Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "The Beatles" by The Beatles

God, my knees are trembling. This is 'the big one'. This is history's most iconic double album. While it's self-titled, its empty white cover has guaranteed that everyone knows The Beatles by the Beatles as 'The White Album'.

The White Album is more than just a mere double album. The White Album is really the starting point for the double album as a concept. Sure, it wasn't the first double album, or the first double in rock, or the first commercially-successful one. But it was the first major double album that envisioned itself as anything more than a 'slightly longer normal album'. The White Album is epic, it's eclectic, it's indulgent, it's unforgettable. Ninety-five minutes and thirty songs, it's way more than a person can digest in a single sitting. It's sprawling, and minutes upon minutes of needle-time are given over to the most fatuous of experiments and inside jokes. It revels in its lack of discipline, and as a result somehow manages a greatness that makes no sense in individual consideration of the thirty tracks it comprises. The ridiculous and the sublime are programmed next to each other over and over again, and the result is a portrait of a band at the height of their creative faculties, even if they were at the depth of their relationships with each other.

The White Album is not merely the mould for the embarrassment-of-riches double album; it's also the template for this particular website I keep here - after all, while I have never before heard speculation of how best to trim Don Juan's Reckless Daughter or Welcome to the Pleasuredome into a normal-length album, the 'better as a single' White Album is a parlour game of forty years and counting. I personally have compiled as many as a dozen such 'albums' down the years, each one different to the one before. In fact, this is my third crack at it since starting this blog, and it features a tracklisting that I've never done before.

The difference is this: while some Beatles albums are very strongly Lennon productions and some have McCartney in the driver's seat, this is the single album where each track is most obviously an individual creation. Anyone can take the tracklisting to hand and identify each song it turn as a McCartney song or a Lennon song (excepting, of course, the four Harrisons and one Starkey). This fact, and a kind of resistance to the knee-jerk posthumous deification of John Lennon, has caused me again and again to attempt a rough equality of 'John songs' and 'Paul songs'. But the fact is that Paul is way too given to empty genre experiments on this album, whereas John, who still has his share of dross, has more of a direct line to the on-again-off-again creative energies that fuel him at his peaks of genius. This is not 'a John album', but a streamlined fourteen-track of it pretty much has to be.

The White Album is wise enough to realise that a monochromatic ninety minutes would be a painful experience. But the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is the first to go when you cut this album in two. The result is an extremely disciplined album, one that showcases a simple, fragile, murmuring beauty and a quiet contemplation. The heart of the White Album is a clutch of songs written on acoustic guitars while meditating in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Returned to London, the Beatles took to genre experiments and space-filler. Much of this material may be interesting (much isn't even that), but it's not overly inspired.

The core that remains when you strip all that away is a markedly coherent forty minutes, an understated album of simple beauty. My single-length still has rock, loud guitars and fast tempos - but it's in service of an overall mood. Somehow the album is transformed from a hopelessly centreless sprawling mess to an album that 'makes sense'. And one which has twice as many Paul songs as George songs, and twice as many John songs as Paul songs.

In the particular case of this album, I really ought to thank the late Ian MacDonald, whose Revolution in the Head has served as a real textbook for me. I purchased it a good dozen years ago and have thumbed through it to the point that the spine has broken and it's now a pile of loose sheets of paper. I have purposefully avoided consulting it in the writing of this particular entry, yet so many of MacDonald's insights are tattooed into my brain so deeply that they inevitably colour my appreciation of the Beatles, whether or not they are close to hand.

