Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Ten)

THE BEATLES (“THE WHITE ALBUM”)
 
Two words on a white cover.  More than two dozen original songs spread out over two discs.  A total running time of 93 minutes and 40 seconds.  John Lennon naked.
 
Two days shy of the first anniversary of the release of Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles finally offered its successor:  a self-titled double album as contradictory as the four men who made it.  Alternately modern and old-fashioned, beautiful and chaotic, revelatory and mysterious, loosely experimental and traditionally tight, upbeat and downcast, innocent and cheeky, what became better known as “The White Album” forever obliterated any simple, remaining preconceptions one might have had about this band.  They weren’t just a pop group specializing in easy-to-digest romantic themes anymore.  They also weren’t just an increasingly edgy rock outfit, either.  If anything, at this point in time, they were musical nomads constantly scouring their imaginations and the world at large for interesting ideas, hoping to avoid stagnation. 
 
While far from perfect, The Beatles is such an advancement from Please Please Me and their other early records, even today, 42 years after its release, despite the warm familiarity of the voices and those naturally flowing melodies, it’s hard to believe that all of these albums were made by the same band over such a compacted period of time.  How they continued to flourish and grow as musicians and songwriters while simultaneously coming apart at the seams is a puzzle even Adrian Monk couldn’t solve.
 
The sound of an airplane fading in kicks off Back In The USSR, the entertaining opening number on disc one.  Written as a tribute to the band’s Russian fans who could only hear illegal imports of their music at the time, it tells a simple tale of a homesick lad glad to be back on home turf after a brief stint in the sunny climes of Florida.  (We never do find out why he was there in the first place.  Business, maybe?  Vacation?)  Mike Love of The Beach Boys suggested including a section paying homage to the lovely ladies of The Soviet Union.  It was wisely adhered to.  If any of The Beatles actually lived in The USSR it’s doubtful these positive lyrics would’ve come to mind.  Athough it’s hard to believe that anyone would prefer the bitterly cold Russian winters over year round sunshine in Miami (not to mention the lack of democratic freedoms), there’s a refreshing lack of condescension in the lyrics.  McCartney’s occasionally quivering vocal technique would be recycled for Get Back.
 
Those airplane effects that play throughout the song lead right into the next track.  Based on a real story, Dear Prudence is John Lennon’s affectionate plea to Mia Farrow’s sister to not keep to herself so much and hang out with the group of friends who joined the late Maharashi for a spiritual retreat in India.  Sweet and complimentary, the real highlight is that haunting, open-picked guitar riff.  Lennon spends the entire time attempting to lure Prudence out of her reclusiveness and isolation by simultaneously extolling the lovely weather (“The sun is up, the sky is blue”) and her physical appeal (“It’s beautiful and so are you”) while reminding her that she’s never really alone (“The wind is low, the birds will sing/That you are part of everything”).  I hope she was flattered.
 
Glass Onion overtly references five Beatles songs in a midtempo arrangement that finds room for both rock and classical instrumentation.  One of those it’s-not-as-deep-as-you-think numbers that John Lennon absolutely delighted in writing.  In the final thirty seconds, there’s an abrupt end to the rocking as the string section takes over the proceedings.  (Bush did the same thing for Glycerine.)  Their loveliness soon turns eerie, however, in the dying seconds.  A musical curveball that works well.
 
The quirky Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a fun-filled romp about the blooming romance between a marketplace retailer and a rock singer.  Light and bouncy, it’s hard not to be tickled by its cheerfulness.  Like Get Back, the song flirts with transsexualism in its last verse, albeit in a sillier manner.  Speaking of silly, the wacky guitar lick on Wild Honey Pie is ruined by the unnecessarily repetitious singing of the last two words of the title.  Thankfully done in less than a minute, if it had to stay, it should’ve been an instrumental.  As it stands, it’s a rare Beatles track that should be skipped.
 
The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill is a derisive campfire sing-a-long based on real events.  John Lennon was none too pleased with Richard Cooke III, an American photographer who was visiting his mom in India at the exact same retreat The Beatles, The Farrow Sisters and Mike Love attended.  Lennon hated Cooke’s tiger hunt story and incorporated many real details into the song.  Its only flaws are Yoko Ono’s awful singing and the needless applause at the end.  Starting with a seemingly out-of-place flamenco guitar intro, like a good number of Beatle tunes, Bungalow Bill comfortably and constantly alters its tempo.  The pace is quick for the choruses, much slower for the verses.
 
