By Robert Armstrong
The White Album (has anyone ever called it by its official title of 'The Beatles'?) has been remixed and repackaged to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Is it the best Beatles album? Probably not ; other contenders such as Revolver and Rubber Soul are certainly stronger song for song. Is it their most thematically coherent album? Definitely not. However it has always been my favourite.
My dad purchased it for me as a reward for passing a music exam when I was 16. At that point the only Beatles album I owned was the Australian 23 Number 1s album so I was familiar with their big hits but little else. I remember being devastated when my dad wouldn't drive me back to Brashs in Sydney to replace my black vinyl with the white vinyl promised by the sticker on the front :"as long as it's The Beatles and not Beethoven's Fifth I don't care what colour it is". It was a good call in hindsight.
For the uninitiated the White Album was the Beatles 9th album and their only double album with a whopping 30 songs on it. For a first time listener the first thing that strikes you is that it doesn't really sound very Beatle-y. It is neither a collection of catchy, trebly guitared two minute pop songs full of personal pronouns, nor a meticulously produced piece of cheerful psychedelia. Out of all their albums it sounds like the one which is the least tied to the 60s and the album that most sounds like it could've been recorded in 1973 , 1992 or even 2018.
The new remixed version is a revelation. Giles Martin has done an excellent job with the tapes his dad originally recorded. It is like being used to watching an old movie on VHS and then suddenly seeing it on blu-ray. I've spent most of the last week messaging my friends regarding new discoveries such as "how good is the guitar bit in 'Glass Onion' or the bass-line in 'Birthday' or Ringo's kick-drum in 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide' or Lennon's rasp in 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun'". .
Unsurprisingly McCartney contributes (arguably) the four most well known songs - 'Back In The USSR' , 'Blackbird' , 'Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da' and 'Helter Skelter' but it could be argued a lot of his material comes off as pure genre exercises - although it must be said some very good ones. To me at least, the heart of the album lies with Lennon's songs which seem particularly candid.
From listening to it almost non-stop in the last week it struck me that it is by far their angriest and most violent record. I am hard pressed to name a single song from the hundreds of others they did that mention guns or shooting but there are at least three songs here where guns feature prominently. Lennon in particular seems particularly angry. Compare 'I'm Only Sleeping' from Revolver two years earlier where he cheerfully revels in sleeping in and daydreaming, to the White Album's 'I'm Only Tired' where he starts almost yawning the lyrics before transferring to a complete rage while screaming "I'd give you everything I've got for a little piece of mind".
It is an album of extremes. The rockers are rockier than normal - their heaviest songs by far appear here. The influence of bands such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who and Cream certainly rubs off. Put all the rockers together and you almost have Led Zeppelin Zero. The ballads are more intimate than ever - where previously their ballads were wrapped up in elaborate orchestrations here it is often stripped back to acoustic guitar and vocals. Two songs on here are lullabies I sing to my children.
Collect the rest of the songs that don't fall into the categories of either straight out rockers or ballads and you have the biggest assortment of 'stuff it , let's this give a try' assembled by any major band in pop history. It is this collection of oddball songs (reggae , 40's-style music hall, Disney schmaltz , sound collages and aimless jams) that have led to the theory that they should have whittled down the 30 song double album down to a really strong single album. I disagree. Like most classic double albums whether it be 'Exile', 'London Calling' or 'Sign O The Times' it is the sprawl and scope which is part of its charm. Also, no-one seems to be able to agree on which 14-15 songs should've been kept. I've nearly seen fights break out when I suggest maybe 'Piggies' wouldn't make the cut , and I will go to my grave believing 'Savoy Truffle' is a definite keeper even if it is about the ridiculous topic of Eric Clapton's love of chocolate.
I will give the final word to Paul McCartney - "It was great. It sold. It's the bloody Beatles' White Album. Shut up."