George Martin, the gentlemanly figure who produced almost all of The Beatles’ records, had very few regrets from his time with the group. He regretted, understandably, being “rather beastly” to George Harrison, often treating him as the halfwit accessory to the brilliant Lennon-McCartney team. And he regretted releasing “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane,” arguably the strongest single in pop music history, as a double-A side.* As a result, both songs cracked the top 10, but neither ascended to #1 in the United Kingdom charts, snapping The Beatles’ streak of #1 records that went back to “From Me to You,” released in early 1963.
Perhaps the most curious of the handful of regrets that Martin has expressed is relenting in The Beatles’ decision to release their 1968 lp record, The Beatles (known by the descriptive vernacular The White Album), as a two-record set. Martin has always maintained, in a rare public disagreement with his most famous clients, that the album would have been much stronger and much more focused had the band’s voluminous post-Maharishi output been restricted to a single disc. But The Beatles went ahead and released The White Album as a double album, allowing them to unburden their excess songwriting, and get 30 songs closer to renegotiating their contract with EMI Records, which was, oddly enough, quantified for a number of songs, rather than a number of years or albums.
Who was right– The Beatles or George Martin? One can make a case for this either way. In the 2-album form we are familiar with, there is a certain attraction to the sprawling, 90-minute catch-all. It meanders and wanders, taking unexpected turns. Few albums in the 1960s would have dared to juxtapose the avant-garde “Revolution No. 9” to the schmaltzy, saccharine Tinseltown send-up, “Good Night.” But it is also filled with weak tracks that would have never seen the light of day on any other Beatles studio album. While The Beatles did not fully take these songs seriously (and we all know the culprits- “Wild Honey Pie”, “Revolution No. 9”, “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road”) they remain some of the few genuinely bad and unlistenable tracks in their catalouge.
What if The Beatles had listened to their producer, who had rarely led them astray in the past, and released a single, sturdy album for 1968? One of my new favorite blogs, “Turn Me on, Dead Man”, has explored this tantalizing possibility.** What songs would have made the cut on a shorter White Album and which would be relegated for release on The Beatles Anthology vol. 7? You can see my own solution to this riddle below. I have crafted a version of The White Album that reflected The Beatles’ previous releases, aiming for the neighborhood of 40 minutes of music and 13 or 14 songs.
I aimed for a degree of theming, rather than merely choosing the best baker’s dozen of White Album tracks. Essentially, I chose mostly straight-up rock numbers that eschew the studio experimentation found on Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. This creates a genre root for the album, in much the same way that Rubber Soul embraces folk rock, and Beatles for Sale dabbles in the country and bluegrass idioms. I also made a beeline for songs of political and inter-band value– The Beatles commenting on the world around them, or the microcosm of the band itself. (This, arguably, better fits the album’s original title, A Doll’s House). In 1968, in the midst of the RFK and King assassinations, Prague Spring, and Chicago, the world needed a Beatles album to speak immediately to this need. This White Album might have accomplished that more successfully.
And so, The White Album (special, limited-edition, Northumbrian release):
1. “Birthday” (Lennon-McCartney): This track is a mindless rave-up, but sends an unmistakable message. The Beatles are limiting the studio trickery in favor of as much straightforward pop and rock music as they can. “Birthday” establishes this principle just a shade better than “Back in the U.S.S.R.” or any of the other rock tracks on the album, so it gets to be the first track.
2. “Not Guilty” (Harrison): Yes, a track that didn’t make the expansive 2-disc White Album ought to be on the 1-disc version. The Beatles spent two days in the studio in 1968 on this Harrison track, and recorded over 50 takes before abandoning it, leaving Harrison to revive it for a 1979 solo album. A comedy number of sorts in the vein of “Only a Northern Song,” Harrison wryly alludes to the tensions within the band, and his own diminished role therein, even as his artistic credibility grew. It’s a neat, darkly toned piece on the state of the band’s affairs, which segues nicely into….
3. “Glass Onion” (Lennon-McCartney): Like the version we are familiar with, this track ought to be third. Upbeat and insistent, yet not dynamic enough to open or close a side, the song is rife with allusions to other Beatles tracks. Its offhand revelation that “the Walrus was Paul” added fuel to the fire of the Paul is Dead hoax the following year.
4. “Everything’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (Lennon-McCartney): Sonically, this track is quite heavy, but wears itself lightly, with cowbell percussion and dubbed-in babbling. Lennon spouts transcendental lessons (“your inside is out, your outside is in”, “the higher you fly, the deeper you go”) in characteristic fashion, inverting convention and employing clever wordplay.
