Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Beatles — The Beatles

Many reams have been written on the cover art of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, its mesh of psychedelic vibes, outside-the-box thinking, pop culture frenzy and all around cleverness. But almost as many are dedicated to the artwork of their next British LP; in contrast to the lush, multi-colored splendor of Pepper, Richard Hamilton's solid-white cover is so striking, so bare, that it only makes sense that the band simply titled it eponymously. Of course, we all just call it "The White Album."

As I've moved through the Beatles' catalog from start to finish, I've found that I'd previously unwittingly fell into almost every clichéd perception of the group following their break-up: I didn't much care for the early, poppy days, and I saw only the drug usage in their later albums. Obviously, I've utterly reversed those opinions by actually, you know, paying attention to the music, but I was curious to see how I would reappraise the White Album. For where I summarily wrote off other albums in their canon as a brash young teen, I never figured out where I stood with its jumbled artistic mess, though I tended to lean toward keeping at arm's length for its disconnect.

Well, I can safely say that I finally fall firmly into the camp that maintains "it's a masterpiece because of its excess." Undoubtedly helping in my turn-around were my introduction in the interim to album's that are routinely summarized as "the White Album" of their respective artists. The Clash's Sandinista! Prince's Sign O the Times. The Stones' Exile on Main St. All are bloated, ill-fitting "emptying the vaults" packages, and all of them, save perhaps Sandinista!, are stronger for it.

For such a gamble to pay off, the artists must be at the top of their game, and the Beatles had certainly been enjoying a creative gold run unmatched by any group before or since. It also helps if they're utterly absorbed in themselves, and without Epstein to keep them in check, egos began to flare at alarming rates. That famous, nearly blank cover is the biggest clue to the shift in the band's dynamic -- not only was it the first time the group didn't appear on the cover together, but nothing was in the art; inside the LP sleeve were separate photographs of each member. No longer was the band bringing their own ideas into a group effort: instead, they completely fragmented, the three songwriters recording their material in different studios while Ringo tried valiantly to keep his usual "go-with-the-flow" mentality as the stress of standing between them took its toll.

And so, most songs haphazardly lead into the next number, if transitions exist at all. What you thought you knew about the strengths and weaknesses of each member can be largely thrown out the window, as well as your conceptions of the band's "sound" (as if anyone could ever pin down enough of a singular approach to even come with a term like "Beatlesque"). That way, it'll be easier for you to accept that Paul McCartney, that sweet, sentimental rascal, can pen the hard rock "Back in the U.S.S.R." or the terrifying, blistering "Helter Skelter," or indeed the racial commentary "Blackbird" Forget your image of John as the rebellious rocker in the face of his stark, haunting confessional "Julia" and the dejection and disillusion to be found in his reverberant "Dear Prudence" or his album mix of "Revolution 1," in which he adds an ambiguous "in" to the line "When you talk about destruction/don't you know that you can count me out." (Ironically, this version, which considers participation in violent protest,

These are all among the best in the band's catalog, but what makes the White Album such a point of contention is the overwhelming, heretofore unseen amount of filler. Now, the early albums had their share of throwaway tracks, but most were covers and what few original compositions failed to make the grade reflected more on their relative inexperience than a lack of judgment. Because let's be honest: by 1968, the band damn well knew better than to include some of these numbers. No sane (or sober) soul would think that "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" or the dauntingly titled "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey." These are not even bad songs -- they certainly have, to a much lesser extent than McCartney's reggae homage/parody "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," an unassailable goofy charm. For the band to devote two whole LPs to ensuring that everyone's personal projects got their moment in the spotlight is almost wholly incompatible with their legacy up until that point, and that's what makes the White Album so fascinating even if you hate it.

That madcap insertion of whatever captured each songwriter's fancy results in a running the gamut of a bewildering number of musical styles. You've got your pick of country ("Rocky Raccoon"), borderline Stones-like, lascivious blues rock ("Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"), music-hall ("Martha My Dear," "Honey Pie"), chamber music ("Piggies"), lullaby ("Good Night") and, of course, avant-garde experimentation ("Wild Honey Pie," "Revolution 9"). They rub up against more traditional pop/rock songs, such as the classic party-time anthem "Birthday," McCartney's folkie "Mother Nature's Son" or the spacey "Sexy Sadie." Each song stands utterly disconnected from what came before and what succeeds it, and when combined into a 93-minute freewheeling display of drug-induced isolation and egomania they become something more daring and challenging and rewarding than Lennon's much-debated John Cage-inspired "Revolution 9."

One also cannot deny the excellent input from George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Perhaps as a "reward" for weathering the band's fragmentation, he at last gets his moment to pen a tune, and the country-flecked "Don't Pass Me By" is a nice enough, if overly simplistic and lumbering, ditty. But Harrison comes alive, delivering on the quality of his breakthroughs "Taxman" and "Love You To" and expanding upon them. While his anti-government screed "Piggies" lacks the catchiness or the timelessness of "Taxman," one can't deny his remarkable leap with the scorching fretboard workout "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (featuring Eric Clapton) or "Savoy Truffle," which starts as an amusing ode to Clatpon's chocolate addiction and winds up a killer piece of canned soul. His best track, however, is the jazz-psych-folk dreamscape "Long, Long, Long." Sequenced right after the terrifying screech of "Helter Skelter," this quiet, wafting number not only provides a welcome breather but ends up one of the most wistful songs of the band's canon, alongside John and Paul's childhood numbers.

Much of the album's material was written during the Beatles' trip to India to learn transcendental meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, both inspired by their setting and clearly not heeding to the spiritual schedule all that much. Before completing the course, however, the band departed, disillusioned by reports of the Maharishi's sexual advances on the women of the group (since proven to be rumors fed to the band to break the Maharishi's influence over them). That disillusionment plays directly into the record, encouraging each member to throw in his stuff, context or flow be damned. So, The Beatles is, on its surface, literally a textbook example of artistic excess, used as shorthand in the years since to describe any album that empties the vaults and runs through as many contrasting, occasionally contradictory, as it possibly can.

But it is also a portrait of true genius, albeit clouded by drugs and ego. It's also a fascinating portrait of a band on the precipice of falling apart; Brian Epstein's death had rattled them, and the deception of their new management concerning their Indian trip proved that they'd opened the doors too wide in hippie naïveté and drug delirium to outside forces, be it "Magic" Alex Mardas, the Maharishi, or Yoko Ono. But the White Album shows the band tearing itself apart, aided perhaps by those outside influences but still wholly responsible for their downfall. Even at this personal nadir, however, the group could still somehow craft something more advanced than anyone else has ever released into the mainstream. Indeed, from an artistic standpoint, The Beatles stands as likely the band's finest achievement.

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