The spring of 1968 was a turning point for the Beatles, in that they were, possibly for the very first time, going it completely alone. While Brian Epstein’s position seemed to be receding into the background once they quit touring, he had always been their anchor on the business end of things. Now they were free to do what they wanted to do…which of course is always a double-edged sword. The creative freedom they now let them go down any musical avenues they so chose…but with that came the possibility of writing half-baked songs that said little to nothing to anyone except themselves. Their financial status let them try out different things, such as the Apple Boutique, possible electronics and media interests…but considering that they knew next to nothing about economics, many of those interests fell flat rather quickly. They soon realized that perhaps it was time to back up and focus on what they did best: the music.
This stretch of time was also an attempt to get their heads cleared as well. The insanity of the first half of the decade and the frustrations and lack of direction in the previous year were now behind them; with George Harrison’s suggestion, they chose to go along with their “spiritual enlightenment” and head off to India to study under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. Under more normal circumstances, this may have been a good idea; this extended vacation would not only give them time to “come back down to Earth” but also to refuel themselves creatively and find a new direction. However, it wasn’t nearly as clear-cut.
John’s relationship with Cynthia was on a dangerous decline. While Cynthia chose to remain strong, be a mother to Julian, and attempt to stay positive, John on the other hand had grown more frustrated and claustrophobic; it was quite evident that they were two completely different and mismatched people. John had also started meeting with Yoko Ono at this time, first as friends but slowly becoming lovers. One telling moment of this change was during the initial train out of the city that would bring the band members and their wives to the airport; at the last moment, just as the train had finished boarding, the band hurried on…but in the rush, John had sprinted ahead and jumped on, leaving Cynthia behind. Paul, on the other hand, had had enough with Jane Asher’s flightiness. By the middle of 1968 they had broken up and gone their separate ways. They had both taken the trip to India, but it was evident that they were hanging in different social circles, and, like John and Cynthia, they weren’t the best match for each other.
That isn’t to say it was all marital difficulties. At this time George and Patti were getting along well, and Ringo and Maureen were doing just fine. However, the main issue with the India trip was that, had it been personal decisions by the four members rather than a group decision, there may have been more leeway in the relationship between them. It was evident that Ringo was not entirely excited about the India trip–he being more of an “I’ll come along because everyone else will be there” sort of person–and left after only a few weeks for personal reasons: Ringo’s delicate digestive system could not handle the rich Indian delicacies, and Maureen could not stand the weather and the constant bother of insects.
Which left John, Paul and George. Out of the three, it was obvious that George was the most dedicated. Paul was open-minded but not completely enthusiastic. John, on the other hand, wanted to be dedicated but could not bring himself to George’s level. Eventually John and Paul would sneak off during hours they should have been meditating, visiting each other’s cabins and writing songs just like in the old days. It has never been proven exactly what caused John to leave India so abruptly, though there were rumors that the Maharishi had been caught flirting with (and possibly assaulting) some of the female visitors. John would eventually dismiss this, stating that he had been wanting to leave earlier anyway and had used that rumor as a valid reason, whether or not it was true.
That said…despite their semi-foiled plans, it wasn’t a complete disaster. During those few months in India, they had written over three dozen songs and were itching to get back into the studio to record them. They even had a new focus: this next project was going to be the anti-Sgt Pepper album, full of solid rock songs with no pretext. They weren’t going to write any more psychedelic songs, nor were they going to head into the studio with no plan “and see what popped up.” As John would say, they’d done all that already…it was time to record another rock album.
Early in May, they reconvened at George’s house, Kinfauns, in Esher, to record a number of demos of the songs they’d written during their trip. The backlog of songs was so rich and varied that, even after recording thirty-three of them in the studio, they’d whittled the playlist down to an even thirty. A number of demos would be held back until the next two projects in 1969, and some would end up on solo albums. Two songs of George’s, “Circles” and “Not Guilty”, would not see the light of day until he re-recorded them nearly a decade later. The songs varied from straight-ahead rock to sing-along folk, from quiet balladry to frenzied guitar freak-out and musique concrete. There would not be any single specific genre here.
Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968
The Beatles, often referred to as “the White Album”, is indeed a sprawling album and not an easy one to listen to if one is used to the more compact and poppier albums they’d released. It is, however, an interesting work of art, even down to the visual level. There had been a number of names kicked around for this project, but as the sessions wore on, it became evident that having it self-titled would make the most sense. This was a new look at the band: it wasn’t the psychedelic Beatles of 1967 or the moptops of the early 60s; this was a rock band writing and recording songs that were unlike anything they’d done previously. The anti-Sgt Pepper idea had also extended to the point that, instead of the fantastical color splash of that album, this album would be the exact opposite. Hiring artist Richard Hamilton, the packaging would be thus: a completely white cover, with the band’s name lightly embossed, and a unique (but not exactly limited) serial number printed on it. The cover, in fact, looked exactly like vinyl bootlegs of the time, which often had no printed label save for a stamped title or a low-quality photocopy of the track listing taped to it. The packaging included a fold-out poster with printed lyrics on one side and a collage of Beatle pictures on the other (including two semi-nude Beatles, much to many fans’ surprise). Initial runs and some later reprints also included four portraits of the band taken by John Kelly. The album itself, however, remained as simple as possible; the gatefold opened up to small grayscale versions of the portraits, and a simple listing of the songs, nothing more.
