[67] The Beatles – The Beatles

18 Jul

For a long time Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band was my favorite Beatles album. Then I discovered The White Album.

The Beatles (aka The White Album)

The Beatles (aka The White Album)

The opening track, “Back In The USSR”, is a straightforward (if quite exceptional) rock ‘n’ roll number but there is very little straightforward about anything that follows.

It shouldn’t stand a chance of working – three hugely talented egos, burnt out on each other, on fame, on recording.  They don’t want to be in the same room together, let alone write and record the same kind of music.

It should be an incoherent mess.

Just look at the next few songs – a proto-goth, eastern-tinged lullabye; a bit of psychadelic soul; the catchiest bit of nonsense chorus wrapped around a touching street scene: 53 seconds of randomness (which is partial explained on the next disc); a meaningless story song; and an amazing example of a guitar god prowess.

And we’re still barely a quarter of the way into the album!

It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, like a patchwork quilt, each track is matched to the one on either side of it, and the picture that emerges is even more beautiful than the astounding individual parts.

Perhaps it was the spirit of competition and one upmanship. Perhaps it was the drugs, or the meditation, or the zeigeist. Who knows, maybe it was the mediocrity of Ringo that kept the others from imploding long enough to keep recording as long as they did.

Whatever the reason, The Beatles’ White Album remains a viable candidate to be my Desert Island Disc.

Track after track is original and organic, fascinating and fresh despite the passing of almost 50 years.

In the juxtaposition of olde-time English Music Hall schtick with hard rock and soft ballads I can see the blueprint followed a decade later by my favorite band of all, Queen.

I quote these songs almost regularly, in everyday life.  I sing these songs to my daughter.  I love it when I hear other artists cover them, love to hear alternate interpretations.

Is there a cleaner melody anywhere than that gracing “Blackbird”?

Is there another song in the history of Rock like “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”?

The series of transitions from the strangely articulate absurdity of “Rocky Raccoon”, through the ludicrous sting of “Don’t Pass Me By”, and the raw honestly simplicity of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”, to the sublime separate-but-equal sentiments of “I Will” and “Julia” elevates each song beyond mere Pop or Rock to the level of true art.

“Which disc is better?” people ask.

I don’t care.

Even moreso than Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles is the ultimate concept album – probing, reaching, exploring – and when I listen to it, I listen to the whole thing, from begining to end.

Do people still listen to a whole album from start to finish anymore?

After the quiet introspection of the end of Disc 1, the second disk kicks off even more frantically than the first with another high octane rocker in “Birthday” before going all the way back to their early roots, ripping through a then modern take on the blues-rock they were initially apeing when they first broke onto the scene.

There is simply no let up anywhere in the hour and a half of quality that crams both records to bursting.  I could listen on repeat for days on end – indeed I have done so as a teen, and again this week in my 40s as I try to capture with words the emotions, sense memories, physical effect that hearing each track evokes and inspires in me.

I’m be humming and whistling these tunes for weeks now, regardless of what other recordings I revisit or discover.   I feel a little sorry for The Beau Brummels, Sidney Bechet and Beck.

Although perhaps not so much for Beethoven – he knew a thing or two about a catchy melody – who can likely stand up for himself against such competition.

The tunes continue to swing back and forth between the velvet of “Mother Nature’s Son” and the steel of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide”.  The Four really do rock out and let rip, almost as if leaving it all out on the vinyl, perhaps thinking that this was the end.

That’s certainly one way to interpret “Helter Skelter” . . .

Yet even a track as brutal as that is sandwiched between two soulful tunes, “Sexy Sadie” and the gentle “Long, Long, Long”.

The two versions of “Revolution” on The White Album are fascinating takes on a song I already knew well as a traditional rock number before I discovered this album.  Take 1 morphs it into a laid back grooving piece of almost beach rock, while take 9 is minimalist dream of tape loops and found sounds, a wonderfully experimental eleven o’ clock number.

Although it is the earlier version not featured on The White Album that I love best (call it take 5, between 1 and 9?), I still enjoy the variations at least as much as I did when Count Basie shared his alternate takes back to back.

In between “Revolutions” are more beautiful arrangements in a wide range of styles that ensure you can’t take your ears off of the musical flourishes and moments of wonder that come one after another.

Until all that is left is to say “Good Night”.

Next Week: The Beatles – Abbey Road

Owned before blogging? Yes. (8 of 67 = 12%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (10 of 67 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (54 of 67 = 81%)

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