The Accidental Perfection of the Beatles’ White Album

To mark this month’s fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ ninth album, “The Beatles”—universally known as the White Album—several new expanded and enhanced editions are being released this week. These new versions were created under the supervision of Giles Martin, the son of the album’s original producer, George Martin. As was done last year with “Sgt. Pepper,” the new editions contain, along with a wealth of archival recordings and other material, a brand-new, digitally remixed presentation—a laborious retrieval and reassembly of the contents of the original multitrack master tapes, with a comprehensive scope far beyond that of all previous remasters and releases. The result reveals what might be called the greatest record ever made, not only in terms of its innovation and its strange, impenetrable, endlessly suggestive beauty but also because of its place at the apex of the Beatles’ career and its role as an aesthetic keystone for nearly all the rock-and-roll recordings that have followed.

Fifty years later, “The White Album,” the Beatles’ masterpiece, is still good, still indelible, still as clean and pure as its sleeve, requiring no explanation or description beyond the band’s name.Photograph by David Redfern / Getty

Upon returning to England from Rishikesh, India, in April, 1968, John Lennon and George Harrison stripped and sanded the psychedelic paintwork off of their Gibson J-160E Casino guitars; Donovan, one of the many musicians who had accompanied them to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram for an advanced transcendental-meditation course, had told them that this would improve the sound. “If you take the paint and varnish off and get the bare wood,” Harrison explained later, “it seems to sort of breathe.” This stripping away of psychedelic symbolism was part of a larger campaign that the band undertook to remove the layers of Beatles mythology, habit, and convention that had accumulated since their beginnings, as Liverpool teen-agers—before Germany and America, before Astrid Kirchherr’s arty portraits had fetishized their mop-top haircuts, before Ed Sullivan and “A Hard Day’s Night,” and Shea Stadium, and the rest of it. Psychedelia, and the Beatles’ influential participation in it, had peaked with the release of their landmark 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the surrealist tracks on which had beguiled the world and, many said, inspired the Summer of Love. The American political theorist Langdon Winner observed, “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album was released. . . . At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80; in each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Sgt. Pepper” had its detractors: the British critic Nik Cohn complained that “it wasn’t much like pop. . . . It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. . . . Without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, [the Beatles] don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots, and then they’re human like anyone else; they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell.” “ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere,”

Lennon observed years later; the next record, he believed, would be a chance “to forget about ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and get back to making music.” Brian Epstein, the record-store manager who discovered and managed the Beatles, had died unexpectedly in August of 1967; without Epstein, without the pressures and demands of touring (which they had stopped after 1966), and having reached this apparently historic peak of artistic and worldly success and fame, the Beatles were finally free from all constraints and paternal influences. When they eventually soured on meditation and the ashram culture—as Lennon would relate in his savage renunciation, “Maharishi” (eventually renamed “Sexy Sadie”)—there were, finally, no father figures left at all.

The sojourn in India, led by Harrison, had been an attempt to start over, accelerating the stripping-away process that would culminate in their most ambitious musical project. “I remember talking about the next album, and George was quite strict,” McCartney said. “He’d say, ‘We’re not here to talk music—we’re here to meditate.’ ” But the songwriting—inspired by the locale, the Maharishi’s lectures, and, especially, the impromptu celebrity community there—had accelerated, and Lennon soon sent a postcard to Ringo Starr (who had tired of meditation sooner than the others and returned to London), saying, “We’ve got about two LPs worth of songs now, so get your drums out.”

The Beatles’ transition from performance to studio work, and the atomized process it allowed and encouraged, now reached its apotheosis. George Martin, who was the Beatles’ Maxwell Perkins, producing all but one of their albums, explained,

“The ultimate aim of everybody [had been] to try and recreate on records a live performance as accurately as possible. . . . We realized that we could do something other than that.”

