They Say It’s Your Birthday: The 45th anniversary of The Beatles’ “White Album”
91.3 WYEP celebrates the 45th anniversary of The Beatles, the only double album released by The Beatles. The record, one of the few major albums in rock history that is rarely called by its correct title (mostly called by its nickname The White Album), was originally released on November 22, 1968 (three days later in the U.S.). Here’s a look at the songs on the White Album in the original vinyl record sequence:
1. Back in the U.S.S.R. (written by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Ringo Starr made an enormous contribution to the success of The Beatles, from his distinctive and tasteful drumming to his quick wit at early press conferences to his superior acting abilities in A Hard Day’s Night. However, he was surrounded by such towering talents that he often got the short end of the stick in recognition, certainly from the public but even from his bandmates at times. During the recording of the White Album everything came to a dramatic apex when, on the evening of August 22, 1968, Ringo became the first Beatle to quit the band. He stormed out of Abbey Road studios, and promptly left the country to go on holiday. To add insult to injury, the rest of the band recorded “Back in the U.S.S.R.” quite well without him, as the Fab Three with Paul on drums, taking a mere two days to complete the track, making Ringo seem indeed superfluous. The song was a Paul composition, a nifty pastiche of Beach Boys and Chuck Berry musical and lyrical ideas. Of course, some anti-rock & roll crusaders took the song as final admission once and for all that the band was an elaborate Iron Curtain plot to destroy a generation of Western youth. The well-known Beatles detractor David Noebel, author of such pamphlets as “Communism, Hypnotism and The Beatles,” wrote of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “obviously the lyrics have left even the Reds speechless.” (later covered by Chubby Checker and Billy Joel)
2. Dear Prudence (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) When The Beatles went on an extended retreat to India for meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, John took advantage of the pastoral setting and wrote a particularly productive number of songs. It was quite the scene at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh; not only were The Beatles and their wives in residence, but the singer Donovan as well as actress Mia Farrow. “Dear Prudence” was written about Farrow’s younger sister, who was also at the retreat in India. Prudence Farrow became a virtual hermit in almost constant mediatation, and Lennon sang of his and George’s efforts to get her to leave her room and join the others in communal gatherings. (later covered by Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Five Stairsteps, and the Jerry Garcia Band)
3. Glass Onion (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) John Lennon’s compositions on the White Album are chock full of the clever and imagistic wordplay that was his hallmark. He also delved into montage, from the song quilt “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” to the sound collage “Revolution 9″ to the tour of Beatles songs past, “Glass Onion.” As put by a 1968 album review, the “Glass Onion” has “fun with all the Ph. D. candidates doing theses on their lyric content” with “all sorts of references to characters in their earlier works.” The song alludes to five previous Beatles songs, including “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Lady Madonna,” “The Fool on the Hill,” and “Fixing a Hole.”
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Paul McCartney knew a Nigerian-born percussionist in London named Jimmy Scott who frequently used a Yoruba language expression “ob-la-di ob-la-da,” or “life goes on.” The Beatle plucked the saying for use in a song. From the beginning the song gave The Beatles headaches in the studio trying to record it. The band did numerous takes and retakes of the song, trying to satisfy the increasingly perfectionist McCartney. In the early versions, the song had an acoustic guitar-based arrangement. After one otherwise flawless run-through of the song, Paul realized that he mixed up the lyrics. Instead of singing, “Molly stays at home and does her pretty face” as he had written, he sang “Desmond” instead of Molly. After consideration, he decided to leave the mistake as is to give fans something to ponder. Of course, at this stage of The Beatles’ career, listeners didn’t need any assistance trying to decode hidden meanings in the band’s lyrics. One contemporaneous reviewer, reading a little tenuously into the song’s title, wondered if there was significance that the title was an anagram for “diablo,” Spanish for “devil.” The song used a ska beat, not very common at the time in mainstream pop songs. The beat is a little obscured in The Beatles’ recording, but it’s emphasized more in other cover versions. After so many attempts to get the sound right for the song, one night John walked into the studio in a fairly altered state of mind and sat down at the piano. Declaring to the others that “this is it!” he smashed the piano keys with a faster, harder, and somewhat more ragged intro to the song. That difference in energy turned out to be just the change that the song needed. (later covered by Marmalade, Youssou N’Dour, and Jimmy Cliff)
5. Wild Honey Pie (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) A bit of a nonsense song which merely repeats “honey pie” several times over some quirky music and concludes with a sung “I love you, honey pie!” Exactly the sort of song that makes one understand why George Martin wanted to trim the White Album to a single disc. (oddly, later covered by The Pixies)
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) Written by Lennon in India after observing an American woman and her teenage son go tiger hunting and then returned to the meditation camp to continue their spiritual studies. It was described by one reviewer as “a cunningly simple ditty that flashes with hints of America’s burgeoning violence and shrinking mythology.” The song also marks the first time that a Beatles’ significant other sang a lead vocal, if only for one line (the line “not when he looked so fierce..”). Both Yoko Ono and Ringo’s wife Maureen sing on the recording, but only Yoko gets a feature line.
