Music Feature: Back in white

'The White Album' at 30

Published December 8, 1998 5:32PM (EST)

Thirty years after its release (Nov. 22 in England; Nov. 25 in the United States), "The White Album" exudes such a strong cultural aura that it behaves as a living entity, the songs transmuting in between listens as if the recording possessed consciousness. As if it were "The White Album" playing us.

Imagine that you don't listen to the "The White Album" for years, just catch a song here and there on the radio. Then you spin the record and realize its song order is as significant as the birth order of your siblings. Try to imagine your family dynamics had your older sister and younger brother reversed ages! It's just as unimaginable that "The White Album" would open with anything other than "Back in the U.S.S.R." Or that a song like "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" would follow anything other than "Mother Nature's Son." As you listen, the songs that seemed brilliant years ago on first listen -- "I'm so Tired," "Helter Skelter" -- now sound particularly casual. Miraculous toss-offs. Surely "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" is as great as "Hey Jude." Hell, they were recorded within weeks of each other. But if the latter had been included on "The White Album," it would have intolerably dominated the record, bulldozing other songs into relative insignificance.

As it is, the album is dominated by "Revolution 9," John and Yoko's (and to a small extent George's) eight-minute, 15-second surrealistic soundtrack to a curious movie/radio show from hell/Timothy Leary acid trip. This song is so alive it even contains secret messages, such as the one to Charles Manson that goes: "Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram."

It's more than an accident of history that "The White Album" was such a hit at the Manson household, as there was plenty of bad karma present at the album's conception. Many of the songs had been written earlier that year when the Beatles were grooving with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, a scene they split after becoming disillusioned. When the boys started recording, Ringo quit the Beatles for 12 days. Jane Asher broke her engagement with Paul. Cynthia Leonard divorced John over Yoko, who was showing up at John's side at the studio every day, pissing off the remaining two Beatles. The day after the album was finished, John and Yoko were busted for pot. The night before the record's release, Yoko suffered a miscarriage.

Even the Richard Hamilton-designed white cover seemed a little sinister. Official word said it was a reaction against the busyness of the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Magical Mystery Tour" covers. But it was a dead man who instigated the white. In his 1968 book "The Beatles," biographer Hunter Davies mentions that a year before, in 1967, Beatles manager Brain Epstein was flying out of New York when he was stricken with the premonition that he was going to die. He wrote a "last wish" to the Beatles that said, "Brown paper bags for Sergeant Pepper." Epstein hated psychedelic covers. Although his flight landed safely, by autumn he was dead of an overdose. During the "White Album" session, Lennon riffed off a quick ditty about his former manager working in a coal mine ("Brian Epstein Blues"). Certainly Epstein's "Brown paper bag" comment influenced the decision to go with shroud white.

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The 30 "White Album" cuts have been well chronicled so there is no need to catalog them. But here are song-by-song anecdotes gleaned from dozens of Beatles books.

Side One: Paul plays drums on "Back in the U.S.S.R." because Ringo was contemplating quitting the band. "Dear Prudence" is about Mia Farrow's sister. We all know that "the Walrus" in "Glass Onion" was not Paul. But it is Paul who mistakenly substitutes Desmond's name for Molly's in "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" -- "Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face." Paul kept the mistake to make the song sexually ambiguous. "Wild Honey Pie" is from a group chant begun in India. It's Yoko's high-pitched voice that shrieks, "Not when he looked so fierce" in "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." Yoko's "continuing" presence at the sessions pissed off George so much he brought in his own outsider, Eric Clapton, to play the guitar solo in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Finally, John needs a fix in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" because Yoko got him hooked on heroin.

Side Two: The Martha of "Martha My Dear" is Paul's sheep dog. At the end of "I'm So Tired, " John says "Monsieur, Monsieur, how about another one?" backwards. The Manson family believed "Blackbird" is a call for the black man to rise and eat whitey like bacon ("Piggies"). Rocky Raccoon's original last name is Sasoon. "Don't Pass Me By" fueled the Paul is dead rumors with the line, "You were in a car crash and you lost your hair." The supposed dead man, meanwhile, ditched the other Beatles in the studio one day and whipped out "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" by himself (Ringo later overdubbed drums). Later, while Paul was recording "I Will," he spontaneously sang the line "Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back," which was later used as the segue to "Revolution 9." Then in "Julia," Lennon's song about his dead mother, the line "Ocean child calls me" refers to Yoko -- what her name means in Japanese.

Side Three: In the middle of recording "Birthday," the boys took a break and watched Jayne Mansfield's rock 'n' roll film "The Girl Can't Help It." "Yer Blues" duplicates the sound of the clubs in their German days. "Mother Nature's Son" is a term from the Maharishi. The major mystery on "Everybody Has Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is who's playing the cow bell? One report says Patti Harrison. "Sexy Sadie" is the Maharishi. When the boys recorded "Helter Skelter," George set fire to an ashtray and ran around the studio with the flaming halo on his head. Lastly, the weird sound at the end of George's "Long, Long, Long" is the vibrations inside a wine bottle.

Side Four: John was pressured into substituting this version of "Revolution" for a more upbeat B-side for the "Hey Jude" single. Paul recorded the old-fashioned "Honey Pie" in honor of his father, who was in the hospital. Harrison's "Savoy Truffle" was written in honor of Clapton's sweet tooth. Lennon disowned his lovely song "Cry Baby Cry." Manson claimed he only cared about "Revolution 9." It was his "kids" who listened to the musical numbers -- Manson himself was a big Bing Crosby fan. Finally, Ringo's vocals for "Good Night" were recorded just after midnight on July 23, 1968.

It should be stressed that "The White Album" is not the album's "real" title. It's officially called "The Beatles." Whatever the name, the mono version is just as alive and mysterious as the stereo version.

Remember, the Beatles made two versions of each record in the '60s. "The White Album" mono version is available on bootleg CD. Hearing it is
almost like hearing the music anew. I hedge because "poppier" songs, such as "Bungalow Bill," just sound like flattened stereo versions. But other songs floor you. "Glass Onion" -- Lennon's unofficial re-renunciation of psychedelia -- is transformed from a minor derivative song into a masterpiece. The guitars are rougher. The strings sound like an organ. The song gets dangerous. Modern. It sounds like a Brian Eno-produced Talking Heads cut from "Fear of Music."

Kill yourself to get a mono copy, but skip "The White Album's" outtakes. Both official and bootleg releases are a sorry bunch. There's no reason to hear Paul singing "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" on acoustic guitar more than once. That said, there is supposedly a 27-minute version of "Helter Skelter" (they lifted Ringo's plaintive cry of "I've got blisters on my fingers" from that cut) that I'd die to hear, but I've never discovered it on a bootleg. Finally, it's too bad that George's "Not Guilty" got bumped from "The White Album," but thank God they dumped John's indulgent "What's New, Mary Jane" as well.

Finally, the cuts on "The White Album" seem so spontaneous, when in
reality almost every one is layered with overdubs. Even the simple songs with just John or Paul on guitar took dozens of takes. As a group, they went through as many as 67 takes to get "Long, Long, Long" right. Make no mistake -- the rough edges of "The White Album" are carefully orchestrated. We're just investing it with the consciousness that makes it sound modernly primitive. And delicious beyond belief.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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