“Sgt. Pepper” is a simulacrum of a performance, the concert crowds replaced by recorded cheering, but the new record would remove this narrative crutch. Also gone was the picturesque subject matter: the street landscapes and polite courtships, the elderly couples and fumbling suitors and office workers trapped in suburban patterns, intruded upon by surrealism, like figures in Magritte paintings. In their place would be a clear, raw vision of an unsafe, chaotic world.

As McCartney recounts in his notes accompanying the new edition, “We had left Sgt. Pepper’s band to play in his sunny Elysian Fields and were now striding out in new directions without a map.” The Abbey Road studios became the Beatles’ safe space, where, as McCartney writes,

“the tensions arising in the world around us—and in our own world—had their effect on our music but, the moment we sat down to play, all that vanished and the magic circle within a square that was The Beatles was created.” Fitting together like a novel or a painter’s canvas, “The Beatles” abandons psychedelia for a more sophisticated set of aesthetic principles, embracing the avant-garde: Lennon had begun spending time with a new girlfriend, the conceptual artist Yoko Ono, who had been associated with the Fluxus movement, a group that pledged in its manifesto to “purge the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, illusionistic art, mathematical art . . . promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art, promote non art reality to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals [and] Fuse the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front and action.”

“The Beatles” is as much a concept album as “Sgt. Pepper,” and the concept is, again, right in the title: a top-to-bottom reinvention of the band as pure abstraction, the two discs, like stone tablets, delivering a new order. (“By packaging 30 new songs in a plain white jacket, so sparsely decorated as to suggest censorship,” Richard Goldstein wrote in his New York Times review, “the Beatles ask us to drop our preconceptions about their ‘evolution’ and to hark back.”) The songs progress through a spectral, mystical, and romantic dimension, the soundscape itself becoming fluid and associative. The Beatles’ ability to conjure orchestras and horns and sound effects and choirs out of thin air imbues the tracks with a dream logic. The juxtaposition of order and disorder, of the ragged and the smooth, of the sublime and the mundane, of the meticulously arranged and the carelessly misplayed, provides what the critic John Harris called “the sense of a world moving beyond rational explanation.” The music seemed to absorb the panic and violence of 1968, the “year of the barricades.” As the Sunday Times critic commented,

“Musically, there is beauty, horror, surprise, chaos, order; and that is the world, and that is what the Beatles are on about: created by, creating for, their age.”

Like “Gravity’s Rainbow,” The White Album starts with “a screaming across the sky”—the roar of a Viscount aircraft’s jet engines, heralding the impetuous proto-globalism of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” a parody Chuck Berry track (with fake Beach Boys harmonies, as suggested by the actual Beach Boy Mike Love, in Rishikesh). The song, which was condemned by the John Birch Society as an endorsement of Communism, may have started as a joke, but by 2003, when McCartney played it live before a hundred thousand people in Red Square, the continent-spanning intimations of the counterculture of 1968 (“the whole world is watching,” demonstrators chanted outside the Democratic National Convention) had reached fruition, the world having caught up with the music. As this ferocious opening track (with McCartney drumming) cross-fades to the delicate acoustic arpeggios of Maharishi-inspired pastoral bliss (Lennon famously luring Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence to “come out to play”), the album’s scale and ambitions start to become clear.

The first two sides follow the William Blake template, providing literal “songs of innocence” that foreshadow the darkness to come. Like vaudeville acts, these vignettes shift in style and tonality, including a music-hall sing-along about young lovers in a fantasy marketplace; an ode to McCartney’s sheepdog, Martha (an experiment in contrapuntal piano); Lennon’s overt, itemized rejection of extant Beatle mythology (“Glass Onion”); and a sweet meditation on a blackbird with broken wings, which doubles as an exploration of Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor. But, already, blue notes intrude on the carnival: images of American landscapes, from Miami Beach to “the black mining hills of South Dakota,” juxtaposed with gun violence; the Saturday-matinée cowboy Rocky Raccoon receiving a fast-draw wound, followed, apparently, by divine grace; and, from Lennon, two discrete, tragically ironic anti-gun messages—the “all-American” Bungalow Bill, needlessly murdering tigers, and a coöpted N.R.A. slogan (“happiness is a warm gun”) that seems to inspire an erotic, drug-infused daydream (“I need a fix so I’m going down”).