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (composed by Harrison) George Harrison’s greatest contribution to the White Album, and high up on the list of his crowning achievements on any Beatles album, was his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The history of the track was interesting, beginning with the randomness which informed its very genesis. Inspired by the I Ching, Harrison picked up a book selected arbitrarily, opened up to a random page, and would write a song based on the first words he saw. The phrase was “gently weeps.” The song began life as an acoustic guitar number, one which had that same plaintive emotion found in the final version. Originally, the song had an extra verse that George cut before recording the final version (“I look from the wings at the play you are staging/While my guitar gently weeps/As I’m sitting here, doing nothing but aging/Still my guitar gently weeps”). On September 6, 1968, while driving in London, George was telling his buddy Eric Clapton about recording this song and finally asked him to perform on it. While The Beatles had plenty of little known session musicians on their records, they had never had a guest star play on one of their records. However, the public wouldn’t be initially aware of this musical cameo, as Clapton was never credited in the album’s liner notes. After hearing his performance, Clapton was unsure how it worked with the song, thinking the solo didn’t didn’t sound “Beatley” enough. So they mixed the guitar part through an electronic device designed for John Lennon to use for his vocals, and the result was deemed quite suitable by all. (later covered by Peter Frampton, Jeff Healey Band, and Marc Ribot)
8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) On this song, Lennon stitched together three different new song snippets to form the one final composition. There was the “I need a fix” section, the “Mother Superior jumped the gun” piece, and the section which gave the song its title (the “happiness is a warm gun, bang bang, shoot shoot” section). (later covered by Tori Amos, U2, and The Breeders)
1. Martha My Dear (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Dan Wilson, formerly of the band Semisonic, underscores how a song can be diminished when you know its backstory with McCartney’s tune “Martha My Dear.” Actually written about McCartney’s sheepdog Martha, Wilson says that when he found out that fact, “I was just deflated by the revelation — I had had my own mental images… and to learn that” it was a dog “was such a letdown.” (later covered by Slade)
2. I’m So Tired (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) John’s companion piece to his earlier “I’m Only Sleeping.” Following Lennon’s “I’m So Tired,” one can hear him mumbling, ostensibly saying “Monseiur, monseiur, how ’bout another one?” Listeners had been scouring Beatles’ releases to divine special messages and hidden meanings for a long time, and beginning in 1969, the practice evolved into the “Paul is Dead” rumor, that McCartney had died in a car crash and was replaced by a lookalike, illustrated by a string of clues scattered throughout the band’s albums. These rumor proponents believed that Lennon’s mumbling was a backwards message saying “Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him.”
3. Blackbird (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) A song partially inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S., but its message was horribly mangled by at least one listener. The mass murderer Charles Manson thought that the White Album was a personal message to him to try to start a race war and the word “rise” was scrawled at one of the murder sites, supposedly because of McCartney’s use of “arise” in this song. (later covered by Bobby McFerrin and Sarah McLachlan)
4. Piggies (composed by Harrison) George’s writing was often about the mystical and the sublime, he was also sometimes rather cynically worldly in his songs. Like “Taxman” several years before, Harrison mocked establishment types and English society in “Piggies.” Originally, George had slightly different lyrics in the line about the piggies clutching forks and knives (“clutching forks and knives to cut their pork chops”) but Lennon suggested switching “pork chops” to “bacon” making the metaphorical suggestion of cannibalism more clear.
