The Beatles - Special 50th anniversary of the White Album

By Sergio Ariza

The Beatles had been on top of the world since 1963, having been at the head of all the pop music revolutions in recent years. Sgt. Pepper’s had been the coup de grace. The whole world admired them and paid homage to them but one fact was going to change their destiny forever. While visiting Wales to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi they got word that Brian Epstein had died on the 27th of August 1967. The man who had guided them to the top had disappeared and now they had to take control of the commercial aspect of their career, in addition to the artistic one. With everyone in a state of shock, it was Paul McCartney who stepped forward to exert his weight in the group, with the idea of recording a movie called Magical Mystery Tour. While the soundtrack was an absolute success, the film brought their first negative reviews about anything that was related to the Beatles. The confused Beatles set sail for India on February ‘68 to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi.      

However, the trip to India brought dissension in the group, the always ‘down to Earth’ Ringo Starr thought it was nonsense, and the food was bad, so he was the first to leave. McCartney stayed a bit longer but was more attentive to his muse, he says he managed to compose some 50 songs there, than to the supposed spiritual awakening. As for John Lennon, he wound up believing the accusations against the Maharishi and blamed him for transgressions with some of the women present. Finally George Harrison, who instigated the trip, and would have preferred to go there alone, returned home with Lennon on April 12th. In May, one month after their return, the Fab Four met at Harrison’s place in Esher with a sack of songs of the 3 main composers and recorded an acoustic demo with 26 of them to get ready for their following record.     

May 30th they went back to the studios at Abbey Road to start the long-awaited follow-up to Sgt. Pepper’s, but a lot of things had changed in the last year. After Epstein’s death the 4 had created Apple and were becoming businessmen, making this record the first in which they were their own producers, which gave them unlimited time in the studio, they had also quit LSD, and wanted to get as far away as possible from the excesses of psychedelia to deliver a record with much more naked arrangements. It also implied that the importance of their life-long producer George Martin was diminishing, which led the venerable Martin to take a vacation in the middle of the recordings without anybody paying much attention. So it is normal that he doesn’t have great memories of the record, figuring that they should have chosen the best songs and put out a single album instead of a double.    

But there were still many changes, for the duration of the recording Lennon started bringing his new girlfriend Yoko Ono to all the sessions, causing friction among the other band members who were accustomed to having the studio as a place ‘just for the boys’.  This led to the main expressive force in the band, that of Lennon and McCartney, to go cold, making this the least collaborative record in Beatles history. Taking advantage of having so many studios and unlimited hours at their disposal, it’s not surprising each would be in a different room working on their own song. Of the 30 songs on the record, only 16 were played by the four of them all together.  

To make things worse, Mccartney was very clear on how their songs should sound, and had little regard for the opinions of the rest. Harrison wanted to put a guitar solo in Hey Jude, but McCartney wouldn’t even let him try, he told Ringo exactly what he had to play as a drummer, which, together with this bad atmosphere in the studio, and his role diminishing, led him to leave the band in the middle of the recording. In his absence McCartney played the drums on Dear Prudence and Back in the U.S.S.R., although both Harrison and Lennon also played drum ‘fills’ in post production. Finally, on September 4th Ringo returned at the request of the other 3 to record the video promo of Hey Jude, the band’s next chosen single. His drums had been filled with flowers by Harrison as a welcoming jest. It was one of the band’s greatest successes and it made the album’s expectations even higher.   

The direction of the band however, would never find its course. Despite it all, the album the band would release on September 22, 1968 , would be among their best, a varied musical exercise which included acoustic/folk, rock, ska, music hall, avant-garde, orchestral pop, doo wop and even the frentic Helter Skelter, which was the heaviest song that had been cut to date. The record is a ride like a fun fair ride, where you never know what to expect around the next turn. Because it was in India where they composed most of the songs with an acoustic guitar, the album contains songs like Blackbird, I Will, Julia, and Mother Nature’s Son, with McCartney and Lennon taking advantage of their ‘fingerpicking’ lessons by Donovan on their Martin D-28 and Gibson J-160E. But there’s also a return to their beloved rock&roll of Chuck Berry and Little Richard on songs like Back in the U.S.S.R., McCartney’s cheeky response to Back in the U.S.A. by Berry, Birthday and Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey, showing the lads from Liverpool in top form.

And the White Album, the name for which it is widely known, is full of great moments. Yer Blues is one of the most significant, half-way between a homage and parody of the rising British blues headed by Fleetwood Mac (not in vain when Lennon played in Rock & Roll Circus by the Stones along with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell did he call the band Dirty Mac). For the recording the four got together in a small room and recorded looking into each others’ eyes like old times, Lennon found the guitar sound that would mark his last days in the band and the beginning of his solo career, with that raw distortion coming from his Epiphone Casino, the perfect compliment on Lucy, and Harrison’s Les Paul Standard, alternating solos. Ringo’s favourite song on the album in which he started composing as well, is that hotchpotch country honk called Don’t Pass Me By. Although perhaps Lennon’s best song on the album was Happiness Is a Warm Gun, a collage of songs which Lennon described as a kind of rock and roll story in miniature. It’s supposedly McCartney and Harrison’s favorite on the album, and one of the few where the 4 work elbow to elbow, with Lennon on his Casino, Harrison with a ‘61 Stratocaster and McCartney playing his favourite bass at the time, his Rickenbacker 4001S.

Harrison definitively matures on this record as a composer, delivering one of its best songs, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. As the mood wasn’t the best, with John and Paul looking at him over their shoulders, he decided to invite his friend Eric Clapton to the recording. He was quite self-conscious rubbing shoulders with the most important band on Earth and thus told Harrison, “Nobody plays with the Beatles.”, but Harrison insisted telling him not to bring his guitar, “I have a good Les Paul that you can use. It was Lucy, the Red Les Paul from 1957 that Clapton had given him a month earlier. Clapton went and everyone was on their best behavior, especially when they saw the amazing result they got, because Lucy really weeps in this song. But it’s not the only remarkable Harrison song, he also brought Savoy Truffle, Piggies and Long, Long, Long.

As for Mccartney, he again puts in his most varied moments that go from his childhood Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da, one of the first times Jamaican rhythms are played by a western band, to the thick darkness of Helter Skelter, their attempt (reached) to outdo The Who when it comes to making a song stronger and more strident. It was developed over long jams reaching over 10 minutes, which made Ringo, after one of them, shout out “I've got blisters on my fingers!. The fact is that Harrison’s Lucy, along with McCartney’s Esquire and  Casino they were on fire creating an orgy of distortion almost unheard in pop music. Lennon, by the way, was on bass with his Fender Bass VI. When the album was released, some nut would see strange messages in the song but I have no intention of staining this great number by citing its name.      

The fact was that the Beatles had done it again, a year after the revolution of Sgt. Pepper’s, they surprised the world yet again with an especially unique album, left behind were those psychedelic flourishes, the album cover was also cleaned, completely white with the band’s name in tiny letters, the title couldn't be simpler, The Beatles. The Liverpool lads were back in sync with the world, and their return to the roots compared them to Dylan, The Band and the Byrds. Both the singles Hey Jude and Revolution, as much as the album itself, showed that the Beatles were still on top of it all and their creativity showed no signs of slowing down.  

Another thing was that the record emitted signs that, for the first time, the Beatles were not going to be around forever, showing the world the individual personalities of each of its members. If before the Beatles brand was what impregnated everything in this record, it was possible to imagine the solo careers of the 3 main composers by listening to this album. The dream wasn’t yet over but the White Album was the one where the world started to glimpse their final end.