Originally posted this back in July: we re-share it today on the Golden Anniversary of the album’s actual release, and so that we can take advantage of the Thanksgiving pun in the post’s title. I’ve not yet heard the new remastered re-release with all the bonus tracks — we’ll update this when we do.
50 years ago, from May 30 to October 14, 1968, The Beatles were in the midst of recording the White Album. The album was released in November, but rather than wait until then, and having no other posts in the hopper today, I give you this little critical exercise. The White Album is notable for many things: its centrifugal quality (as opposed to the conceptual unity that had characterized the Beatles previous two records, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club and Magical Mystery Tour), the return to roots rock and simpler rawer arrangements, a relative lack of collaboration among the bandmates, and a predominating DARK energy (again differentiating it from the optimistic tone of the previous two albums; the White Album actually inspired Charles Manson to initiate his campaign of murder). But beyond these aesthetic observations, the White Album (which is officially entitled The Beatles) is best known among the wider public for its minimalist white album jacket and the fact that it is a double album, containing all of 30 songs, over 90 minutes of listening time.
That is a lot of material, not all of it first rate. But then again this is the Beatles, and like most of their fans, I’d be willing to listen to recordings of them breathing and farting (in fact, Lennon released some records like that!). Astoundingly, the White Album could have been even longer. A bunch more of the material the group was working on for the record was actually cut. Thus you could even ADD to it and make it a THREE disk set that’s TWO hours long and has closer to 40 songs on it (Unused songs that had been demoed and even worked on during the White Album sessions included “Look at Me”, “Child of Nature”, Circles”, “Not Guilty”, “Sour Milk Sea” “What’s the New Mary Jane?”, “Junk” “Etcetera” and two fragments that wound up on Abbey Road, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”).
But here is a harder exercise. One of the most difficult things an artist has to do is CUT. William Faulkner said that as a writer you must be prepared to “kill your darlings”. Meaning that as an artist you often have to trash stuff you love in order to improve the whole. As the Beatles producer George Martin often said, his opinion was that the White Album should have been culled down to a single disk and boiled down into a much more solid record.
A few times, for fun, I have grappled with what a shortened White Album might consist of. What could ya cut? Like nearly everyone, I love this record pretty much all the way through because it’s the Beatles! But over the years, in idle moments, I’ve taken a half-hearted stab at a hatchet job, though I never got very far beyond easy calls like “Wild Honey Pie” (that’s always the first one to go in anybody’s book, right?) A few days ago though I properly tackled the task for real and managed to hack a third out of it anyway, getting it down from just over 90 minutes to just over an hour in length. After my cuts, the remaining record would look like this:
Back in the U.S.S.R.
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me by
Mother Nature’s Son
Long Long Long
Revolution (take 20)
Cry Baby Cry
So…already much of your favorite material is gone, right? Especially if you’re a rock fan. One criterion that helped me with this thankless if imaginary task (and I bet George Martin was thinking along similar lines) was I decided to cut all the tunes that sound like they emerged out of jams or improvisations, the kind of stuff that would later be a staple of the Get Back/Let it Be sessions: These include “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, “Birthday”, “Yer Blues”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter.” The musicianship and singing in these tracks are often exciting, but they are much more elemental from the point of view of songwriting. (While “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “I’m So Tired” are also written in a classic rock vein, a lot more craft went into filling them out lyrically and musically as compositions.). I don’t, by the way, dismiss the creation of rock tracks out of jams — so many great groups work this way. SO many Rolling Stones songs, for example, evolved out of such a process. But let’s just say we’re working off George Martin’s inclination, and my guess is that he would regard the jam songs more as chaff — relatively disposable when compared to more highly crafted songs.
Though craft isn’t everything! I found it painless to contemplate cutting McCartney’s musically well crafted but treacly and less imaginative “Martha My Dear”* and “I Will” — I tended to move the needle over both those songs when I was a teenager as “boring”. And though Lennon’s “Julia” is naturally a beautiful song, he is the only one who performs on it, and it was recorded last, almost as an afterthought. So I cut it in the spirit of the similar “Look at Me” which was also cut, with the idea that “Julia” could easily be integrated into one of Lennon’s later solo albums (it would fit right in on John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, for example). I feel like “Good Night” is unfinished, needs more work as a composition. And if I had to choose only one song for Ringo to sing on the album, I’d prefer the one his heart was in. He had worked on “Don’t Pass Me By” for years by this point, and it is in the comical vein of much of the rest of the album, and (I imagine) is much better loved by many fans than “Good Night”.
A lot of people would immediately get rid of “Revolution 9”, but I’ve always rather liked it, and I ESPECIALLY like the “Take #20” solution that emerged a few years ago, which shows us an early version where the song “Revolution 1” DEVOLVES into the musique concrete chaos of “Revolution 9”. So rather than cut it completely, using the Take #20 version would be my solution to keeping both. No doubt some would be appalled by the heresy of cutting rock jams and keeping tape loops, but we all love different aspects of the group. I happen to cherish their experimentalism
Like I say, this version gets it down to a little over an hour. After this, the cutting gets even more painful! To get it down to 45 minutes, or the average LP length, what I would do is…
Cut “Revolution” entirely. After all, another, livelier version of the song had been released as a single (and its flip side “Hey Jude”, which was recorded at the same time, was not put on the record at all). That’s ten minutes right there. After this? I might cut a Harrison song or two. Previous to the White Album the largest number of cuts Harrison had had on a single LP was three (on Revolver). I happen to love all four of Harrison’s tracks on the White Album a great deal (which is why they’re all still included thus far) so it’s very hard. If you put a gun to my head, of the four, I would probably cut “Long Long Long” which, though very beautiful, is kind of slight and quiet and small, not unlike his other song “Circles” which had also been cut. This would only buy a couple of minutes though! After this? Perhaps I’d cut “Glass Onion”, which it must be admitted is a bit of a relative throwaway, though we love it because of its self-reflexive feeding into the Beatles mythology.
At any rate, we live in a glorious age now where such difficult choices are a thing of the past. All of the leftovers eventually get released, right? If they had made a single disk White Album, I’ve little doubt that we’d eventually have heard the tracks or other versions in later releases, or at the very least bootlegs. Although McCartney is still being a turkey about “Etcetera” and the earlier “Carnival of Light”!
* Addendum: A few weeks ago after posting this I had a revelation about “Martha My Dear”. It dawned on me that, though the lyrics are insipid, the song is musically brilliant. Something clicked — I realized that that little figure at the turnaround on each verse reminded me of a cakewalk, which led to my realization (as I already kind of knew) that the verses are kinda ragtime. Wiki says “music hall” but that doesn’t quite do it. It’s syncopated and complicated and kind of overtly, specifically, ragtime. As McCartney had already recently recorded the super cool “Thingumybob” with the Black Dyke Mills Band, the process becomes even clearer. I wish he’d been more lyrically adventurous with the tune, more like what he’d done with “Honey Pie” and “Rocky Raccoon”, instead of making a pop thing out of it. He totally would have made the sale. Anyway I just wanted to add this. The song is more than just “boring”, although I’d still cut it. Like many of his other contributions on the album, it’s strictly solo McCartney.