As this first act draws to a close, childish things are set aside. A pair of Harrison compositions that wed existential yearning with literal appetites—the aching, primal despair evinced while his guitar (actually, Eric Clapton’s) “gently weeps” is set against “Piggies,” a sardonic Orwellian portrait of predatory capitalism— precedes the explosive adolescent lust of McCartney’s “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” and, finally, “Julia,” Lennon’s wrenching, heartbroken apostrophe to his dead mother, who took him to the seashore as a boy. The song is a stunning solo-guitar-accompanied performance, the lyrics of which acknowledge his newfound love for Yoko (“ocean child,” when written in Japanese)—whom he addressed as “Mother” and whose companionship, he explained later, filled psychic absences that earlier relationships couldn’t, and exposed the inadequacy of earlier love songs—and it closes the book on a collective childhood abandoned and lost.

Listeners in 1968 would now physically switch to the second LP, upon which the gathering storm clouds become impossible to ignore. Growing up (“Birthday”) means that the plot thickens—the unexpected, propulsive sixteen-bar vamp in that song, with screams in the distant background, heralds the turbulence to come. McCartney can still evoke the psalmlike beatitude of the Maharishi’s lectures (“Mother Nature’s Son”), but soon that mask slips,revealing a terrifying blackness. “Helter Skelter,” an attempt to make “the dirtiest, loudest rock ’n’ roll track you’ve ever heard” (in direct competition with Pete Townshend’s boasts about the Who’s recent “I Can See for Miles”), is so wild and unrestrained that it actually fights back against its own fadeout, returning so that we can hear it crash and burn (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”). McCartney’s incongruous laugh, halfway through, is somehow the most evil touch on the track. The slow first draft of the single “Revolution,” which the New Left Review dismissed as “a petty bourgeois cry of fear” (although Lennon does hedge his pacifistic reluctance to “talk about destruction,” singing “You can count me out . . . in”), is the Beatles’ first overt acknowledgment of chaotic current events. “I thought it was about time we spoke about it,” Lennon explained, “the same as I thought it was about time we stopped not answering about the Vietnam War.” Having shed his self-censorship in this moment, he would spend the remaining twelve years of his life embracing political activism.

There is another set of songs by Harrison, book-matched with the first, that again concerns spiritual and material hunger, but the framework is inverted: he has, overtly, found God (“Long, Long, Long”), concluding the album’s third side with a cathedral of resonant guitar harmonics, and, returning his newly serene gaze to worldly matters, he is now merely amused by the once-appalling appetites of humanity, which are revealed as a harmless and forgivable craving for sweetness (“Savoy Truffle”). That same cordial, fond disdain—a newfound parental loftiness—informs Lennon’s fairy-tale “Cry Baby Cry,” which dead-ends at McCartney’s unnamed, stray fragment of forlorn, retrograde confusion and vertigo. “Can you take me back where I came from? / Can you take me home?” McCartney pleads, as if overcome with nostalgic grief for childhood innocence. But there is no going back: “The higher you fly / the deeper you go / so come on,” Lennon shouts, in his defiant, us-against-the-world declaration of his controversial new love.

What follows is an abandonment of all order, a descent into pure chaos. As with 1968’s other impenetrable conversation piece, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the White Album skates off the edge of reality and into the abyss with “Revolution 9,” a Fluxus-inspired montage, beginning with a recording engineer testing the studio’s No. 9 input and ending with what Charles Manson admiringly described as “the sounds of the end of the world.” Only when that nightmare is consummated, closing in screams and roaring flame, can the album’s initial globalism return. Accompanied by George Martin’s orchestra, Ringo’s sweet delivery of Lennon’s final lullaby ends with a whispered “good night” to “everybody, everywhere,” the Beatles apparently floating over the Earth like Kubrick’s “2001” Star Child returned from his journey “beyond the infinite,” or like Apollo 8’s Frank Borman, who, six weeks later, read a Christmas prayer from orbit, prompting one grateful woman to send nasa a telegram to tell Borman that he “saved 1968.”

