The Beatles ("The White Album")
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/24/2006
The Beatles -- better known as "The White Album" -- was my first Beatles album, and it certainly seemed at the time to be a huge waste of $30. I have vivid memories of sitting in my room, just thinking over and over again "What the hell is this crap? Weren't the Beatles supposed to be the greatest band ever?" So, it languished in my collection for years, and my feelings towards it did not change.
But I just recently finished the new Beatles biography by Bob Spitz, and so my interest in the group was rekindled. Of course, I was drawn to the controversial White Album like a moth to a flame. So I gave the record another listen -- and this time, I liked it!
A double album always has filler on it, without exception. The success of the album in turn rests largely on how good the filler material is. Up to this point, I considered most of The White Album to be eccentric, uninspired, and messy. What really allowed my view to change was having listened to the Beatles' solo careers. The strengths of each individual member of the Beatles are on display on The White Album, which gives the album its scattershot reputation.
One can argue the overall merits of the album; however, there is no question The White Album contains some of the band's best work. McCartney's gentle, folksy "Blackbird" remains one of his best songs. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has grown in status over the years, and rightly so. In my eyes, this was George Harrison's first knockout track, helped in no small part by Eric Clapton's brilliant guitar performance. "Dear Prudence" has always been an underrated classic; Lennon could write a damn good ballad when he put his mind to it. Along those same lines, the soothing "Julia" is really touching, showcasing John's talents for lyrics. When it came down to expressing pure feeling, few could do it better than Lennon.
It really boggles the mind to think that when the Beatles were slumming it, they still churned out material better than almost anyone out there. Take a song like "Martha My Dear" -- it's inconsequential in every way, but that doesn't matter. It's great pop, highlighting McCartney's vocal prowess. "Back In The U.S.S.R." hits the Beach Boys style right on the head, musically and lyrically (essentially becoming a parody of "California Girls"). Hell, the boys even managed to essentially inspire the punk genre with "Helter Skelter." Is there any line more immortal than Ringo's closing "I've got blisters on my fingers!"? George Harrison's "Piggies" goes Animals on the listener, expressing the same sentiments.
It is the experimental material on The White Album that is hit or miss. Some of it is carried out competently, like the country stylings of "Rocky Raccoon" or the big band send off of "Good Night." You can't help but bop along to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," one of McCartney's more inspired efforts. Unfortunately, the Beatles also managed to write some truly insipid material. "Wild Honey Pie" could literally be construed as the band giving the finger to the fans, it's that pointless. And, of course, where would a review of The White Album be without mention of "Revolution #9." Anyone who defends this track as having any merit whatsoever desperately needs a CAT scan. It's experimental, you say? Well, that doesn't mean it isn't terrible. Thanks, Yoko.
And while I enjoy the music to "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" and "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey," there's just no way not to call the boys out on the lyrics. As Chris Thelen so eloquently put it, "What the hell was this about?"
The true problem facing The White Album is the one everyone mentions; the wealth of material. There's no doubt some of the songs are useless, and should never have seen the light of day. By the same token, the great moments just about equal the worst in number, and the quality of the filler material is impressively high. It took a long time, but I finally came around to The White Album.
|Let's start where we agree... Revolution #9 is awful and should not have been on the album. About the only thing I can say for it is, Revolution #9 is a bad outcome of an essentially good thing: the spirit of experimentation that inspired the Beatles to expand rock and roll/pop boundaries. Sometimes you get "Tomorrow Never Knows" (tape loops) or "A Day in the Life" (orchestral freakout) and other times you get "Revolution #9".|
Where we disagree is your position that the White Album has too much filler, which is what just about every critic has said for years. How much filler is "too much"? The average album by any artist is more than 80% filler. What threshold must be reached for you to give an "A"? I guess the heart of my question is, are you judging this against other Beatle albums, such as perhaps Revolver (haven't read your review of that yet), or against albums by other artists? Also, how much weight did you give to short transitions like "Wild Honey Pie"? It's 61 seconds long. The Beatles filled the empty space of their albums with little things like that. For "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?", I can't understand people who don't like it. It's McCartney doing one of Lennon's techniques: take a simple concept and hammer it home, musically and lyrically. "Happy Birthday to You" isn't lyrically complex, but somehow it's been popular for a long time. McCartney said that he didn't think people would get it, and he was mostly right.
Anyway, as a critic, you'd probably reduce it to 1 disk. As a fan, I've enjoyed 125 minutes (out of 133) for 40 years and I am ecstatic its a double album.