Friday, November 22, 2013

A Hard Day's Write

On this day in 1968, the Beatles released the only double album they would release while they were still together as a band.

Numerous multi–record collections were released after the group broke up, but the album that was released 45 years ago today — informally known as the White Album for its plain white cover — was the only exception to the single–record releases that characterized the Beatles' work.

Double albums were rare in the 1960s so that isn't really surprising. But it was the Beatles' first studio release in 18 months, and expectations were very high, being the Beatles' first album after the groundbreaking "Sgt. Pepper" album (well, technically, "Magical Mystery Tour" came out in November 1967, but it was not so much a Beatles album as a soundtrack for a British TV movie).

I suppose Apple wanted to make a big splash, and a double album was seen as a way to do that. Double albums were events in those days.

That seemed to promote misinterpretation of the significance of many of the songs. It is a bit disappointing for a Beatles fan like myself to realize that what the White Album largely is known for today, at least in the history books, is being the inspiration for Helter Skelter, the race war that the twisted Charles Manson and his easily manipulated followers envisioned.

The White Album was more than that. Rolling Stone named it the 10th greatest album of all time.

I'm sure any Beatles fan will tell you the music is what the White Album is about, even 45 years after its release. I can put that CD on today and still find songs that sound new and fresh and energetic.

And, while most of the songs were credited to the Lennon–McCartney team, there were a few songs by George Harrison and even one by Ringo Starr.

"Helter Skelter" was a song written by Paul McCartney and has been recognized as an early influence on the heavy metal musical genre. But the Manson family interpreted it as a description of an apocalyptic war — from which Manson would emerge to lead the survivors.

Manson, however, grew tired of waiting for "Helter Skelter" — as he had taken to calling this war — to happen on its own and decided he had to help it along. And thus the deadly sequence of events was put in motion, leading to a weekend of gruesome murders that were committed by Manson's followers in the summer of 1969.

That, at least, is what history remembers about the White Album. But there was so much more. Some of my favorite Beatles songs — like "Yer Blues" ...

That was written by John Lennon — but, like all the compositions by Lennon and McCartney during their Beatles days, it was credited to the Lennon–McCartney songwriting team. It is often noted, however, that the Lennon–McCartney designation is deceptive because very few of those songs were equal parts Lennon and McCartney. One or the other usually contributed most if not all of the work — and that may never have been as true as it was on the White Album.

There were 30 songs on the White Album — including one ("Revolution 9") that wasn't a song at all, just an eight–minute–plus collection of unrelated sounds — and 25 were credited to Lennon–McCartney, but most of them really were solo efforts.

And Harrison was emerging as a songwriter in his own right, contributing in new ways all the time.

I like all four of Harrison's compositions that appeared on the White Album, but probably my favorite is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which was featured in Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" a few years later.

On the White Album, Eric Clapton of the recently disbanded Cream made an uncredited appearance, playing lead guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

In an online poll last year, readers of Guitar World named it Harrison's best as a Beatle. While you will find Harrison devotees who prefer one of his songs or another over that one, most Harrison fans probably could be persuaded to go along with that choice.

One song — "Don't Pass Me By" — was credited to Richard Sharkey, aka Ringo Starr (who also sang it on the album). It was his first solo composition.

During his Beatles days, Starr sang lead vocals on songs that were written by others (i.e., "Yellow Submarine," a McCartney composition, and "Act Naturally," which was written by Buck Owens) — and he sang his own compositions on his solo albums.

But "Don't Pass Me By" was Starr's first solo songwriting effort on an album.

Songwriting never seemed to be what motivated Starr. Lennon and McCartney, of course, were prodigious songwriters, and Harrison evolved from a somewhat hesitant songwriter to one who bubbled so with creativity that, after the Beatles broke up, he had to release a triple album to provide an outlet for the backlog of material that never found its way onto a Beatles album.

But Starr always seemed content merely to play the drums.

Some critics thought the White Album lacked a theme, that it was a collection of unrelated songs. That probably was true — although you have to understand that, in 1968, theme albums were kind of rare. As innovative as the Beatles were, they weren't ahead of the curve on everything. Some of their albums did explore themes, but most did not. That kind of thing was more prominent after the Beatles broke up.

The White Album influenced me in ways that other albums did not. It was recorded at a turbulent point in the story of the Beatles — all four were starting to move in their own directions — as well as a turbulent time in the histories of America and the world. No wonder there was a sense of melancholy isolation in many of the songs.

It was just that simple. They were each moving on. It became official less than two years later when McCartney left the band and the breakup was formalized.

The White Album prepared the Beatles' fans for the next phase. I suppose it fulfills a similar function today, preparing the listener for the next phase of his/her life.