The Beatles’ legacy is a monster of perfection and curiosity. Their records have become the go-to blueprint for commercial pop music-but there was also a slyly subversive, at times blatant, rejection of the mainstream in favor of something far more heady and difficult. Nevertheless, they became the saviors of pop music in the ’60s, a band who could put out singles and stay in the upper reaches of the charts but who also weren’t limited by any set musical guidelines. They could cover classic pop tunes from the ’50s and then turn around and plaster their songs with gallons of psychedelic ephemera. They were The Beatles, and that was all people cared about.
The story of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr has been memorialized in practically every way, from films to records to a slew of biographies. And with each retelling, we get a little closer and a little further from the truth. This history is constantly shifting with explanations, insight and assumptions that have become commonplace-with the necessity of filtering out many of these misinformed and highly subjective opinions becoming second nature to fans. No record has elicited such a dichotomy of opinions than their still-controversial 1968 self-titled record, commonly known as “The White Album.”
Most of the songs that make up this double record were written in the early parts of ’68, when the band was spending some time at a transcendental meditation course in Rishikesh, India. Although their time there was met with mixed reactions from the band, this time apart from the musical mainstream, as well as their legions of adoring fans, gave them a much-needed respite and allowed them to focus their creativity in new and unexpected directions. They came home with about 40 new songs and immediately set about recording demos at Harrison’s home. But unknown to the band, and probably most people around them, this marked the beginning of the end for The Beatles.
Returning to EMI Studios to professionally record the new material, the band was given an unlimited amount of recording time, so they rarely recorded anything as a band-most parts were recorded and then overdubbed by other members of the band. This fractured recording atmosphere led to frequent quarrels between Lennon and McCartney about the quality of the other’s work, especially once Lennon’s girlfriend, Yoko Ono, began attending the sessions. Coupled with these issues, producer George Martin took a sudden leave of absence and engineer Geoff Emerick quit. And for a brief period of time in August, Starr left the band and missed the recording of two songs on the album. This mass of creative conflict and inter-band volatility led to The Beatles’ eventual dissolution in 1970.
So what came from these studio sessions? Was this an issue of frustration creating art or of a band on the verge of a nervous breakdown tearing each other apart? Well, in all honesty, both of these things were true. “The White Album” is the culmination of the band’s pop art aesthetic. It is occasionally nonsensical and satirical but never feels like a parody of The Beatles. There are points where you can practically hear the animosity within the band, especially between Lennon and McCartney. But despite the infighting and bitterness, that spark of pop wonder is always present-even when the band went absolutely avant-garde in their execution.
It’s difficult to even attempt to discuss this album because of the onslaught of recognizable songs that occupy its runtime. Tracks like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” become instant fan favorites, and deservedly so. The difficulty in bringing these songs to life in the studio only underscores how remarkable the band could be when they needed to be.
As these songs rush by in a whirr of acoustic guitar, piano, percussion and other ancillary instruments, you can almost see the album’s veneer starting to crack under the weight of the band’s personalities. These songs are energetic at times, while languid and somnambular at other moments-“The White Album,” unlike any other record by The Beatles, feels like a complete internalization of the band’s influences. It is a gorgeous refinement and desecration of pop music’s most beloved band.
At the time of its release, most critics were less than impressed by this chaotic blend of sound and splintered construction-as well as an apparent disregard for the troubles of the world in which it was created. Many critics also disliked its satirical nature and wide-ranging rhythmic disparities, saying the band had used this eclectic pop aesthetic to avoid commenting on any matters of social importance. There were a few, however, who saw the inherent genius that the band had imparted to these songs and who weren’t shy about letting their voices be heard above the din of general negativity.
“The White Album” was as divisive and contentious as any album of its day-in fact, there’s really no proper analog to it in any of the intervening years. It’s such a compact set of genre-bending rhythms that people were just not prepared for how it twisted pop convention into something completely unique and refreshing. There were still self-contained pop songs here-this is The Beatles, after all. But they were sprinkled in among tracks that continually struggled to break free from any assumptions on the part of its listeners.
Besides being one of the most fascinating albums ever released, “The White Album” is a picture of a band on the verge of destruction, with all their creative impulses freed from any sort of limitation. It’s a frenzied blend of genres and textures, with The Beatles doing their best to keep everything from seeping outside the studio walls. There will never be another album like this. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Honestly, who else could have made a record like this that feels so oddly fragmented and so wonderfully compelling?
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 8:25 p.m. for clarity and to correct the name of Geoff Emerick. The article originally listed the name as Geoff Merick, which is incorrect.