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Thursday, March 1, 2012

THE BEATLES - side one

My favorite trivia question: What is the actual title of the album known as the "White Album?"  Few know that it is simply called The Beatles.  Critics are quick to point out the irony in the fact that the album named after the group is the album where the break-up began, and the album with the most solo tracks.  But there is also more ensemble playing on this record than on Sgt. Pepper, and it stands with some of the best work of their career.  Though it is not generally considered to be one of their masterpieces, it is my personal favorite.  It is one of the most eclectic batches of song ever released in one collection, displaying an astonishing range that few acts could ever hope to achieve.

Before commencing, the group met at George's house in Esher and recorded twenty-three demos of songs that they had written, most of them in India armed with their acoustic guitars and fellow musicians Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Donovan Leitch on hand.  The actual sessions were spread over five months from May 30th, 1968 to a 24-hour sequencing session run by John, Paul and producer George Martin on October 16th and 17th.  It was perhaps inevitable that such a long stretch together, even doing the one thing that they all loved to do the most, should test the limits of their friendship even more than years of touring, movie making and sporadic recording sessions had done.  The evidence is apparent on the first two tracks.

Back in the U.S.S.R. - Only three Beatles played on this rocking opening number by McCartney after tensions boiled over and, of all people, Ringo quit the group.  He had always done what he had been told, either playing endless takes of the same song or being kept waiting for hours as other details were worked out.  On this occasion, he couldn't get exactly what Paul wanted and left in frustration.  Though they petitioned to get him back, the others carried on in his absence.  By all accounts, Paul played drums on the basic track with John on bass and George on lead guitar.  Overdubs include more layers of each instrument, plus piano and the sound effect of the jet that opens the track and reappears sporadically.  Great backing vocals by John and George confirm the fact that the song is a Beach Boys parody, with Russian women taking the place of the typical California girls.

Dear Prudence - Ringo was still holding out a few days later when the others returned to Trident Studios, where they had recorded Hey Jude, for the opportunity to record this beautiful Lennon composition on eight-track.  The jet sound from the previous number is used as a segue into the gentle fingerpicking guitar technique which Donovan had taught John and the others in India.  Paul plays drums again, turning in a fine performance as the track slowly builds in intensity.  He and George play surprisingly heavy bass and guitar lines under John's mellow lead.  Backing vocals by Paul and George also include Apple recording artist Jackie Lomax, among others.  Multiple sources credit Paul playing a flugelhorn part, though I have never been able to hear it in the mix.  

Glass Onion - All four Beatles play on this angry follow-up to I Am the Walrus.  Once again, Lennon targets those who were reading too much into the group's lyrics, this time mentioning numerous songs to confound things even further (although he had mentioned Lucy in the Sky in the earlier song).  The most obvious red herring, "the walrus was Paul," only added fuel to the fire during the "Paul is dead" hysteria a year later.  This track is the first example of the full group turning in a fine ensemble performance, with Paul playing an exceptionally heavy bass line and adding a brief bit of recorder after the Fool on the Hill reference.  George Martin also took a break from the group during these sessions and was away while this track was recorded, prompting John to add sound effects to the song.  Upon his return, Martin scrapped the sound effects and added a slurring string section, which brings the song to an eerie fadeout.  The version with sound effects is available on anthology 3.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - This perky McCartney number drove the other Beatles to distraction as they spent almost two weeks in early July working on it.  After spending three consecutive nights recording it, and bringing in saxophone session players to boot, Paul was unhappy and wanted a re-make.  This first version is on Anthology 3.  According to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles: Recording Sessions, John arrived very high on the fourth night and pounded the keys of the piano, shouting, "This is it!  Come on!" and inadvertently created a new intro to the song.  On the fifth night, they started a re-re-make before going back to version two.  Days later, after many takes and another sax overdub scored by Martin, it was finally complete.  Paul wanted it out as a single, but John and George vetoed the idea.  Despite its fitful creation, it has proven to be highly popular with fans of all ages right from the get-go.  In the June 1988 issue of Musician magazine, Stewart Copeland of the Police called it "...one of the first examples of white reggae."

Wild Honey Pie - A solo ditty by McCartney that defines the term "throwaway."  Even as a link between other songs, it is uninteresting and unnecessary.   

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill - An odd, but fun number from Lennon, written in reference to a fellow student at the Maharishi's camp.  The intricate flamenco guitar flourish which opens the song had long been a mystery to me until I learned that it is one of the earliest known instances of sampling, lifted straight off of the Mellotron used at the session.  The Mellotron was played by a young assistant named Chris Thomas, who actually produced several sessions in Martin's absence.  This recording was made on the same October night as I'm So Tired and begun after midnight, involving everyone in the room for the singalong chorus.  Maureen Starkey and Yoko Ono took part, with Yoko also getting the solo line "not when he looked so fierce."

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - One of Harrison's all-time great compositions, although John and Paul somehow did not recognize it at the time.  George made an exquisite demo of the song in July, with an extra verse omitted in the released version.  This demo is available on Anthology 3.  The Beatles made many lackluster takes of the song in sessions scattered over August and September before they started a re-make on September 5th.  The next day, George brought in Eric Clapton to play lead guitar and interest in the song suddenly spiked, resulting in a rock classic.  It was during sessions for the first version that the group learned that Abbey Road had acquired an eight-track machine and brought it into Studio Two for their own use.

Happiness is a Warm Gun - Side one ends with this outrageous pastiche by Lennon which combines three or four unfinished songs in about two and a half minutes.  On Anthology 3, he demos the "I need a fix" and "Mother Superior" sections during the Esher sessions in May, also adding a section about Yoko.  The master required 67 takes, mostly because of the tricky time changes.  Measures are dropped during the "Mother Superior" section, and in the section that begins "When I feel my finger..." Ringo stays in 4/4 time as the guitars and vocals switch to 3/4 to create a sense of disorientation.  The heavy guitars, "bang bang shoot shoot" backing vocals and lurid lyrics all blend together to make the track live up to its nasty name.  George and Paul both claimed it to be one of their favorites on the album.  For Paul, John's skillful weaving of unfinished songs proved to be a big influence a year later and, indeed, throughout his solo career.                  

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