Album Revisit: The Beatles’ ‘White Album’

This is an installment of a series of blogs where I revisit some classic albums that I  love, used to love or has made an impact on pop culture whether I am familiar with it or not. You can also make suggestions on a classic album, and I may give a whirl and review it. Email me at jfroemming(at)bemidjipioneer.com or comment below.

Now that the Fab Four are on Spotify, I figured now is the time to tackle one of the band’s albums for this series. The Beatles had a surprising amount of output in the seven years they were recording as a band (13 albums; one of those is a double album and this does not even include all the non-album singles the group recorded).  Even more shocking is the quality of the songwriting/recording/production. There is not really a dud in the whole catalog (the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack would be the one I listened to the least out of the band’s albums, and that really doesn’t count as an album since there are only six Beatles songs on it, two of which appeared on other records). Some songs certainly don’t make the grade, but those are so few and far between that even the worst of the band’s songs never drag down an entire album.

Whenever I’m asked which Beatles album is my favorite, it’s usually a battle between the self-titled album (“White Album,” which is what I will refer to it from here on) and “Revolver.” As I get older, I tend to go back to “The White Album” more often.

I first got into “The White Album” when I was 17. It was the one Beatles album — at that time — I really hadn’t listened to. My dad had it, but he rarely played it. I was reluctant to buy it because double albums were expensive back then (again, this was the 1990s, a time when people actually had to buy albums to hear them). So it was a risky investment. My dad and uncles use to make fun of the album when I was growing up, mostly because of “Revolution 9,” which apparently played on an endless loop in my uncle’s car stereo in the 1970s because the 8-track got stuck.  Yoko sang on it, which was not appealing to me. So the first time playing it, I really had no idea what to expect.

And it floored me. Only two other albums had done the same to me at that time in my life: Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral.” It was shaky at first, since I’ve never liked “Back in the U.S.S.R” which opens the first disc. But “Dear Prudence” and most of what followed I fell in love with. It sounded like the Beatles, but at the same time had a completely different feel than any Beatles album that came before — or after.

The magic of “The White Album” is that it perfectly blends the psychedelia of “Revolver” up through “Magical Mystery Tour” with the band’s early blues-based rock. It certainly has a more “live” sound than the heavily produced “Sgt. Pepper’s” as well as more eclectic styles genre-wise.

It is a sprawling album, for sure, and that meant the band could experiment more — which sometimes worked (“Wild Honey Pie”) and sometimes it didn’t (“Revolution 9”). It allowed songs that might not have made it on a single album to be included. At this time, McCartney and Lennon were pumping out an impressive amount of material. Harrison contributed more than usual to “The White Album,” but he wouldn’t hit his songwriting stride until he recorded his solo album, “All Things Muss Pass” a few years later.

The band was dealing with inner turmoil at the time of recording “The White Album.” Bloated egos and in-fighting were becoming huge issues. Ringo left the band amid the acidic atmosphere, but eventually came back. Given that the members were quickly outgrowing their roles in the group, it makes sense that “The White Album” plays like four solo albums on two discs. This would continue pretty much (though in a more tighter fashion) with “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road.”

The album also allowed for the members to somewhat flip the so-called roles people labeled them (Lennon was the rocker, McCartney was the sappy balladeer). Paul showed he could rock just as much, if not more, than Lennon — especially with a beast of a song like “Helter Skelter,” while Lennon penned some of his most beautiful ballads on the album with tracks like “Julia.” George, frustrated with the band, brought Eric Clapton on board to go balls-out nuts on guitar with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Though I am still partial to the demo/acoustic version that appeared on the “Anthology 3” collection. It is just a much more haunting, vulnerable take on the track.

The album also features the only Ringo song I actually enjoy. “Don’t Pass Me By” is such a strange, yet lovable track that doesn’t fall into the cutesy tropes that seemed to haunt Ringo’s songs with the group. Though I prefer the sped up, mono version better than the stereo cut. It remains pretty much the only Ringo track of the band’s entire catalog I don’t dislike with a fiery passion.

With all the positive aspects for “The White Album,” even I have to admit their are some real turds on it. While this album allowed Lennon and McCartney to branch out more creatively, it also allowed them to follow on some pretty rotten whims, of which Lennon takes the cake with one horrendously misguided track I mentioned above that haunted my uncle’s car stereo in the late 1970s.

McCartney penned what is hands down one of the worst songs I’ve ever endured with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (the mono mix takes out the hand claps, which makes it slightly more bearable). The irritating piano, the nonsensical lyrics, the all too cheery vocals on this track is the musical equivalent of overdosing on sugar. Lennon and Harrison famously despised the song.

Despite the few duds, it remains perhaps the most impressive output (in my opinion) that the Beatles had done. It is the logical bridge between the Summer of Love vibe of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and the more adult and mature feel of “Abbey Road.”

What I enjoy most is how the album’s tracks zig and zag in style and tone. Rock numbers, bizarre psychedelic one-offs, acoustic ballads and novelty songs all seamlessly weave from one into the other, and the crazy part is it makes sense as a listener (minus the two tracks I do not enjoy). “The White Album” was a record that was a breath of fresh air after the crazed fog of psychedelia that dominated the band’s three previous albums. It still kept the weirdness of what came before, but also went back to rock and roll basics.

Songs like “Yer Blues” and “I’m So Tired” showed a more raw, angry John Lennon that listeners had not heard before. Those tracks are pretty clear indicators of where he was heading as an artist and would’ve fit pretty well on his first proper solo album (“Plastic Ono Band”).

It is also the one Beatles album I have yet to get burned out on. Perhaps that is because it is the group’s most eclectic output of music, maybe because it’s a double album and offers more tracks, but it is usually my go-to when I feel like listening to the band.

“The White Album” captured the Beatles going through growing pains as a band and as individuals. Those pains would continue through “Let It Be,” which if you ever see the movie, it is blatantly clear by the sheer amount animosity among the members toward one another that the band had become too small to fit these big talents. And those collective pains would ultimately come to an end with “Abbey Road,” an album which you can tell Lennon barely showed up to record.

And as a side note, I will state that I enjoy the mono mix of “The White Album” way more than the stereo mix. It feels a little tighter, and has slight changes here and there that make quite a difference. It is still only available in the mono box set, but if you ever get a chance, give it a listen. In fact, I prefer the mono mixes of all the Beatles albums over the stereo (“Let It Be” and “Abbey Road” were the only Beatles albums not mixed in mono).

  • For me it’d be a choice between the White Album and Rubber Soul for the best of the Beatles, but the White Album is still one of the best albums of all time. So much there to love. Julia, Don’t Pass Me By, I Will, Blackbird, Honey Pie. Glorious.

    Incidentally I think I would take a hammer to it if my car played Revolution 9 on repeat. There’s a song where “getting it” doesn’t make it any easier to listen to…

  • Dan

    Ah, a Beetles fan. So refreshing in these parts.

    I was at my local brewery the other day attempting to get the barkeep … or perhaps it’s brewkeep … to play “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Alas, I was far from successful.

    They did seem to have a mighty appreciation for the works of Journey and Bon Jovi, though.

    I just went home and played “Abbey Road.” I’m certain I had the better night.