The Beatles – The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) (1968)

The trouble with having an ideal reader in your mind at all times, whether writing fiction or criti-fiction (such as the more meaty posts on ZaRecords), especially if that person really exists, is that you become able to guess very early on what they’d say about one of your mutterings. That’s all fine and dandy when it helps you write better, but it can be a real challenge when the quality of writing is less the issue than the subject itself. Listen up, nay saying voice in my head, it’s time I schooled you about The Beatles. And what better place to start than arguably their most famous album?

The Beatles

I’ve noticed that some bands, once stuck with the “classics” label, suffer from a great reduction of nuance from listeners having grown up with newer sounds in their ears. I don’t so much mean that people don’t care about them anymore, although that’s also part of it, but that’s only natural, to an extent. What I’m talking about is a sort of off-hand nonchalance of classification, shutting the door on many aspects which made the bands great in the first place. I feel The Beatles are probably the biggest sufferers from this that I can think of – too much Blackbird (which incidentally is on this album) and Hey Jude, and what we’ve got is a convenient label of “Beatlesness” to enjoy or scoff at. Trouble is only some of The Beatles’ music is can sustain this label, while a whopping, staggering amount of it could hardly be recognized as such, were it not for John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s very distinctive voices (sometimes even in spite of those). The sheer amount of diversity, the overwhelming amount of experimentation they brought to their “basic” formula is lost under the huge weight of the accursed “ease of use” of the Beatles label.

That’s why, when talking about the white album, I’ll try to maintain a bird’s eye view and present the record as one of the most complex examples of music with a very intense “meta” element you’ll ever hear. Also, this is one of the most powerful examples of why there is a point to listening to an album start-to-finish – there are ideas and veins to this music which are chopped off when taking songs out of context – the main casualty being the sense of irony-bordering-on-cynicism which permeates the whole record.

The songs I picked from this album aim to illustrate this very point – sure, there’s Blackbird and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, everyone knows those! The thing is though, these well-known songs, which have come to paint The Beatles as a basically harmless, quaint, lovely-little-ditty band, have a completely different point altogether when you realize that they’re placed right next to Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? and Helter Skelter. It’s this contrast which reveals subtle and heartbreaking touches of deep sadness, exhaustion, nostalgia, cynicism and confusion hiding between the sunny notes. This album is a declaration of freedom and a slap on the face – four boys from Liverpool found themselves in a position to be able to say anything and be heard by the entire world. Fuck yes John was more popular than Jesus – why do you think everyone freaked out so much when he said it?! This album is their way of speaking out with the full understanding that not everyone who can hear knows how to listen, and there’s no amount of freedom that can teach people to do that.

There’s the most oppressive feeling of pointlessness, evaporating, as always with them, into the most heartwarming, overwhelmingly beautiful melodies (Mother Nature’s Son, Julia, Dear Prudence), being encroached upon by the increasingly dissonant, angry, grating distillations of frustration (Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, Glass OnionYer Blues, Helter Skelter), and everything in between. And the funny thing is, it’s not even a cypher, there’s no code, there’s no great cryptic joke being played out only for the wise and savvy. It’s just that this foundation of irony is lost in all the beauty and catchy tunes. I couldn’t say whether it was lost to the listeners back in the sixties (although I’m pretty sure Robert Fripp got it – his obsession with The Beatles is well known and I see no other explanation for how their music could inspire him to the towering complexities of King Crimson), but I’m pretty sure it’s definitely lost to listeners now, which, ironically, only adds to it.

I am reminded of Peter Brook and his “dead theatre” whenever I’m confronted with the label of beatlesness – many love it just so, many more don’t, but somehow the issue is moot, the case is closed either way. Well, I’m here to say to hell with aphorisms, honestly Fripp, but there really is “more to hearing than meets the ear”. I apologize for sounding preachy, there’s a pet peeve I wanted to get off my chest for years now. And yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy inherent in my little speech here, and in the fact that I’ll pick some songs out of the album, but then some issues are harder to work around than others. Nevertheless, I’ll stick to my old adage – enjoy!

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