The first of four George Harrison compositions immediately follows and it’s easily the best of his “White Album” contributions.  Guest guitarist Eric Clapton wisely tones down his usual mile-a-minute guitar noodling for his friend’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a sophisticated rock ballad about a disappointed guy saddened by all the repression and lack of progress he sees both in a love interest and the world at large.  The lyrics are first-rate (even the unexpected joke in the third line of the first verse) and Paul McCartney nicely harmonizes with Harrison’s lead vocal.  The piano and acoustic guitar work is also terrific.  At nearly 5 minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks on the album but it’s also one of the best.
 
In their earlier compositions, Lennon and McCartney were careful not to be too explicit when it came to matters of sexuality.  Happiness Is A Warm Gun pretty much throws that whole idea out the window.  Released right in the middle of the sexual revolution, the song mixes Lennon’s compliments for Ono with typically surrealistic imagery.  With none-too-subtle references to the clitoris (“…I feel my finger on your trigger”) and the penis (the metaphorical title), the “fix” that Lennon is aching for is obviously sex with his muse.  What’s most interesting is how there’s different music for each lyrical section, the weakest of which is the Mother Superior bit.  Despite its flaws, this is one of the standout tracks on disc one.
 
Insecurity is at the heart of Martha My Dear, one of the last songs McCartney wrote about his longterm relationship with actress Jane Asher.  Bursting with melody, the piano introduces it, McCartney quietly sings it and then a brass section reprises it during one of the interludes.  It’s hard not to get the chills from its beauty.  Lyrically, the track sounds like a last ditch effort to resuscitate a dying love.  Begging not to be forgotten or treated bad, McCartney reminds his gal pal of his wealthy lifestyle in a shameless bid to keep her around (“When you find yourself in the thick of it/Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you”).  Early on, it appears she’s broken up with him and is devastated as a result.  (“Hold your head up you silly girl/Look what you’ve done”)  Not the least bit angry, McCartney’s vocals remain as soft as a pillow as he calmly makes one last plea near the end.  (“Take a good look around you/Take a good look you’re bound to see/That you and I were meant to be for each other/Silly girl”)  The relationship didn’t work out but it’s a very pretty song.
 
On Revolver’s I’m Only Sleeping, John Lennon wanted to be left alone as he preferred letting his mind wander in the deep recesses of his sleep-induced imagination.  On “The White Album”‘s I’m So Tired, he would do anything for some solid sack time.  Greatly distracted by his desires for alcohol, nicotine and Yoko Ono, “it’s been three weeks” since his insomnia started and he’s evidently “going insane”.  As someone who would went through a somewhat similiar situation two years ago, it’s easily relatable.  Lennon delivers a believable vocal as he’s backed by a sympathetic arrangement.
 
Blackbird is one of McCartney’s most accomplished ballads.  A clever metaphor for the American civil rights movement, the images of “broken wings” and “sunken eyes” represent the physical scars of human struggle.  In one encouraging line, he urges Black Americans to “fly/Into the light of the dark black night”.  Knowing how long they’ve suffered for their cause, he senses the historical significance of their plight (“All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise”).  The chirping sound effects are a bit too loud in the last half of the song.  If it was my call, they’d be excised altogether.  But even they can’t take away the sense of solidarity McCartney shares with the men and women fighting on for equality. 
 
George Harrison’s Piggies, complete with oink sound effects, sounds like it was recorded in a completely different time and place with its use of a Baroque-inspired harpischord.  While it’s not quite clear who all the targets are in this one, to my ears, in one verse it sounds like he’s hammering away at gossip columnists who thrive at discovering and disclosing the dirty laundry of celebrities (“You will find the bigger piggies/Stirring up the dirt”).  This is a subject he would return to nearly 20 years later on Devil’s Radio, a more rocking track from his accomplished 1987 solo record, Cloud Nine.  Its peculiar ambiguity and disdainful disposition make it an underrated track.
 