All the true magic lay within, on the vinyl.
Track 1: Back in the USSR
The album starts off with this tight Beach Boys-influenced rocker and possibly one of the strongest songs they’d recorded during these sessions. On the other hand, the sessions for this track–22 and 23 August, much later in the project–were also one of more acrimonious for the band. Specifically, Ringo, having spent a goodly amount of session time for the last few albums sitting around waiting for the other three to finish squabbling and figure out what they were going to play, had finally had enough and quit the band. He would be gone for about two weeks, finally returning on 5 September (to much love and apologies from the band). However, his absence meant that someone else would need to play the drums. In this instance (and with the next track), it fell to Paul. Paul was actually a very adequate drummer with a great sense of time and rhythm, and it shows here. Unlike Ringo’s style, which is more laid back and unobtrusive, Paul lays down a quick-paced thundering beat. The threesome would be overdubbing themselves on multiple parts here, each playing a bit of bass and guitar.
[Interesting side note: it’s said Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love actually suggested singing about the girls in Russia, as a joking reference to their own “California Girls”. Mike was part of the group that visited India and became good friends with the band. Check out the bootleg track “Spiritual Regeneration”, which is another Beach Boys pastiche and a birthday song for Mike.]
Track 2: Dear Prudence
This track, also recorded during Ringo’s absence, is a gorgeous and deceptively simple track written by John. Story goes that Prudence Farrow (actress Mia’s sister) was such a devout follower of the Maharishi at the time she would rarely set foot outside, and this song was written as a way to get her to socialize more, that she needn’t meditate so completely and obsessively. Also of note is a new fingerpicking style that John learned from pop-folk singer Donovan (another India visitor). John enjoyed playing this style once he’d figured it out, and would use it on many future Beatles and solo tracks. Paul is once again the drummer here, with John on the cyclical fingerpicking riff and George playing a wonderful lead melody that complements John’s.
[Another in my top picks of Beatles songs…I love the melody, and it’s some of John and George’s best guitar work.]
Track 3: Glass Onion
When John wanted to be a smartass, he certainly would never hold back; he’d go for the jugular each and every time. This track is a biting response to all the obsessed listeners who would read way too much into the Beatles’ lyrics, specifically the supposed hidden messages sprinkled throughout the Sgt Pepper album. Just as he’d written “I Am the Walrus” as a completely incomprehensible lyric on purpose, this was more direct–he name-drops multiple previous Beatles song here, from “The Fool on the Hill” and “Fixing a Hole” and even the recent single “Lady Madonna”. The line “Here’s another clue for you all/The Walrus was Paul” was originally just another wiseass lyric, but it would soon take on new meaning when the somewhat ridiculous “Paul is Dead” urban legend took hold a year or so later.
Musically it’s not too adventurous, though there’s a lot of sinister-sounding chord changes here that try to evoke tension–a great balance to the admittedly silly lyrics, making one wonder whether John’s being serious or just playing us for fools. An interesting alternate mix, made before orchestral overdubs, is heard on the Anthology 3 compilation, with odd sound effects (bell rings, glass shattering, and sports announcer sound bites) added throughout.
Track 4: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
One of the more jubilant tracks on the album, this one has somewhat of an interesting recording history, starting on 3 July. It being one of Paul’s original songs written in India, its original, more acoustic version is more of a plodding singalong that hints at having been sung live while there. John, on the other hand, openly hated this song (having called it “his granny music shit” at various points), despite delivering tight “la-la-la” background vocals. After five days of attempting this version, John came in wasted the next evening–always a bad sign, as he would be in prime form for relentless spite–and sat down at the piano. Giving Paul a glare, he hollered “This is how we do it!”…and proceeded to play the much faster, piano-driven and reggae-tinged version you hear today.
Apparently this version not only broke the tension that had been mounting, but on 9 July they added a bunch of banter to the mix, including much laughing, clapping and other noises. Of note is a bit of studio silliness: at 1:35 during “…Desmond lets the children lend a hand”, John responds with an “Arm!” and George with “Leg!” nearly off mike; this happens again at 2:27 with Paul’s “…Molly lets the children lend a hand” with George this time responding with “Foot!”
