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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Their Tortured Masterpiece, 22 Sep 2008
This review is from: The Beatles (Audio CD)
It had been a tough year and a bit for The Beatles. Their manager Brian Epstein had died of an overdose, their Magical Mystery Tour had seen them mauled by critics for the first time, and their attempts to practise transcendental meditation in India with the Maharishi had ended in disaster. It was during that ill-fated trip that most of these songs were written.

Inside the band itself, the situation was also far from hunky dory. Lennon would soon lose interest in the band, spending more and more time with his new partner Yoko Ono instead. Harrison was increasingly sick of being overlooked by John and Paul, who still only permitted him a few songs per album (he has four out of thirty here). Sensing this unease in the band, McCartney increasingly took charge of the group, a fatherly attitude which further annoyed the others. Meanwhile Ringo gets sole writing credit for `Don't Pass Me By', not one of the album's best but certainly pleasant enough.

It was with these tensions that The Beatles made The White Album, a self-titled song collection that derives its popular nickname from a stark white cover. Most of the songs here are pretty much solo compositions, as the band's two main songwriters had both begun to jealously guard their own work, allowing only minimal input from the other. Ironically, this is the album where George Harrison finally became their equal, writing a couple of the very best songs here.

Beginning with the sound of a plane taking off, Back In The USSR is a Beach Boys homage with a thumping piano beat and lyrics that were fairly controversial during the middle of the Cold War. This fades hauntingly into the acoustic Dear Prudence, written to encourage Mia Farrow's sister out of hut-bound seclusion during the India trip. Glass Onion mockingly references other Beatles songs, providing more fodder for those fans desperate to read hidden meanings into their work. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a bouncy tale of inter-racial marriage with a happy ending. Wild Honey Pie is a 50-second oddity that reinforces the strange new direction The Beatles had taken. The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill sounds more like a twisted nursery rhyme than a rock song, a trait common to much of The White Album.

Next is While My Guitar Gently Weeps, possibly the album's best song. Written by Harrison and featuring guitar from his friend Eric Clapton, it tells of spiritual pain and disillusionment. Happiness Is A Warm Gun is one of the album's most oddly structured songs, featuring several disorientating changes of tone one after another. Martha My Dear is a nice piano ditty that may or may not be inspired by McCartney's dog, depending on who you believe. I'm So Tired is another pained Lennon contribution (he was clearly not having a fun time in 1968). Blackbird is a Bach-inspired piece, once again acoustic because this was the only instrument available to the band in India, and comprising some tasteful samples of the eponymous bird's song.

Piggies is perhaps the bitterest song present, comparing Capitalism to pigs eating bacon, unfortunately a key inspiration for the Manson cult's murder spree. Rocky Raccoon is a slightly unhinged story of a spurned lover setting out (and failing) to kill his rival for the woman in question's affections, featuring some honky-tonk piano. Don't Pass Me By is a bluesy country song written by Starr, the writing of which predated recording by at least four years. Why Don't We Do It In The Road? originated from Paul seeing two monkeys doing just that, and I Will is another McCartney effort, written for future spouse Linda Eastman. The first disc of the CD version (and second side of the original vinyl) ends with Julia, written for Lennon's dead mother and the only Beatles song on which he is the sole performer. This is one of the album's most beautiful compositions, imbued with a real sense of sadness and longing.

Disc Two opens with Birthday, on which McCartney sounds near-psychotic with celebration. Yer Blues expresses suicidal intent, the sort of soul-purging that would become increasingly common during Lennon's solo career. After this, the subdued Mother Nature's Son is a relief to hear - an early version of what would become Jealous Guy was dropped from the album because of perceived similarities to this McCartney tune. Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey supposedly concerns Lennon and Ono, though alternative suggestions have been made such as drugs (it was around this time that Lennon acquired a taste for heroin). Sexy Sadie was originally called Maharishi, but George convinced John to alter the lyrics, though the sentiments remain the same. Helter Skelter is The Beatles' loudest and craziest song, the point where this album sounds most disturbed. Long, Long, Long is an extremely subtle Harrison piece, easy to overlook amidst more attention-grabbing Lennon and McCartney songs, but actually incredibly beautiful.

Revolution 1 was Lennon's response to a hippy movement that had grown increasingly violent, saying that he wants change but won't become brutalised to get it. Honey Pie is another of McCartney's music-hall-style recordings, which a lot of people sniff at but I think are actually quite good (this one especially). Savoy Truffle is probably Harrison's weakest contribution here, name-checking the contents of a chocolate box. Cry Baby Cry was inspired by fairy tales, ending with a brief McCartney segment that pleas `Can you take me back?', as though begging to return to a pre-Beatles childhood. The album's penultimate track is its most controversial, Lennon's chaotic sound collage called Revolution 9: personally I think it's interesting and genuinely haunting, though not one of the album's very best. Finally comes Good Night, a soaring ballad that Lennon wanted to sound deliberately cheesy.

And so that's it. The White Album is The Beatles' most endlessly fascinating album, simply because it features such a wide range of styles and moods. Overall the tone is dark and depressed, a result of the isolation and slight sadness felt by the band that had by now surpassed all its contemporaries. As though longing to regress to youth, many of the songs have a distinctly childhood feel, though it's not the happy one of Sgt Pepper a year earlier. My favourite tracks are `Dear Prudence', `Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da', `While My Guitar Gently Weeps', `Blackbird', `Rocky Raccoon', `Julia', `Mother Nature's Son', `Sexy Sadie', `Helter Skelter', `Long, Long, Long' and `Revolution 1'.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 Feb 2010 01:06:04 GMT
Bubba says:
Excellent and very astute review - the personalities and the situations the individual band-members found themselves in, through a turbulent year, is most reflected in this album - it's very 'personal' for all of them in that way. I like the comment, 'most endlessly fascinating album.' For the aforementioned reason, I'm inclined to would agree.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Mar 2010 10:13:43 GMT
yerblues says:
the official verdict was that brian epstein died of an accidental overdose........

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Nov 2010 04:02:21 GMT
nk99 says:
My mistake - thanks for the correction

Posted on 29 Aug 2014 10:13:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 29 Aug 2014 10:14:33 BDT
Prog Rob says:
Yes, I also enjoyed reading your review; when I get the album I can compare and contrast my views with yours. It seems that if you were to take 100 people at random and play them the White Album, you would probably get 100 wildly differing opinions on their favourite tracks - perhaps that is why, even 46 years down the line, this 1968 album divides the fans.
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