What I like about Rocky Raccoon is how unpredictable its story is.  A young guy from Dakota with an odd name seeks vengeance against Dan, the man who stole his girl, Nancy (also known as Magill and Lil), and punched his lights out.  Shaping up as a David and Goliath morality tale, Rocky sneaks a gun into a hotel saloon and later confronts the jerk who “had broken his dreams” at a hoedown.  Unfortunately, Dan is a formidable opponent and Rocky gets shot unexpectedly (as represented in the song by a quick snare shot).  After getting stitched up by a doctor “stinking of gin” the kid ends up finding solace in a Gideon Bible as he recovers from his injuries eager to fight on another day.  Practically begging for a sequel, the song is heavy on basstones and empathy.  The honky tonk piano playing is perfect.  You feel like you’re right in that saloon with the characters.  After its unceremonious return in Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! on the Sgt. Pepper album (its first appearance on a Beatles song in three years), the harmonica is back for a return engagement.
 
For several years poor Ringo Starr repeatedly attempted to get his first decent composition recorded by his bandmates but they were completely disinterested.  They finally changed their minds in 1968.  Don’t Pass Me By is an oddly effective country reggae about a worried and somewhat naive boyfriend foolishly waiting for the non-arrival of his cowardly girlfriend, who offers only excuses of avoidance instead of telling her confused man the truth about their dead romance.  I initially found the inclusion of a violin very discordant and distracting on this 2009 reissue.  But after giving the song another chance, much to my surprise, I found myself embracing its extensive use.  It’s actually quite tuneful.  Overall, the arrangement is very unique, a cross between The Velvet Underground and Bob Marley.  If only Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or even producer George Martin had earlier encouraged more of Ringo’s songwriting, who knows what other good stuff he could’ve come up with.  (His equally good Octopus’ Garden from Abbey Road was his only other original contribution (his songwriting credit on What Goes On notwithstanding).)
 
I’m not sure how many women would be receptive to an invitation of road sex but McCartney’s frisky throwaway Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? makes a good argument for the idea (“No one will be watching us”).  As long as the road is closed, of course, and you don’t mind lying down on unsmooth asphalt.  (You know, on second thought…)  From its percussive opening to its overall bluesy arrangement, it’s just an excuse for the bassist to scream for two minutes.  I like it.
 
In 1968, McCartney was ready to settle down with photographer Linda Eastman who would go on to become the love of his life until her untimely death from breast cancer 30 years later.  I Will is an early example of the kinds of love songs he would ultimately write for his greatest muse.  Soft and tender, this pretty acoustic ballad features effortless vocals and some Pet Sounds-style percussion.  Short and simple, there’s little to gripe about with this one.
 
Disc one ends with the emotionally naked Julia, John Lennon’s wonderful tribute to his late mother.  Like the pre-choruses on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Lennon gets away with a one-note melody, for the most part.  Dreamlike in tone and lyric, his longing for her presence is quite moving.  The opening line “Half of what I say is meaningless” might be the most believable set of words he ever wrote.  One of his greatest songwriting achievements.
 
Few things in life are more horrifying than hearing a group of people butcher Happy Birthday to an unfortunate soul who just wants to make a wish and blow out the candles on their cake already.  Wouldn’t it be cooler to play the first song off the second disc of “The White Album” instead?  A rip roaring rocker that can jolt any dead social gathering to life, Birthday is a true party anthem.  Paul McCartney screams like a man possessed as Ringo Starr keeps time by pounding his snare.  The guitar work is superb, too, and even Yoko Ono’s ghostly backing vocals are effective.  Even though the song is about a mutual celebration (“They say it’s your birthday/It’s my birthday, too, yeah!”), I’d much rather hear this than the bland Happy Birthday any time.
 
A worldweary John Lennon is out front during the ragged Yer Blues.  Repeatedly declaring his wish for a swift demise as he poetically and, at one point, arrogantly describes his worsening depression (“My mother was of the sky/My father was of the earth/But I am of the universe/And you know what’s it worth”), only his growing love for Yoko Ono keeps him hanging on (“If I ain’t dead already/Girl you know the reason why”).  You can hear the terror in his voice as he wails about his ordeal.  George Harrison’s guitar solos in the second half are sensational.  I like how Lennon repeats one of the verses off-mic so you can barely hear him in the dying seconds.
 
