Happiness is a Weird and White Album

Written by Dennis Kersten

Dennis Kersten on that road, January 1994.

To mark their 50th anniversaries, The Beatles recently re-released three of their most iconic albums: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968) and Abbey Road (1969). They were remixed by the son of producer George Martin and accompanied by demos, studio outtakes and lavishly illustrated books. Totally unprecedented, like so much about The Beatles is, all three went to number one in the British charts again,
cementing Sergeant Pepper’s status as the best-selling rock album in the UK ever.

After so many years of intense scrutiny, you would think there is nothing new to be learnt about The Beatles and their music. As Paul McCartney and George Harrison joked after the completion of their mid-1990s retrospective Anthology project, their next release would have to be called Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel. But the “new” Sergeant Pepper, White Album and Abbey Road have much on offer that will interest both old and new fans. The albums themselves showcase how wildly, and weirdly versatile John,
Paul, George and Ringo were, while the bonus material sheds new light on their working methods and personal relations.

The Beatles were once dubbed a “four-headed monster” by Mick Jagger because they thought, spoke and moved like one being. But when you listen to their three most important post-touring albums and notice their stylistic and emotional complexity, you wonder if the opposite might also be true: that with each individual Beatle, we all got four personalities for the price of one. Ubiquitous and mass consumed, a twenty-first-century listener would almost forget how unconventional many Beatle songs are – musically and lyrically, but also recording and production-wise.

There is no better reminder than The Beatles, the group’s longest and most varied record. Of the three anniversary sets, this one is the most revealing with regard to the Fabs’ versatility, but also to the later Beatles’ explicit exploration of their essential “weirdness”. Instantly nicknamed the “White Album”, it was released in November 1968, after months of recording at Abbey Road studios. Their first and only double album, it features the songs The Beatles brought back from a trip to India, where they had been
practising transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Despite its spiritually enlightened origins, the White Album reflected a turbulent period for the band as well as the world in general: The Beatles began to fall apart, while for many other people 1968 was not exactly a second “Summer of Love” either.

The White Album arrived almost 18 months after Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the record to which it relates as an antithesis, down to its title and almost completely white sleeve design. However, the album was a massive hit, even without the inclusion of “Hey Jude”, their biggest selling single at the time. Half a century after it first hit the number one spot, The Beatles is still hugely popular and incredibly influential. It is hard to understand that it is that old now. All the things that can happen in 50 years’ time: in 1968, Donald Trump had only just joined his father’s real estate company, laying the foundations of his current business empire, while Britain still had to enter the EU. Since then, you could have played the White Album itself about 292,000 times. It has been with us ten years longer than John Lennon ever lived.

The prize outtake of the anniversary edition is take 18 of “Revolution”, all ten minutes of it, the first time they are officially released. The first song to be recorded for the White Album, it immediately set the tone. With him manically repeating the word “alright”, it sounds as if Lennon has brought along his friends to an introductory session of Primal Scream therapy. The early take resembles nothing on Sergeant Pepper or, indeed, any other
Beatle record. Moreover, with its “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals, it presents The Beatles’ most explicitly political lyrics to date in a comedic and self-deprecating musical form. Last, but not least, a new, female voice can be heard asserting itself: that of Lennon’s new partner Yoko Ono.

With some overdubbing, the relatively conventional first three minutes of this version of “Revolution” made its way onto the finished record (as “Revolution 1”), while its longer, more experimental part is quoted throughout the White Album’s spooky sound collage “Revolution 9”. All of a sudden, “All You Need is Love” sounded so 1967…

On “Revolution”, take 18, Lennon appears to reacquaint himself with the “screaming” vocal style of rock ‘n’ roll covers like “Twist and Shout” and “Money” (both from 1963), one he would further develop on solo songs like “Cold Turkey” (1969) and “Mother” (1970). Of course, he had always been a fearless singer, but perhaps he needed reminding from Ono that vocals are most expressive when captured spontaneously, ignoring musical conventions or recording regulations.

For many years, popular wisdom had it that around the recording of The Beatles, Ono infiltrated the band’s inner circle and like some Class A drug went to Lennon’s head. In that particular narrative, the album signifies a break in The Beatles’ career and “Yoko” functions as the main explanation of its deconstruction of much of what had endeared people to the group originally. It is fairer to say that around the start of the White Album
sessions Ono re-connected Lennon with parts of his pre-Beatlemania self by awakening what had been dormant in his writing, singing and performing for a number of years.

The White Album sounds like the rebirth of Lennon the rock ‘n’ roller, of the man who, along with McCartney and Harrison, entertained the audiences of night clubs in Hamburg long before The Beatles had a recording contract. In 1960, their repertoire was not that extensive yet, but as they had to “mach Schau” to attract customers, they turned their set into some kind of variety act, with hour-long versions of Ray Charles songs and on-stage stand-up to amuse the crowd and keep themselves awake.