The Beatles

Side one
  1. Dear Prudence (3:56)
  2. Mother Nature's Son (2:48)
  3. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (2:24)
  4. Sexy Sadie (3:15)
  5. I Will (1:46)
  6. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (4:45)
  7. Happiness is a Warm Gun (2:43)
Side two
  1. Revolution 1 (4:15)
  2. Martha My Dear (2:28)
  3. I'm So Tired (2:03)
  4. Cry Baby Cry (3:11)
  5. Blackbird (2:18)
  6. Julia (2:54)
  7. Long, Long, Long (3:04)
Back in the U.S.S.R.: lose

This is a pastiche, a tongue-in-cheek riff on Chuck Berry rock-and-roll and Beach Boys sunny harmonies. Paul McCartney, on record repeatedly as a fan, subverts the all-American vibe of that California family band by transplanting 'California Girls' to the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. It's strange to start this album off with a joke, but it is a genuinely funny joke, and there aren't many of those on this album. Ultimately, I do like this song, and waffled about whether or not to include it, but there is indeed the rub: my single-disc scuttles the extreme eclecticism of this catch-all album to such a degree that stylistic deviations suddenly feel out of place. So no, then.

Dear Prudence: keep (side one, track one)

Down the years, I've had a hard time pinning down what's so remarkable about this four-minute-long nursery rhyme. The facts behind its origin, involving Mia Farrow's sister, are charming. But it's the song that matters, and I've recently realised why it's so magnificent: walking out of the dark into a lazy sunny day is an experience that can put you in a vague ecstatic daze. It's a mood that has much in common with childlike innocence and with mantric, repetitive Hindu meditation. Somehow this beautiful song (with stunning drumming by Paul McCartney) evokes that perfectly. It's a messy crescendo of a song, yet it evokes that childlike wonder, that euphoria of revelation, perfectly.

'Won't you come out to play?' God knows why the Beatles opened with the jokey rock-and-roll 'Back in the USSR'. Being deliberately obtuse, I suppose. But this little epic is the obvious starting point, and it's a beautiful opening track. Provided, of course, you edit out that little snatch of jet-engine crossfaded from the preceding track.

Glass Onion: lose

This is a weird little thing, a thoroughly 'meta' take on the Beatles' own history, scattering song titles and lyrics all over the place. It comes up dry because it means nothing, ultimately, being merely a kind of catch-the-reference game that fails to charm since it's drowning in its own self-regard. The music is fine enough, rock in feel but with an unexpected string arrangement. But so what? It's still unpleasant, and the beginning of the least likeable stretch of the whole album.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: lose

I don't know if it's this one or 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' that best illustrates why Paul McCartney, in many ways the most creatively talented Beatle, will never be deified like his partner is. This cynical yo-ho-ho tries to have a good time but winds up being the ugly antithesis of what a 'good time' ought to be. Offensive in its plastic cheeriness, it shows a decent understanding of the artifice of music but not a whiff at all of its soul. This is what music would sound like if it were created by robots. Its mere existence should serve as a cautionary tale to all.

Wild Honey Pie: lose

A meaningless minute of nothing-at-all; fine as an interlude, but completely disposable. Even though the Pixies found something in it worth covering.

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: lose

When I say this is 'John's album', I certainly don't want to give the impression that Lennon is responsible for all the genius and none of the dross. Lennon was as capable as McCartney of churning out embarrassing tripe; he just did it less often (Lennon's worst trait as a Beatle was songs that were less embarrassing than merely forgettable hackwork). Here we have this ludicrous singalong, a diss at a hunter whose animal-killing urges seemed out of place amid the meditating hippies in the Maharishi's company. But while it may not inspire the rage that 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' is capable of inspiring, it still remains an unfunny embarrassment, and as third in a row for horrid songs perhaps represents the overall low-point of the 95 minutes here.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps: keep (side one, track six)

There's a very real difficulty any 'reviewer' faces (and I know I'm no reviewer, but that's ultimately what I do here on this site): how to maintain stylistic objectivity while engaging in what is a purely subjective activity. How to review Slayer, for example, if you don't like heavy metal? There's no value in dismissing their entire output, especially since others praise it, but it's tough to point out strengths and weaknesses if, viscerally, you don't like any of it. So here we come to a kind of white-blues 'hard rock', screaming guitars, ponderous melodies and inordinate length. Long-time readers will note that I'm naturally inclined not to like this genre, and certainly it's the touching acoustic version on Anthology 3 that presents this as one of Harrison's most beautiful compositions. Yet the version we have to work with is this overwrought one, the longest 'song' on the album. It's out of deference to its fans, really, that I include it. It's not to my taste (I don't mind it, at best), but I have to begrudgingly admit that its soup has some good elements in it. And it's 'classic Harrison', so let's give him a chance, right?