Mother Nature’s Son is a complete change of pace with its acoustic gentleness.  There’s some pretty guitar passages here, especially after every two-line verse.  Backed by brass instruments and occasional percussion, its spare lyrics evoke a sense of peace within one’s environment.  Paul McCartney doesn’t aim for greatness but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
 
The tone changes again with the full-on rocker, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey.  An unusually joyous sounding John Lennon (with an occasionally whooping McCartney in the background and Ringo playing a triangle) succinctly captures the burgeoning feelings he’s experiencing regarding his affair with Yoko Ono.  Sensing a lot of hostility from the world about their inappropriate relationship (Lennon was married at the time, remember), the song basically urges his distractors to chill out (“take it easy”) while attempting to express what it’s like to fall in love (“The deeper you go/The higher you fly”).  Setting aside this controversial relationship, the track packs a whollop.  Harrison’s dependable guitar work gets yet another strong showcase.
 
Regardless of what one thinks of the now deceased Maharashi, John Lennon’s accusatory tone in Sexy Sadie is deeply unfair.  Based on a false accusation of sexual harassment, not to mention his general disappointment and cynicism about the man, he pointedly portrays the late transcendental meditation master as a fraudulent tease.  Despite the change of name and gender, Lennon comes across as the bigger fool.  That being said, I can’t stop singing along to these acidic lyrics (as long as I don’t think of The Maharashi).  The piano-led arrangement and Lennon’s light-as-air melody don’t help matters.  If the music wasn’t strong, it be easier to dismiss this one.
 
Few Beatle songs rock as hard as the sexually charged Helter Skelter.  The amps are cranked as the guitars blast away McCartney’s raw-throated melody to smithereens.  Ringo is there every step of the way pounding the shit out of his kit.  While I’m sure the line “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer” is purely a throwaway, a set of meaningless words selected purely for the rhyme at the end, who cares?  All the remaining ones are as horny as the music.
 
George Harrison’s Long Long Long is a quietly compelling ballad about the thrill of rediscovering a lost love after an emotionally draining separation.  Despite its generally low-key nature, there are welcome drum bursts from Ringo and an unusual ending more likely to conclude a rocker than a tender love song.  I like Paul McCartney’s organ playing, too. 
 
Although the single version of Revolution is the standard bearer, Revolution 1 is also worthy of praise, despite my being reflexively dismissive of it initially.  A slowed-down bluesy shuffle compared to the single’s heavy metal onslaught, Lennon is uncertain of whether violence is the answer to solving global problems in this version.  There’s a bit more orgasmic grunting in the final minute, a horn section, and “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals in between many of the lines.  Like Bungalow Bill, it’s got a campfire sing-a-long feel to it.  What hasn’t changed is the sensible, literate nature of Lennon’s message:  you can’t change the system but you can change people’s minds.  Timeless.
 
After dusting off the ten-year-old When I’m Sixty Four for Sgt. Pepper to great success, McCartney offers another superb old-style number with Honey Pie (not to be confused with the needless throwaway Wild Honey Pie on disc one).  Great lyrics here as he sings about a needy guy “too lazy” to visit his famous girlfriend as she thrives in Hollywood (“You became a legend of the silver screen”).  He’d rather she come home, instead.  Good luck with that, pal.  Perfectly capturing the tone and feel of 1920s music hall, it’s a surprising highlight of this ecclectic rock and roll album.
 
Savoy Truffle, the fourth and final George Harrison creation, is another accessible rocker, this one heavy on the saxophones.  Lyrically, Harrison has an insatiable appetite for various types of chocolates, none greater than the title brand.  But he’s also well aware of the consequences of too much consumption.  (“You know that what you eat you are/But what is sweet now, turns so sour”)  An earlier section sounds like the withdrawal stage of addiction.  (“You might not feel it now/But when the pain cuts through/You’re going to know and how/The sweat is going to fill your head/When it becomes too much/You’re going to shout aloud”)  All of this gives new meaning to the familiar phrase “food for thought”.  Really clever stuff here.
 
