The Beatles` White Album: Looking Through The Bent Back Tulips Forty Years Later

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1968 was a year of dramatic change. A few of those pivotal events were: the Tet Offensive, the Paris war protests in May, the killing of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as a blossoming partnership between John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I will link a helpful timeline of 1968 for you, so that you can gain a working knowledge of events for that turbulent year. The Beatles` White Album, which turned forty a few weeks ago, was a quintessential reflection of that era; I still remember that day (11/25/`68) clearly as if it was yesterday. This double album contains, by way of kinetic expression in pop song, much of the energy of 1968.

Now rewind the fragile reel tape back to the day. Just a week before a comment from a colleague at Jesuit Prep piqued my interest, “Did you hear John, that a new Beatles` album is set for release next week?” I got in gear and did some yard work to earn ‘record money’ and also rolled some quarters, dimes, and nickels in anticipation of B-Day. I was fidgety for several days, and invented ways in my mind that the new songs might possibly sound. I reviewed all of the older records so that I would be well oiled to make accurate assessments for the new release. This was a Standard Operating Procedure of that day.

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On November 25th, 1968 I waited in line agog with hope until the doors opened at the Melody Shop record store in North Dallas. When the doors finally opened, I swiftly entered the store, and could see the stacks of unopened LP boxes on the floor near the cashiers` station. The record clerk pulled the Lilly-white product from one of the boxes and politely handed me my very own personal platter. “The sun is up, the sky is blue, it`s beautiful, and so are you.” I paid the cashier with a combination of rolled coinage and paper currency and shot out of the store. I made the short walk back to my house with promises in hand.

I got home in a flash, pulled the unblighted white record out of the plain brown paper sack, and ripped off the cellophane wrapping. I impatiently yanked out disc one from its paper sleeve. I marveled at the pretty green apple logo inset of the disc; made haste to my parents` bedroom, then proceeded to pop disc one on the family Zenith stereo console within. As I listened to Back in the USSR attentively, I studied the inserted fold-out lyric sheet with groovy pik-collages on the other side. Then I discovered the four separate photo prints of The Beatles inside; a few days later these were tacked up on the wall. The ritual of listening to the records, studying the lyrics and artwork, and applying meaning to the blank white cover by Richard Hamilton, continued for weeks on end.

For example: Did Mother Superior Jumped the Gun mean that Christianity was outdated? Was the white cover symbolical for the purity of God? Or was it atheistic? Sexy Sadie is a put down of the Maharishi as a guru with a big ego who lusted after ladies. Guru worship, by the Fab Four, vanished away after that. I was at a Catholic prep school, so I tried to see if The Beatles had views about religion in the lyrics. I took a closer look at John`s comments about Christianity in 1966, said just as a lark. This was taken out of context by the Fundamentalist Christians and then the burning began. I will reference the quote for you here.

Imagine

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn`t argue that; I`m right and I will be proved right. We`re more popular than Jesus now; I don`t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” This is a quote from John Lennon from an article written by Maureen Cleave that appeared in the London Evening Standard on March 4, 1966. Please read it here in its full context. It`s just John jesting and trying to impress the reporter, or trying to explain Beatlemania.

John’s early death, in light of his comments, renews our sense that these were perilous times, radicals would not be tolerated. Lennon lived on the edge all of his life, and said shocking things as a defense mechanism against a hostile culture that may have been incapable of grasping his take on the world. The recent tardy pardon by the Vatican backs the notion that they took a good while (forty years) in sorting through Mister Lennon’s mocking words towards Christianity. The White Album is filled with snipes, jabs, and put downs of ‘polite society’. Look for yourself at the lyric sheet for little bursts of exasperation!

As a backdrop to my comments on several of my favorite songs, I will qualify the creation of this historic double record. Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, had died from a drug overdose in August of 1967. Brian had kept them fastidious and focused, but now that he was dead they did what they fancy well wanted to do. As a way of creating a tax dodge, they started their own label, Apple Records. I recall John and Paul appearing on The Tonight Show and making public this move. Hey Jude/Revolution was the first Apple single, and was successful beyond belief!

In February of 1968 The Beatles flew to Rishikish, India for a transcendental meditation session with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In India they wrote forty songs on acoustic guitar and many of these ended up on The White Album. As they ventured through these grueling recordings in the summer of 1968, they knew they were at the peak of their popularity, and that their every word and note would be siphoned in the silly sandbox of the youth movement. I love every song on The White Album, even Don’t Pass Me By, but for the sake of space, let me dissect a chosen few.

