album.jpg What You Need to Know: The sessions for The Beatles were when things began to look bad for the band’s solidarity. This is in part because of the presence of John’s new girlfriend Yoko Ono being in the studio with the band every second of every session, and in part because of the band’s recently established Apple record label, which by all accounts was a complete wreck of an organization from Day One.

External stress can’t account for everything, though - by all accounts the people in the group were becoming harder to work with. George Martin, the band’s producer since their very first album, abruptly left the sessions to go on vacation, and  Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ engineer since Revolver, announced that he was unwilling to continue working with the group midway through the sessions. Ringo himself left for awhile during the album’s recording, leaving Paul to drum on “Back in the USSR.” Most of the factors that led to the band’s eventual dissolution can be traced back to the sessions for The Beatles.

The Songs You’ve Heard: Let’s kill the elephant in the room first – maybe you haven’t heard the bizarre avant-garde tapestry of noise that is John and Yoko’s “Revolution 9,” but you’ve definitely heard of it. Maybe listen to it once so you know what it’s like, and then don’t listen again.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can talk about the real songs – the second disc of the White Album is a bit more obscure than the first, but “Revolution 1” is a slower version of the band’s earlier “Revolution,” which was the B-side of the “Hey Jude” single. Other familiar faces here are the raucous but ultimately-inconsequential “Birthday,” which has been played at every college birthday party since 1968, and Paul’s loud, messy “Helter Skelter,” which challenges his Beatles image just as effectively as does John’s “Julia.”

The Songs You Haven’t: One of these days I will get over the part of this where I say “well, it is hard to say what different people have heard and what they haven’t.” Today is apparently not that day.

George’s “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle” are both excellent compositions from him, the former being a very soft, quiet number and the latter being a louder, goofier one about Eric Clapton’s love of sweets. It’s really too bad that they limited his input the way they did, because his songs are consistently this album’s highlights.

Paul’s “Honey Pie” and “Mother Nature’s Son” are another pair of softies, and while pretty they’re ultimately just fluff. “Honey Pie” in particular is the sort of pseudo old-timey, showtuney stuff of his that gets really tiresome after awhile.

One of the two best songs on this disc of the White Album is John’s “Sexy Sadie,” which began life as an attack on the Maharishi the band had visited earlier that year – word on the street was that he made a pass at one of the females in their party. The other is “Cry Baby Cry,” another of John’s willfully obscure songs – regardless of what its words mean, I think it’s nice.

Why I Like It: I consider the second half of the White Album to be inferior to the first half, though it may just be that “Revolution 9” ruins the average for all of the other songs. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some great stuff here, though.

The White Album is where The Beatles respective solo careers really began. You can hear bits of All Things Must Pass in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long Long Long,” and some of the schmaltz that Paul turns in (“Honey Pie,” “Martha My Dear”) point to the frustrating mediocrity that would be his trademark for the next few decades. You can hear some of John’s political songs take root in “Revolution 1,” and the sparseness and emotion of Plastic Ono Band is heralded by “Julia.” You can even hear Ringo’s lack of ideas in “Don’t Pass Me By.”

Previous albums were recorded as a band. You can usually pick out a Paul song from a John song from a George song by the lead singer, but collaboration was frequent and the resultant songs were really the work of a very talented group. The Beatles, for better or worse, is more the work of four individuals than the work of a band.

Desert Island Tracks:Helter Skelter,” “Long Long Long,” “Sexy Sadie