Loosely based on a childhood nursery rhyme, Cry Baby Cry offers brief, episodic glimpses of imaginary royal family life set to a lovely melody backed by acoustic guitar, occasional electric guitar flourishes and omnipresent piano.  In one verse, the fictional Queen of Marigold plays with the children while her husband, the King, makes her breakfast.  In another verse he’s “picking flowers for a friend who came to play”, suggesting an extramarital affair.  Later on, there’s an amusing bit involving a phony seance.  Lennon’s vocals are soft and breezy, a total 360 from Yer Blues.
 
And that brings us to Revolution 9.  What a needless monstrosity this is.  Originally part of Revolution, it was wisely excised from it but then unwisely retooled as another track on the album.  A mix of incoherent nattering, noise and snatches of music, it is easily the worst Beatles selection ever.  It begins with hard-to-hear studio banter.  Then, while some dude keeps saying “Number 9” over and over and over again, as he does at various points throughout this 8 and a half minute disaster, you hear a piano briefly play.  Then, in no particular order:  a cooing baby, an opera singer, a crackling fire, a gunfight from what sounds like a TV western, a choir, orchestration, Yoko Ono saying “You become naked”, John Lennon naming famous rock dances (“The Watusi.  The Twist.”), Lennon and George Harrison saying a whole bunch of nothing even when you can hear them clearly, backwards effects, and a lot of noise.  There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this nonsense.
 
The touching Good Night ends the album on a much more positive note.  It marks the only time Ringo Starr ever got to sing the closing number on a Beatles record.  Backed by those heartbreaking strings, Ringo (along with some back-up singers) sweetly urges listeners to enjoy a restful slumber and “dream sweet dreams”.  His gentle whisper at the end moves me every time I hear it.  There’s a gently sweeping sense of inner peace embodied throughout the arrangement.
 
All in all, the sound quality on this 2009 update is superb.  Like the previous reissues, it’s not too loud and not too soft.  The slightly increased volume notwithstanding, this sounds like the same album released in 1968.  Few, if any, will be disappointed.
 
Early pressings feature a 5-minute CD-ROM documentary about the making of the album.  You’ll find it on disc two.  In order to see it, PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  (Read the back cover for more information.)  You’ll hear each Beatle and producer George Martin offer commentary while stills and clips of the band in the studio as well as footage of their time spend with The Maharashi are seen.  (All of this stuff was used for The Beatles On Record TV special.)  It’s during the Indian stuff that you’re reminded of just how foxy Paul McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher really was.  Her red hair was fabulous.  There’s also a brief shot of Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, smiling and looking cute in sunglasses.  (Her reticence in joining in with the others inspired Dear Prudence.)  As expected, there’s not a lot of new information here to tickle your fancy making the documentary rather redundant.  John Lennon talks about how disinterested he was in topping Sgt. Pepper.  He just wanted to make a back-to-basics album.  George Martin mentions how the band were recording different material simultaneously in different studios at Abbey Road.  While appreciative of being associated with Pepper, Ringo is much more fond of “The White Album” because he felt it was more of a band effort.  McCartney remembers what he wanted out of Helter Skelter:  volume.  Like a number of the other reissued CDs in the series, the audio sounds bad when you watch it the first couple of times so patience is a must. 
 
Regarding the liner notes, a mini version of the foldout poster from the original vinyl release is included (as it was in the 1998 Limited Edition 30th Anniversary reissue) as well as a standard booklet featuring photos, Historical & Recording Notes and lyrics.  Actually, on one side of the poster there are lyrics, as well.  On the other side, you also find lots of pics including one of a nude cross-legged John Lennon on the phone with Yoko Ono lying beside him in bed.  My candidate for best Beatles photo of all time is in the booklet.  All four members are sitting on the lawn of a British church surrounding a sign that reads “Please Keep Off The Grass”.  They’re all smiling.  A perfect snap in so many ways.
 
Despite its flaws, The Beatles captures so many different facets of the band in one setting it’s staggering.  You’ve got your balls-out rockers; your tender, affectionate ballads; your political statements; your musical short stories; your experiments; your nostalgia trips.  While it is not the best of their studio albums, surely it’s somewhere in the Top 5.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
1:17 a.m.
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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 1:17 am  Leave a Comment  

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