“[The Beatles’ White Album] might be called the greatest record ever made […] a top-to-bottom reinvention of the band as pure abstraction, the two discs, like stone tablets, delivering a new order.”
– “The Accidental Perfection of the Beatles’ White Album,” The New Yorker, November 10, 2018
This month, The Beatles’ White Album turns 50, as do we all, for the world was not yet fully formed until this audacious, pangyroscopic perfection of pop was unfurled in all its cumbersome beauty and chin-bristle prickliness. I’m sorry if you were born after 1968; you’re 50 now.
To understand where the White Album falls in the cultural timeline and who we were and why we wanted it and how we do that thing with our tongue, we need to look at what came before the White Album (tea time).
In April 1968, John Lennon and George Harrison had just returned from India, and had separately decided, at last, to bathe. Symbolically, it was a washing away of their celebrity trappings, though practically, it was a washing away of the lingering scent of the Maharishi’s pungent cologne.
At the same time, Paul McCartney found himself in the complicated and soul-wrenching depths of balancing his chequebook, while Ringo found himself in the pub.
It was in this crucible of casting off within the nexus of polyreligiosity coupled with a bearing down on the zeitgeist as the sixties spiralled to their ghastly conclusion along with several pints of Guinness, that the Liverpudlian troubadours — a formerly Fab Four, a currently quixotic quattro — turned their backs on the palatable pleasantries of Sgt. Pepper and began to concoct a five-bean salad of musical complexity that was simultaneously rococo and so Yoko.
“The Beatles” (as the double-album was officially known, and don’t you forget it, bucko!) is a manifesto writ large in bold marker on Bristol board held up for the world to ponder, but actually on four sheets of Bristol board because they underestimated how much they had to write, and the last bunch of words are squeezed in with tiny letters that you really have to get close to to make out, and honestly it’s just gibberish (“Revolution 9”).
Like magicians, The Beatles pull a variety of tricks out of their quadrangle chapeaux — here a music hall ditty, there a guitar-slashing rage, here the ace of spades that you swore was shredded in the blender, there the floating head of Busby Berkeley — until we are left numb by such masterful illusion and the fact that we have been sitting cross-legged for 30 straight songs.
As John Lennon told The Polynesian Praxis on the 10-month anniversary of the White Album’s release, “Mblmmm mmmblbm mmffbbblmm mblmm, mmbbbll MBMFFMLM mbmm.” (John was face down in a pile of cushions at the time, participating with Yoko in Pillows for Peace.)
From the opening “Back in the USSR” that eerily predicts the success of the Russian airline industry, we are thrust into a world that recalls William Blake’s globe-encompassing plea: “O Where Art My Car Keys!” Reflecting the calamitous dichotomies of the cultural moment, the gentle optimism of “Dear Prudence” quickly degrades through the caustic “Glass Onion” into that cloying original earworm, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” where we seriously consider for the first time ending it all. “Wild Honey Pie” and “Bungalow Bill” reinforce this feeling of hopelessness until we are lifted soaring on guitars gently weeping, as are not we all. Because, seriously: “Bungalow Bill.”
Etcetera for 23 more songs.
Like a boomerang flung inexpertly into the wild not knowing whether it will return or take out the eye of a bystander or, if luck will have it, a kangaroo, the White Album is a metaphor. It challenges us. It makes us ask questions: Is it the fractured nature of the collaboration that indubitably makes it a masterpiece? Does its solipsistic insistence ironically serve as the essence of every cultural and living thing that was to follow? What does kangaroo taste like?
It would be presumptuous to say that “The Beatles” (perfunctorily known as “The White Album,” you supercilious git) is the greatest album of all time. Because, of course, there are all the other Beatles albums as well. But I am here and you are here and now and this and that, and we are saying words like “pantheon” and “brennschluss” while evoking Ezra Pound and Rimbaud and Somewhere Over the Rimbaud, all because of The White Album, are we not? Yes, we are. Or at least I am.