Long, Long, Long
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles during the summer of 1968/PHOTO CREDIT: Don McCullin
The Beatles’ Eponymous Masterpiece at Fifty: An Album That Continues to Reveal Magic and Mystery
THERE is a lot of celebration and anticipation…
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regarding the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles’ eponymous album. With its iconic white cover – hence its nickname – and four sides (when it came out on vinyl); it is a record that continues to amaze people and compel discussion. I am listening to a three-hour investigation of the album by Martin Freeman on BBC Radio 6 – studying the songs and speaking to high-profile figures about the record and the impact it made on them. It is a fascinating thing and it is good to see an album – a double-album, I know – get such a thorough going-over. Every Beatles album deserves that sort of acclaim and given the fact we are talking about their work this far down the line shows how much they mean to us! 22nd November is the official fiftieth anniversary of the album but it is good to get in there and get the party started. Billboard have outlined what we can expect and, to promote the remastered version of The Beatles that is coming up, spoke with Giles Martin (Beatles producer George Martin’s son) about the work and some interesting facts:
“The Beatles’ longest, strangest work is about to get a new look. Ahead of its 50th anniversary (Nov. 22), a greatly expanded edition of 1968’s The Beatles (widely known as The White Album) -- helmed by producer Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin -- will see release on Nov. 9.
The set contains revealing mixes of the original double LP, refreshed versions of its acoustic demos, and unreleased recordings from George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, London, fresh from the band’s fabled Rishikesh trip.
According to Martin, The White Album sessions weren’t exactly the volatile trip that has been fossilized into Beatle lore. Sure, there were spats, including Starr leaving the group in a huff and heading to Sardinia on Peter Sellers’ yacht, or George Harrison recording over 100 takes of a song allegedly about McCartney’s controlling, repressive effect on him”.
I am going to get the remastered version but there will be vinyl versions and DVDs released. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks and make sure you treat yourself to a real bumper package! Looking at the Billboard interview and it was the question as to why Giles Martin (and co.) decided to look through the vaults and bring the album back to life:
“This isn’t the first repackaging of The White Album, and the story of its making — drama, discord and Maharishi — has long been codified into myth. Of course, the reality of it was more complex. Did you still feel there are undiscovered corners of this album and its legend that could still beguile longtime listeners?
In all honesty, I think what beguiles listeners is the songs themselves. The story behind the record is what people write about, but at the end of it, you don’t listen to a song thinking about that. For me, what was surprising about The White Album was how cohesive it is as an album, as far as its creation. My dad was never a fan of it because he had such a tough time making it. He went on a holiday halfway through because he was just sitting in the studio listening to the band jamming for hours on end”.
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I am amazed the album managed to get recorded and The Beatles actually have it out in the world! Things started quite positively and normally but it started to go wrong and cracks appeared. There were tensions and personal disputes but the music stands out. I will talk about the songs themselves in a bit but it is quite funny Paul McCartney was drumming on songs for The Beatles. Ringo Starr drummed on most of the songs but there was a bit of a bust-up and Starr left – he would return to find his drum kit adorned in flowers with a sweet message from his bandmates. It seemed McCartney had drumming ambitions in 1968:
“Did Paul have drummer dreams in 1968?
I think lots of bands’ members have drummer dreams. Steven Tyler joined Aerosmith because Joe Perry liked his drumming. The drummer on “Walk This Way” was Steven Tyler, originally. So, that really annoys drummers. Ringo left, not because the Beatles were breaking up, but because he was pretty pissed off. But then when he went, they realized they weren’t the Beatles. There were four of them, and then he was gone. And when he came back, they filled the studio with flowers.
So much is written about things. I mean, even when I hear Yoko on the recordings, she sounds sweet, and they’re having a laugh; it’s not just her with John. I know it became difficult; it became difficult at Abbey Road as well. There was a bust-up because she ate George’s biscuits -- just a stupid thing. But it gets written about, and written about, and it becomes this big thing”.
