White Album review by DT

Surprising but very pleasantly indeed DT wrote a journal entry on Beatles' White Album. Hm ... he could probably switch career to album reviewer if he wanted to ^__^
7/10/08 Wuhan
For this month’s journal, I’d like to do something different and, instead, write a “review” of one of my favorite albums by The Beatles: The White Album. Most people that know me well know that my biggest music influence has been the Beatles. I’ve referred to them many times over in interviews but I’ve seldom gone into depth about their music and songs. One of the reasons why I want to write this review is because I want to introduce (or re-introduce) you to the Beatles, especially, this album. Of course, almost everybody born during the past 60 years or so has heard of the band but I find the majority of people don’t really know their music in depth and what made them so influential. I’m sure most of you have heard the familiar Beatles’ hits such as “Hey, Jude” or “Let it Be” but much of their best and most influential work were not these songs. I would say that The Beatles are one of the most influential artists of all time even more so than Elvis Presley who was more a pop icon of his era.
I’d like to clarify that this is not a review in the traditional sense. It is not meant to be a critical review like the ones you’d find in a magazine. It is, rather, a collection of thoughts and my opinion of what I feel for this album. Of course, it’s important that you purchase a legal copy of this album (physical or digital download), give it a listen as you read this so you’ll know what I’m referring to.
The “White Album” was the Beatles’ ninth album released in 1968 (a year before I was born) as a double album. It was unofficially referred to as “The White Album” because there was no other text on the white cover other than the band’s name. In my opinion, this album is one of the band’s greatest because it was on cutting edge in every aspect yet at the same time very musical and accessible. It was both experimental yet melodic, warm and inviting. The production was top notch and the writing (both melody and lyrics) represented Lennon and McCartney at their best. This was the first time that the Beatles began using 8-track recording which allowed them to do much more in terms of overdubbing and layering their arrangements. By today’s standards and technology, we are capable of unlimited tracks with only a home computer so you can imagine recording with merely 8-tracks would be quite a challenge! This only goes to illustrate that it’s the content that matters and not the tools you use.
The album kicks off with “Back in the USSR” which makes clever use of an airplane taking off and landing sound efx. It’s a straight-ahead rock and roll song with nice vocal harmonies obviously influenced by The Beach Boys. The sound of the song is clearly American but the irony is that the topic of the song revolves around a then not-so-cool Soviet Union. The second song, “Dear Prudence”, is a Lennon song that has been covered by many other bands and artists giving it a kind of cult status. The song is deceptively simple and based on only three chords repeating over and over again creating a hypnotic drone. I really like the electric guitars as they play a very interesting Indian sounding scale and motif as the song gradually builds into a climax. I feel this song influenced many contemporary rock bands in its dark and somber setting. “The White Album” didn’t have the chart topping commercial Beatles hits but it still produced many innovative singles. The fourth song, “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, was one of those hits and was written by Paul McCartney. From young, I always liked the festive calypso atmosphere, creative background vocals and thinly voiced honky-tonk piano. The contrast between the sweet lyrics and the way McCartney wildly belts out the final choruses generates a lot of power.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” influenced me a lot in the way Lennon slowly unfolded a story drawing the listener in with each section’s plot. The song comes off as a children’s song but upon closer inspection you realize that it’s quite macabre. Lennon’s humor and sarcasm in this song and in his other works is also something that sets him apart from other writers.
George Harrison didn’t have many contributions to the Beatles’ repertoire but “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was one of his more notable ones. The chordal and melodic structure is very representative of Harrison with his use of complicated progressions and twisted melodies. It’s interesting to note that the guitar solo was played by Eric Clapton who was a contemporary of The Beatles and a major artist (and guitar hero)in his own right. I personally feel that Harrison’s writing always lacked emotion and wasn’t as direct as John or Paul’s. He seems to try very hard to do something different often times sacrificing function for form.
“Happiness is a Warm Gun” is one of my favorite songs on the album because both the melody and lyrics are incredibly innovative and witty. The song has 6 separate sections each with it’s own distinctive melodies yet the song feels so well integrated and complete. The emotion delivered is powerful and focused yet there are so many layers. John’s vocal is brutally raw towards the finale of the song and it really shows his unabashed and unapologetic personality. “Martha My Dear” is classic McCartney with his polished orchestrations and sweet melodies. I used to prefer McCartney’s writing to Lennon’s but as I grew older I preferred the latter’s edge, depth and social consciousness in his writing. McCartney’s songs (and perhaps his personality) were typically sweet, amicable and pleasant. His music was always easy to listen to but didn’t have the power and explosiveness of Lennon’s works. “I’m So Tired” is another Lennon song that I really like on the album. It’s fairly straightforward but the lyrics and Lennon’s vocal delivery (particularly his mumbling at the end of the song) express his restlessness and frustration so perfectly.