Penultimate track on side one for both versions of this album. Its 'epic' nature means it can't be smack-dab in the middle, but I have other ways to close my album sides. So, runner-up then.

Happiness is a Warm Gun: keep (side one, track seven)

The very heart of the White Album, its best composition and most remarkable performance. Down the years, the Beatles will always offer music lovers two conflicting (and yet complementary) visions of the creation of art. For someone studying the art of composition, 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' makes no sense, really: it's a bunch of tiny bits stuck together, flopping between time signatures all but randomly and offering nothing in terms of verses or choruses. The melody is lazy and passes no 'whistle test'. Lyrically, not much of it makes conventional sense, either, being on the printed page little more than half-thoughts and repeated catch-phrases. In short, it's no skilfully crafted evergreen, and could not have come from the more orderly mind of Paul McCartney. But 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' is art at its very finest, a stunning evocation of emotions we perhaps didn't even know existed. The main image is violent, much of the rest of it is sexual, the music plays with rock-and-roll clichés... and the whole thing is nevertheless thoroughly imbued with the feeling of wistful regret that the rest of the album's best moments are similarly soaked in. Apparently the four Beatles really pulled together as a unit to nail this song's overwhelming complexity (you have to pay attention to catch it; at first listen it doesn't feel complex). So this song is testament both to the Beatles' talent as a quartet and also to Lennon's genius as a very individual songwriter.

'Gently Weeps' and this makes a good one-two. This track deserves to close an album side, and it works well coming after Harrison's epic. The only thing that can follow this is the needle running over and over again in the inner groove.

Martha My Dear: keep (side two, track two)

How is this wonderful where 'Ob-La-Di' is horrid? I'm not actually sure I can explain why. In a sense, it's also 'empty', devoid of any really deep feelings. Yet its breezy lightness, excellent piano and delicious falsetto somehow conspire to create a tiny little piece of work that, gasp!, that charms. This song is highly charming. Is that such a crime?

With only four Paul songs, I elected to put two on each side. Side two is not going to be very bouncy, so I put this early on - as the second track. Before we all get too depressed for it. 

I'm So Tired: keep (side two, track three)

If you ever wanted to offer a course on how to evoke a feeling musically, this'd be a great place to start. Lethargy just drips off this song, even if it's louder and more emotional than you might expect. No lullaby this, it's a song for insomniacs, tired but frustrated at their inexplicable energy levels. The whole thing is wonderful, so short it feels only half-done (though that's perhaps the point). In constructing the single-length, this song often gets the squeeze. But it's a great piece, quite unique in the Beatles' whole genre (superior to 'I'm Only Sleeping') and well worth hearing.

I didn't actually realise that the original double puts this after 'Martha' until I had done the same. So that must mean it's the perfect place for it.

Blackbird: keep (side two, track five)

And here is why Paul McCartney is every bit the genius that John Lennon is, just in an entirely different way. This song is absolutely incredible, a hauntingly beautiful melody over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line that others have spent years trying to master. This is one of those compositions that seems to have been constructed absolutely perfectly. It's not even 140 seconds long and yet it needn't be a second longer. It's the tiniest little bit of perfection, evoking the simplest of Sunday-morning pleasures, which in no way makes it the lesser of any of the more wallowing creepy moments to be found elsewhere. Paul was the only Beatle capable of a song like this; it's to his ultimate detriment that he didn't do it more often.

I wanted to have side two come to a close with three little murmuring wisps from each of the songwriters, but while all four of Paul's songs here are small and quiet, none are exactly prayer-like. So this happy little ditty cruelly represents the last time on this album you'll smile, as track five in seven.

