Beatles go back to basics with hard-to-find eponymous LP

Band members showcase individual talent on 1968 double album

In 1968, the Beatles were coming off a pair of earth-shattering concept albums in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “Magical Mystery Tour.” The Fab Four returned to the studio the following year after a period of transcendental meditation in India, and the resultant effort was a fascinating double LP entitled simply “The Beatles.” The 30-song compilation later would become known as the White Album.

The packaging of the record was meant to be simple, as well, which was in sharp contrast to “Sgt. Pepper’s,” which is widely regarded by most pop critics (erroneously, in my humble opinion) as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll document of all time. (While the June, 1967, release undeniably has etched a place in modern music lore, it is hopelessly dated – though, admittedly, it does contain its fair share of classic tunes.)

But the White Album is groundbreaking in its own right, as it abandons the idealism, laser focus and group mentality that punctuated every other work that the band ever released.

The double record is packed with such classics as George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which features George’s longtime friend Eric Clapton handling electric-ax solos. (Harrison would return the favor by co-writing and playing on Cream’s “Badge,” which appeared on the group’s final effort). John Lennon goes full-on psychedelic bluesy with three of his tracks, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “I’m So Tired” and “Yer Blues.”

With “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Martha My Dear” and “Blackbird,” Paul McCartney contributes his usual solid ballads. Elsewhere, he rocks with songs like “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter.” The latter track, which later would be covered by Motley Crue and U2, would receive worldwide infamy thanks to its association with Charles Manson. Ringo Starr aka Richard Starkey gets his first solo writer’s credit with the country ditty “Don’t Pass Me By,” a tune that would be remade two decades later by the Georgia Satellites, who made it into a hard rock classic.

Highly erratic at times, “The Beatles” is the band’s least effective group effort. McCartney supplies the backbeat on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” (penned by Lennon for Mia Farrow’s sister) because Starr temporarily quit the band during the recording sessions. Harrison also threatened to walk out, engineer Geoff Emerick flew the coop and even producer and behind-the-scenes mastermind George Martin took a back seat here.

In spite of the disarray, the White Album remains a fun, raucous, rebellious and angry listen nearly 50 years on. It’s fairly raw, too, as each of the group’s members had the freedom to return to their respective roots. At the time of its release, though, some critics hated the record due to its lack of social consciousness; save for “Revolution 1,” political commentary largely was absent. Another knock was that it came across as a collection of solo works rather than a concentrated, collaborative effort.

This is a fair criticism, but Lennon once said that he wanted “to get back to the basics of making music,” and he and his mates did just that here. Plus, groundbreaking and innovative work abounds. The strange, frenetic “Helter Skelter” perhaps provided a beginning for heavy metal and alternative music. It dabbles in the abstract with “Revolution 9,” a song that recounts random conversations and situations during the recording process. While the song is an unmitigated mess, it features Yoko Ono and provided a template for future weird greatness from Pink Floyd.

Another positive of the White Album: Harrison’s songwriting talent shines through like never before. The contributions from all four cohorts, though, provide listeners a glimpse into the minds of four musical geniuses, each of which would go on to have stellar solo careers.

If there is such a thing as a negative surrounding this record, it is that it marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles as a band. They would go on to record “Abbey Road” and Let it Be,” but the friction that first reared its ugly head during the recording of the White Album became the norm for the remainder of their time together. After the dissolution of the group, McCartney would admit as much. But he also took a shot at the LP’s critics when he stated that he felt that the validity of the double record stood on its own.

“The Beatles” indeed is one of rock’s truly underappreciated masterpieces. The band never really recorded a lost classic because everything the Fab Four did would eventually turn to gold. Obviously, it’s not “Sgt. Peppers,” “Revolver” or even “Rubber Soul,” but it is a classic piece of modern music, deserving of high praise and an important addition to the band’s canon.

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