Album review by Michael Berman
I don't think I had my own copy of the White Album when it came out - it was probably about 1971 that I managed to get it. And from then, I may have listened to it 100 times, on my old mono record player and later on a "hi-fi" turntable that an uncle of mine converted from mono to stereo.
There was a time when I was the biggest Beatles fan I knew. I was just infatuated with their music and their image, and for me they could do no wrong. I often claimed I could sing all the words to every song they recorded - I could even do a passable rendition of the key parts of Revolution 9!
Fast forward 50 years and I can say I still love the Beatles, but not ALL their songs. The White Album is surely one of their most uneven and diverse albums with higher highs than all but perhaps Revolver or Sgt Pepper - but also some LOW lows.
I'm having a great time listening to the new mix from Giles Martin, which cleans off a patina of varnish and dirt from the original mix and mastering. You can see more clearly the contributions of the Beatles, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and their other collaborators in the studio. So I thought it was time to take a serious listen again and see what I thought. Here's my reaction.
The first disc appears in this post, I'll review the second in a later post.
Back in the USSR - the Beatles as rock band, sounding accomplished and confident with Paul doing a lower-range version of his Little Richard voice. New mix clears up some of the muddiness on the original.
Dear Prudence - one of the Lennon masterworks on the album, beautiful & haunting vocals & acoustic guitar with a classic McCartney bass line (and Paul on drums too in Ringo's absence).
Glass Onion - Solid Lennon rocker with some very effective strings arranged by George Martin. One of my favorite Ringo drum parts.
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da - Nice punchy recording, but... what a dumb song. Percussion and acoustic guitar come through with unprecedented clarity on the new mix, for what it's worth.
Wild Honey Pie - What were they thinking? Hard for me to decide which "Honey Pie" song I dislike more. Wow, that's a lot of vibrato, seems like more in the new mix than I remember in the original.
The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill - Proof that John could write a song as dopey as Paul's. Does have the great line "He's the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother's son"... New mix lets you hear Yoko and Maureen Starkey's high voices better in the chorus.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Probably the first really strong Harrison composition to make it onto a Beatles album. The vocal is clearly double-tracked (at least once he doesn't come in quite at the same time) but it sounds like they put it slightly out of phase to give it an interesting richness. The most interesting thing about the new mix is that you can hear George's wailing in the later part of the song was clearly intended to imitate Clapton's guitar - which of course is heavily inspired by human voice sounds.
Happiness is a Warm Gun - An interesting Lennon experiment. Starts with some of the "driest" Lennon vocals ever - usually he insisted on a heavy reverb for his singing. Apparently two takes spliced together - the Beatles struggled to get all the rhythm changes right. Perhaps the best recording the 4 Beatles together on the album with each focused on making a good contribution. I have mixed feelings about the lyrics but the over-all effect is pretty brilliant.
Martha My Dear - A catchy Paul ditty with someone superfluous horns. Essentially a McCartney solo number that could have been on any of his seventies albums.
I'm So Tired - Classic self-absorbed Lennon with a vocal that shows off everything I like about his voice. Another one of the (rare) songs on the White Album that makes use of all 4 Beatles including an excellent harmony from Paul and drumming that shows just how good Ringo could be.
Blackbird - One of Paul's best. A timeless guitar part, and a dreamy mood enhanced by recording at night on a seat just outside the door of the studio, according to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. The vulnerability in Paul's voice is quite touching. But why did they think it needed bird calls?
Piggies - A nice little song with a perhaps over-the-top baroque production. Very nice George vocal to open the song, which gets progressively lost as the production gets thicker. Giles Martin did a nice job of isolating the sounds so that it's not quite the muddle on the original album. The pig noises were contributed by John - and sound like him.
Rocky Raccoon - No. Just no. Believe it or not if you listen to the original demo, the album version is less corny. One great line though - "Her name was McGill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy." Other than that, perhaps the dumbest song the Beatles ever released. (But obviously not everyone agrees, judging by the surprising number of covers.)
Don't Pass Me By - OK, maybe I'm wrong, maybe THIS is the dumbest song the Beatles ever released. It's nice they wanted Ringo to get some songwriter royalties which is the only justification I can see for including it. Includes the line "You were in a car crash and you lost your hair", proof that the ability to write good lyrics is not contagious. The crappy "English studio musician trying to play country fiddle" sound just cements the unpleasantness of this track.
Why Don't We Do It In The Road - I guess this seemed sort of daring at the time. A good band jam and I like Paul's "Little Richard" voice but overall there's barely enough here to get through a minute and forty-two seconds.
I Will - Another sweet one from Paul. I like the second guitar line, which apparently is Paul as well. To me this still stands up well, but I can understand those who think it crosses the saccharine line.
Julia - The heart and soul of the album. One of the songs that cements the legend of John Lennon. The sad vulnerability of the vocal over the bright, clean fingerpicked acoustic guitar line creates a wonderful dreamy effect. The chord changes on the middle-eight ("her hair of floating sky is shimmering") add just enough variation to the simple folky mood. The movement of the vocals into and out of double-tracking adds to the dramatic intensity. One of my favorites.
Overall - several of the best compositions ever from Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, with a few stinkers - it's about a third great, a third really solid, and a third somewhere between weak and embarrassing.
The Beatles — The White Album (2018 Remix)
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.