Track 5: Wild Honey Pie
One of the shorter songs in the Beatles’ catalog, clocking in at a mere fifty-five seconds, this was a quickly recorded experiment of Paul’s while John and Ringo were busy elsewhere, and George was away on a quick three-day trip to Greece. Many studio experiments were thrown around at this time, and many of them were shoehorned into other songs (such as Paul’s “Can you take me back…” from the “I Will” session being added on to the end of “Cry Baby Cry”), but this little bit was Paul’s attempt at layering multiple sounds on top of each other. Thus the multiple guitars using the tremolo arm (aka, the whammy bar) and multiple Pauls howling away. It very nearly did not make the cut, but apparently George’s wife Patti enjoyed it so much they kept it.
Track 6: The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Another campfire singalong-style track from India, this track of John’s is an acid comment on an American visitor to the ashram. While John was his usual abrasive self to those he didn’t know well, he took a particular dislike to this person and his mother. Story goes that they completely missed the point of what life at the ashram was about, having brought a ridiculous amount of luggage and having gone out tiger hunting (and being quite proud of a particular kill he’d made)–to put it bluntly, they weren’t there for the spirituality, but to say they hobnobbed with the Beatles and the Maharishi.
The recording for this track was incredibly quick–“I’m So Tired” from Side B was recorded and finished on the same night as well–and includes not just the four Beatles but Ringo’s wife Maureen and Yoko Ono singing background (with Yoko adding the mother’s line “Not when he looked so fierce”), and associate producer Chris Thomas kicking off the prerecorded flamenco riff on the Mellotron that opens the song. It’s played quite loosely–perhaps like many of the other India songs, it retains its organic feel–and with only three takes recorded, it nevertheless feels complete, even as it breaks down into banter and noise at the end.
Track 7: While My Guitar Gently Weeps
George’s first of four (out of six!) compositions for this project makes its appearance here. It’s a haunting track based on the I Ching, specifically the Eastern philosophy that everything is related to everything else (unlike the Western philosophy of coincidence). Taking a book from his mother’s shelf, the first words he saw was “gently weeps” and proceeded to write the song based around that phrase. Lyrically it’s fascinating–upon first listen, it sounds like he’s distancing himself from everyone else–while you’re doing X, I’m doing Y (“…while my guitar gently weeps”). It even sounds downright accusatory (especially the “I don’t know why…” passages). But in the context of spiritual interconnectedness, it’s more of a sad dirge–it’s not he who is distancing himself, it’s everyone else who is distanced because they are unaware (or unenlightened), and he desperately wishes it otherwise.
The released take is actually the third version recorded. The first was a demo recorded 25 July, featuring only George on guitar and harmonium, made specifically as a guide for the rest of the band. A second version was attempted on 16 August, but remains unreleased (even as a bootleg) at this time. The version here was started 5 September, the day after Ringo’s return to the band. There’s a menace behind this version, every instrument played hard and tight to add to the raw tension (even Ringo’s drums are mixed quite loudly). Eric Clapton, a close friend of the band, was asked to play the solo on this track, which was slightly altered with a bit of wobble to make it sound more “Beatle-y”, recorded on 6 September. Due to contractual reasons, Eric was never officially given credit for the solo, but it’s widely known that it was in fact him.
Track 8: Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Side A ends with another John song, this time offering a track made up of four separate song fragments he’d come up with in India, and it’s a fantastic example of just how detailed and complicated their compositions could get. Because of its fragments, the lyrics to the song are itself fragmented; it’s less a linear lyric as it is a metaphorical one. The first segment (“She’s not a girl who misses much…”), played in fingerpicked style and heavily flanged, all while switching time signatures all over the place, adding to the creepiness of the lyrics. This segment gives way to a sudden switch to a short multiple time signature section (“I need a fix…”, sung by Paul and John in a wavering octave) with Ringo keeping a slow but steady 6/8 beat, plodding along for just a few bars before it halts…only to jump back in again in with the faster third segment (“Mother Superior jumped the gun”) lasting four bars but switching multiple times (6/8, 6/4, 6/8, 7/4), then switching smoothly back to a 4/4 time with the final segment (“Happiness is a warm gun…”). Even this last segment is complex, as the band suddenly plays in 6/8 time during John’s “When I hold you in my arms…” passage, while Ringo is still in 4/4. It’s by no means their best song, but compositionally, it’s one of their most fascinating.
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The band played a big hand in the production and sequencing of The Beatles, and the first eight tracks could be seen as a hint of what to expect on the next three sides. While there were some genuine pop hits here, such as “Back in the USSR”, as well as some true gems like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, there were also the extremely experimental tracks such as “Wild Honey Pie” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Ending the first side with that song in particular (only to open up Side B with the light and bouncy “Martha My Dear”) really puts across the notion that all is not as it seems on this record. In fact, a full-album listen often hints at a slow yet distinct descent into chaos and unrest. It may start peppy, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way. This would confuse many fans and critics back in 1968, and the album initially received very mixed reviews…it would take quite a long time for anyone to warm up to this one.
Next Up: The Beatles, Side B