On the fiftieth anniversary of the breakup of the Beatles, I revisited their 1968 album, entitled simply The Beatles, but universally known as The Double White Album. I got out my ancient vinyl first edition and listened to it, complete. I did so with some reluctance, even trepidation; I’m a little frightened of The Double White Album.
How did I find it? I think even the most ardent Beatle fan would have to admit it is uneven. Isn’t Helter Skelter – with all its gruesome associations – the worst track the Beatles ever recorded? George Martin once remarked that it might have been better if the Beatles had been ruthless with the blue pencil, and pared the whole thing right down to a single LP. That begs the question, what to retain and what to discard? I thought it might be an interesting exercise to reproduce The Beatles, abridged version.
In one sense it seems a straightforward exercise. There are thirty songs, so you need to remove about half of them. Here’s my list to have survived the cut, in the order in which the songs appear in the original.
Back in the U.S.S.R
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
Mother Nature’s Son
Long, Long, Long
Cry Baby Cry
It’s a personal choice, and I’m sure many devoted Beatle fans would have chosen most of the ones I left out. I opted for the melodic, and lyrical, rather than the aggressive and raucous. As Gerald Moore once said, “Never sing louder than lovely”.
But now comes the really difficult choice. What order to put them in? It is not enough just to churn out a cadre of songs. They have to fuse into a meaningful whole. What would “The Single White Album” convey? And this is where, I think, the entire project is shown to be futile. It doesn’t matter how you shuffle the pack, the end product is always going to be far inferior to the original, warts and all.
What is the Double White Album all about? You get a sense of its tone of voice listening to Mother Nature’s Son. John Denver did a cover of this song and you can see why. It’s wholesome and outdoorsy and kind of “Rocky Mountain High”. Or is it? If you listen to the Beatles’ original, it is something quite other. It’s as if McCartney takes a musical genre, and distorts it. And that is true of virtually every track on the album – all thirty of them. Right from the start, when we land back in the USSR to the whine of jet engines, nothing is but what is not. A spoof Beach Boys number is transported from California to some hidden realm beyond the Iron Curtain. We move immediately into Dear Prudence, and have entered Lennon’s strange, fey, sunlit, psychedelic world.
Everything is ironic. And everything is experimental. Some experiments work; some don’t. Some, like the fragment Wild Honey Pie, are simply abandoned. McCartney utilises other musical forms throughout. Rocky Raccoon with its honkytonk piano is Hillbilly. Honey Pie (as opposed to Wild Honey Pie) is a 1920s take-off, faithfully recreated, but parodied to the point of absurdity. Don’t Pass Me By with its tuneless fiddle (it might even be a viola) is a kind of self-mockery of the tradition of allowing Ringo Starr to sing, once.
The songs are still recognisably by the Beatles, but you can feel the individual band members moving apart, heading off in their own direction. Harrison’s four songs surely represent his strongest contribution to any of the group’s albums. The mood is one of disillusion, and dissolution. His guitar really does weep. Piggies is an Orwellian expression of revulsion at humanity, and then, with Savoy Truffle, fancy writing a song about dental decay! Long Long Long, which closes Side 3 is I believe – within the bizarre frame of reference of the Double White – the strongest song of all. Its mysterious ending, with its cry of despair, borders on the tragic.
Lennon’s songs are gritty and edgy and wistful and disturbing. They visit realms where one may not wish to follow. Julia is sad, but detached, damaged. It typifies the mood of the album. It is joyless. What, indeed, is it all about?
The Double White Album is all about disintegration, a gradual psychological and spiritual falling apart. It passes from irony, to sarcasm, to cynicism, to black despair. And where does that take us? It takes us to the final tracks that close side 4. It would be impossible to create an abridged Double White that omitted the last two tracks, much as we might find them repulsive. The culmination of the Double White is its penultimate track – Revolution 9. It is the most avant-garde piece the Beatles ever recorded. It is a depiction of a descent into delirium. It’s a far cry from She Loves You, but if you miss it out, the Double White makes no sense.
And what follows it? You might think Good Night would offer some kind of balm, but far from it. Now, the destruction is complete. This is a spoof of a late night closing down sequence of a TV station. It depicts the anodyne, anaesthetised half-awareness of someone who has been reduced to nothing. It is Winston at the end of 1984. Absolutely ghastly.
The Beatles is a formidable double album, but I’m not sure I’ll give it another visit 50 years hence.