The sonic curiosities, its interplay of lyric and circular four chord progression, makes Dear Prudence a fascinating one for me. The song was written about Mia Farrow`s sister, Prudence, who wouldn`t come out of her bungalow from meditating (in India), so John and George were recruited to coax her out of her turtle shell. The lyrics are presented in a nursery rhyme format and the acoustic guitar is finger-picked in a droning, repeating evolvement, with the bass thumping merrily on the bottom end. “The clouds will be a daisy chain, so let me see you smile again.” George’s guitar, with tints of flange, cascades gaily up the scale on the final verse, while Paul’s piano twinkles briskly as the chaps try to cheer up the sequestered, sad-eyed Prudence.

Glass Onion is just John fencing with fans (his crackerjack wordplay ya know), who try to spin Beatle lyrics into outer space or construct a sandcastle mirage of the cosmos out of syllables. For if these Freaks could decode such messages hidden in Beatle verse, they could discover the key to the universe. John delivers his lines with ample ebullience, enough mojo in its elocution, that you buy into the likelihood that you are receiving signals, even revelations about ‘the big picture.’ The glass onion itself is slang for a monocle; this is a seeing glass with extraordinary magical powers. Indeed, things got a little dodgy in 1968.

Glass Onion is in the key of A minor and in a blues tradition is more spoken than sang. A nice touch is the flourish of bowed strings on the third line, “well here’s another place you can go…” The chording is dense and this mirrors the rich metaphors within the lyrics. The bridge is a chromatic pony ride that mounts suspense. An eight measure outtro has a surprise ending, with pastoral orchestral strings descending the scale, then back up… repeat… remember the ending to Blow Up? This short song packs a punch and you know you are on long, strange riverboat ride of the imagination on this album.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun is the most Beatle-ish song on the White Album and shows close collaboration between the four moptops. It is mainly a jab at those who worship guns but verily so much more. I am hearing five distinct sections woven together, each with a different time signature and a unique emotive expression. John characterized it as a history of rock and I see it as a capsulated journey through rock too.

First there is the folksy arpeggio guitar passage, then the hackneyed poetry portion, and next the bluesy heavy guitar (‘I need a fix’) fissure. The Mother Superior Jumped the Gun bit acts as a coda to John`s comments about Christianity. The sister resists sex and violence, but maybe religion too. The fifth section is a 50s doo-wop rant that is celebratory and simultaneously sarcastic. Reflective listening reveals it as an aural cubist painting assault leaving you out to dry on a clothes line with a smoking pistol in your pantaloons!

All of George Harrison’s songs on The White Album are Arabian baubles, nonetheless Long, Long, Long is the most piquant paean to his new found spirituality. It whispers forth and basks in the glory of karmic renewal: “Now I’m so happy I found you. How I love you.” George’s acoustic guitar resonates easterly, duplicating his raga-rock touch that first surfaced on Rubber Soul. The fourteen bars of the middle section has an accented, recrudescing upright piano phrase by Chris Thomas, as George laments his wasted time away from the restful bliss of grace. You can share with George, finding peace of mind and God also, when you listen. “Now I can see you, be you.” Finality… aye, a spiritual catharsis is achieved in the closing crescendo, where Paul’s organ part rattles, George wails like an anchorite, and a splash of strings from his Gibson J200 echoes with a G minor eleventh chord, conjuring supernal glee!

Paul McCartney’s jaunty Twenties ditty, Honey Pie, is his most versatile contribution of the lot; ’tis a vaudeville number with a rollicking rhythm, a 1920s flapper show tune that conjures visuals of moonbeam liaisons. Paul is vicariously worshipping some silver-screen idol, a mythical moll of the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ methinks. He may have been alluding to Clara Bow, that`s just a guess, but it could just as easily have been Louise Brooks or May McAvoy. The introduction has Paul mimicking Al Jolson`s lispy banter out the-side-of ‘is mouth (“now she`s hit the big time”); you could swear up and down you were hearing a scratchy old 78 rpm record. The saxophone and clarinet arrangements by George Martin, peppered throughout, jazzes it up and John ekes out an inspirational Django Reinhardt guitar phrase that saves the day. The line “I’m in love but I’m lazy” has stuck to me like a flea on a sheep dog all of the last forty years!

Cry Baby Cry has always been a curious one for me, with its thespian lyrics and trotting 4/4 rhythm; it’s presented in a simple verse/chorus structure, yet a clever little story is sketched about some mischievous children of a fictitiously daft king and queen. ‘Tis a fairy tale of sorts, a limerick along the lines of ‘sing a song of sixpence.’ John`s resounding two-handed piano chords, along with a colorful harmonium part by George Martin, makes it a sing along in la-la-land; there’s a diversionary bluesy accent of Bb7 at the end of each verse line, such as ‘hol-i-day.’ A demo exists from late 1967, so it was mostly written before the excursions to India.