The remixing and remastering of this new anniversary edition illustrate how constrained the Beatles were by the nineteen-sixties technology that limited the recordings to eight or even four tracks, which had to be “mixed down,” losing clarity each time, in order to add more music. Rebuilt digitally, the album’s enormous soundscape is finally complete: the progressive generational muddiness is gone, revealing the dry snap of Ringo’s snare and Harrison’s full-throated gentle weeping and the thunderous effervescence of McCartney’s bass runs and Lennon’s halting intakes of breath. We can fully hear, at last, what they were trying to do. The formal, holistic creation is complete—unavoidable razor-blade splices and editing errors (exposed by earlier CD editions) are now gone, replaced by the smooth, clean bite of the digital transfers, a final “stripping away” that elevates the material to the Platonic form for which it was conceived.

The ancillary draft materials included in the anniversary sets—particularly the infamous “Esher Demos,” which collect the Rishikesh songs into a silken acoustic set, recorded at Harrison’s home—shed a harsh but not unflattering light on the Beatles’ meticulous, unhurried studio process. As when Matisse hired a photographer to document a painting’s evolution (“The Dream,” from 1940), the meandering, impulsive leaps of intuition are shown to be directionless, almost random, until they strike gold. Hearing the long, ragged McCartney improv that yielded the twenty-eight seconds of the unnamed, spectral “Can You Take Me Back” fragment, on the fourth side, puts the listener almost in an Ezra Pound position, seizing on the precise instant when the music catches fire. In particular, the clumsy, ten-minute sixteenth take of “Revolution” seems to have been randomly included until one suddenly recognizes the seeds of “Revolution 9”—the hoarsely shouted “All right”s, Yoko Ono’s recitation, the feedback—and understands how the two tracks are connected. The exhaustive material included in the full seven-disc edition is essential only to obsessive completists. As with the encyclopedic “Anthology” collections, from 1994, these tracks mostly provide a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the tedium of recording, but serendipitous moments—McCartney joyously singing “Love Me Do,” the Beatles’ first single, written when he was sixteen, over an unrelated rhythm track, or the band spontaneously launching into “Blue Moon” or Elvis’s “You’re So Square,” as if by telepathy—are engaging even while revealing nothing new.

Like the screaming rockets of “Gravity’s Rainbow”, the Beatles had reached brennschluss, the point of altitude at which the thrust gives out, and, after the White Album, there was not much left but dying momentum.

“They don’t belong to their own time or place any more; they’ve flown away into limbo,”

Nik Cohn wrote, in 1969.

“In some sense they have opted out, and they can hardly come back in again. . . . In thirty years, I doubt they’ll have meant as much as Elvis Presley.”

But, as the British critic John Harris argues,

“it was these 30 songs that decisively opened the way for musicians to extend their horizons beyond the standard LP format.”

And, in the age of St. Vincent and Jay-Z; in the direct aftermath of the twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s “OK Computer”; forty years after Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the Who’s “Quadrophenia”; and as evidenced by YouTube videos of millennials “discovering” the Beatles, it’s clear that the doorway opened during those months at Abbey Road has never been, and can never be, closed.

The Beatles’ naïve and aggressively experimental musicianship propelled their most fractured and divisive project into a kind of accidental perfection. Fifty years later, the record is still good, still indelible, still as clean and pure as its sleeve, requiring no explanation or description beyond the band’s name. As the first century of electricity and world war recedes—the century of radio and movies and television and jazz, the final unconnected century, when teen-agers around the world flooded the seaport docks as new vinyl arrived—these ninety-four minutes endure, preserving the instant that rock joined the pantheon of the highest arts.


New Yorker

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