A 93-minute blow-out of influences and disparate ideas, 'The White Album' is the Beatles record that's aged best.
It seems curiously fitting that, during the chaos and upheaval of 2018, we should be acknowledging the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ ninth, self-titled LP, immediately known in common parlance as ‘The White Album’.
An album released in late November 1968, the end of a year characterised by dread and bad vibes, which saw the tide of the Vietnam War turn against America, Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the general death of the hippie philosophy, 'The White Album' perfectly captured the sense of its era.
Peculiarly, its themes still seem to stand up in 2018. At a time of Black Lives Matter, fake news, Donald Trump and the resurgence of the far-right in Western democracies, ‘The White Album’s darker moments still have the same resonance they did half a century ago.
But it’s not just thematically that The Beatles still has relevance today. Its random, chaotic nature, with gritty rock’n’roll, blues rippers and delicate folk laments pressed up against avant-garde sound collages, screaming proto-metal, Disney-inspired fantasias and dusty music hall, reflects the way in which we consume music in the age of streaming.
While it’s a blowout of influences, a huge smorgasbord of genres that’s inspired debate about its best running order ever since, in 2018 it uncannily has the feel of a playlist, at least one dictated by algorithms and predictions. Its weaknesses are compelling for exactly the same reasons as its strengths.
Of course, ‘The White Album’s place in the Fab Four’s mythology has long since been legendary. Nine albums in, having long been the undisputed biggest band in the world, they were starting to disintegrate by 1968. Although they had quit touring more than a year before, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr’s personal tastes and ambitions meant that they were no longer a unified force, particularly after the passing of their iconic manger, Brian Epstein, in 1967. Lennon’s new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, and her presence in the studio throughout the six-month recording of ‘The White Album’ and contravening the band’s usual ‘no girlfriends’ policy, seemed to personify this breakdown in communications. Only 16 of the double-LP’s 30 songs feature all four Beatles.
Nevertheless, ‘The White Album’ is brimming over with ideas, many of them utterly brilliant. McCartney’s delicate ‘Blackbird’ and thunderous ‘Helter Skelter’; Lennon’s tender ‘Julia’, the disquiet and cynicism of ‘Dear Prudence’ and intricate song suite ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’; Harrison’s beautiful ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Long Long Long’... even Ringo has one of his all-time best moments in ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. Sure, there’s the appalling ‘Piggies’ and the annoying ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’… but these imperfections give it its character.
In the context of 2018, ‘The White Album’ is certainly the Beatles record that has aged the best. Yes, Sgt. Pepper’s is still amazing, but that quaint old psychedelia is very much of its time and place, and while Revolver is, song-for-song, admittedly a complete masterpiece. You shouldn’t just take our word for it…
Giles Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, told The Sun last month that he and McCartney had sat down to comb through the archives for the massive 107-song 50th anniversary box-set. Apparently, upon listening back to the original album, McCartney quipped: “I never realised how modern this record sounds. This could be a band today.”
Amen to that.
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