When we get the remastered songs and demos; it will bring together dialogue snippets and bring The Beatles to life. This article gives more life and colour – as to what we can expect – and I know many people who are keen to explore and investigate the hidden depths of the fabulous ‘White Album’. I am going to get involved because I am compelled to find out whether there was this myth regarding the stresses in the studio. I have read about the arguments and how each Beatle recorded some of their material alone. It is clear they were not the focused and together band that arrived years before – did the introduction of Yoko Ono and her larger role in the camp play a decisive role?! A fascinating article from LOUDER took a look at the album and how things were faring at the time. It was a rather fraught road into the studio:
“Bound together by the captivity of fame, The Beatles came to resent their essential closeness. And by 1968, as they set about recording their eponymous double White Album, they were pretty much sick of the sight of each other. Just as telepathic harmony between the four Beatles had facilitated the creation of perfect pop, so growing disharmony bred the raw, discordant fury of rock”.
IN THIS PHOTO: John Lennon and Yoko Ono during the recording of The Beatles/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Imges
Personal problems and romantic splits were playing a role in the lives of The Beatles. Lennon, especially, was suffering a lot and in need of someone he could feel safe with and adore:
“Trapped in a loveless marriage, obsessed with thoughts of Yoko and unable to sleep (an insomnia diarised in the White Album’s I’m So Tired), he wrote Yer Blues. Reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and the other blues boomers, the song was indicative of the fact that Lennon was far from happy. “When I wrote ‘I’m so lonely, I want to die’,” he admitted, “I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt, up there, trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.”
Having travelled to India in search of direction and wise counsel from a parental figure, Lennon found only disillusionment. He left Rishikesh in a huff, accusing the Maharishi (falsely, as it turned out) of making a pass at Mia Farrow, an incident chronicled in the accusatory Sexy Sadie. “I was rough on him,” he said. “I always expect too much. I’m always expecting my mother and I don’t get her. That’s what it is.”
Within a month John and Cynthia’s marriage had ended and he was in a relationship with Yoko”.
Even if marriages and changes in their lives was making the business of making music tough; it seems each Beatle wanted to work individually and create, essentially, four different solo albums:
“When the four Beatles finally took their individual songs into Abbey Road Studios in May 1968, they worked more autonomously than ever before. Abandoning the meticulous crafting that had served them so well on Sgt. Pepper, they jammed out a few backing tracks collectively, but generally worked individually.
The majority of the White Album was recorded as if four solo albums were being made simultaneously. McCartney was no longer editing Lennon and vice versa, Harrison was left to his own devices, and Ringo spent entire days twiddling his sticks in the studio’s reception; each songwriter took care of his own overdubs separately. A frustrated George Martin eventually abandoned production duties to go on holiday. His position as omnipresent fifth Beatle had been usurped”.
You should read the entire article but it is clear there was a point when The Beatles, as a functioning band, went past the point of no return. They would finally split a couple of years later but there were regrets and unhappiness present in 1968. In an interview long after The Beatles was released; John Lennon talked about his experiences:
“I was too scared to break away from The Beatles, which I’d been looking to do since we stopped touring [in ’66],” Lennon revealed in 1980. “I was vaguely looking for somewhere to go, but didn’t have the nerve - so I hung around. And then I met Yoko and fell in love: ‘This is more than a hit record. It’s more than everything…’”
Lennon was hypersensitive to any negative reaction to his newly attached Siamese twin. The indignation of his fellow Beatles was at least understandable, but the negative press and public reaction to Yoko was not. It was this undue criticism (partly born of racism) that particularly rankled. A dormant hard-man persona came to the fore in Lennon. The moptop-era puppy fat was gone forever, now replaced with a lean, mean demeanour: Lennon the Peace Yob. It was the template for Liam Gallagher 25 years later, and a role Lennon himself would inhabit for the remainder of the decade.
Angry John was easily mistaken for Political John. Resentful that nobody liked his new girlfriend, he started ranting about peace, furiously planting acorns and shouting at journalists from bed. In so doing he inadvertently supplied the blueprint for Bono and every other rock star who assumes that just because they can sing in tune they’re Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Jesus Christ rolled into one.
