So, we are in the final countdown to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance in America on Ed Sullivan on February 9, 1964. As TS Eliot said in our end we find our beginning. In 1968, I was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. The 60’s was a turbulent time and truth be told the revolution was televised. The decade was punctuated by the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War and the protests against it dominated the nightly news. Junior high is all about ambivalence, but there was no escaping the real world, no chance to avoid growing up.
“The Beatles”, which was the actual title of the record, quickly became known as “The White Album” thanks to it’s minimal cover, depicted a band growing up and growing apart. Not that I understood that at the time. To me this was just more treasure - 30 new tracks. Truth be told, I was more partial to the first album of the double set with it’s more straight forward songs. The second album with it’s heavier sounds like “Helter Skelter” and the experiment in sound collage “Revolution 9” challenged my youthful pop aesthetic. It would be over the next year that I came to spend as much, and then, more time on the second album of the set.
Things were mostly definitely changing. The “Magical Mystery Tour” film had been their first critical failure. There long time manager, Brian Epstein had been died and the band had embarked on their first business venture without him - Apple Corps. These were things I knew about. It was much later that I would learn the details of the circumstances surrounding the making of this album. How many of the tracks didn’t necessarily include all of the Beatles. How they sometimes worked in different studios. How after Yoko Ono had a miscarriage, John had a bed brought into the studio so she could be with him. How there Producer George Martin walked away from the project frustrated with the bands refusal to be a band. I think it was at this time that I really understood and accepted that even if it said Lennon and McCartney on the song writing credit, which ever one sang it, wrote it.
As is typical with a Beatle album the songs cover a wide range of styles. Many of these tunes had been written during the trip to India, and there were many gems. It being a double record, George Harrison got to show off his steadily improving song writing prowess. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” being a particular stand out. George offering another perspective on the world -
“I look at the world and I notice it’s turning.
For every mistake we must surely be learning,
still my guitar gently weeps.”
The song ends with George and guest Eric Clapton exchanging sorrowful solos against the songs descending bass line. His lively harpsichord propelled political satire “Piggies” is both funny and frightening.
John and Paul are both on a roll as well, jumping from pop, to rock, to folk and back again. In “Glass Onion” Lennon references previous Beatle songs, which seems almost like a summing up of sorts. And though we didn’t know it then, all three artists give us a taste of what their solo work would sound like. Paul, with “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Blackbird”, John with “I’m So Tired” and “Julia” and George with big sound of "Savoy Truffle".
Disc 2, rocks harder with one of my all-time favorite Beatle songs “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” - all whip smart drums and cow bell, guitars and killer bass. Then there is Lennon’s blistering “Yer Blues” which at twelve years old, heading into a darker period -13 -, actually kind of scared me. I didn’t know what to make of “Revolution 9” initially either, though I came to appreciate it more later as I learned about John Cage and other contemporary composers who were working with recorded sound at the time. The album is filled with abrupt shifts - "Birthday" to "Yer Blues", "Revolution 9" to the lullaby "Good Night". How was I supposed to sleep with "Number 9, Number 9, Number 9 repeating ominously in m head?
“The White Album” was a rite of passage for me, as it was for the Beatles.