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Last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles, a.k.a., The White Album, The Beatles’ sprawling 1968 double-LP. I took the occasion to record a podcast on The Beatles’ musical legacy, which you can listen to here.
In the course of that podcast, I made the case for The Beatles’ greatness, even though they are most decidedly a product of the Baby Boomer culture that refuses to relinquish its death grip on us all. But I don’t think they’re entirely beyond criticism, though I wouldn’t dare make it on my own meager authority. Which is why I here invoke George Martin, who made so much of The Beatles’ music possible (as I explained here), and who believed that The White Album should have been just one album and not a double LP.
I happen to agree with this, as do other Beatles’ fans (though not all; some, such as Ricochet’s own Scott Immergut, wouldn’t dare touch this album, believing it an essential artifact of where the band was at the time. I can respect this). Among such revisionist fans, it has become a little parlor game to decide which songs to keep to make it a perfect record. Well, I gave it a try for myself. My method here was to remove songs I didn’t like, without changing the order, until I got to approximate album length for each side of the hypothetical LP.
- “Back in the U.S.S.R.” McCartney 2:43
- “Dear Prudence” Lennon 3:56
- “Glass Onion” Lennon 2:18
- “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” McCartney 3:08
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Harrison 4:45
- “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” Lennon 2:43
- “Blackbird” McCartney 2:18
- “Rocky Raccoon” McCartney 3:33
- “Yer Blues” Lennon 4:01
- “Sexy Sadie” Lennon 3:15
- “Helter Skelter” McCartney 4:29
- “Revolution” Lennon 4:15
- “Good Night” Starr 3:13
TOTAL LENGTH: 44:37
SGT. PEPPER’S LENGTH: 39:52
ABBEY ROAD LENGTH: 47: 23
And now, to justify my decisions, first for the songs I kept. I did this in a completely arbitrary, subjective fashion, made even more so by the fact that I have no real musical training. First, here’s why I kept the songs I kept:
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
In true Beatles fashion, this is a fantastic album opener. But it’s also a foray into surf rock, and a parody of the Beach Boys using the imagery and vocabulary of the Soviet Union. I wouldn’t dare to get rid of it.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” segues into this song, so I wouldn’t want to get rid of it for that reason alone. But it’s also a beautiful, relaxing number that climaxes beautifully, thanks to some drumming by not-Ringo.
Some might argue that this song is The Beatles at their most self-indulgent, referencing their own songs and teasing those who try to find deeper meaning from them. But The Beatles have always been a bit cheeky, and that cheekiness is an indelible part of their appeal. Plus they’d earned a little meta by this point.
I am not a huge fan of this song, but I just love that The Beatles decided to do some reggae rock in 1968 because they felt like it. So it stays.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
One of George Harrison’s best career compositions (not simply as a Beatle), and one of The Beatles’ best songs, period, Harrison’s heartfelt lyrics and anguished delivery secure it a spot on the perfect White Album. And Eric Clapton’s guitar work seals the deal.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
In a little more than two-and-half minutes, John takes us through basically three different songs, all musically unique yet somehow not disjoint, with some pretty strong (i.e., blatant) sexual and drug-related symbolism to boot.
Closing side 1 with Paul’s simple and comforting acoustic number to come down from the orgasmic euphoria of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is a nice consequence of this arrangement, but “Blackbird” could follow any song on any album and I’d keep it regardless.
Maintaining continuity with Side 1 by opening Side 2 with “Rocky Raccoon,” another acoustic animal-themed number, is another happy consequence of this arrangement. But again, I would keep this song regardless of the order. Paul does a convincing Bob Dylan parody that also has something of a moral to it. Yes, please.
By the late 60s, blues had become the province of many leading rock bands. The Beatles were well aware of this, and so they decided to make light of it somewhat…while also doing it better than virtually everyone else. John’s screams of “Yes I’m lonely…want to die…” are mocking the relentless blues sadness…but also seem somewhat credible coming from a soul as dark as his. That and mean guitar keep this on the album.
