Saturday, September 17, 2005

White Album, Black Bird

Posting about The Beatles isn't certainly the easiest thing to do... I hesitated a lot, but decided to give it a try... I apologize in advance for being unfair, inaccurate or too basic... But when you post about music, you cannot avoid, sooner or later, talking about them...

So much has been said and written about The Beatles - and their story is so mythic in its sweep - that it's difficult to summarize their career without restating cliches that have already been digested by tens of millions of rock fans. To start with the obvious, one could say that they were the greatest and most influential act of the rock era, and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century. Moreover, they were among the few artists of any discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did and the most popular at what they did.

Relentlessly imaginative and experimental, The Beatles grabbed a hold of the international mass consciousness in 1964 and never let go for the next six years, always staying ahead of the pack in terms of creativity but never losing their ability to communicate their increasingly sophisticated ideas to a mass audience. Their supremacy as rock icons remains unchallenged to this day, decades after their breakup in 1970.

During those six years, The Beatles launched several magnificent albums: "A Hard Day's Night", "Beatles for Sale", "Help!", "Rubber Soul", "Revolver", "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "Magical Mystery Tour"... Each of them deserve more than one post, but I don't intend to dedicate this Blog to The Beatles.

Let me, however, tell you about the album commonly known as "The White Album" (1968).

Each song on this sprawling double album is an entity to itself, as the band touches on anything and everything it can. Depending on your view, this can make it a frustratingly scattershot record or a singularly gripping musical experience, but what makes it interesting is precisely its mess! Never before had a rock record been so self-reflective, or so ironic... The Beach Boys' "Back in the USSR" and the British blooze parody "Yer Blues" are delivered straight-faced, so it's never clear if these are affectionate tributes or wicked satires.

Lennon turns in two of his best ballads with "Dear Prudence" and "Julia"; scours the Abbey Road vaults for the "musique concrete" collage "Revolution 9"; pours on the schmaltz for Ringo's closing number, "Good Night"; celebrates The Beatles cult with "Glass Onion"; and, with "Cry Baby Cry" rivals Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd).

McCartney doesn't reach quite as far, yet his songs are stunning - the music hall romp "Honey Pie", the mock country of "Rocky Raccoon", the ska-inflected "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", and the proto-metal roar of "Helter Skelter".

Clearly, The Beatles' two main songwriting forces were no longer on the same page, but neither were George and Ringo. Harrison still had just two songs per LP, but it's clear from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", the canned soul of "Savoy Truffle", the haunting "Long, Long, Long", and even the silly "Piggies" that he had developed into a songwriter who deserved wider exposure. And Ringo turns in a delight with his first original, the lumbering country-carnival stomp "Don't Pass Me By".

None of it sounds like it was meant to share album space together, but somehow it creates its own style and sound through its mess.

Though "The White Album" is full of innovative production techniques and sound textures, a number of the songs had arrangements that were among the most basic and folky The Beatles recorded. One of those, and one of the strongest Paul McCartney-dominated compositions on the record, was "Blackbird". The track is centered around McCartney's acoustic guitar, with its constant up and down swoops. The melody is lovely while avoiding sentimentality, something McCartney could do with low-volume recordings with more skill than almost any other major rock songwriter. The lyrics, too, are among McCartney's stronger, expressing hope and optimism while avoiding happiness, encouraging a blackbird to take broken wings and fly.

"Blackbird" was sometimes interpreted as a metaphor used by McCartney in support of black civil rights, and perhaps the more militant black power movement; unfortunately it was also interpreted by Charles Manson as a prediction of uprisings by black people that would contribute to Armageddon, and Manson used that and other songs of "The White Album" as part of his rationalization for instigating the murders he masterminded...

McCartney was certainly proud of the song... and I think he had good reasons for being so!


Blogger ice breaker said...

I made a small query at the social-inclusion working group on favourite Beatles songs. Maxim immediately started to sing “fool on the hill” and Tom started to dream about “while my guitar is gently weeps”… I have to admit my favourite song is actually on the “white album”. It is definitely “Rocky Racoon” – it is so bluntly violent. We had to translate the lyrics in English classes in school and I found it a bit rigid and stiff at the beginning but fell in love with it when hearing it a couple of times!

11:35 AM  

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