Piggies: lose

Yes, this album is all about conflicting emotions. So here we have invective over a happy-go-lucky melody. But its insults, mixed in with oinking noises and deliberately farcical backup vocals, meet the harmonium-feel of the instrumentation (with nice strings) and fall entirely flat. This is an ugly little ditty, a holier-than-thou sneer that is impossible to love.

Rocky Raccoon: lose

So Paul McCartney loves old wild-west mythology, and he likes good old-fashioned yarn-spinning. And so Paul McCartney was talented enough that he could just sit in front of a mic and improvise something like this (the song very clearly is improvised, at least in part). He was surely a riot at parties. But I'm not really sure why such an off-the-cuff piece of silliness deserves to be listened to over and over again forty years later. We'd love it if it showed up on a hissy bootleg. Here? It's funny the first time you hear it, an annoyance by the fourth.

Don't Pass Me By: lose

This is, of course, Ringo's first compositional effort (and his second-to-last as a Beatle). It's all sleigh bells, piano and (pretty awesome) fiddle with silly lyrics sung with the typical Ringo self-effacement. It attempts to be charming and it succeeds about 80% of the way. Which is not that bad, really. But the song gets tedious long before its conclusion. A for effort, Ringo, but effort isn't everything.

Why Don't We Do it in the Road?: lose

In almost every previous incarnation of this single-length White Album, I've included this silly little McCartney stomper. I do like it, mostly as I chuckle at its silliness. But ultimately, it's just the title repeated over and over again over a twelve-bar which might be more inventive than 'Birthday'... but that's not saying much. I'm glad to be rid of it this time out.

I Will: keep (side one, track five)

This is a tough call; it's this kind of genteel MOR material that gets most McCartney detractors angry, horse-clopping percussion and dum-dum-dum bass singing and all. And yes, there might not be much soul or passion here. But as a lovingly-crafted Fabergé egg, it is still a work of art with value. It is a beautiful song, a murmuring little piece of ingenuity. Yes, it's a 'ditty', but it's a charming one. And ultimately, charm is an under-appreciated virtue.

I originally had this where I now have 'Blackbird', and the original double agrees - but it's not the right mood at all to precede 'Julia'. It's clever and cunning... and very hard to place. So I put it, in its quiet brevity, right before the epic Harrison number.

Julia: keep (side two, track six)

Julia is his mother, of course. Ocean Child is his (soon-to-be) wife. John Lennon was a complex man, but he felt love the way an infant does. And for him, love - be it for a dead mother or for society as a whole or whatever - was always tinted a wistful, regretful blue. In the technicolour Sgt. Pepper era, you didn't notice it, but here it's exactly that regret that makes this touching and nakedly personal acoustic composition so wonderful. Lennon is trying an uncomplicated lovesong, a work of simple beauty (and he's perhaps trying to best 'Blackbird'), but perhaps even against his will the sadness creeps in. He couldn't escape it, and we're all the richer for it. And who knew he was such an adept guitarist?

I'd like this to close the entire album with this, whispering into silence, but it's too personal. So another song closes it, but this is runner-up.

Birthday: lose

Very clever to compose a 'birthday song', a rival for Patty and Mildred Hill's old still-in-copyright standby. And it's perhaps one of the Beatles' best-known songs, but it's also one of the least worthy. A highly cheesy piece of emptiness, the song has the same problem 'Ob-La-Di' does, in that it thinks it's fun, whereas it is in fact no fun whatsoever.

Yer Blues: lose

The biggest problem with this four-minute take on the blues: deciding whether it's sincere or tongue-in-cheek. If it's the latter, then the shopworn clichés are excusable. If it's the former, then the clearly impassioned vocal performance makes sense. Ultimately, I have no idea, and I strongly suspect Lennon didn't either. He seems to have liked the song, though, which is where he and I disagree. I can't put my finger on it, exactly, but there's too much artifice and pretence here for the soul-baring the song wants to display. And it proves its point several minutes before it ends.

