A Classic Revisited: 'The White Album'
This November marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most discussed double albums in the annals of popular music: The Beatles' self-titled album, best known the world over as The White Album for its austere monochromatic cover. Arguably the most influential of the band's long-form releases—how much subsequent music out there actually resembles Sgt. Pepper's, Abbey Road or even Revolver?—The White Album is generally recognized as ambitious and visionary, pregnant with top-notch tunes, but incredibly uneven, nonetheless. It is for good reason that respected music journalist Charles Shaar Murray once referred to it as the best and the worst of The Beatles all in one.
Included among the 90+ minutes of music, are 30 tracks across 4 vinyl sides—or later, 2 CDs—ranging from acoustic ballads, forays into hard rock/blues/proto metal, avant garde experiments and classic Beatles pop, all of varying quality and complexity; performed by both a unit clearly in flux, and individuals as band leaders with their own musical statements to make. To echo Shaar Murray's above statement, there is some wonderful, transcendent music here. As well as some sub par nonsense—even a few unworthy of filler status—that should've never seen the light of day.
This was, of course, the record The Beatles set out to make, despite the objections of their most important collaborator, über producer George Martin himself, who was not at all partial to the idea of making it any lengthier than a single album; and over the years many have agreed with him. (We do.) But, as seems to be the case with every revered double album since, no one seems to agree on a single album-length track listing. Some may argue this indeed proves the overall greatness of the record, while we are inclined to think that perhaps a lack of the necessary mettle to discard sentimental favorites is mostly to blame.
Of course, who can argue the inclusion of such gems as "Back in the USSR", "Dear Prudence", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", "Happiness is a Warm Gun", "Martha My Dear", "Blackbird", "I Will", "Julia", "Mother Nature's Son", and "Long Long Long"? But then the selection process starts getting murky and, for many, objectivity becomes hard to muster. One would think the likes of "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da", "Wild Honey Pie", "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill", "Piggies", "Rocky Raccoon", "Why Don't We Do it in the Road?" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" would be imminent castoffs for those seeking to streamline the record into a more cohesive statement. Yeah, right. Good luck with that. (To wit: the late Ian MacDonald, who wrote the must-read, chronological account of every song The Beatles recorded, Revolution in the Head, would certainly add "Helter Skelter" to the latter bunch. But we wouldn't. So there you go.)
One rarely mentioned and very important aspect of The White Album's influence is how, for better or for worse, its very nature—the sometimes maddening variety and scope of the record—can be seen as the future indie/alt-rock generation's musical ADD blueprint. This influence, which we alluded to earlier, is what leads us to consider it much more far-reaching in affixing its stamp on subsequent artists and like-minded albums, than the aforementioned Sgt. Pepper's, Abbey Road or Revolver.
On a personal level, while The White Album is not our top favorite among the Fabs' records—that distinction belongs to Abbey Road—it has been, however, very near and dear to our hearts from the very moment we discovered it decades ago. If for whatever reason you haven't had the chance, give it a spin. Like all of The Beatles' best work, once you put aside the myth and the hype, you'll surely understand why we're still talking about it four decades on.
[No news on whether the album's anniversary will be commemorated with a re-issue; a 30th anniversary, limited-edition, 2 CD set, designed to resemble the original vinyl release, was issued in 1998.]