5. Rocky Raccoon (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) A country-folk storytelling number. The Chicago Tribune’s initial review of the album proclaimed it the critic’s favorite from the record. (later covered by Richie Havens and Jack Johnson)
6. Don’t Pass Me By (composed by Starkey) Up until the White Album, Ringo’s songwriting credits included merely one-third of “What Goes On,” the lone Lennon-McCartney-Starkey composition in the Beatles’ catalogue, and the Magical Mystery Tour instrumental “Flying,” attributed to all four band members. But Ringo finally completed a song that he had been working on since the group’s early days, “Don’t Pass Me By,” Ringo’s first song recorded with The Beatles. (later covered by The Georgia Satellites)
7. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) The White Album was a sprawling collection of styles, from heavy blues-rock to folk-pop to fiddle-drenched country to old-time music hall. This diversity was a strength to some listeners and a weakness to others, particularly when contrasted to the previous year’s masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Time magazine put it in their review, “skill and sophistication abound, but so does a faltering sense of taste and purpose.” Producer George Martin suggested to The Beatles that they cut the number of songs down by half, but the songwriters didn’t want to compromise their individual visions. Paul McCartney’s contributions to the set were a large part of that sonic diversity, contributing the Beach Boys take-off “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as well as the spare “I Will.” But while all of Paul’s songs are memorable, a number are clearly fluff, or at least ranking in the lower echelons of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. Just as Lennon was adding to album’s the signal-to-noise ratio with his sound effect pastiche “Revolution 9,” McCartney was similarly adding empty calories to the album with several non-songs, like the two-line, raunch-rock of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” (later covered by Lydia Lunch)
8. I Will (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) “I Will” was a fairly straightforward song, a typical Paul dreamy love song made distinctive by its clip-clop percussion. Some complained that it wasn’t even terribly original, sounding rather similar to the band’s song “I’ll Follow the Sun” from four years previous. Still, it turned out rather popular over the years with other folk-leaning performers, from Art Garfunkel to Hugh Masekela to Ben Taylor to Alison Krauss.
9. Julia (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) The White Album featured one song that ranked among the most personal of John’s career, his ode to his late mother, “Julia.” Lennon began the song with a reference to poet Khalil Gibran’s 1926 piece “Sand and Foam.” Gibran wrote “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” John’s version was “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia.” “Julia” was the only song in the Beatles catalog that Lennon recorded solely by himself without any assistance from his bandmates. (later covered by Ramsey Lewis and Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood)
1. Birthday (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Despite Paul’s reputation of tending towards schmaltz and syrupy pop in his songwriting, he always had a passion for Little Richard style belters and full-on rock ‘n’ roll. On the evening of Sept. 18, 1968, The Beatles took a break from recording and went a couple of blocks away to Paul’s house to watch a BBC screening of the 1956 movie The Girl Can’t Help It, which featured Little Richard himself, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and The Platters. Afterwards, they went back to Abbey Road studios and immediately recorded “Birthday.” “Birthday” was a song that Paul essentially wrote in the studio that same day it was recorded. (later covered by Underground Sunshine, in a version which charted in the U.K.)
2. Yer Blues (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) One of John Lennon’s legacies as a songwriter is the absolutely fearless confessional style he evolved, particularly notably in his early solo albums. His songs for the White Album were a key part of this development in his approach. As early as the 1965 single “Help!,” Lennon was trying to stretch the boundaries of pop music away from its usual light romantic fare and into expressions of his own insecurities. However, not all of John’s musical expressions of misery and woe should be taken at face value. “Yer Blues” is full of heavy emotional imagery, but it was intended as a parody of blues and not a confessional at all. And yet in retrospect, one can’t help but compare the lyrics to some of Lennon’s early solo work. Just as “Yer Blues” refers to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones”) and proclaims rock & roll as little salvation from life’s troubles (“feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll”), so too does Lennon’s solo song “God” refer to Dylan, using his real last name (“I don’t believe in Zimmerman”) and proclaims a disbelief in both Elvis and The Beatles as figures of salvation (“I don’t believe in Beatles”).
