Sunday, April 17, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 10--Good Guys Always Eat Cake


The Beatles, better known as "The White Album," is not my favorite album of theirs. (More like fifth or sixth, depending on not only the day but the time of that day.) That said, it is the first Beatles album I would recommend to virgin ears wondering where to begin.

This is by far their hodgepodgiest, mishmashed, hooked and crooked goulash pot album. Personal relations between the four members had deteriorated to such a degree that The White Album can accurately be described as less a true group effort, more a double disc (or quad slab) compilation of two solo LPs, one solo EP, and a single where both sides are "B." The fact that its actual title is the bands name is certainly ironic, and possibly was an attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy.

An epic work of art that makes any attempt at serious analysis seem frivolous, The White Album features some of the greatest tracks in Beatles history--and thus, some of the greatest tracks in rock history. There is also some flagrant trash that would disintegrate any bag it was tossed into. For those reasons, it may very well be the most captivating album ever released by a major rock and roll band.

"Back In the USSR"--The plane sound serves a purpose much like the brass of "Magical Mystery Tour"; that is, to inform the listener that some serious merde this way comes. Honey disconnect your brain and rock, roll, then again.

They bring out the old salad bowls for their guests, washed down with a Berry-infused chugger and topped off with a parodic passage borrowed (whilst guffawing) from those perpetual bridesmaids the Beach Boys. Oh this song is adorable. "Georgia's always on my mind," ah, what you did there is a thing I see, Macca.

Paul also plays lead guitar and drums here. "Back in the USSR" was recorded during the two-week period when Ringo Starr, sick of having his kit skills second-guessed, temporarily quit the band. (He would also be replaced by Paul on "Dear Prudence," but the drum work elsewhere is his.)

"Dear Prudence"-- After some flirtation, the Beatles fucked off to India to join Maharishi Summer Camp, to meditate and discover, to relieve and believe, to pluck off the petals and reseed the land. Writing songs for the new album was really counterproductive, but they did it anyway, those fractious bastards.

They didn't have the great guru all to themselves, though. Among the gathered devotees were actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. Some issues arose, and it fell to John Lennon to convince Prudence that 23 hours of meditation was a bit much, finding God is after all not a race, and fresh air isn't always guaranteed our lungs, so step outside of the cottage and talk to the rest of us you insane woman.

Few exhortations to simply be alive can measure up to this beautiful beseechment. From the delicate guitar melody, to the terse slither of the bass, and the sweetly imploring lyrics, "Dear Prudence" was plucked from a poppy field. The Beatles know why the two adjacent colors sing, Pablo.

"The sun is up/The sky is blue/It's beautiful/And so are you." Wow. If I were Li'l Miss Meditation, I woulda bolted and challenged everyone to an intense game of hide and seek after hearing that. 2:51 is when even the mightiest fortress has to fall, though, that jaw-dropping sunburst that leaves no room for doubt. When the song ends close to how it began, Prudence is certainly smiling. She is not alone.

"Glass Onion"--No Beatles song is more meta: "Strawberry Fields Forever," "I Am the Walrus," "The Fool on the Hill," "Lady Madonna" and "Fixing a Hole" all get name-dropped here, layer after layer discarded brusquely. To top it with bacon most gleaming, John adds "And here's another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul." While the nods to their history are sneering challenges to those portions of the fanbase who put the anal in analytic, the sudden Macca mention goes beyond all that. Instead of an acknowledgment of the "Paul Is Dead" hoax (for we all are aware that the walrus is a symbol of death in Scandinavian culture) or the definitive word on who wore the Walrus costume on the Magical Mystery Tour cover, an interview from 1970 conducted by Jann Wenner saw Lennon claiming that it was intended as an effort to say "something nice to Paul...He was trying to organize the group and that, and do the music, and be an individual artist....I thought, 'Well, you can have it, I've got Yoko, and thank you, you can have all the credit.'"

Greatest old married couple ever.

