18 November 2008

Blackbirds, Piggies & Mother Nature's Sons - 40 Years Of The White Album

28 Aban - Year 1387

1968 turned out to be a completely different year from the previous one. The "peace, acid & love" vibe of the 1967 counter-culture was drowned in the wake of police crackdowns, continued carnage in Vietnam and 'harder' drugs flooding hippie enclaves. The mood turned uglier with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Students and laborers, despite their mutual suspicions, banded together in France and effectively brought the nation to a standstill for a few weeks. Students in the UK and especially in the U.S. were becoming more radicalized as they watched their peers being sent to an unjust war at the whim of some old men in Washington. The music world responded to these changes in kind.

Bob Dylan weighed in early on with John Wesley Harding, released at the end of December '67. It was his first full-length after his 1966 masterstroke, Blonde On Blonde. The general reaction was bewilderment--as the stripped-down folk and country-ish tunes were almost completely at odds with the expected psychedelic sounds of the time. The Rolling Stones, still getting over their perceived disappointment with their 'acid' LP, Their Satanic Majesties Request, returned with the Jumpin' Jack Flash single in March 1968, a straight-ahead rocker, lean and mean. They would release the Beggars Banquet LP later in the year, which ditched the psychedelic whimsy for blues-and-rock riffing (aside from Factory Girl, a gentler folky track). Even Cream rocked out harder on their double-LP set, Wheels Of Fire, while keeping a few of the trippy touches of it's predecessor, Disraeli Gears. And what was the biggest band in the world up to?

The Fabs were also getting over a disappointment--the poor ratings for their self-produced film, Magical Mystery Tour, shown in black-and-white and then again in colour on the BBC. 1967 had been a momentous and trying year for them. They rode the crest of the hippie wave with their Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP and their All You Need Is Love single, with the television broadcast of the song being one of the first ever worldwide satellite link-ups. In the same few months, though--their manager Brian Epstein died of a drugs overdose and they started to pull in different directions. Paul McCartney appeared to try and step into the gap and lead the band, causing resentment in John Lennon and George Harrison. In August '67, they attended a lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Bangor, Wales--before filming for "Magical Mystery.." started. The Maharishi would have a large impact on the creation of the only double-album they ever recorded, simply titled The Beatles (also known as 'The White Album').

At the start of 1968, they released the jazzy pop single, Lady Madonna--written by McCartney, featuring a sax solo by English jazz legend, Ronnie Scott. The single was backed with The Inner Light, another Harrison Indian-inflected song. It was decided that the band would go to the Maharishi's ashram for training in trancendental meditation. The ashram was located in Rishikesh, India. The Fabs were joined by Donovan and Mike Love, of The Beach Boys...along with actress Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence. They stayed for a couple of months, well, except Ringo Starr, who left after a couple of weeks. He was quoted as saying the ashram was "like Butlins" and reportedly brought tins of beans with him, in case he didn't like the Indian veggie food. The rest attended meditation sessions, walked around the compound and got the acoustic guitars out for jams with Donovan and Mike. Don apparently showed Lennon and McCartney his finger-picking style and a couple of the tunes that ended up on The White Album show this to be true. The remaining three wrote a lot of songs while in Rishikesh.

After a time, though, rumours started up about the Maharishi's more earthbound desires, particularly for Prudence. She became withdrawn and the others were concerned for her. Lennon wrote a melody for her, called Dear Prudence--which would appear on the completed album. Lennon and McCartney felt they had enough of the ashram and headed back to England while Harrison stayed on for another month. They re-convened to record the Hey Jude single (McCartney's ode to Lennon's son Julian when learning of John's split with his first wife Cynthia), which was backed with Lennon's Revolution, a scathing aside to would-be violent radicals. "Hey Jude" made the chart history books as the longest single to top the charts, clocking in at 7+ minutes, thanks to it's sing-along coda. In late spring 1968, the boys gathered at Harrison's Esher bungalow and recorded some acoustic demos of the various tunes they had written while in India. Soon after that, they returned to Abbey Road Studios to start the proper sessions.

The sessions were frought with tensions and Starr even left the band a couple of times, only to be cajoled back by the others. Yoko Ono, John's new paramour, was also present at the studio, all the time--Lennon insisted upon it. This caused McCartney and Harrison some unease, as they were used to recording with only the four of themselves and the production team. Some of the sessions also had a shambolic nature. George Martin, the Fabs usual producer, was away for the night the band recorded Macca's 'rock-and-roll-cacophony', Helter Skelter. With engineer Geoff Emerick and tape-op Ken Thomas at the board, the session lasted most of a night. McCartney would be screaming into a mic while Harrison ran around the studio with an ashtray, it's contents on fire, held over his head in an ad-hoc impression of Arthur Brown. Lennon would be so exhausted (or stoned) sometimes, that when it came time for his vocals, he would lie on the floor of the studio. The fractious nature of the group was exposed and at times, only two band members would be in the studio. It was almost as if they were acting as a backing group for whomever's song was being worked on. For Lennon (and Yoko's) Stockhausen-influenced tape collage, Revolution No. 9, only Harrison helped out with the many tape loops required for the finished piece. Recording was finally completed in October 1968. They had so many songs that a one-record track list couldn't be agreed-upon, so they decided on a double-album. A plain white sleeve was commissioned, in sharp contrast to "Pepper" and the colourful "Magical Mystery Tour" LP jacket. A poster was included in the initial pressings, along with four large photos of each Fab. A number was also stamped on the lower right hand corner of the front cover, with "The Beatles" embossed a bit above it.

