1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
I've got good news or bad news, depending on who you are. At long last, we have come to the final of the six entries on The Beatles that Tom Moon included in his book (the last would have been "Abbey Road," which we already looked at as part of the 1001 Albums order). It's appropriate that "The Beatles," often referred to as "The White Album," is the final entry we'll see on the band for the time being. It also is widely heralded as the beginning of the end for the world's biggest act.
First, a little background. The Beatles had recognized its inner turmoil, and had gone on a meditation retreat in India as an attempt to escape from the stresses of being the biggest band in the world. Apart from George Harrison, a huge fan of everything Indian, the results were lackluster. McCartney and Lennon focused on songwriting instead of meditation, and ended up leaving early, disenchanted with the process. The group returned to the studio to begin recording. When working together, the band was fractious to the point where longtime recording engineer Geoff Emerick left, saying that he couldn't work with the group anymore. The result was the individual members going their separate ways and working on their own songs, often alone. Because of the large number and individualized nature of the tracks, it's best to look at the songs grouped on the basis of who wrote them.
As usual, Ringo Starr doesn't contribute all that much. Most of the time, he serves as a lackey for the rest of the group. His only written contribution to "The Beatles" was "Don't Pass Me By," a country-western-style joint, prominently featuring the fiddle. It doesn't compare to "An Octopus's Garden," his track on "Abbey Road," so we'll skip ahead.
"The Beatles" is a largely disappointing album for Harrison as well. "Long, Long, Long" is a boring ballad (compared to the works of McCartney and Lennon), "Savoy Truffle" is far from deep (it's about Eric Clapton's addiction to chocolate. Clapton probably appreciated discussing only that particular addiction however), and "Piggies" is a somewhat-schlocky commentary on social greed that would fit better on a "Face to Face"-era Kinks album, as opposed to excellent political tracks like Lennon's "Revolution 1." Harrison's efforts are redeemed thanks to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the second best track on the album. Harrison steps aside and allows Clapton to play lead guitar while he handles the acoustics, creating one of the best structured guitar songs in The Beatles' repertoire. Although another Indian classical piece like "Within You Without You" might have been repetitive, Harrison's creativity soared when playing the sitar and wouldn't have hurt on this album.
Lennon is the most valuable player on the album, as he typically was for the best of The Beatles' records. "Revolution 1" is the highlight of the record, a song that ranges between relaxed blues, dense brass and doo-wop vocals. Following the blues theme is "Yer Blues," a track that is as authentic as The Beatles got when emulating its American idols, thanks to Lennon's wails and the catcalls from the rest of the band in the background. "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" demonstrates Lennon's alt-rock mindset, shifting time signatures in a compelling medley of mini-tracks. The most intriguing song on the album however, is "Revolution 9," an eight-plus minute avant garde consisting of classical music, sound effect loops and Yoko Ono's vocals (Ono's presence in the studio was also a divisive issue for the group). The track is both curious and wonderful, but it simply doesn't belong on this album. The record is already 30 tracks long. This, one of the last tracks on the album, breaks the camel's back.
One way that Lennon did not help the struggles of the band was his critical approach to the work of McCartney. For some songs, he has a point. Flubs like "Rocky Raccoon" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" lend merit to Lennon's arguments. However, he also proclaimed his avid dislike for "Helter Skelter," a McCartney track that should have been right down his alley.
"Skelter" was a rocker, no doubt about that. Lennon was not a fan of the style, but "Skelter" was so wild and so far from the rest of The Beatles' catalogue that it seems as though Lennon would have supported it simply for standing alone. It is arguably a punk track, as raucous as anything The Who created during the same era. McCartney's other rockers on the album, "Back in The U.S.S.R." and "Birthday," are excellent rock 'n' roll tracks as well.
McCartney and Lennon were both successful on "The Beatles." However, both opposed the other's style of attaining that success so much that it drove the band apart. Overall, "The Beatles" is much like "Abbey Road" in that there are wonderful tracks dispersed amongst the filler. The problem is that this is a 30-track album, far too long for any band, even The Beatles. A little editing would have gone a long way for this record.
INTERESTING FACT: "The Beatles" served as a major launching point for the killing spree of Charles Manson's "Family." Manson pointed to tracks such as "Piggies," "Revolution 1" and "Helter Skelter" as proof of an oncoming race war (many mistakenly believe that "Helter Skelter" was based on Manson's actions, not the other way around). The Family painted lines from "Piggies" on the walls after the murder of Sharon Tate and others, and put forks and knives in the victim's hands to recreate lines from the song.