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The Beatles’ White Album at 50: When They Was Fab

9 7 97

Who broke the Beatles, and when? Some say it was the night when John violated the unspoken code of the Moptops by bringing Yoko to Abbey Road. Others, that it was soon after that, on the night when Yoko, who had been sleeping beneath the mixing desk, emerged to steal one of George Harrison’s personal stash of chocolate digestive biscuits, and George, who was the spiritual one, shouted, “You bitch!” Perhaps it was when Ringo, sick of the endless studio jams, bad vibes, and general lack of appreciation, walked out and the others, showing how little they appreciated him, took turns at playing the drums. Or was it when Paul forced them to play “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for three days straight?

All four of those crises occurred at Abbey Road Studios between May and October 1968, while the Beatles were recording The Beatles, the double album that they and everyone else came to call The White Album. I blame “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and not just because reviewing the six CDs and Blu-ray disc of the 50th-anniversary box set of The White Album involves hearing Paul’s idea of comedy ska in pristine and appalling Dolby True HD 5.1, alternate takes and all. The creation, recording, and release of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” represent everything that broke the Beatles. Together with Lennon’s sonic collage “Revolution 9,” it explains why The White Album may well be the best Beatles album and why it has some of the worst Beatles music.

The Beatles would not have been the same without George and Ringo, but they would probably have passed the audition if another guitarist and drummer had played the Quiet One and the Clown. If in doubt, listen to the shows from 1964, when Jimmie Nicol filled in for Ringo, or to Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The Beatles would have been nowhere at all, however, without John and Paul. On The White Album, we hear the degree and nature of their collaboration changing in small but powerful ways.

It cannot have helped when John called “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” “granny music s—,” any more than it did the following year when Paul looked Yoko in the eye and sang “Get back to where you once belonged.” But the group’s balance was changed by more than exhaustion or maturation. Entertainers who had become artists, the Beatles had to retain the experimental edge of Sgt. Pepper without losing the melodic appeal that made them the “toppermost of the poppermost.” The harder they worked, the greater the tension between their artistic and commercial objectives. Meanwhile, the pop business, stimulated by the Beatles’ earlier........

© The Weekly Standard