John’s thinly disguised attack on Maharashi also stays on the album for being so darn catchy, and for “inspiring” Jet’s “What Have You Done” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”
The birth of heavy metal simply has to stay. The Beatles never got heavier than this, and even later metal bands had to try pretty hard to get here. Yes, Charles Manson later appropriated it into his bizarre fever dream apocalypse, but that wasn’t The Beatles’ fault.
In the late 60s, as bands became openly political (if they didn’t start there), one of the only explicitly political messages in The Beatles’ music was anti-revolution: “If you go carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow…”; “If you’re talking about destruction/don’t you know that you can count me out…” But there was always that extra “in…”
I don’t just keep this here because Ringo needs a track on the album (though he does). I genuinely enjoy this over-orchestrated, Disney-esque track, with Ringo’s calmly sung lullaby vocals (ending with spoken word). Even a halved White Album takes us to some pretty wild places, so something this comforting is a good way to end.
And now to justify what I removed. This was hard for me to do, as I do love The Beatles. And I make all of these criticisms from the supremely-elevated platform of Beatles’ greatness; i.e., I measure the band against itself, as no one else comes close. (And again, I do this in a completely arbitrary, subjective fashion, made even more so by the fact that I have no real musical training):
“Wild Honey Pie”
I don’t need to justify this. This song never should have made it out of studio diddling.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
I hate the refrain of this song, I hate the structure of the verses, I don’t care about the story it tells, I hate that it’s the answer to the Beatles’ trivia question “What Beatles’ song has a vocal from a non-member?” and I hate that that non-member is Yoko Ono.
“Martha, My Dear”
I like much of what John mockingly called Paul’s “granny music,” so it was a difficult choice for me to excise this. But it’s not even the best granny song on the album..and it’s about a dog. Dogs are great, but this is The White Album. We’ve got more important things to talk about.
“I’m So Tired”
John did the “I like to sleep” thing better on Revolver’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” which has backwards guitar and other interesting things to commend it. This just seems like another anonymous White Album track to me.
I have a soft spot in my heart for this song, which is so delightfully weird that I do like listening to it. But it’s not novel enough in its weirdness to merit inclusion. Plus, I gave “Helter Skelter” a Manson pass, but I’m not sure this gets one, as its lyrics were written in blood on the wall of a Manson murder house.
“Don’t Pass Me By”
As far as Ringo county ditties go, I guess it’s better than “Act Naturally” and “What Goes On,” but that’s about all I can say about it.
“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”
A fun title and rousing delivery, but beyond that, forgettable and unnecessary for a pared down White Album.
This is one of several songs on The White Album so similar to each other that I always forget about them or can’t distinguish them from one another in my memory: slow, acoustic, simple lyrics…whatever. Get rid of it.
This song should only be listened to on your birthday.
“Mother Nature’s Son”
This was a bit of a harder choice, as I like its structure, but it gets cut because I don’t think it’s really about anything.
“Long, Long, Long”
See answer for “Julia,” “I Will.”
“Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey”
See answer for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road.”
Perhaps the hardest thing to cut. By far Paul’s best “granny music,” and a full-on Beatles music hall impression. If I could put one more song on the Half Album, this would be it.
Another song I have a soft spot for, but a little ditty about Eric Clapton’s candy addiction does not make the cut. Sorry George.
I don’t need to justify this. How this song made it on at all when The Beatles were rejecting far-superior Harrison compositions left and right is a mystery to me. This song should only be listened to on Halloween.
So there you have it: My ideal White Album, with explanations for why I kept and cut what I did. To be sure, I still love The White Album as-is, and it was hard for me to criticize anything The Beatles did. I just think George Martin was right that a little bit of discipline might have helped. But The Beatles may have been beyond discipline by that point anyway, as the four stars had already begun to spiral away from each other’s orbits, alas.
Anyway, here’s a Spotify playlist of The White Album with only my chosen songs: I called it “Te Wie Abm” because I removed every other letter from each word. If you like my version, then you can pretend it’s the real one. Or you can make your own. Probably every Beatles’ fan has a different preference. And that’s one of many reasons why they’re so great. Even if they are proof that Baby Boomer culture just won’t go away.
A version of this post first appeared here.