It's hard for me to be objective about The White Album (I know it's called 'The Beatles' but that's just going to get too confusing). It is forever linked in my memory with the C120 cassette my older sister had recorded it on and lent me. The fact it was on a C120 marked it out as A VERY SPECIAL ALBUM. I am sure that my love of out of key chord progressions is directly linked to repeated listens as a 10 year old. The chromatically rising 5th in Glass Onion, the descending I to VII in Sexy Sadie, the major to minor and back again movement in Piggies are hardwired into my brain and are as much a part of my musical DNA as they are for the men who wrote the songs. In contrast to Let It Be (a few good songs and a few funny bits) and Abbey Road (never heard the album till I started Beatles Songwriting Academy) I feel like this album is part of me.
That Difficult Ninth Album
When looking at the context it's crucial to understand that this is the follow up to Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since that watershed the band had produced several hit singles, an EP soundtrack to a critically panned TV special, contributed a few filler tracks to a film soundtrack (released after TWA) and a whole library full of unreleased atonal jams. But this was the Beatles finally back in album mode. The 'blank' cover was a very conscious reaction to the Pepper cover. Which means that, whatever it's shortcomings as an album, The White Album is possibly the greatest follow up to a world changing album of all time.
It's well documented that this is the album where the Beatles started to break up but it's good to appreciate the level of fragmentation and loss that they were operating at.
This was, of course, the first album since the death of Brian Epstein. Prior to recording the White Album the band (especially Lennon and Harrison) had seriously entertained the possibility of quitting the music business to become full time disciples of the Maharishi. When that dream died the band started a major corporation instead and also opened (then closed) the Apple Boutique.
Feeling marginalised and unloved Ringo quit the band in the middle of recording but returned two weeks later. Paul split up with Jane Asher after 5 years together. Lennon had a mental breakdown (proclaiming himself Jesus Christ at a business meeting), started a relationship with Yoko Ono, got divorced and Yoko suffered a miscarriage before they were both arrested on drugs charges. Long time engineer Geoff Emerick walked out due to the acrimonious working atmosphere and George Martin took a month long holiday in the middle of proceedings, leaving inexperienced producer Chris Thomas in charge. Even when George was around the increased workload of making a double album forced the band to work on several tracks at the same time and Martin's failure to be omnipresent further reduced his active involvement on the album.
Arguably The Beatles pushed more convincingly into different genres than any time before or since. They take a good stab at musique concrete, blues, folk and 1920's jazz while, at the same time recording a track (I Will) that could have seamlessly replaced And I Love Her on the A Hard Day's Night soundtrack.
Whatever the effects of ashram living on the Beatles spirituality, mental health, long term relationships or digestion, spending a month in India writing songs was undoubtedly the secret ingredient in making The White Album such a triumph. It was the most preparation the Beatles ever gave an album. They even managed some preproduction, demoing 26 tunes.
Is It Really A Solo Album?
It's a common misconception that on The White Album the Beatles recorded separately, but with common purpose (rather like that rash of Kiss albums in the late 70's) – everyone working in their own corner of Abbey Road Studios. The facts don't bear this out.
The band recorded 19 Rishikesh songs*. All bar Wild Honey Pie were later demoed at George's house. Which means that the whole band had multiple opportunities to listen, critique and select most of the album tracks. 15 of the finished tracks feature the whole band including (surprisingly) Piggies, Rocky Raccoon and Honey Pie. In fact there are only 6 truly solo tracks and (surprisingly) I Will is not one of them. Of those 6 solo tracks, only two were written back in the UK.
Yes, it's sprawling. Yes, it features Ringo's second best composition, and the presence of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Revolution 9 show that songwriting quality control was starting to become lax, but for the songwriter there are a million great lessons ahead.
Let me introduce you to Julia.
*The songs they dropped were Harrison's Circle, Sour Milk Sea and Not Guilty and Lennon's What's The New Mary Jane, Mean Mr Mustard, Polythene Pam and Child Of Nature (which later became Jealous Guy). And sadly, none of the guys wanted to touch McCartney's Junk.