"Glass Onion" puts me in a love cloud. Oh yeah. Very few singers actually believe their "oh yeah"s. (Even fewer put any heart behind their "baby"s, but that's another discussion.) Well baby, within these two minutes find the most sincere "Oh yeah"s ever put to tape.

The abrupt strings are like the exit after a spectacular triumph.

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"--An example of how Paul overworked a song in the studio until the other guys had little choice but to loathe it and him by the end. This one's for the grannies, yessir, but why is that automatically cause for condemnation? Or even an indicator of compromise most rotten? This semi-reggae boogie isn't for everyone, but neither is any other fucking song on this record. In fact, what art out there is for everyone? I mean good art. Not every creative piece has to be lathered in coat after coat of the most exquisite irony, or draped in layers of simile, metaphor, and satire. It's fucking rock music, not a T.S. Eliot trip to the toilet.

Yeah, I dig this tune. And not a shallow grave either, oh ha ha. John is weeded as a cat lady's lawn pounding on the keys, and I'll leave it up to you whether that's a powerful argument for or against drugs as gateway to greater creativity. Paul is the master of ringing earworms. Go for the mono if you go at all, as it lacks the superfluous handclaps at the start.

"Wild Honey Pie"--For many listeners, "Ob-La-Di" is the first bump in the road. Not me. That would be this song. Yep. It's not so much a bump as a hole the size of a crater.

Inspired by the spontaneous sing-alongs at Spirit Camp, this is 53 seconds of holy shit Paul why? People who like "Wild Honey Pie" are like panda bears playing Monopoly. I've never seen it, I can't imagine how it's possible, but if I ever come across it--whoa.

It's funny, the sessions for The White Album were famously made 99 times more tense by the presence of one Yoko Ono in the studio, but hers was not the only inimical influence from the fairer sex. "Wild Honey Pie" was all set not to make the final cut, but the insistence of Pattie Boyd convinced Paul to leave it on.

"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill"--Never forget how capable Lennon was of filling the song glass to the very brim with some rank and cloudy piss. So many people dog Macca and praise John. Be fair.

More India shenanigans, this time concerning a fellow believers compulsion to shoot some tigers after meditating on the oneness of man with nature. The chorus reminds me of the laziest chants concocted by crowds gathered in protest. Yoko and Maureen Starkey do not do anyone any favors here. This is sloppy, and misses the hole.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"--When greens mature to blues.

Usually when a songwriter claims a muse in the I Ching I cringe, but here, George Harrison stops being so self-importantly selfless. Eschewing the philosophy that life is a crapshoot, embracing the belief that the outer life is as vitally connected through as many pulsing ropes as our inner ones are, "Guitar" limps along bravely, a weary worker of the world dragging another millstone. George's vocals and Eric Clapton's guitar are each genuinely morose. This song positively shudders with grief. The last time George sings "I look at you all," and then for a few beats sings nothing else, just exposing the exhaustion...powerful.

There is speculation among geniuses that George is saying "Paul, Paul" over Clapton's solo, another hint at the bassist's untimely death. It's actually just more unfettered emotion coming out. And if he is saying "Paul, Paul" it was probably in reference to the Les Paul that Clapton was playing. Occam's Razor and shit.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"--Getting your pop-culture phenomenons second-hand--it happens. Yes, John saw an article in a gun magazine entitled "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," but those bang-happy editors got their inspiration from "Happiness Is a Warm Puppy," a catchphrase from a Peanuts comic strip printed in 1963 that grew into a merchandising cash cow for United Media and its creator Charles Schulz (and a best-selling book, to boot). Respect the architect.

If Schulz couldn't imagine his sweet sentiment later twisted to extol the virtues of a recently-fired sidearm, what about the most famous band in the world turning it into a song whose time signatures jump bars like a Scot on New Years? Sex and drugs, lusted after, agitated over, grace most sordid sought after, this track kinda has it all. Riveting from start to finish, but not a classic to me. While it has no low points to speak of, none of the peaks reach that height that makes me screw up my face in disgust at the brilliance.

Go for mono, with the clearer organ.