5. “Martha My Dear” (Lennon-McCartney): Lilting and sweet, it serves a function similar to baroque numbers like “For No One” on Revolver. The other numbers have greater weight thanks to “Martha”‘s delicate counterbalance.
6. “Happiness is a Warm Gun”: (Lennon-McCartney): Lennon tended to compose his songs in bits and pieces, often struggling to reconnect them. A Frankenstein’s monster of three different tunes, Lennon moves from singing about dirty old men (“man in the crowd with the multicoloured mirror”) to drugs (“I need a fix”), to finally ending with a 1950s pastiche with the incongruous lyric “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” One of the best tracks on The White Album, it is worthy of inclusion here, and fits the new theming well.
7. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (Harrison): This sublime track is a great way to end the first side. Mournful, wise, and observant, it also features one of the band’s best guitar solos, played here courtesy of Eric Clapton.
8. “Revolution No. 1” (Lennon-McCartney): Side 2 will be overtly political. And what better way to start this theme than with “Revolution No. 1”. It expresses caution with kneejerk revolutionaries in Britain and the United States, an unexpected stance from the iconoclastic Lennon. While its fraternal twin, the quicker “Revolution” released as the b-side to “Hey Jude”, has more manic energy, this piece is slower, more thoughtful, and more deliberate. It also more ambiguous, as Lennon says “when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out— in,” hedging his bets.
9. “Back in the USSR” (Lennon-McCartney): Superficially controversial, this excellent Communist Bloc send-up of the Beach Boys is a natural fit for the class commentaries that precede and follow it.
10. “Piggies” (Harrison): Probably the weakest of the surviving 13 tracks, “Piggies” nonetheless continues the vein of social commentary. While “Revolution No. 1” averts contemporary upheaval, and as McCartney’s “USSR” winks at it, Harrison’s subjects in “starched white shirts” deserve “a damn good whacking.” Small wonder that Mr. Manson latched on to lyrics such as this!
11. “Helter Skelter” (Lennon-McCartney): This raucous rock track deserves a place in the final album. Although lacking customary Beatles cleverness and artfulness, this exercise at a hard rock number bore surprisingly good fruit. Cut down from the original 22-minute take, The Beatles duly top bands like The Who at their own game.
12. “Sexy Sadie” (Lennon-McCartney): Continuing this strand of commentary on the world of 1968, we have Lennon’s bitter response to the Maharishi, disguised as a barrelhouse rejoinder addressed to a vamp. Putting “Sadie” here unwinds the listener from the mania of “Helter Skelter”, while issuing a final warning against misleading gurus and revolutionaries.
13. “Don’t Pass Me By” (Starkey): The Beatles would have been wise to end a single-disc White Album with an underwhelming track. It establishes a strong contrast to the grandeur of “A Day in the Life” and successfully distances themselves from the high aspirations and concepts of Sgt. Pepper. How better to do that than with Ringo Starr’s first self-penned contribution to the band’s catalog, a doleful country and western fiddle romp? Lennon especially might have considered this an inoculation against taking The Beatles and their artistic output too seriously.
So, there you have it: a plausible one-disc White Album. While lacking the breadth of the old version, it has a cleaner focus on back-to-roots rock, and its social commentary arguably fits its 1968 setting more comfortably.
Somewhat problematically, this creates a White Album without “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”, “Long Long Long”, and a number of other really good tracks. It forgoes most of the band’s acoustic offerings that made it onto the real White Album (“Julia”, “Mother Nature’s Son”) as well as genre pieces like “Revolution No. 9” , “Good Night”, and “Honey Pie.” I’d like to think, though, that in this universe, they would be available for later use on the somewhat weak Get Back project, or possibly candidates for the Abbey Road medley. One can easily imagine “Bungalow Bill” juxtaposed between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, “Ob-la-di Ob-la-da” would have been a great replacement for the tepid “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” would have fit nicely alongside the brief ditties on the Let It Be album like “Dig It” and “Maggie Mae.”
*(For those of you not familiar with 1960s record terminology, a double A-side is a single 45-record release where neither side is designated as the “hit”, or the preferred track for radio play.)
** The name “Turn Me on, Dead Man” is itself White Album-related. During the “Paul is Dead” hysteria, some of the more ardent true-believers claimed that if you played the voice intoning “number nine” backward, you would hear “turn me on, dead man.” In fact, you hear “enin rebmum.”