Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The White Album, 40 years later

Five years to the day after the release of the brilliant album With the Beatles — one of the first brilliant albums ever — The Beatles struck again with the release of, well, The Beatles. I missed the various celebrations that occurred Sunday, Nov. 22, the 40th anniversary of the appearance of what has become known as The White Album. Nowadays, of course, as you can see by the photos, it's more like the Yellow-and-Grey album.

This was the crowning prize, the only thing I really wanted for Christmas 1968, and I ran into my room to put it on the turntable as soon as it was polite to leave the family. From the opening screaming-jet noise of "Back in the U.S.S.R.," I was hooked. Every Beatles album was a brand-new experience by then, but the White Album was like nothing that had come before or would come after. As the kids say nowadays, for those first five tracks, I was, like, whoa — Whoa — Whoa! — WHOA! — WHOA!! — but then "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" dissolved into a wavering trombone and light applause, somebody said "AY-oh" or something like that, and a guitar started weeping.

I have never found words to explain how I felt the first time I heard "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And I can't even explain why I felt that way. I was simply transported somewhere else. I don't know where that place is, and I can't say what it is about this George Harrison song that takes me there. It probably has to do with that guitar, which I later learned was being played by Eric Clapton. And maybe it was because this was the moment where Harrison — the quiet Beatle, the not-Lennon-McCartney songwriter — absolutely matched the genius of Lennon and McCartney and took the game one level higher. I've always cheered for the underdog.

This was also the day that it struck me — The Beatles were one kick-ass rock band. I'd always thought of the likes of the Kinks and Rolling Stones and Dave Clark Five as the rock-and-roll acts of the British invasion, while the Beatles were in a class of their own: the pop band, the artists, the revolutionaries who pushed the envelope.

But here they were, out-beaching the Beach Boys on "U.S.S.R.," out-bluesing the Yardbirds on "Yer Blues," rock-and-rolling like nobody's business on "Birthday," and going where no rock band had gone before with the unfathomably raw "Helter Skelter." This was a rock band!

And it was also a band that defied classification — how did "Honey Pie" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and "I Will" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" come from the same four guys? Sure, by then the wheels were starting to come off and they were devolving into four solo acts, but it still all came together and couldn't be described as anything less than a Beatles album.

I was entranced — and I kept looking ahead as I read the lyrics sheet along with the music, because I knew the grand climax was going to be what looked like an eight-minute, 15-second instrumental called "Revolution #9." This was after the summer the Beatles broke the seven-minute-single barrier with "Hey Jude" with its B-side "Revolution," and the slower "Revolution #1" had gotten some airplay on WABC-AM 77, but I didn't know anything about this third "Revolution" song.

Many people have dismissed "Revolution #9" as indulgent crap, but I hear music. Somehow John Lennon crafted a little mini-symphony out of tape loops and sound effects. I hear an introduction, melodies and recurring themes building to a crescendo of a climax. It's an amazing piece of music, and the decision to follow with the lullaby "Good Night," complete with lush strings, provided the perfect finish to an album where the Beatles pushed every envelope completely out of shape.

Rubber Soul established the Beatles as something more than a pop band; Revolver and Sgt. Pepper lifted rock music to the level of art. But The White Album was a revolution — it threw down the gauntlet and said rock and popular music could go anywhere. Many have tried, but no one has ever put out another album that went so many directions and yet somehow stood out as a coherent whole. It's not my favorite album, not even my favorite Beatles album, but The White Album leaves me exhausted with a sense of awe like no other album.

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Anonymous sunni said...

Sounds like you and Uncle Warren had a good conversation about the album!

(And happy Thanksgiving, B.W.! It's an honor to be your friend.)

10:30 AM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

"When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide, then I stop and I turn and I go for a ride, then I get to bottom and I see you again!"

I love that LP, too.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

November 22 is also the anniversary of the JFK assassination. Celebrating the White Album is a much better reason for marking that day, ain't it?

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy T-day, BW.


8:30 PM  

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