The 2018 fiftieth anniversary re-release of The Beatles, their eponymous LP from 1968, a musical revolution fondly known as “The White Album”, has fuelled one of the great debates among fans of the band. Should the massive double album have been pruned to a single disc? As the proud owner of the six CD and book box set – with unique number 0119632 – here is my contribution to the continuing story of the extensive double bill, which could have been a single show.
“The White Album” extends across 30 tracks, and lasts over 93 minutes. Amongst the great variety of songs, and styles, there is plenty of scope for discussion, but far from a consensus. So much of an assessment of the album must be subjective, with songs hailed as brilliant by some fans derided as pointless filler by others. Some fans love the whole album, while many people see, or hear, excess in its sheer volume. Paul McCartney once famously dismissed debate about possible editing to a shorter record, with an impatient comment: “It was great. It sold. It’s the bloody Beatles’ “White Album”. Shut up!”. George Martin, an often exasperated producer who went on holiday during the sessions, went on record to say that a single album could have been better, without making specific suggestions of which songs to drop. Perhaps a single album could repeat the 14 track model that worked on Revolver, with John and Paul having five songs each, George three, and Ringo one, while no two successive tracks featured the same lead vocalist.
Here is my suggestion:
Side 1 Approximately 21 minutes
Back in the U.S.S.R. 2.43
Paul’s opener, celebrating the Soviet Union, echoes Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA, and the style of the Beach Boys, a band with whom the Beatles enjoyed a creative rivalry.
Dear Prudence 3.56
John’s tale of Prudence Farrow, sister of the actress Mia, a shy member of the meditation group, led by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, attended by the Beatles in India.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps 4.45
One of George’s greatest songs, with Eric Clapton joining as an extra guitarist.
Glass Onion 2.18
John’s surreal story includes references to five previous songs by the Beatles –, Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus, Lady Madonna, Fool on the Hill, and Fixing a Hole. He was reflecting the way in which obsessive fans of the band had taken to searching lyrics in pursuit of hidden meanings.
Paul’s tribute to the Black Power movement in the USA, features the sound of a real blackbird, singing in an English garden (and waiting for the sun?).
George’s cynical take on humanity, influenced by George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
John pays tribute to both Julia, his mother, and Yoko Ono, his lover, in this ethereal ballad.
Side 2 Approximately 22.5 minutes
Savoy Truffle 2.54
The second half of the record begins with George’s satire of decadence, in the form of the excessive consumption of chocolate. George also provides a reference to Paul’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, following the self-referential lead of John’s Glass Onion.
Mother Nature’s Son 2.48
Paul finds himself in a rural idyll, with a song inspired by a lecture about nature given by the Maharishi.
Sexy Sadie 3.15
John left the Maharishi’s retreat with a feeling of disillusion, and gave vent to this in a song, the target of which he only later explained.
Helter Skelter 4.29
This is acclaimed by some as the start of heavy metal, although it appeared several months after much heavier music on the Velvet Underground’s White Light / White Heat album. On the other hand, Helter Skelter is a great performance by the Beatles, led by Paul’s rocking vocal. The song also serves as a nightmare, ahead of the nursery rhyme in the next track.
Cry Baby Cry 3.02
John draws upon the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, but there are elements from the Pig and Pepper chapter in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, with a duchess and a crying baby. The song has the Duchess of Kirkaldy arriving late for tea, suggesting the Tea Party in Alice. John’s Cry Baby Cry ends with the Can You Take Me Back fragment from Paul, which possibly expresses a wish to move from a fairy tale back to reality. Conversely Paul might hope to move away from reality, and back into a nursery rhyme? In my fantasy album, Paul wanders forward to the nostalgia of the next song.
Honey Pie 2.41
A year on from When I’m 64, Paul provides another stylish evocation of music hall – he later said he was “pretending I’m living in 1925”.
Good Night 3.13
The album ends with a lullaby, written by John, and sung by Ringo, accompanied by lush orchestration.
Another “White Album” option, surprisingly rarely considered, is the creation of a slightly shorter notional double LP, by removing a few tracks – for example two each by John and Paul. Among the 30 track line-up, John and Paul had 12 pieces each, while George had four numbers, and Ringo two songs. The most obvious candidates to discard are Revolution 9, a very long experimental piece by John which is not actually a song, and Wild Honey Pie, a very short interlude from Paul, that is not much of a song. For me, a second track by John to be omitted is The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, as the amusement value does not outweigh a lack of real quality. Moving back to Paul, the same consideration leads me to drop Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? from the fantasy line-up. Removing the four tracks reduces the length of the album by about 14 minutes, to something just under 80 minutes – a good length for a double LP, and it would also fit nowadays on a single CD.
My fantasy 26 track double album – with Long Long Long moved from the end of side 3, to the start of side 4, to roughly balance up total lengths – would run as follows:
Side 1 Approximately 19.5 minutes
Back in the U.S.S.R.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Side 2 Approximately 21 minutes
Martha My Dear
I’m So tired
Don’t Pass Me By
Side 3 Approximately 19.75 minutes
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Side 4 Approximately 19 minutes
Long, Long, Long
Cry Baby Cry
I hope this has been of some interest – good night everybody everywhere.