‘We were four guys […] we were just a band that made it very, very big, that’s all’.
In this short statement, John Lennon reduces the legacy left by The Beatles into a few simple words.
Yet there’s something striking and refreshing about Lennon’s statement. From their humble origins in Liverpool as the Quarrymen, The Beatles became the biggest band on the planet, an archetype for success, and the leading musical act of a generation of young people with tremendous socio-political awareness. On the one hand, it is easy to understand the continuing fascination judging purely by what they achieved: a prolific career marked by a fearless desire to experiment and break cultural boundaries. Their sonic adventurism and their ability to distil everything that is good and important about rock music set the blueprint for countless artists to follow. But on the other, there is a tendency to shroud the band’s history in half-truths which, although effective at perpetuating the Fab Four’s image as untouchable musical monoliths, prevent us from seeing that they were, in the end, only human – ‘four guys’ who made wonderful music but were just as susceptible to mistakes and just as prone to succumb to their weaknesses as the rest of us.
This sprawling record, their only double album, is a milestone. No other release is as effective at portraying the human, and ultimately fallible aspect of the band. The torturous recording process, now part of rock lore, was the natural result of an extremely high level of tension, particularly between Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles made a temporary clean break with their drug-infused experiences and went to India in early 1968 in search of spiritual meaning. Under the mentorship of Transcendental Meditation Guru Maharishi Yogi, they entered possibly the most creative period of their existence, writing about three dozen songs, most of which would end up on the White Album. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the White Album is where the Lennon-McCartney partnership had effectively ended and The Beatles stopped working as a unified entity; each songwriter laboured over their own songs without the input and opinions of the other members.
The White Album is the most challenging record in The Beatles’ oeuvre and a perfect representation of the interpersonal dynamics and strains that plagued the group from late 1967 up to its dissolution in 1970. There’s an astounding variety of genres which The Beatles reach for: hard blues (‘Yer Blues’), politically-minded blues-rock (‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, ‘Revolution 1’), music hall in ‘Honey Pie’, folk-rock (‘Blackbird’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Julia’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Rocky Raccoon’), wildly experimental works bordering on musique concrète (‘Wild Honey Pie’ and ‘Revolution 9’, the latter being a shining example of Ono’s impact on Lennon’s vision), and even proto-metal in ‘Helter Skelter’. The music is difficult to judge song by song because the White Album should be seen as a homogeneous product of a band on top of the world beginning to crash and making magnificent, messy noise on their way down.
The fundamentally disheartening trip to India takes shape through Lennon’s song writing, and his darkest and most acerbic work can be found here (‘Glass Onion’, ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’, ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’). On the path to becoming a counter-cultural icon, he talks sardonically about revolution in ‘Revolution 1’, and presents a mind-bending sound painting of social upheaval in ‘Revolution 9’. Nevertheless, there are scattered moments of vulnerability and disarming confessional poetry, especially on ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘Julia’, an ode to his departed mother.
As a balancing element to Lennon’s cynicism, McCartney is consistently quieter, more optimistic, and more interested in love and freedom (‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Honey Pie’, ‘I Will’), with the notable exceptions of ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, two numbers in which he blows the lid off and displays a surprising attitude of aggression and confrontation. Though the strong and competing personalities of Lennon and McCartney dominate the album, Harrison blossoms here into a mature writer with a penchant for irony and dry humour (‘‘Long, Long, Long’, ‘Piggies’, ‘Savoy Truffle’). ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a devastating and soul-searching testament to Harrison’s feeling of alienation, is the greatest song he wrote as a Beatle, with an emotionally charged contribution by his friend Eric Clapton.
On the White Album, The Beatles stumbled, but they stumbled gloriously, in a chaotic acceptance of their imperfections and their struggles; they did not find enlightenment in India nor did they stop disintegrating. Not all of the material is equally strong, but whatever one could consider a throwaway track has a definite place in the story of a group that kept experimenting and innovating while its members were drifting apart. To think that they were a mop-top singles band which had kick-started the British Invasion only five years earlier is almost incomprehensible. Yet, in a sense, this is the richest and most valuable lesson of the record – it reveals the force of Lennon’s idea that they were just ‘four guys’. With myths dissipated, we are left with the tragic beauty of the music these ‘four guys’ created.
Text by Vlad Nicu
Picture research by Donna Darafshian; featured image taken from thewhitealbumproject.com