Tuesday, April 13, 2004

TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: # 43

THE BEATLES – S/T (“White Album”) double LP

If someone at MOJO magazine was to write about this album, I wouldn’t be interested in reading what he or she has to say. It’s considered such an obvious entry into their canon of predictable “classic rock” it seems pointless even mentioning it. So what kind of interesting spin can I put on the Beatles? What makes me any different? Well, maybe not a hell of a lot, but the reason my perspective on the Beatles might be slightly skewed is because, probably much the same as most people reading this, my attitudes towards “classic rock” are not quite as reverential as the likes of MOJO. That’s not to say I don’t actually like a lot of it – the exact opposite: Rolling Stones, Kinks, T-Rex, Hendrix, Doors, Led Zeppelin, Byrds, (’67-’70) Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan are all people whose music I enjoy immensely, though to be honest I didn’t really get into any of these artists until much later on, having never purchased a single record by the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan until I was 25 and having never even properly heard an entire Led Zep song until I was 30! The only exceptions were the Byrds, Creedence and Neil Young, all of whom I bought into as a teenager, and all of which I only got into because various loudmouths from the SST stable sung their praises. The reason for my late showing is simple: growing up on a steady diet of punk rock and various independent music, “classic rock” was not on the radar at all. “Classic rock” for me was the Stooges, New York Dolls, Roky Erickson and Captain Beefheart, and that’s not the kind of stuff you’re likely to hear on an oldies station any time soon.

Anyway, you get to a certain age and finally come to the conclusion that you can’t necessarily blame bands for their annoying fans, and even though I find the whole concept of “classic rock” fascistic, as it assumes that people like Robert Wyatt and the Seeds are less “classic” because they didn’t sell as many records as The Who, popular music from the ‘60s and early ‘70s was kind of a weird anomaly in the sense that many of the greats were also very popular and sold a lot of records. Of course, like I said, many bombed, too, though I can’t resent the Rolling Stones for all their success when they were good: any band who can make records as incredible as Beggars Banquet or Let It Bleed deserve to be millionaires (and any band who’s released as many bad records as they have in the last 30 years also deserves to be shot, but that’s another story). Anyhow, I’m way off on a tangent here; I think the point I was trying to make was this: the writers at the likes of MOJO seem to have this in-built assumption of what is “good” music and what is “bad”. I do, too, but I’m usually coming from the opposite side of the fence: the vast bulk of music I consider “good” is probably considered the worst shit in the world by most humans on Earth. So be it.

Which brings me to the Beatles. You love ‘em or hate ‘em. I have friends who think they are indeed the lamest, most over-rated steaming pile of dung that ever hit the planet (I’m talking to you, Rich!). I also know people who think they’re literally the greatest musical unit of all time, pure genius, a band who rewrote the rulebook for making music as we know it. I understand and appreciate both points of view, though my personal feelings towards the Beatles veer far closer to the latter. To state a basic fact: I think the Beatles were the shit, and the canings they often receive from various underground taste-making hipsters I find ludicrous and often without any foundation. Yes, there are negative points to be made: the tweeness, various dreadful songs usually penned by McCartney and Ringo Starr, their seeming lack of any bad-boy rock antics and most of all the overwhelming opinion from most people of how great they were (I guess my estimation of most people’s intelligence is so low that the moment everyone agrees on something I instantly assume there’s something wrong).

Now let me state why I like them. Firstly, I totally appreciate them for their massive contribution to the idea that a rock’n’roll band is a self-contained unit who should write and perform their own material. Prior to the Beatles, this was an almost unknown phenomenon in popular music. Secondly, they’re possibly the first and most important example of a popular band who, upon initial success, didn’t simply write the same song over and over in an attempt to replicate that success, but used it as an opportunity to grow and develop as artists. In short, they took risks and always saw the music as the main motivating factor. Thirdly, they had a great sense of humour and didn’t feel a need to act like a group of self-destructive flaming assholes a la Keith Richards/John Bonham to prove their rock’n’roll credibility. And fourthly, they wrote a hell of a lot of really good songs. For me, that’s enough reasons to say that the Beatles were indeed a great band.

The reason I originally got heavily into the White Album is more than a touch embarrassing. I first heard it when I was 16 when my brother came home with a second-hand copy. Why did he buy it? Because we were both big “fans” of Charles Manson. Blame it on Black Flag, blame it on suburban, white-boy angst, call it a stupid phase or just call us a couple of knuckleheads, for us Chuck was The Man. We’d gobble up any bit of information we could on the guy, and of course one of the first titbits we dug up was his deep fascination with the White Album. For Manson, this double set was almost a holy document which spoke the The Truth. Hell, he even named his killing spree after one of its songs! Naturally, we had to get our hands on it. For us, the White Album delivered on its promise: not only was it a fairly weird and uneven – in the good sense of the word, if there is one – set of songs which contained lots of Manson-isms (“Piggies”, “Sexy Sadie”, “Helter Skelter”), but regardless of any stupid Manson fascination, it also featured a lot of killer material (believe me, there was no pun intended there), and that’s certainly the only reason I still play it today (even framing the damn collage poster that comes with it and hanging it in the living room).

I was discussing this set with a work colleague a little while back and my rationale for hailing this as the Beatles’ strongest work was thus: what makes the White Album work so well is its peaks and valleys, its inconsistent and scattered approach. It contains many of their best ever songs – “Dear Prudence”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” – some of their most ridiculous experiments – “Revolution 9” – and very possibly the worst track they ever put to tape: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, a prancing, witless waste of time from McCartney which was, unfortunately, used down here as the theme music for Play School when I was growing up (not in itself a bad memory, but not one befitting any rock music I’d care to take seriously).

And amongst all this mess is a glorious mixed bag which, whilst one may tend to describe it as “incoherent” and “meandering”, I like to term as “expansive”. The sheer variety of material is staggering, and, like the best of double albums, shoots in a radically different direction almost every song. There’s the token cheesebag Tin Pan Alley tune from McCartney (“Wild Honey Pie”, actually a pretty good tune); two killer George Harrison numbers (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the haunting “Long Long Long”); a couple of throwaway gimmicks (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, “Rocky Raccoon”); hard-hitting ROCK (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter”, the latter of which kicks it just as hard as any MC5 song I’ve ever heard); and, of course, a whole bunch of songs probably playing at a mall near you (“Revolution”, “Back in the USSR”). But it works. The fragmented nature of the double set, which often sounds like four members of a band agreeing on very little, is what makes the White Album so brilliant. Maybe I’m trying to see something that really isn’t there, but to me the White Album, within its own context, sounds just as weird and radical as Trout Mask Replica.

I didn’t actually buy my own copy of this until I was 25 when I decided it was high time I took my head out of the sand and go purchase some Beatles, Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones records just to prove that I knew what I was talking about. Hearing it again for the first time in probably five years, the songs flooded back. Aaah, long gone were all the horrible memories of Chuck, Sadie, Tex, The Ranch, Bugliosi and that dreadful night in ’69…

Pros: A staggering, stupefying, scattershot, barely-together masterpiece from the most popular band of all time. No kidding.
Cons: This one’s a loaded gun. It totally depends on what you consider a “con”. If you like to let millions of other squares decide what you won’t listen to, then you can consider that one.
Related Releases: Oh man, go call that guy from MOJO

No comments: