Monday, January 14, 2013

The White Album


When it comes to contemporary music, it all starts and ends with The Beatles.  They were the first to take rock music to its heights, and I don’t think any artist has ever topped what they have achieved. I’m not talking about record sales; I’m talking about the pure songwriting and musical prowess that the four Liverpool lads accomplished in a 5-year period 1965 (Help) to 1969 (Abbey Road).

I have to agree with Rolling Stone magazine that the crowning achievement in rock music was “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967. It was named the best rock album of all time, and I have no argument. It is as close to perfection as one can get in terms of songwriting, craftsmanship, and creative recording production. But the Beatles have a few other albums that are a very, very close second to Sgt. Pepper, and The White Album is one of those.

Most of the songs for the white Album were conceived and written by the members of the group while in India studying meditation in the spring of 1968. The members, especially John & Paul, found themselves in songwriting mode, and privately met to compare notes and progress of new songs. Close to 40 new songs were penned while in India, and John said he thought some of his best work was written that spring.

Studio work on the material began at Abbey Road Studios in May of 1968, and the working title for the album was originally, “The Doll House”. The sessions were considered undisciplined compared to previous work, and tensions were growing among the band members. It was well chronicled that most of the members wrote and recorded much of The White Album independently, and with a lot of internal friction.  John, Paul and George had three different studios occupied at the same time, each working on their own bits and compositions. George Martin, the Beatles longtime producer, had said that many of the sessions were extremely unfocused and produced long hours of jamming that produced little value. Ringo quit the band for two weeks during the recording process, but was convinced to come back after pleadings by the other members.  Despite the difficult recording process, the tension in the studio did not prevent The Beatles from delivering phenomenal results.

The range of songwriting and experimentation really showed in the end result of this album. I loved trying to teach myself how to play “Martha My Dear” on the piano as a youngster (playing it very poorly, indeed). “Back in the USSR” is still a mainstay in McCartney’s live show as well as a true classic rock song. They had too much material to fit on one album, so The White Album became a double album, containing 30 songs when it was released in November of 1968.  Each of the members had songs, which didn’t make it on the album, only to resurface in their solo work years later.  Diverse musical styles are also displayed, from a 30’s style “Honey Pie”, to a chamber music “Piggies”, and a symphonic final song on the record -  “Good Night”. The material is grittier, edgier, and darker than their previous work. While still a smash commercial success, the album was not as focused toward pop singles - but the creative compilation of the White Album is remarkable.

As a young kid in the early 70’s, I remember the challenge of turning off all the lights and forcing yourself to listen to all 8 minutes of “Revolution 9” trying not to get completely spooked out! How fun was that! It’s kind of like why we love to watch horror movies – it scares us, but we still love it. On the other side of the spectrum, several graceful acoustic tunes emerge from these sessions. Maybe the most endearing might be Paul’s “Blackbird”. It was one of the early songs I wanted to learn to play on the acoustic guitar, and it takes some work to get it down. “Julia”, “I Will” “Dear Prudence”, and George’s “Long, Long, Long” are all acoustic classics in my book. The soft but haunting “Cry, Baby Cry” can still leave chills down your spine while listening to the simple complexity of the craftsmanship.
“Revolution 1” (the acoustic version) was the inspiration for the music of Winger’s Roadhouse Grill as we rolled out the “Real Food Revolution”, where we made the commitment to Fresh, Homemade, Over the Top Comfort Food! We were going to commission a studio to record the music for the new Winger’s Roadhouse commercials, but after consideration, I decided that I could compose and play all the instruments myself, and that’s what you’ll hear on WRG commercials.

I had not heard or listened to the White Album much until about 3 years ago, when I bought the White Album CD (yes, I still have the original LP version, too) and loaded it to my iPod. It was then that I spent a couple of nights with headphones on, re-listening to the songs, and realizing just how unbelievably strong all of this material was. I still struggle to comprehend the quality of the work that the boys produced during this period. I can’t believe how relevant it still sounds today. I have put this album back on my list of music that needs to be listened to on a periodic basis. It continues to remind me of just how magical music can be. I think that the recordings that came from The Beatles between Sergeant Pepper and The White Album are still unmatched today. It is hard for me to find anything critical of what these guys produced, so I admit I am biased.  But I do think I know a little bit about music and recording, and like I said earlier, it still all starts, and ends, with The Beatles.

Eric Winger   

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