One of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar was McCartney’s “Blackbird”. It’s a very charming little ditty displaying what I feel is Paul’s best writing. It’s unpretentious, simple yet very illusive and touching. If you feel up to the challenge try to learn it-I did when I was about fifteen years old! “Piggies” is a Harrison song that again makes clever use of sound efx which actually is quite prevalent in Beatles’ songs. This was something that I always liked when I was young because it somehow made the song feel more real and involving. I like the arrangement of the song particularly the use of harpsichord and string quartet mixing irreverently a bit of blues with a very Bach inspired chordal progression. “I Will” is one of my favorite McCartney songs because it’s just so well written. The song is sweet and sincere in a very effortless manner. It reminds me of a Gilbert O’Sullivan song titled “Alone Again” which has no similarity except in perhaps how well crafted they both are.
“Julia” is Lennon’s ode to his mother who passed away when he was very young. I was very touched by the lyrics especially the strong imagery he invokes with the words, “seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me, so I sing a song of love, Julia…” The bridge melody always struck me as being influenced by Japanese music possibly due to his wife, Yoko? The song is very quiet, tinged with sadness yet at the same time a bit eerie with the use of certain chords giving it a dreamy quality.
I’m not quite sure why Paul wrote “Birthday” but it’s one of those straight ahead rock and roll tunes that show the Beatles knew how to keep things simple and just rock out. Most of the songs that ended up on the album were written in India during a transcendental meditation retreat the Beatles took in 1968. It was obvious that during this retreat Lennon and McCartney experienced a surge of inspiration and liberation and wrote some of their best works there. Even though the songs didn’t necessarily reflect Indian music references, the entire album exhibited a level of creativity and experimentation that would continue further on in future Beatles’ albums such as “Yellow Submarine”. “Sexy Sadie” used two descending dominant 7th chords that really fascinated me when I started writing songs. It wasn’t anything difficult but somehow it managed to convey a certain playfulness and devilish charm that the lyrics wrote about. There’s something magical about Lennon’s lyrics again and the background vocals and guitar parts are just as amazing.
I never liked “Helter Skelter” but it definitely was a predecessor to what we now know as Heavy Metal but with less distortion on the guitars. I felt it was McCartney’s attempt at staking his claim as a hard rocker but for me it just wasn’t convincing enough. “Revolution 1” is one of Lennon’s most classic songs though there’s another heavier version simply called “Revolution” not on this album that I like much more. The lyrics are controversial and showed Lennon’s political and social awareness that was to be one of his musical signatures. If you get a chance read through the lyrics and I think you’ll know what I’m talking about.
“Honey Pie” is another one of McCartney’s pseudo-period pieces this time with a 1920’s cabaret sound. When McCartney does this and when it works it’s simply magnificent. It’s got a lot of charm and personality and is simply just fun to listen to. Listen to the awesome horn section and clarinet arrangement and you’ll see how dynamic and well versed both Lennon and McCartney were musically. A song on my second album, “馬戲團“, was very much influenced by this song but much more exaggerated and blown up.
The amazing thing about “The White Album” is its wide range of music styles and diversity in its subject matter. However, for me the album never felt chaotic or tiresome but, rather, everything came together beautifully. “Revolution 9” is an experimental collage of sounds comprised of tape edits and sound processing. Maybe not pleasant to listen to it did, however, showcase the avant-garde spirit of the band especially Lennon’s desire to push the envelope. Some say that Lennon’s “Revolution 9” was very much inspired by his wife, Yoko, who was an avant-garde performing artist herself. This was a piece that must have been equally praised and criticized by listeners as it seemed out of place on the album (should have belonged on a Stockhausen album perhaps) but I feel it was an admirable challenge. “Goodnight” is the last song on the album and provided a warm closing to a long yet enlightening musical journey. The song is sung by Ringo Starr who is the drummer and not known for his singing ability. I personally quite like the song and feel Starr’s vocal delivery is very effective as his voice is earnest and unpolished. It reminds me of the old Disney songs with their lush orchestrations and tender melodies.
“The White Album” is such a rich and masterful album that has both educated and touched me from my youth till now. It is an album that I would love to share with you especially if you tire of today’s music. There is a wealth of emotion, musical and technical genius for everybody from the casual listener to the professional musician. There are many other great Beatles’ albums that I might “review” in the future but, for now, I’d like to present to you one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s still as fresh now as when I heard it for the first time nearly 25 years ago.
Enjoy it, DT

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