November 21, 2018

Revolution and Revelation: The Beatles’ White Album 50 Years Later

It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

White Album, White Whale — all’s fair in love and hyperbole when it comes to describing the magnitude of the Beatles when their first double record was released 50 years ago tomorrow. Wrapping the music in white, with the name of the group only faintly perceptible, offered listeners a blank page, as if to say “Use your imagination. Fill in the blank. Set your fancy free.”

So, as the White Whale deep-sixed Ahab and his ship, “spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex,” the White Album, spinning round and round with “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution 9” raging in its depths, created a deadly vortex in the brain of a homicidal Svengali. Violent death was already stoking the myth in November 1968, with the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory becoming a full-blown mind game as fans channeled Sherlock Holmes, close-reading album covers and lyrics and playing records backwards to pick up hidden clues, a phenomenon teasingly acknowledged by the blank cover and lines like “Here’s another clue for you all/the walrus was Paul” in John Lennon’s “Glass Onion,” the album’s third track. “We can’t control what people read into our music,” McCartney said at the time. “Things take on millions of meanings.” In a recent NME interview he admits that the association of “Helter Skelter” with the Manson murders made  him refuse to play the number in concert for decades. Once it was no longer, in his words, “too close to the event,” he “brought it out of the bag and tried it and it works. It’s a good one to rock with, you know.”

The same can’t be said for “Revolution 9.” Yet in the context of the 21st century, as presented on the remastered 50th Anniversary edition of The Beatles, the churning, driving soundscape created by a Captain Ahab named John Lennon is an indispensable part of the narrative.

Riding “Revolution 9” 

While hardcore fans may want to splurge on the Super Deluxe package with Giles Martin’s remix of the original LP and multiple discs of unreleased studio outtakes, all you really need is the 3-CD set, with the Esher Demos.

Arriving on the fifth anniversary of the JFK assassination, the White Album came from another darker, more problematic world than Sgt Pepper, where the prolonged orchestral crescendo concluding “A Day in the Life” provided a preview of things to come. I used to think what the record lacked was a conclusion with the same sense of adventure. Revolver had “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Magical Mystery Tour had “I am the Walrus.” The Beatles offered only the interminable sound collage of  “Revolution 9” (the most unpopular Beatles track ever according to a Village Voice poll), followed by “Good Night,” in which Ringo sings the world a lullaby and tucks it in. After the first few spins of Side 4, the tendency in those early days was to lift the tonearm after Lennon’s haunting seance song, “Cry Baby Cry.”

Not now. There’s no tonearm to lift, unless you buy the vinyl version.

For me, and a world of others, the main problem with “Revolution 9” was the length, the fact that Yoko Ono was involved (a major negative at the time), and that you had to sit there at the mercy of all that chaos. That was then. At the moment, my best advice is to drive from Kingston to Princeton with No. 9 blasting at top volume on the car stereo. If you aim for the corner of Ewing and Mt. Lucas averaging 33 1/3 mph, you’ll cover the distance in 8:15, the exact length of the track. The experience is an in and out of the body melodrama, at first a dreamlike sense of release, of being on automatic pilot, like a passenger on a massive sound train. Since the thing itself is moving headlong as if driven by a crazed engineer, the fact that you are driving, too, becomes unsettlingly redundant, skewing time and space. The guy on the bicycle moving toward you on your right is like someone you left behind at the beginning of another journey half a lifetime ago. The people you pass along the way seem to be living in another dimension. As the sound train rolls down  North Harrison past the Shopping Center, the distance between you and everyone you’re passing is decreasing, as if you’ve been airborne and are approaching a runway, coming in for a landing, so that by the time you’re home and pulling into the garage, the car has become a car again, all yours, No. 9 echoing in your ears with a seashell roar as Ringo sings “Good Night,” the tender lullaby John Lennon wrote for his son Julian. I stay in the car, listening till it’s over. Never had George Martin’s arrangement, in all its Golden Age of Hollywood glory, sounded so magnificent. Never had Ringo seemed so well suited to a song, holding to a tenuously plaintive balance that might at any moment betray him but never does.

Coming after the long strange trip of “Revolution 9,” Ringo’s “Good Night” evoked the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, where nuclear apocalypse blends with Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.”

“Revolution 9” was recorded while Paul McCartney was in Los Angeles, “behind his back,” you could say. Although George Martin helped Lennon navigate the Abbey Road archive of tapes and tape loops, both he and McCartney wanted to keep Ahab John’s tour de force off the record. Harrison, who contributed to the definitive version, thought “it worked quite well in the context of all those different songs,” except, “I find it heavy to listen to myself—in fact, I don’t, really.”  

The Esher Demos

In late May 1968 at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, a town in Surrey, the Beatles got together fresh from India to play new songs for one another, the true first draft of the White Album, everything acoustic, intimate, relaxed: you’re in the same room, sitting in the shadows, eyes closed, listening. As Kevin Howlett says in his liner notes, “The up-close clarity of the sound of the demos is breathtaking” and “the music itself is revelatory,” a “glimpse behind the curtain, an insight into how — as Paul describes it — ‘the magic circle within a square that was the Beatles was created.’ “

Although some of the Esher songs have been available on Volume 3 of the Beatles Anthology, not to mention numerous bootlegs, the experience of hearing all 27 is stunning. Songs that never did much for me take on a new life. John’s screamer “Yer Blues,” which sounded borderline bogus and overblown on the album, has an in-the-moment authenticity, the fading repetition of “I feel lonely” lending it inadvertent pathos. However headlong wonderful the album version of  “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (the longest title in Beatledom), now Lennon’s in the room, still making the song, thinking it, feeling it. The same is true when George Harrison presents “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Listening to George and John at Esher, you come near to believing that the dead are not dead. This happens most movingly when they sing two songs I never heard before, John’s “Child of Nature,” and George’s “Circles.” John sounds raw, vulnerable, exposed, as though he were reaching for something he can’t quite find.  The melody reappears two years later in “Jealous Guy” from his first solo album, but for someone who was in India around the same time, it’s chilling to hear him sing, “On the road to Rishikesh,/I was dreaming more or less/And the dream I had was true.” It’s no less moving to hear George sing “He who knows does not speak/He who speaks does not know” in “Circles.” The sense of being in the living presence is what makes the Esher tapes so  special. Here they are as real as life. The dream is true.

Dream Visitors

My son Ben was four when John was murdered. In his dreams over the years, which he remembers in great detail, he’s been visited by both Paul and John, and sometimes George, playing new music just for him. When I say, “So you can really hear the songs,” his “Yes” is convincing. Listening to the Esher Demos, I imagined I was hearing the music he hears in his dreams.

Ever since Ben’s been in hospital I’ve been his DJ, providing him with infusions of music by putting the telephone close to the computer and playing whatever he asks for; sometimes it seems that everything ever recorded has been posted on YouTube. The other day, still under the spell of the demos, I put the Esher CD on the Bose Wave, held the telephone up to the speaker and played John singing “Child of Nature” and George singing “Circles.” Almost before I could ask the question, he was saying, quite excited, “This is what I hear in my dreams!”