3. Mother Nature’s Son (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Paul wrote “Mother Nature’s Son” while in India with the rest of the Beatles at a meditation retreat run by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi gave a lecture on nature one day that had strong impact on both McCartney and John Lennon. It inspired Paul to write “Mother Nature’s Son” and John composed “Child of Nature” which several years later turned into “Jealous Guy.” In another sign of growing tensions within the band, there was a moment while recording “Mother Nature’s Son” when Paul was working with producer George Martin and several horn players hired for the session. Everybody was having a good time when John and Ringo walked into the room. Suddenly, in the words of a studio engineer present, “you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.” The other Beatles stayed for only ten minutes or so, and then the tenseness disappeared as suddenly as it came on. (later covered by Harry Nilsson, John Denver, and Sheryl Crow)
4. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) A number of Lennon’s songs are written about his then-new relationship with Yoko Ono, including “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” During the sessions for the White Album, Lennon first brought Yoko with him to the studio. Not only was Yoko present but she felt free to offer suggestions and criticisms, ratcheting up the discontent and tensions between The Beatles. (later covered by Fats Domino and The Feelies)
5. Sexy Sadie (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) Originally titled “Maharishi,” the song bitterly detailed how betrayed Lennon felt after the spiritual advisor (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) was accused of a romantic entanglement with one of his students, leading John and George to leave India and cease studying with the Maharishi. The song was written after the two Beatles had just left the ashram, actually in the car angrily heading away. George convinced John to retitle and slightly rework the song, so it wasn’t so directly slanderous.
6. Helter Skelter (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Called upon its release as “perhaps the most frantic, compelling number the group has ever done.” In fact, the song is a result of Paul’s one-upmanship. He heard an interview with Pete Townshend of The Who talking about their famously loud, raucous sound, and Paul decided The Beatles needed to record a track as loud and sweaty as any band in the music scene. And rambunctious it was. Ringo’s famous concluding yell (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) was the result of intense jamming on the heavy rock number. In fact, one unreleased take of the song is perhaps the most sought-after Beatles recording never to be bootlegged or heard by the public thus far: an epic 27 minute long version of the song. The song was among those that mass murderer Charles Manson interpreted as a personal message to him, assigning the name “Helter Skelter” to the violent race war that he believed it was his mission to start. The lyrics are actually written about a children’s playground slide. (later covered by Siouxsie & the Banshees, U2, Pat Benatar, and even Mötley Crüe)
7. Long, Long, Long (composed by Harrison) The Beatles were always open to sonic accidents when recording their music. Sometimes it was a little touch and other times major, but one of these can be heard at the end of another George composition, “Long, Long, Long.” A wine bottle left on top of a speaker began to rattle when a certain note was played on the organ. They kept it in the final version of the song to add a mysterious-sounding touch. (later covered by Low and Tanya Donnelly)
1. Revolution 1 (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) The first song that The Beatles recorded in the studio for the White Album. It eventually became the only song on the album to also be released as a single, albeit with a different arrangement, and it was quite a rocker. The album one, officially titled “Revolution 1,” is remembered for being the slower, somewhat bluesy version, compared to the harder-edged single. The Lennon-penned number began life as a chaotic, caterwauling epic, with one take running to more than 10 minutes long, but “Revolution 1,” the less-intense album version, was John’s original intent. Always looking for a way to make his voice sound different, John tried recording the vocals while lying on the studio floor. Perhaps the vibe was a touch too laid back, though; George and Paul didn’t think the song was upbeat enough for the group’s next single, so John goosed the tempo and ferocity for the single arrangement.
