Friday, July 03, 2015

The White Album Problem

George Martin, the Beatles' producer, believed their eponymous 1968 double album with the famous white cover should have been edited down to a single album.

"I really didn't think that a lot of the songs were worthy of release, and I told them so. I said 'I don't want a double-album. I think you ought to cut out some of these, concentrate on the really good ones and have yourself a really super album. Let's whittle them down to 14 or 16 titles and concentrate on those.'"

-quoted in The Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, p. 163.

Seems insane, right? Especially if, as I have, you've listened to the album dozens of times and enjoyed it more every time. The White Album feels like something handed down to mankind by gods. I once wrote a song about a lone alien discovering it after his people had destroyed every other remnant of human civilization. The album makes him wish maybe they hadn't done that.

But let's go back to that time, September 1968, before it was finished, when they were deciding to make it two records, against the advice of their producer.

What could you possibly cut? Well, from sides one and two I guess you could cut some of the underwritten silliness - Wild Honey Pie and Why Don't We Do It In The Road. But I wouldn't. McCartney totally invests himself in those performances and he is at the peak of his powers. And Wild Honey Pie, silly as it is, beautifully sets up that weird, archival Spanish guitar flourish that kicks off Bungalow Bill. Similarly, Road is a very satisfying contrast with the next song - the lilting, gentle pop of I Will. Even if you cut these two songs, you've only cut 2:43.

From sides three and four? Obviously Revolution 9 would have fit more neatly on the experimental albums John and Yoko were doing at the time - Life With The Lions and Two Virgins. It tests a person's patience but I've heard it enough times now that I kind of enjoy it. Also, like Wild Honey Pie and Road, it perfectly sets up the song after it - the rising, gentle strings of Good Night.

Sidebar: I think I just realized that every classic album should have a song that challenges and tests you even if you've listened to it hundreds of times. Do I enjoy Sgt. Pepper less because of the lugubrious passages in "Within You Without You"? Do I enjoy Ziggy Stardust less because of "It Ain't Easy"? No, I think I enjoy them more. Revolver, for example, doesn't have a single song that tries my patience - I just unreservedly love the whole thing and guess what? I don't listen to it nearly so often as I do Pepper or The White Album.

End sidebar

I guess you could cut Revolution 1, since a superior version of that same song was released as a single. Maybe you could cut Helter Skelter, but then would we still have had Led Zeppelin's debut two months later? If you cut those three songs, you've cut 17:08.

If you make those cuts, you've still got about 70 minutes of material. We're still not at a single LP record. So then you have to make additional cuts. There's nothing from the remaining 25 songs unworthy of release, is there? Are there other songs you would cut from the White Album? Which ones and why? Tell me in the comments.

In fact, there were some really great songs from this era that were not released until years later and in different forms. McCartney's "Junk", Lennon's "Child of Nature" and Harrison's "Not Guilty" are all excellent songs. Would replacing Revolution 9 with these three songs have made the album stronger? Maybe, but it would not have made it any shorter.

So looking back from 47 years' distance, they got it right. The White Album is what it was destined to be: an hour and thirty-four minutes handed down by gods.

References consulted while writing:

The White Album 2009 remaster

The Beatles In Mono is the only way to get the White Album in mono on CD