In 1968 The Beatles were a punk band — They had no management, sacked their producer, and were self-releasing their music. Yet when I first heard The stark, monochromatic White Album, I was under-whelmed. It would take me till now to come to terms with it.
I had picked it up sometime in 1997, at the Echo record store on Byres Road, Glasgow (Now a banal hairdresser or a coffee shop). If I wanted to continue on this exhaustive self-imposed Beatle pilgrimage, this epic, blank sleeve of intrigue was next. The exuberantly packaged Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the immediacy of Rubber Soul, just wouldn’t satisfy my appetite.
With the exception of a few of the more ‘singles’. It seemed too anarchic and dispirit. I was fourteen years old to be fair.
By this point, I had already embarked on my lifetime hobby, of reading up on every published text on The Beatles, the music and their lives. I had fallen in love with the glossy ‘Abbey Road’ and the epic concept album of ‘Sgt Pepper’. So the infamous disquiet and fragmentation within the group during the making of The White album were already known to me — and I immediately coupled my initial feelings on the record with the knowledge of the internal strife around the sessions which have now become legendary, but as many Beatles experts now agree, to have been grossly exaggerated.
I have put The Beatles to one side on many occasions over the years. After the death of Brit pop in my early teens, I needed a break from the whole 60s inspired revival — Neil Young, Stones, Beatles the lot. It felt a bit Kitschy. Both my twin brother and I were eager to engross ourselves in other musical movements and cultures. These were consumed, then put to one side: Our immediate surroundings on The Glasgow scene had hit us like a proverbial bomb, Manchester Post Punk, Swedish Indie Pop, Motown, German Krautrock, Italian Disco, Minimal Wave Records, Chicago Post Rock have all dominated my musical narrative at some point.
“I’ve always thought that Happiness is a Warm Gun wouldn’t have been amiss on the Trainspotting soundtrack. The Mother Superior lyric aside, just the louche bass-line and all the references to sex throughout what is, I’d argue, is Lennon’s finest composition on that album. It’s probably the song I most revisit. I loved Dear Prudence when I first heard it, too. And although Johnny Rotten would spit and curse at the thought, McCartney’s Helter Skelter was Punk when the Pistols were still pissing the bed” — Erik Sigvard Sandberg, Stockholm, Nov 2018.
Yet, as I embraced and disposed of these musical movements and cultures, There would be one Beatles record I came back to time after time: The White Album. The Beatles were my base and springboard to *everything* else that followed. But I still hadn’t yet made sense of it. In the meantime, my musical vocabulary expanded and to my surprise, so would my understanding of this sprawling double album
On it, I now find my favourite McCartney and Harrison Beatle compositions. The backroom-pub-piano-stomp tribute to Paul’s Sheepdog, ‘Martha my Dear’ and George’s grossly under-rated love song to his first wife, Pattie Boyd, on ‘Long Long Long’.
‘You know that I need you’ Harrison hauntingly sings — it’s difficult not to agree.
Lennon’s Donovan inspired ‘Dear Prudence’ remains a revelation to me, and the first song I truly adored on the record. All you had to do was drop the E-string to D-Major and it was that easy to play on a guitar yourself. But it’s not without it’s warts, either. I still find ‘Oh-La-Di, Oh-La-Da’ intolerable as I do the bizarre ‘Honey Pie’
Disturbingly an Influence for The Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, ‘Helter Skelter’ Composed by McCartney is widely regarded as the prototype to genres in noise and metal. ‘I got blisters on ma fingers’ Lennon is heard screeching as the song draws to close, segueing perfectly into George’s ‘Long Long Long’
Not all the music on the album benefits from good sequencing. McCartney’s ‘Martha my Dear’ sits uncomfortably next to John’s tribute to insomnia on ‘I’m so Tired’.
Anyone who claims this was a band unable to look each other in the face, should pay particular attention to some of their finest performances as a quartet, the blues rock of ‘Yer Blues’ (Recorded in a cupboard), The Doo Wop Beach Boys soaked ‘Back In the USSR’ and Lennon’s smack addled ‘Happiness is a warm gun’
Yet therein lies the paradox and genius of this record; it is only works in small pieces. Only now in my mid-thirties, do I realise that this was the right way to receive such a scattershot collection of songs, from the most beloved musical and cultural influence on my life, over a twenty year period as my tastes changed and matured. It’s the ultimate Beatles album. They say the sign of a good song is if it’s a grower, and this album still surprises me 22 years later. I’ll still be hearing things on it in another 22 years to marvel at.