Taking a look back at one of The Beatles’ most underrated albums – The White Album
Out of all the Beatles albums, The White Album always jumped out to me when I came of age to really get into music. The cover may be a blank canvas but the body of work inside is anything but. I still find even amongst the whole Beatles discography to be their most interesting collection of work.
The White Album sessions were notorious for being scatty and tension-filled. Ringo famously walked out and went to Sardina to find his drum kit covered in flowers when he came back courtesy of George. Despite this, though I never really thought of the album as disjointed, I just found it to be so incredibly interesting. In many ways it is the antithesis of Pepper, instead of being a short and compact grandiose work of art, The White album is long and stripped back. It makes sense, around this time The Beatles had gone to Rishikesh to study meditation with the Maharishi who would notoriously inspire the song, ‘Sexy Sadie’. When in India, it was just them and their guitars and that raw state of bliss captured on the album and even more so on the Esher demos, it’s the Beatles unplugged and that’s what makes it so great and unique.
The White Album is full of oddities, songs like Revolution 9 and Wild ‘Honey Pie’ raise eyebrows often as being unneeded filler songs and I’m not going to pretend that they are great because they’re not but I think it’s important to appreciate their place in the piece of work. The White album is a collage and all of these oddities have their purpose to show how The Beatles experimented, it’s another reason why it stands out from the rest of the albums and another reason why I love it.
I mentioned Collage there and the range of styles and on this album you can look at individual songs that are collaged together, I mentioned ‘Revolution 9’ but also ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun ‘which is my favourite Beatles song of all time. Paul called it the best song from the whole album and it’s not hard to see why.
‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ is John’s masterpiece, it was originally four songs stringed together, the music is incredibly intriguing with five different melody changes but so too is the subject matter which is often covered in controversy and intrigue. It’s well known around that time that John and Yoko had started going out, and unfortunately around that time was when they started to indulge in the latest drug craze Heroin. With lyrics like “I need a fix” and “I’m going down” John depicts his addiction to the lethal opioid. The lyrics “mother superior jumped the gun” actually appears in the movie Trainspotting as another reference to the drug, however, those words were inspired by Yoko.
Lennon completes the song with an overarching theme with gun imagery, apparently inspired by the wickedness of a gun magazine which George Martin had at the time. What I find incredibly interesting is how John links Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll to a gun. The “bang bang, shoot shoot” acapella harmony could be a reference literally, a reference to sexual pleasure or to shooting up heroin. Ultimately I think it’s about all of them, John once said that it encompassed the whole gamut of Rock n Roll at the time.
People may argue about the Album’s length or certain song inclusions, but you can not deny it’s influence. I think the number one reason why I love this album so much is because of how modern it still sounds and furthermore how you can see it’s influence on music succeeding the Beatles even still today. The song ‘Helter Skelter’ infamous for its connection with Charles Manson was birthed out of Paul McCartney trying to outdo the Who’s heavy playing, he created Helter Skelter which was one of the precursors to Metal music and it’s clear to see it’s influence on bands like Black Sabbath and metal bands alike.
The song ‘Yer Blues’ was also incredibly heavy sounding and especially in subject matter discussing themes of suicidal thoughts and depression. Whenever I listen to it I always think of Kurt Cobain and bands like Nirvana and the Pixies in that grunge scene from the 90s taking inspiration from it.
Karma Police from Radiohead’s OK Computer also uses the same eerily sounding chord progression from ‘Sexy Sadie’ from the white album too.
With defining albums like Revolver and Sgt Pepper it’s easy to see why people focus on those two as being the most influential Beatles albums but The White album is just as influential as the two albums that came before it. And it’s my favourite record of all time and the only one i’d ever need if I was on a desert island.
Words by Joshua McCarthy