Much of this is hocus pocus, but it seems to be a dreary dream from Lennon’s childhood, a dark little nursery rhyme about an isolated world of kings and queens and their children, who at times play pranks. As the skit unfolds the lesson of the fable is “she’s old enough to know better.” “Can you take me back where I came from” as the outtro by Paul shrouds the meaning even more, but casts it as reverie or idle fantasy, an Alice In Wonderland gobbledygook word puzzle of say Lewis Carroll. A little charade transpires (the ‘seance in the dark verse’), but who knows exactly what happens? It hints at a trifle of a royal scandal at some lofty European court, from the pages of medieval lore!

Revolution 9 is a sound collage (musique concrete) that tips its hat off to experimental composers such as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Yoko Ono of course. This eight minute aural potpourri by John Lennon is the most widely listened to avant-garde composition ever! John has characterized it as a painting in sound. It is a way of putting texture and color to ineffable undercurrents and random thought, then freely sharing these with millions. John just collected junk, scraps of forgotten recordings from around the studio, and creatively piecemealed them together. This pastiche should be listened to on a quality stereo and with headphones too!

“As time went by they’d get a little bit older, and a little bit slower.” One titillating line from Revolution 9. Revolution Number 9 has a lifetime of sonic data, layers of backwards tapes, opera arias, bits of Beethoven, melotron, fragments of forgotten Abbey Road sessions, football recitations (“hold that line”), and fake Shakespeare lines uttered by John. “Take this brother may it serve you well.” Just let your mind wander while you listen. Herein is a subconscious meditation of the sound atmosphere, a sonic boom. Just free up your mind, let go of Ionian or Mixolydian modes, and you will find a deeper meaning. It has no specific focus, taps into reservoirs of lost tradition, then squeezes out western toxins deeply seeded in your central nervous system. This deconstruction allows you to breathe in new musical paradigms. Hope is awakened!

The Beatles White Album is in fact a ‘youth movement symphonic codex’ that acts as a catch-all fanfare, both bequeathing and in deference to the turbulence, harmony, and violence of those times, or otherwise pertinacious ‘change factor’ omnipresent, likewise inducing rapid modulations in the social psychology of the late 1960s. These types of cerebral acrobatics are most apropos in this case, although ironically its real effect is both illusive and transparent. I digress, yes and no, but the young people in 1968 took this so seriously, were so devout in their consecrations, that Beatles music became a surrogate for religion and scripture. This may shock you, but that is just what happened. Therefore, since the young people were so fervent in their Beatle worship, its historical impact, both on events and on the psychology of those young people, was most consummate. This is not so easy to prove, so why don`t we (do it in the road) just intuit it!

The White Album is the greatest rock record ever made! Okay, I said it. I don`t believe that young people today can in any way fathom just how big stars The Beatles truly were in 1968. I had full realization of that in 1968. When I was young I never understood the star power of Elvis. Society and culture became bifurcated. There was straight society and there was the counterculture. The Beatles protected the young people from the cruelties of authority. When this new album came out youngsters flocked to the record shops in search of clues of how to survive in an insane world filled with war, bigotry, and chaos. The music itself provided answers.

The White Album is a continuous program with brilliant sequencing, that nimbly bookends different styles of songs. Its eclecticism is what makes it so good. Good Night is a lullaby, Bungalow Bill is an anti-gun song, Julia an oedipal confession, Piggies is social satire, Blackbird is Bach`s Bouree, Helter Skelter is the first metal tune. There’s experimental, folk, art-songs, blues, rockers, and even a jazz flapper! The holes that fill the Albert Hall are filled in here.

‘Turn me on dead man, turn me on dead man’… Supposedly one could hear those words by spinning the platter backwards ‘gainst the stylus. Take a gander at Eric Van der Wyk`s web page for an exciting breakthrough! You can hear the entire song backwards using Cool Edit Pro. *Let me provide a few credits: Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald is a valuable resource. Also, check out the writings of Alan W. Pollack for over-the-top musicological analysis (way out there) and Wilfred Mellers’ Twilight of the Gods (its out of print now and I couldn`t quite get my hands on it, but read bits of it from other articles). Lastly, thanks to French for the image.

PROLOGUE

On December 8th, 1980 John Lennon was shot outside of The Dakota. Twenty-eight years ago today (Monday). The spirit of 1968 died that day. In December of 2005 I visited the Dakota and Strawberry Fields Park. Took some nice photos. And then another sad fact, George Harrison left us November 29th, 2001. The Beatles are half gone. “Now it`s time to say good night, Good night Sleep tight, Now the sun turns out his light…” The music lives eternally. “Is this really love, is this really real? Is this really love, is this really real?” The White Album is the Rubik`s Cube for the baby boomers.* Please listen to the record non-stop while you read my piece! It makes sense then.