The music itself was the most eclectic that the group ever produced. Forays into faux-30s jazz, proto-hard rock, quasi-folk..even an attempt at honky-tonk (albeit through a Liverpudlian filter), with the Ringo-sung Don't Pass Me By. The individual facets of each band member are far more pronounced. McCartney the tunesmith, with his melodic sensibilities..as in the folky Mother Nature's Son and Blackbird (rumoured to be a 'coded' message of support for the Black Power movement). Harrison the introspective one, with While My Guitar Gently Weeps (featuring his friend Eric Clapton on a nice solo) and Long Long Long. Lennon's acerbic wit on Happiness Is A Warm Gun (a "3-songs-in-one" medley which would inspire the side-long medley on the Abbey Road album and Radiohead's Paranoid Android, nearly 30 years later), The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill (a swipe at alpha-male 'Saxon mother's sons' that he perceived to be the source of most wars) and Sexy Sadie (allegedly written about the Maharishi's foibles). Ringo, ever the droll clown, had "Don't Pass.." and the treacly Goodnight, which closes the second record in the set. For all that, though, it still seemed difficult to completely pin them down. Lennon gets sensitive on "Dear Prudence", featuring that Donovan-picking and on Julia, an ode to his late mother. Macca rocks out on Why Don't We Do It In The Road? and "Helter Skelter". Harrison lets his hair down on Savoy Truffle, another track with Clapton and even written about Eric's sugar jones.

There are some "full band" moments scattered throughout, in case anyone thought the group had completely fragmented. Back In The U.S.S.R., which opens Side 1 of the first LP, is a Chuck Berry-esque rocker which also manages to be a Beach Boys hommage/piss-take. Birthday, a light, fun ditty, also sounds like the four mucked in together to complete it. Revolution No. 1, a slowed-down version of Lennon's B-side, has a 'band feel' to it as well...especially with it's false start. The underpinning blues riff sounds off on an acoustic guitar and then stops. Macca says "Take two" and Lennon responds with "O.K." and the riff starts the tune proper. Then there are the oddities. Wild Honey Pie (covered by The Pixies in the late 80s) sounds like an Appalachian hoedown on Saturn. Harrison's Piggies couches cynical, almost insurrectionary lyrics into a sprightly melody, featuring harpsichord as a lead instrument. And then, of course, "Revolution No. 9"--a tape collage by turns unsettling and remarkable. Whatever you think of it, it was certainly a bold move to include it on the album at all. I suspect it bewildered even those fans who'd stuck with the Fabs through all of the changes in 1966 and '67.

The record set, as with every new Beatles album, received a warm response upon it's release in November 1968. Unfortunately, in 1969, it became forever associated with the murder of Sharon Tate and others by Charles Manson's 'family' of hippie runaway delinquents. Manson was convinced that the Beatles were communicating with him through the music, especially "Helter Skelter", "Piggies" and "Revolution No. 9". He thought a race war was imminent and used the murders to try and foment the war. His plan was to hide out in the Mojave desert until the war was over, then make his way back and take over as supreme leader over the African-Americans, whom he figured would win. The band themselves distanced themselves from the tragedy and those songs weren't performed for a long time by any of the members, even during their solo years. When the 'White Album' was released on CD in 1987, American comedian Sam Kinison had a routine about having faulty speaker wire, because he couldn't hear The Beatles talking to him. He would launch into a tirade, shouting "MANSON...IT WAS JUST A FUCKING ALBUM..YOU WERE ON ACID!" U2 covered "Helter Skelter" on their 1987 tour and Bono would announce, before starting, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles, we're stealing it back". Harrison did perform "Piggies" again on his 1991 tour and McCartney has recently been performing "Helter Skelter"--as in his Glastonbury set a couple of years ago.

The group were back in the studio in January 1969 for the ill-fated "Get Back" sessions. It was clear by that time that they were moving in separate directions, as foreshadowed during the recording of the 'White Album'. They would rally one final time for the recording of "Abbey Road" in the summer of 1969 and then, in August 1969, they quietly split, though the noisy legal battles would commence soon after. A post-split LP, Let It Be, pieced together from the "Get Back" sessions, was released in 1970, along with an official announcement that the band had broken up.

There are still debates about whether the sprawling double-album could've been whittled down to a very stellar single LP. In the 1995 Anthology TV special, George Martin is shown as saying just that...that he wanted to edit it down to a single record. Macca is shown just after, saying "I never agreed with all that, well...it should've been a single album...it's The Beatles, it's the White Album...shut up." To me, it shows the biggest band in the world willing to go out on a limb, even if it means alienating some of their die-hard audience. Maybe it was out of necessity...perhaps they had to record the songs they did for no other reason than to assert themselves as individuals in this thing beyond their control called The Beatles. It's still one of the best double-albums in the history of popular recorded music, well, to me anyway.


Anonymous said...

1968 is possibly the greatest year in rock history. The White Album is definitely the best Beatles album, for all its faults. Great tribute.

The Purple Gooroo said...

Quite possibly. So many good records from that year--it's amazing how much music was crammed into those twelve (Gregorian) months.

I'm more partial to "Revolver", "Pepper" and "Abbey Road"--but I do love me some "White Album", too.