This is precisely the feeling you get from “Revolution” and of The Beatles as a whole. Improvised and undisciplined, but also energetic, emotionally all over the place and contagiously funny, the White Album is what one of those “long, long, long” nights in Hamburg must have felt like. Did they recognize this themselves? Is that why they jammed Buddy Holly classics,
night club-style, while trying to get songs about blackbirds, pigs and sheepdogs named Martha on tape?

The Beatles may be said to be “lo fi” avant la lettre. In places, it is messy, unpolished and underdeveloped, but, of course, it was meant to be the
anti-Pepper. While the band’s psychedelic album presents the pinnacle of what could be achieved with mid-Sixties studio technology, the more down-to-earth White Album is all about feel. The bonus tracks of its remix version
only confirms this idea. When Harrison asks Lennon at the start of an outtake of “Sexy Sadie” how he should play it, the song’s composer answers, “Whatever you want. Feel it.”

The Beatles, not just Lennon, should have recognized Ono as a kindred spirit in this respect –  a pity bad blood got in the way, especially
with McCartney perhaps. The younger half of the band’s core songwriting team has long been dogged by accusations of superficiality, of  smoothing over lack of substance with studio trickery. Pepper and the second side
of Abbey Road would be more McCartneyesque from that perspective, the White Album more Lennonian. Certainly, Lennon’s songs on The Beatles are almost without exception brilliant: “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”. Of course, there is syrupy album closer “Goodnight”. But then, in the great Beatle tradition of giving away sub-standard Lennon/McCartneys to either their drummer or The Rolling Stones, Lennon asked Starr to sing that one.

In comparison, some of McCartney’s contributions do not transcend the level of lightweight earwormery, or that of “granny music shit” (Lennon’s words). In addition, McCartney does occasionally come across like a control freak. His demo of “Back in the USSR”, for instance, sounds almost exactly like the recording the completed White Album opens with. He even hums the solo, leaving Harrison little freedom to “feel” his way into the song.

However, many of the other demos and outtakes tell another story. When McCartney is in his tear-up-the-rule-book mode, he is up there with Lennon and Ono as avant-gardist. On a good day for rock ‘n’ roll, the “cute Beatle” could be as improvised as the others, and especially the White Album proves it. McCartney learnt to let go and let rip from immersing himself in experimentation with surrealist automatism, which, on The Beatles,
would result in “untypical” trash rock like “Helter Skelter”, but also oddball
throwaways like “Wild Honey Pie”.

As is the case with Lennon, the White Album anticipates McCartney’s work after The Beatles. RAM (1971), his second solo album, is possibly the “Whitest” of all of his post-1970 output. Like The Beatles, it “verges from the sublime to the ridiculode”, to quote some of the studio banter on the anniversary edition. Perhaps not coincidentally, RAM now ranks as one
of the most exciting records he has made on his own.

McCartney always responded enthusiastically to Lennon’s madder ideas and while he could be egotistical about the recording of his own songs (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” drove Lennon bonkers), he contributed more to the band, in the interest of the band, than his caricatural image allows for. In fact, McCartney frequently adds the X factor to other people’s songs. Think of the trippy Mellotron intro to Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967), or the ferocious guitar solo on Harrison’s “Taxman” (1966). On the White Album, too, the McCartney magic is often in the details of songs by the other three. Witness the piano at the start of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as well as the cow bell on Lennon’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”.

Again, that 18th take of “Revolution” says it all. Towards its conclusion, with Lennon screaming “Alriiiight!!!” while lying on the studio floor, McCartney starts singing the Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do”, much like Lennon sang “She Loves You” (1963) over the outro of “All You Need is Love”. Bonding over the ridiculing of their younger, “naïve” selves: another great Beatle tradition – at least in the post-Pepper period. McCartney, Harrison and Starr also keep playing long after Lennon has said he has had enough. Obviously, the more outlandish three quarters of “Revolution” cannot be simply dismissed as a John & Yoko ego trip.

Just before the end of the take, a giggling Ono asks Lennon if her contribution was “too much”. She must have recognized The Beatles as a fundamentally anarchic environment, though; they were the perfect place to bring her own conceptual art to. As the outtakes on the anniversary edition of the White Album confirm, by casting Ono in the role of the “evil” intruder, we not only do injustice to her, but also misunderstand the avant-gardism at the heart of Beatle music itself. When it comes to The Beatles’ weirdness, it was not just “the witch” wot done it.

Will the Fab Four give their earlier albums the same remix treatment? 2023 sees the 60th anniversary of their debut, Please Please Me, which was recorded in one single session – 200 days faster than the White Album. Judging from the three box sets that have already been released,
they should definitely keep scraping the barrel. With a band like The Beatles, nothing is ever “too much”.

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