"Martha My Dear"--John beats Paul on The White Album. There it is. I said it. Macca fangirl concedes defeat. That said and aside, "Martha" is one of Paul's greater offerings here. Another true solo track, the titular female is Macca's old sheepdog. Some canines you just wanna snuggle up with, cosset beyond reason, babble absurdly at. That's what unconditional love makes us do, no? Martha must have been that kind of dog.

Perfect for languorous Sundays, lazing around in socks.

"I'm So Tired"--Perfect for hungover Sundays, when a shotgun blast to the heart can't kill you fast enough.

If Paul's tunes are gazelles, John's are lions. While the sludge of the soul is clearly John's here, Paul pops up to testify alongside his mate. (Again, go for mono to get the full impression of what it's like to float in a lull.) "I'd give you everything I got/For a little piece of mind." Yessir. That whole section is too good, like a march against insanity.

What's better than writers talking shit about other writers? It's words as weapons in the hands of certified marksmen, it can't be beat. "Curse Sir Walter Raleigh" makes me laugh every time.

"Blackbird"--Delicate as a doll's house. Paul tackles an incendiary subject--the American Civil Rights Movement--and crafts a ballad that's sweet without being saccharine. (If you'd like to hear how to do it all wrong--and see yet another reason why the Beatles are superior forever to the Stones, try that bands "Sweet Black Angel" on for size.)

So long as it remains Paul's voice, hands and feet, "Blackbird" is golden. The chirps are hokey. Bad decision to leave them in.

"Piggies"--Pigs are magnificent animals. Bacon, sausage, ham...all come from the body of the proud porcine.

"Pigs" are also cops. I don't say that, though. I have ham in my fam, so.

The pigs Mr. Harrison attacks here are those whose corpulence is surpassed only by their opulence. The hob-knobbers, the jet-setters, the gold-hoarders, the unscrupulous bastards. Condemning their esurience and avarice is one thing, but to do it over chamber music? Well fucking played, sir.

Possibly fun definite fact: "What they need's a damn good whacking" came from the brain of George's mother, Louise Harrison. Finally, some good female influence on The White Album!

(Here is the only time in not only this review but the whole of my blog where I will give any shine to Charles Manson. As a true crime buff, I see him for what he is: a lightweight petty criminal who fancied himself a revolutionary and got stupid, insecure kids to do almost all of his dirty work. Carl Panzram shit out turds that were tougher than Charles Manson. If he'd never credited The White Album for galvanizing his grand race war plan, no one would know his name.)

"Rocky Raccoon"--What the hell with the animals? But especially with this song? Macca...dude...what were you sminking? Oh well, that's Paul, he'll be quirky. Starts off a harmless campfire ditty, then a bear attacks everyone. Do English people think they're entitled to do the shittiest American accents whenever the opportunity arises just because of what Dick Van Dyke did in Mary Poppins? He drops the hokey drawl pretty quick, but the damage is done.

"Rocky Raccoon" is the incontestable winner of the Brown Ribbon. Imagine finding a dilapidated treasure chest, prying it open and finding not gold not silver not rubies nor diamonds, but rather a pound of rotten apples. I have a story about how a pound of apples ends up locked in a treasure chest, and it is far more interesting and entertaining than this crap.

"Don't Pass Me By"--Depending on the source, Ringo wrote this song in 1963 or in 1968 whilst at Spirit Camp with the boys. Mentions a car crash, the supposed cause of Paul's "death," which might explain why it went to number one in Scandinavia. "You lost your hair" means "to go nuts." Awesome.

If you must go, go stereo. There's some minor-league caliber organ perfect for large-nosed mascots to groove to. The mono is sped up, ala "She's Leaving Home," but with one huge difference--the faster "Don't Pass Me By" is lame. It sounds close to a joke. Knock knock. Who's there? Way to. Way to who? Way to mix, assholes.

"Why Don't We Do It in the Road"--Don't ever fuck in the road. Don't ever fuck in the snow. There's times when pain complements pleasure. Not so much with those situations.

Paul saw two monkeys go at it in the streets of Rishikesh, India and was struck at how humans overcomplicate fornication with emotion, meanwhile animals just be fuckin'. Paul really rallies behind this, but his uncharacteristically excoriating vocals overwhelm the lightweight half-groove underneath.