Mother Nature's Son: keep (side one, track two)

This is very obviously one of the acoustic India songs, and yet it's perhaps the one where that low-tech inspiration and the urban sophistication of their recording milieu complimented each other best. It's that beguiling brass arrangement, unsettling where the composition itself attempts to be comforting that makes the song a most peculiar form of gorgeous. This is McCartney songcraft at its finest, a rival to 'For No One', and a disconcertingly bittersweet experience that evokes the spirit of the White Album, disquiet and serenity hand in hand, most perfectly.

There might only be four McCartney songs here, but he's still one of the main 'partners', so not including him in the first two tracks of the album would just be unfair. And it's odd that this is the showiest of the four McCartney songs I included, but there you go... plus, like 'Dear Prudence', it's a proper India song, so it gets the story told right.

Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey: keep (side one, track three)

'And Your Bird Can Sing' is one of my favourite-ever Beatles songs, a great riff and a headlong rush from start to finish. This particular song is a kind of 'part two', quite meaningless but with a great energy and a great drive from start to finish. It has nothing to do with meditation-induced acoustic-guitar navel-gazing, and so perhaps doesn't really fit on this album, but it's a great piece of work, a genuine moment of sincere excitement on an album where most of the laughter is canned.

This is a very tough track to place. For some reason, I kept wanting to put it on side two. Turns out it's a more natural fit on side one, early enough that the album hasn't really found its voice yet.

Sexy Sadie: keep (side one, track four)

I've always been on the fence about this song. With its dreamy wow-wow vocals and phenomenally wobbly piano, it's a beautiful-sounding piece. But it feels more than a little like a minor 'Dear Prudence'. So in all the times I've compiled a single-length White Album, this has always fallen in the middle, between the 'must-haves' and the 'must-excludes'. This time out, I'm going for it. Ultimately, what I find so enjoyable about the song is its melody: for all his virtues, Lennon is not a great writer of melodies, but this one, sensitively song with great excursions into falsetto, is well-managed, through verse, chorus and middle eight. It lingers on in the imagination, which is why it's no mere also-ran. The invective (toward the Maharishi, who was not very sexy at all) that informs this songs lingers a bit, but mixed into the swooning beauty - which makes this another White Album song to evoke conflicting emotions simultaneously.

Also a tough one to place... so the dead middle of side one. And a three-song set swiped intact from the double. Why does this keep happening?

Helter Skelter: lose

I have no love at all for this pointlessly noisy skronk of a song. Whatever mood they were looking for by bashing their instruments unmusically, it fails. And all we're left with is Paul screaming for no good reason about a playground slide. Charles Manson stole it, U2 stole it back... really it should have just remained on the cutting-room floor.

Long, Long, Long: keep (side two, track seven)

Preferring this gorgeous whispering haiku of a song to the noisy mess that precedes it is, I concede, merely a matter of individual choice. It's easy to condemn this song as boring wallpaper. After all, it's so unassuming that you're tempted not to even notice it's there. Even if you're well acquainted with the White Album, you'll have a hard time singing this from memory. But if you give it a chance and actually let it weave its very particular spindly little spell over you, you will succumb to its virtues. It's a haunting piece of work, and perhaps the most personal and heartfelt piece George Harrison ever recorded for the Beatles. That its virtues are often overlooked, then, is highly appropriate.

So I use this song to say goodbye, a final murmur on an album that slowly winds down to a halt instead of going out with a bang. And in so doing, I do something the Beatles themselves never did: end an album with a George Harrison composition (Beatles For Sale ends with him singing a cover). This song is worth it.

