Friday, January 13, 2012

The White Album Gets No Love from Me

My son is now old enough to have some well-defined favorite songs, and today he discovered a new one. At Christmas, both Nana and Grandma's house have train sets, and my son is now obsessed with trains (he doesn't really understand what they are yet aside from toys), and so I thought it would be funny to play Quad City DJs' "C'Mon 'N Ride it (The Train)" and teach him a conga line dance. And I was right, it was funny... the first five times through. I lost count after that, and we could barely get through breakfast because everytime the song ended he would point at the computer and shout "TRAIN!"

So, I can now add that to his list of other favorites: "I Want to Be Your Driver" by Chuck Berry ( yes, 1000 Recording entry), "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (no, not 1000 RTHBYD), "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles (yes), "Jump" by Kris Kross (surprisingly, no), and "Yellow Submarine" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by The Beatles (yes and yes). The last one is from the Beatles' self-titled/"White" album, and that's what I'm going to talk about today.

Artist: The Beatles
Album: The Beatles (The White Album)
Recording #175ish

Stream this on Youtube

I said before that choosing a favorite Radiohead album opens one up to attacks; multiply that by 1000 when you're talking about a Beatles album. There are entire college courses dedicated to studying the Beatles and how influential their albums were. But here it goes: The White Album is my least favorite Beatles album. Maybe it's because it's the last one I heard, and maybe Abbey Road is my favorite because it was the first. Maybe it's because there are so few singles on it, so I was totally unfamiliar with it. Considering it's their best selling album, I am clearly in the minority. But the overall theme I get from the album (strange that I notice one, considering the band had basically broken up by this point and it's a double album) is a melancholy, sludgy one. The songs don't have a lot of oomph, aside from the singles, which are generally the most interesting.

My first experience with this album was actually hearing The Gray Album by Danger Mouse (another 1000 Recording), which is a mix of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles. I remember thinking, "the backing music sounds nothing like the Beatles." Now, in part, that was Danger Mouse's genius, but it also stems from the fact that much of this album does not sound like what most would think of as the Beatles. I wonder how many people felt as confused by this when it was first released as I did the first time I heard it. After hearing the guys from the 1000 Recordings Podcast talk about this one, I understood it a little better, especially the nuances between the different members and how they were all exploring their own styles. When I went back and listened to it again, I realize it's a "grower," but I'm still not there. There are some great songs on here ("Yer Blues," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," - which I did not particularly like the first time, and "Blackbird"), but only one album's worth in my opinion (I could do without "Piggies," and "Revolution 9" for example). Let the skewering begin, but I can't honestly say I dig this one.

How many stars would you give this recording?

Buy this album here


  1. I have to chime in on this one when you criticize what I find to be one of the finest pieces of art of the 20th century. This, along with Pepper's, was the Beatles at their artistic peak. What you mentioned about the nuances of the different members is what makes the album so special. The album has high quality songwriting output from three band members (and a couple offerings from Ringo)! Name another band where that happens. And we are really talking about quality. A lot of the material was written while they were on a spiritual pilgrimage in India and there was actually quite a surplus of material that they had to come down from. Some of the other stuff appeared on later albums and solo offerings as well as the Anthology. The contrast is what makes the album so spectacular. They go in so many different places musically and each has their unique offerings. While My Guitar... was not a single but may be one of their most lasting songs and is one of George's finest. He also gets a little help from his friend Eric Clapton on the solo. The John stuff is also incredibly important. Julia, the deep ode to his late mother and Revolution which would come out as a single in a different format and be a precursor to his political work. Paul's contributions are great as well including Martha My Dear (about his sheepdog, Martha) and Mother Nature's Song (give that another listen) as is his technical bass work (see Dear Prudence) which at this point was revolutionizing the instrument U.S.S.R, bungalow bill, and rocky raccoon are all fun, while being satirical. All together it is an impressive work...and then there is Helter Skelter. They were being criticized for being soft by the press so created what is potentially the nastiest, raunchiest, hardest song of that pre-zeppelin era. All in all, I respect your opinion not to like it but find it surprising and a bit sad. Two closing items:
    1) if you really want a cover...check out Phish covering the entire album for halloween '94
    2) wild honey pie and rev 9 both suck. My least favorite beatles' songs.