"I Will"--I will follow the sun. This is more Macca's mph. With Ringo's help, Paul follows up a nasty call to public sex with a gentle romantic ballad. The tone from his acoustic sounds like he was plucking golden straw instead of nylon strings. The stereo is my go-to here, as the mono omits the "mouthbass" from the first verse. It practically makes the whole damn thing!

"Julia"--John's dazzling and sweetly honest ode to his twin muses: mother Julia (who taught her son ukulele and banjo) and girlfriend Yoko Ono (Yoko means "ocean child" in Japanese).

"Half of what I say is meaningless" it begins, and sometimes I like to mishear the last word as "meaning less," likely because I enjoy witnessing a downward spiral more than the actual attained state of irreversible despair. The delicacy of feeling and thought in "Julia" is unmatched elsewhere on the album. I used to bristle at Lennon's key changes near the end on the "song of love" part, but now it strikes me as seamless.

"Birthday"--John Lennon called this "a piece of garbage." That's a bit of a lie, sir.

Cooked up after a viewing of The Girl Can't Help It, this is a Sloppy Joe mix with freshly chopped onions in the beef. Sounds awesome. Yeah, well, the bun's a little dry.


The instrumental passages are the highlights (read: the onions). You won't hear the Beatles sound like a cohesive unit much on this album, but here they disregard the tension and just have fun cracking holes in the roof. Who knows how much more time they gave themselves just by indulging in these dumb, therapeutic moments?

The last six seconds reminds me of the intro to "Space Junk" by Devo. I refuse to believe it is just me.

"Yer Blues"--Holy crap, Drama King, who used your crown for a punch bowl? "I'm lonely/Wanna die." The inevitable result of trying to reach a higher understanding but just can't reconcile the folly of such an ambition, so you see no other recourse but death.

The spelling "Yer" is a nice attempt to inject some levity, and the song itself trudges along admirably, but just like "Why Don't We Do It In the Road," the instrumentation badly outshines lackluster lyricism.

"The eagle picks my eye/The worm he licks my bone/I feel so suicidal/Just like Dylan's Mister Jones."

"Yer Blues" is a fully-stocked fridge that somehow contains nothing you actually want to eat.

"Mother Nature's Son"--All Paul, save the horny guys. Maybe you like John's songs better, but no way was he a superior musician. McCartney was and is just masterful.

He's taking it easy here. He can't help that he doesn't want to bash his head into a mirror after staring into it for five full minutes wondering how he can go on in this cruel world that crushes sensitive poets underfoot like a blue Godzilla.

"Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey"--Longest Beatles song title ever, and one of the most enjoyable tracks they ever made. George Harrison is playing a goddamn firebell, y'all. Oh Fabs. Thank you for lettin' yourselves be yourselves again. Nonsense verbals stabbed by sharp guit action (the post-chorus lick is kinda evil, kinda graceful. It just snapes.)

"Sexy Sadie"--Originally a bitter tirade against the Maharishi for alleged sexual improprieties. If you're going to pen a bitter tirade, make it worth our time. I have enough of my own self-righteous vitriol to spew.

"Helter Skelter"--Kurt Cobain's wife once told an interviewer about the debates she and her spouse would get into about the merits of Lennon vs. McCartney. Seems Cobain preferred John, while his missus swore by Paul. Paul wrote fluffy pop songs with no real heart, he claimed. "What about 'Helter Skelter'?" she shot back. After a moments pause, Cobain could only say, "Well, who played the guitar?" less as a question and more as a statement that Lennon was the one who gave the song its edge and power.

If the former Mrs. Cobain crushed her husband's final argument with the simple truth of the matter, she didn't say so in the interview. It seems not many people know that Paul actually played lead guitar on "Helter Skelter," and George the rhythm guitar. John? He handled bass duties. Yep.

Pardon me while the Macca fangirl in me giggles uncontrollably and downs more coffee.

