Raw, flawed and veiled in shadow, The Bea­tles’ White Al­bum, 50 years on

Ken McNab on the work that cap­tured the world’s big­gest band at a cross­roads

The Herald Magazine - - Arts FEATURE -

YOU say you want a rev­o­lu­tion… well, we all want to change the world.” Not for the first time, John Len­non’s cul­tural an­ten­nae proved to be a light­ning rod for a world mired in so­cial and po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion. Equally, not for the first time, the most mav­er­ick of The Bea­tles caught the pre­vail­ing mood of the times.

Rev­o­lu­tion was Len­non’s mu­si­cal dis­ser­ta­tion on 1968, a year of vi­o­lence and dread, and the first song The Bea­tles recorded for the fol­low-up to Sergeant Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Viet­nam War raged, civil rights protests and vi­cious back­lashes pro­lif­er­ated across Amer­ica, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of gun-wield­ing ex­e­cu­tion­ers, the hip­pie en­clave at San Fran­cisco’s Haight-Ash­bury had de­scended into a quag­mire of hard drugs and crime, protesters and po­lice clashed at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Chicago.

Stu­dent power flared at cam­puses as far field as Berke­ley and Paris, Rus­sian tanks rolled into Cze­choslo­vakia, nu­mer­ous coun­tries were held in the stone fist of dic­ta­tor­ships and the dry tin­der of North­ern Ire­land pol­i­tics sparked into may­hem.

And, on Novem­ber 5, Richard Nixon de­feated Demo­cratic ri­val Hu­bert Humphrey to be­come the 37th pres­i­dent of the United States and, un­know­ingly, Len­non’s fu­ture neme­sis.

Only 17 months ear­lier, Len­non had pro­claimed All You Need is Love to build a bet­ter world. But the flow­ers that had blos­somed in 1967’s Sum­mer of Love had fast with­ered, re­placed by a dystopia-tinged win­ter of dis­con­tent, from which even The Bea­tles could not es­cape. Sergeant Pep­per, the band’s be­nign sym­bol of psychedelia, had been re­placed by the march­ing sounds of street­fight­ing men, epit­o­mised by The Rolling Stones’ track of the same name.

This, then, was the back­drop to Len­non, Paul McCart­ney, Ringo Starr and Ge­orge Har­ri­son re­leas­ing their ninth al­bum. The epony­mously ti­tled The Bea­tles, a sprawl­ing 30-track dou­ble al­bum, was a quixotic quilt em­brac­ing al­most ev­ery style of mu­sic from proto heavy me­tal, rock, pop and ca­lypso to blue­grass-tinged coun­try, cham­ber mu­sic and even the musique con­crete of avant-garde.

Re­leased on Novem­ber 22 – the fifth an­niver­sary of John F Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion – it was the most rad­i­cal col­lec­tion of songs the quar­tet as­sem­bled and as far re­moved from Pep­per and the ill-fated Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour project as could be imag­ined. Raw, of­ten flawed and fre­quently veiled in shadow.

Al­most five months in the mak­ing, and nearly 94 min­utes in length, it had no graph­ics or text on the white cover other than the band’s name em­bossed on its sleeve, pop art cre­ativ­ity that guar­an­teed it would be for­ever im­printed on pub­lic con­scious­ness as sim­ply the White Al­bum. It would go on to be­come their best­selling al­bum, cer­ti­fied at more than 20 mil­lion units by the Record­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica.

Be­tween the grooves, how­ever, lay the sound of four mu­si­cians en­tan­gled by per­sonal and pro­fes­sional par­ti­tions, of a band chaf­ing at the lim­i­ta­tions each im­posed on the other. The White Al­bum is the start of The Bea­tles’ long good­bye, a farewell that had its trace echoes in the death of their man­ager and men­tor Brian Ep­stein from a drug over­dose in July 1967 and would ul­ti­mately cul­mi­nate in the tatty tomb­stone of Let It Be.

Yet the al­bum’s roots lay in the bliss of their visit to In­dia in Fe­bru­ary of 1968 to study tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion with the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi, a chilled-out set­ting that in­spired a huge out­pour­ing of cre­ativ­ity, es­pe­cially from Len­non and McCart­ney. Har­ri­son of­ten chided them when the gui­tars came out: “We’re here to med­i­tate.” But the pair would of­ten meet clan­des­tinely in each other’s rooms to re­view their new work. “Re­gard­less of what I was sup­posed to be do­ing,” Len­non later re­called, “I did write some of my best songs there.”

AF­TER re­turn­ing to Bri­tain all four Bea­tles gath­ered at Har­ri­son’s bun­ga­low in Esher and banged out more than 20 of the un­var­nished acous­tic de­mos that had been writ­ten at the ashrams in Rishikesh, a prodi­gious amount of songs that, when added to oth­ers al­ready in their bot­tom drawer, would fit only on a dou­ble al­bum.

The ses­sions proper be­gan on May 30 in un­ortho­dox fash­ion. Len­non, in the midst of a mar­riage break-up, ar­rived at Abbey Road stu­dios with his new girl­friend Yoko Ono, a Ja­pa­nese avant-garde artist. Her ma­lig­nant pres­ence cre­ated an un­wanted dy­namic be­tween Len­non and the other three who had al­ways seen the stu­dio as a male-dom­i­nated sanc­tu­ary. Yoko be­gan to make sug­ges­tions about their mu­sic – the ul­ti­mate taboo. Hurt and not a lit­tle threat­ened by Yoko’s ar­rival in Len­non’s life, McCart­ney felt the need to get even. Re­venge took the form of Fran­cie Schwartz, an Amer­i­can writer, with whom he was hav­ing a re­bound fling af­ter his split from ac­tress Jane Asher, who also be­gan show­ing up at the ses­sions. And so be­gan a bit­ter stand-off that would last through­out the rest of the record­ings for The White Al­bum and, in­deed, the re­main­der of their days as a func­tion­ing band, lead­ing to ir­ra­tional ac­cu­sa­tions that Ono was to blame for their even­tual split in April 1970.

Soon the con­tent­ment of Rishikesh was re­placed by con­flict be­tween all four Bea­tles. With­out Ep­stein’s calm guid­ance, they were un­teth­ered. Len­non and McCart­ney no longer sat eye­ball to eye­ball to turn base me­tal into mu­si­cal gold. Rather, each one brought their own fully formed songs into the stu­dio and sang lead, with the other three re­duced to the roles of pli­able ses­sion men dur­ing takes. And this was, largely, the pat­tern that was set in stone for the rest of the ses­sions.

Over the next five months, ten­sions that had al­ways bub­bled un­der the

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