The White Album was released 50 years ago today, and fans are still divided over whether it was one of The Beatles’ greatest pieces of work or a bit of a mess. Double albums can be tricky; they’re either so full of great material that the artist was unable to leave anything out, or they’re a sign that the artist is having trouble separating the good from the bad. But when it comes to The Beatles, the answer isn’t quite as simple as that.
It’s certainly true that as songwriters, they were more prolific than ever. Around 40 songs were composed during the band’s time in Rishikesh, India in early 1968. That’s pretty incredible, and so it’s no wonder that they came back with so much material for a new album. And it wasn’t just John and Paul; George was really coming into his own as a writer and would soon have enough songs left over to fill a triple album himself (All Things Must Pass, released in 1970), and even Ringo managed to get a credit in.
As we all know, the recording of the White Album wasn’t exactly a harmonious time. After so many years of practically living in each other’s pockets, the cracks were beginning to show, with arguments and walk-outs occurring. Ringo felt fed up and under-appreciated, George felt his songs weren’t being taken as seriously as the Lennon-McCartney compositions, John was in love with Yoko Ono and wanted her involved in the studio, and Paul was asserting himself as the leader and getting on his bandmates’ nerves in the process. John later remarked that the break-up of The Beatles could be heard on the album. George Martin, meanwhile, was exasperated by the atmosphere and the fragmented nature of the recording sessions and went on holiday, leaving production duties to his assistant Chris Thomas (engineer Geoff Emerick had himself walked out, saying he couldn’t work with the band any longer).
These tensions meant that only half the album’s tracks actually featured all four Beatles performing together, and they were increasingly working separately on their respective compositions. Revolution 9 was entirely put together by John and Yoko with George’s help (Paul was not involved at all and was reportedly unhappy with its inclusion on the album), and Paul took over drumming duties on four of his own tracks (no wonder Ringo felt undervalued). There were even outside musicians brought in; Eric Clapton played on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, at George’s insistence (he told Clapton it was nothing to do with the other Beatles, as it was his song).
So does the White Album rank among their best? In my opinion, there are enough moments of sheer brilliance for it to qualify, ranging from rockers like ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ to acoustic gems like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Julia’. You’ve got one of George’s greatest ever songs in ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Hell, even Paul’s ode to his beloved dog (‘Martha My Dear’) is a beautiful tune.
And yet, almost all of the Beatles songs I don’t care for come from the White Album. I’ve never liked ‘Rocky Raccoon’. ‘Wild Honey Pie’ is an absolute dirge, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ is filler, ‘Revolution 9’ is unlistenable, and Ringo’s ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ has to be the worst Beatles song of all time. Even ‘Revolution 1’ pales in comparison to the faster, rockier single version. It’s normal to have one or two songs you don’t like (even on a Beatles album), but when it’s a double album, there’s an even higher chance of having more than a few duds.
But here’s the contradiction; even though I would gladly skip each of those songs, I still can’t help but love the White Album for what it is. It’s a mess, for sure, but it’s a highly enjoyable mess. It frustrates and delights all at the same time, and there aren’t many albums that have that effect. Its very unpredictability is what makes it so great.