Revolution 1: keep (side two, track one)

The album's 'major statement' is a more laid-back 'bluesy' version of the b-side to 'Hey Jude'. The music is more or less incidental, really; there's a decent brass arrangement and some screaming guitars, but it's all about the lyrics. It's well-written and it's a well-intended effort to actually 'say something'. i think you could argue that that means it belongs on a different album, a more stridently political album that never got made but perhaps should have. Most of the White Album's finest moments have nothing to do with preaching or with universalism; they're very much about the headspaces the four individuals who created them inhabit. So this song really does stick out, but it still fits. It's the sermon that 'Within You Without You' was on Sgt. Pepper. A very different kind of sermon? Sure, but this is a very different kind of album.

It's got to open a side, right? So side two it is. Just like 'Within You Without You'.

Honey Pie: lose

Songs like this make me wonder what it is that motivates Paul McCartney to compose - the challenge, I guess, of trying new things. Flapper-era music is not by itself bad - perhaps not my cup of tea, but whatever. And McCartney fakes it decently enough, but this style of music requires a kind of insouciance that I don't think they pull off. It's a not-half-bad facsimilie, but a facsimilie it reamins. And more importantly, it's a smarmy piece of soulless nonsense that has nothing to do with the rest of the album. It's not aggressively offensive like 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da', but no enjoyment went into its creation, and no enjoyment comes from its consumption either.

Savoy Truffle: lose

We're just a few ways away from the breakup of the Beatles, where George Harrison will explode onto the scene with a triple-album, talking about how his musical expressions were always suppressed in the Beatles, keeping him to the strictest of quotas. If this is the case, why waste a rare one-song-per-side look-in on this particular song? Sure, the horns and the organ are great. In a way this is as 'funky' as the Beatles ever got. But it's entirely empty, a pointless listing of chocolates and nothing else. George Harrison is guilty of the crime most often pinned on McCartney: confusing style with substance, letting form replace feeling. And since Harrison doesn't share McCartney's way with a tune, the results are arguably even more dire.

Cry Baby Cry: keep (side two, track four)

Why are the best nursery rhymes so creepy? I mean, they are: they all exist in a particular headspace where a child's wide vistas of imagination spread open just enough to hint at the darkness in the corners. This song is fully cognisant of this, and while it sounds a but like 'Dear Prudence', its overall chaotic vibe is entirely different. This is a song that's proud to be creepy, and that is aware that the best way to truly creep people out is to play with the theme of childlike innocence. This is a great piece of art, and Paul McCartney's little tacked-on acoustic segue complements it beautifully. It's the highlight of a difficult-to-love side four.

I experimented with putting this on side one, but as the evil cousin of 'Dear Prudence', it needed to be far away from it. Toward the end of the album, but before the trilogy that ends it, so track four. Putting 'Can You Take Me Back?' next to 'Blackbird' is a bit underwhelming, but what else could I do?

Revolution 9: lose

No, I don't include 'Revolution 9'. But I'd like a minute to explain why: where a million other commentators find unlistenable experimentation and navel-gazing, I find an evocative soundscape and an exceptionally listenable piece of art. I like "Revolution 9" and have listened to it on many an occasion - yes, all the way through to the end. So for me, it's not a personal distaste for the track so much as (a) its inordinate length, which becomes a much bigger issue when we cut the album in half and which would eliminate perhaps four different songs were I to include it, and (b) the stylistic gulf that exists between it and the other songs - more manageable, perhaps, in the purposefully-eclectic double but more of an issue in the more reigned-in single-length I've produced. It's not just that it would stick out like a sore thumb, so to speak: it would also lethally slaughter the momentum of the album. But of the tracks I've put on the chopping block, it's one of the most listenable.

Good Night: lose

The harp, the swooning strings, the trilling female voices... this ought to be easy to detest, but I don't detest it at all. Putting poor little Ringo at the centre of the chaos is a bit cruel, but he does what Ringo does best here - disarm the sceptic. It's a great testament to what could be done with an amazing producer and almost unlimited budget from your record contract. And it's a joke, too, even as it's sincere: a final head-trip after eight and a half minutes of the biggest head trip on the album. But it doesn't sound like anything else on the album, it doesn't fit, and it's a boring composition ultimately (as perhaps a lullaby should be).


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