  2. Allen, I don't mean to disrespect anyone's favorite album: I understand the cultural implications of the record, and I am a huge fan of SGT Pepper, but this one just hasn't grabbed me yet. Again, maybe I just need to stick with it-- I don't think it's a BAD album, but I don't see it as making this list. "Julia" has grown on me, but I don't like Bungalow Bill or Rocky Raccoon. I love the story behind Helter Skelter, but again, it's not my favorite. I really like Revolution 1, the single, but this version is a little tame. I will check out the Phish cover though. Thanks for weighing in, because I am definitely not a scholar of the Beatles. This book introduced me to both this album and A Hard Day's Night (the album and the movie) so I would consider myself a newbie on the Beatles

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  4. I have to chime in here on Allen's assertion that "wild honey pie and rev 9 both suck." - and I'd like to specifically address Revolution 9. This track is certainly not a song in the traditional sense. I guess you could call it "Sound Art" or "Aural Collage", etc, but if you're looking for it to fall into that "song" category, you're going to end up disappointed (maybe even disillusioned) every time.

    Now don't get me wrong - it's not like I sit around and listen to Revolution 9 - well, ever. My point is - if you take this track for what it is, rather than taking it for what it's not, it can be a fascinating thing to listen to - not just aurally, but also as a document of sorts for what the Beatles were going through, and what the times were like when this album was made. I think it's too easy (and honestly, kind of lazy) to just dismiss it outright as "this sucks".

  5. Tony, I agree with you to a point on being lazy by just saying something sucks. I feel like saying "this sucks" about Captain Beefheart, but I realize some people like it and maybe there is something in there I just can't hear (yet, evidently). But at the same time, if you put on an album to hear a song, and what comes out is revolution 9, and you never really listen to it again, then is there much value to it? I mean, this is a lot like abstract art, right? For some people, Jackson Pollock is amazing, other people think "it sucks." I am against saying "it sucks" about art, but somehow I feel free to do it with music. Maybe that's a difference between a classically trained guy and just a casual listener- it's much easier for me to write something off after one listen. One of the reasons I am going through this book is to help expand my tastes so I am less likely to be lazy when I hear something unfamiliar. I am already getting better about jazz and opera, but I am still coming around on rock, maybe because my tastes have been so shaped by rock music, and it's hard for me to go back and see the influence that some of this older, and sometimes, to me, dated, stuff has

    1. I really do hear you Mike. I try very hard to keep as open a mind as possible, but despite my best efforts, I sometimes find myself writing something off too soon. I think it's just human nature to reject something that's unfamiliar.

      Revolution 9 is just a Pandora's box to talk about. It's a good question you pose - "you never really listen to it again, then is there much value to it?". In our populist American society, we tend to think that if there's not wide appeal, then the value of it lessens. I think it's a personal thing to come up with an answer - I'm not here to try to answer that question for everyone. The more abstract something is, I think the more a listener (or viewer) has to find personal meaning in it to truly make it valuable (or worthless).

      You brought up Jackson Pollock, which is always a good example in discussions like these. Many people don't "get" his art. However, in my opinion, many people miss the point of art. We're brought up and educated to believe that everything has a definite and finite answer. We go through our most formative years learning this way. So, when we're confronted with something that doesn't have a definite answer - like Pollock's art - we tend to dismiss it as some kind of bullshit - like the artist is trying to pull one over on us - I mean c'mon - even HE doesn't know what it means, right!? However, the point is to take it in and find meaning for yourself. You might end up not finding any and that's fine, as long as you gave it a fair shot. As for me and Pollock - well, I'm a synesthete - so for me looking at a Pollock painting is like being barraged by a giant fireworks display of sound - it's fascinating. That's my personal meaning in his art, but it's going to be totally different for someone else.

      Anyway - getting back to Revolution 9. I do think it's fine to say "this sucks", but only after seriously giving it a real shot with as open a mind as possible. And if you haven't even listened to it all the way through even one time - you haven't given it a serious shot.

      That brings me to the concepts of "liking" something vs. "appreciating" something. I'll use something from the book as an example - let's take Alban Berg's "Wozzeck". I've been through this opera - seen it live and have studied many of Berg's pieces. Having gone all the way through music school, I know all the ins and outs of Berg's musical language and all the cool and clever devices he used to compose it. However, after coming through all of that, I would say that I appreciate Berg's music, but that I don't necessarily like it - meaning, I don't listen to it really, ever, and really have no desire to do so. Admitting that you don't like Berg (or Schoenberg or Webern, etc) in music school - especially in a composition program can make you a pariah, but after giving their music a serious shot (more than serious), I got tired of pretending that I liked it. I appreciate it.

      So, that was a super long-winded response, but I hope I made some sense - lol.