2. Honey Pie (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily Paul) Continuing Paul’s forays into the music hall mannerisms he showcased on Sgt. Pepper’s “When I’m 64″ and in Magical Mystery Tour‘s “Your Mother Should Know.” (later covered by Tuck & Patti and even Barbra Streisand)
3. Savoy Truffle (composed by Harrison) George’s songs were finally starting to get their due with the White Album. Rather than his usual allotment of one song per album, this time he was accorded exactly one song per vinyl side. “Savoy Truffle” was inspired by George’s close friend Eric Clapton, who had a vicious sweet tooth and simply could not pass up chocolates. George took many of the sweets mentioned in the song (the cream tangerine, ginger sling, and so forth) copied straight off the box of a candy sampler. Included in the lyric was a swipe at the sometimes toxic atmosphere between The Beatles in the studio during the recording of the album. George sings “we all know ob-la-di, bla-da” referencing both Paul’s song and the Yoruba language translation of the phrase, “life goes on.” Perhaps reminded of the endless takes the band attempted of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” due to Paul’s perfectionism, George also sings “But what is sweet now, turns so sour.” (later covered by They Might Be Giants and Ella Fitzgerald)
4. Cry Baby Cry (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) Coming on the heels of the band’s disastrous Magical Mystery Tour film, which took a merciless drubbing by the critics, the White Album was the real start of the band’s latter-era intractable tension. Ringo quit the band for a couple of days at one point, only to be coaxed back. It wasn’t only the band who was affected; during the recording of “Cry Baby Cry,” one of the band’s talented studio engineers, Geoff Emerick, who had no small contribution to the sound of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s walked out, unable to deal with the strained atmosphere. Even producer George Martin departed in the middle of recording to go on vacation and left his assistant in charge of recording The Beatles. But despite the unpleasantness, the music was still inspirational. John Lennon wrote a few classics for the White Album, but many of his more run-of-the-mill compositions were still top-notch. One example is “Cry Baby Cry.” A critic wrote upon the album’s release that “‘Cry Baby Cry’ demonstrates anew The Beatles’ knack for rendering an Alice-in-Wonderland vision in a melancholy modern vein.” Interestingly, after “Cry Baby Cry” concludes on the album, but before the next track begins, the “Revolution 9″ sound montage, an unrelated Paul McCartney song pops in briefly. This brief snippet of song (which could be called “Can You Take Me Back,” from its lyrics) is not included on the album tracklisting, is not part of the album lyrics that were part of the original packaging, and is not among the songs officially published by the band. It’s almost like a brief, official bootleg of an otherwise unreleased song by the group. (“Cry Baby Cry” later covered by Richard Barone, Throwing Muses, and interestingly, punk band Samiam)
5. Revolution 9 (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) Lennon’s vision for the song was to have the song “Revolution” segue into a montage of music and sound effects which would sonically depict the revolution sang about in the musical portion. The “Revolution 9″ piece was eventually moved away from its parent song, and tucked away at nearly the album’s end, but it remained a brutal assault on the ears, resembling not so much a revolution as a waking nightmare. While the other Beatles and producer George Martin were strongly opposed to its inclusion on the final album, John and his then-new girlfriend Yoko Ono were proud of it as avant garde art and successfully fought for it to remain. Despite “Revolution 9″ being perhaps the most despised and least-listened to track on any Beatles’ album, it does have its fans. The band Phish once covered the entire White Album in concert from start to finish, even doing a surprisingly faithful live rendition of the piece.
6. Good Night (composed by Lennon-McCartney, primarily John) Traditionally, Ringo was given one spotlight lead vocal per album, usually written for him by one of the others. Ringo had often tried his hand at songwriting, but without much success. He liked to joke that whenever he wrote a song, the others would laugh as they pointed out that he had merely copped the melody of another song. On the White Album, John contributed a song to be a Ringo’s vocal turn. John had written “Good Night” as a lullaby for his son Julian, and he instructed producer George Martin to score an overly lush Hollywood-style orchestral arrangement for the track. Although it was tucked away at the end of the album after the ominous “Revolution 9,” the piece attracted notice with both critics and fans. The Chicago Tribune opined that it “should prove once and for all that the Beatles can do anything.” (later covered by The Carpenters, Kenny Loggins, and Manhattan Transfer)
written by Mike Sauter