There is a lot to unpack there but I feel, like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, one could make a film about the album and how it was made – given the fact there was a cyclone of drugs, struggles and band members warring. It is a fascinating snapshot into a band who were fresh-faced and brothers in 1962/1963 but, a few years later, they were starting to fray and that love was missing. They did manage to make peace and create more cohesive work but what is astonishing is how GOOD the music on The Beatles is! The final snippet of that fascinating article I want to bring in seems to sum up the album perfectly and what was achieved:
“The Beatles were a leviathan, a cultural colossus whose influence on their musical contemporaries was wholly unprecedented and remains unsurpassed. They were the first four-piece guitar band to smoulder moodily in leather jackets and shades; the first to grow their hair, to fly their freak flag, to tune in, turn on and flaunt it in the tabloids; the first to India; the first to soundtrack a Revolution; and the first to fall out over the first – and still the very best – Yoko.
With the White Album, The Beatles delivered all the necessary components for what we now know as classic rock, but the disharmony that facilitated its birth proved fatal. As John Lennon himself acknowledged: “The break-up of The Beatles can be heard on that album”.
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All of the tensions and sarcastic remarks being made at various recording sessions could give the impression the band were not bothered about music and wanted to get through quickly. The reason why we are still enticed and addicted to The Beatles is because of the passion exuded in every note! The fact the band decided to release a thirty-song album – almost unheard of at the time and something risky in today’s culture! – is a bold and extraordinary move. If they were out of love with music itself then they would dash off a short album but, as it was, there was influence and inspiration working through the blood of each band member. Maybe their sojourn in India had sparked endeavour and genius but, whatever the catalyst was, the boys were keen to record these varied and brilliant songs. Although George Harrison and Ringo Starr were writing and part of the process; the main songwriters were Lennon and McCartney! There is this feeling that McCartney was the slightly cheesy one who was writing disposal ditties whilst Lennon was the strict and tempestuous rival who was penning more serious music. McCartney had written a couple of sillier songs on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty Four, for example – so it was no surprise that he would have a few on The Beatles – Maxwell Silver Hammer (for Abbey Road) would show he was not willing to drop that line of enquiry after the 1968 drama.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles during the summer of 1968/PHOTO CREDIT: Don McCullin
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is not one of the most serious and memorable songs from McCartney but Lennon provided the equally-silly The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and, to be fair, both of these titans created a lot of hugely important work. From McCartney’s Blackbird, Helter Skelter and Back in the U.S.S.R. to Lennon’s Sexy Sadie, Happiness Is a Warm Gun and Glass Onion – some of the best work either songwriter had come up with was on this album. It is the sheer variety and consistency of the work that amazes me. Maybe Lennon was being inspired by Yoko Ono and his creative attitude was being inspired by hard changes and new discovery: McCartney, maybe, was funnelling tensions and a sense of dislocation into new adventures. Whilst those songs I have mentioned are the best from both; they had a load more songs on the album and it is a great window into their mindset and world. Maybe Lennon just shades it in terms of quality and those memorable cuts but The Beatles allowed Lennon and McCartney to go wild and come up with material that, for any other album, might have been questioned or nixed. As a child, when I discovered the album; songs like The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Wild Honey Pie were keener to my ear but, as I cry older, I understood the layers of Glass Onion and the hidden delights of Long, Long, Long – a song that gets some criticism but I actually like! Scrappy, less-memorable songs like Piggies (Harrison) and Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? (McCartney) all make sense of are part of an important documentation. Nothing is expendable and you are hooked by the incompleteness and wackiness of some moments!
I love the charm of Martha My Dear and Harrison’s epic, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Beatles is a scattershot statement of intent from a band who, for much of the recording, were tense and divided. At a time when we are straying away from albums as a format; the likes of The Beatles are essential and engrossing artefacts. I hope, on 22nd November, everyone spins the album and unravels all the quirky asides, intense songs and incredible moments. If you can get the remastered and re-released spread – with its demos and rarities – that will give you a much more complete and interesting look at The Beatles. Even if you do not like every track on the (double) album; you have to concede that there is so much to take away and treasure! One can only imagine the daily reality of making such a challenging piece of work but, if it was a disaster in terms of quality, we might have reduced ‘The White Album’ to the level of an interesting footnote. As it stands; fifty years from its release, we are still engrossed and moved by this incredible and nuanced slice of wonder from The Beatles. It may be fifty years since the record arrived in the world but, I wonder, can you think of another record as intriguing, sprawling and fantastic…
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AS The Beatles’ eponymous work of genius?!