What "Helter Skelter" lacks in emphatic precision it makes up for in proto power. Shit is just nasty bad-ass. Especially the mono. Is it the first heavy metal song? The first grunge song? I leave that to the bored historians. Does it rock? Yes. Does it bind and gag decorum to a chair with a nail poking out of the seat? Yes. Does it inspire me to punch the wall and see if there's some porkchops hiding there like in Castlevania? That one time.

The mono also wins for being shorter and not giving a shit about Ringo Starr's fingers.

"Long Long Long"--George's love song to God that doesn't rip off the Chiffons. It's folksy, waltzy, a lysergic lethargy. The sparse soundscape is fitting for the tale it tells. Rattling wine bottle as a fine imitation of the oscillation of transformation, who knew?

"Revolution 1"--No one else in the band could do sweet love songs quite like Paul, no one else could do spiritual tracks like George, and no one could touch John for politically charged songs. That's all true. But if the words were the thing, they'd all have been poets or novelists. When your lyrics require reinforcement to smash the listener with indelible impact, your backup better deliver.

Compare this version to the one that made the "Hey Jude" single. There is no real comparison. That take has the visceral gristle that John's passionate words of peace and patience fit into like a foot into boot.

"Honey Pie"--I don't even want to write about this.

Proving that not all dance hall days are happy ones, this Paul-penned abomination is less soft-shoe than soft-brain. It's like finding out a master chefs favorite meal is some number meal from McDonalds. Tainted Michelin forever.

"Savoy Truffle"--A song George Harrison wrote about a box of candy in Eric Clapton's house. Not to be confused with "Layla," a song Eric Clapton wrote about a box of candy in George Harrison's house.

Confectionary overload can make you sick, but I just get hungrier and hungrier. I like to listen and imagine myself walking up and down a train car, peeking into all the compartments and finding them stockpiled with all the treats George lists here. "Cool dessert...good news, kids. Coconut fudge? Ew. You don't even exist." Then I start singing, "Yeah yeah yeah, eat the savoy truffle." My mind is an awesome place to be.

George just couldn't resist a slam against Paul the perfectionist pest: "But what is sweet now turns so sour/We all know ob-la-di-bla-da/But can you show me who you are."

"Cry Baby Cry"--Some songs make me want to go canoeing. This song makes me want to watch someone with greater skill and patience go canoeing.

John's lyrics are so goddamn English. The verses speak on banal royalty, and it's all nice and good, but then chorus hits with the strut of a defiant death march and all the intrusive surgery in the world couldn't remove Lennon's words from my brain. This song should just be the chorus over and over for three minutes. And leave Paul's stitched-in lamentation in too. How the hell does that fit so perfectly with what Lennon did?

"Revolution 9"--First things first. "Revolution 8" destroys this.

Drowning in their own hubris, or once again vaulting ahead of their peers, or both. I vote both. This perennial non-favorite was clearly intended by masterminds John and Yoko to come across as a sonic conflagration, but, starved of oxygen, the fire snuffed itself harmlessly.

The greatest sin of "Revolution 9" is its length. Cut it from eight minutes to two-and-a-half, I can dig on it, 'cause I am a fan of avant-garde music done well. (It is not a genre of interchangeable artists making interchangeable art, despite what conventional wisdom purports.) It's possible to say that a piece of music sounds like it was conceived by agitated asylum escapees and mean it as a compliment. But with "Rev 9," all I can say is I bet if I ever got high and listened to it again, I'd feel the secret message. Or even if I listened to it in a concussed state. But all I can hear for the vast majority of time is this inexhaustible desire to be THE FUTURE OF MUSIC. What they hit on from 5:08 to 5:40, that mixing of voice and effected guitar looping, that is engaging and intriguing and makes me perk up to see where it's headed.

"Good Night"--Pomp and inconsequence. The image of Ringo singing this lush, made-for-the-classic-Hollywood closer with a top hat on saves it. I've never seen such, mind you, I just conjured that up one day and it's refused to leave.

Nice of them to give Ringo the honors of seeing us out. Thanks for coming? Ah, thank you for coming back.

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