' White Album's' gray areas The Beatles' classic still stirs debate, 30 years after its release.

November 22, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's one of the best-known recordings of the rock era, yet almost everyone gets its name wrong. And even though it's widely acknowledged as a classic, even its most fervent supporters admit they'd happily trim a few songs from the album.

"The Beatles" - a 30-song, double-disc collection dubbed "The White Album" for its shiny, featureless cover - arrived in American record stores on Nov. 25, 1968, and immediately caused a commotion. Some listeners declared it brilliant, marveling at its daring and invention; others found it disturbing and shrank from its darkness and despair. Either way, the album left Beatles fans with plenty to debate.

Three decades later, they're still arguing. "It's the one album that everybody can find a number of things to love," says critic Vic Garbarini, who writes for Playboy and Guitar World. "It's also the one album where everybody could probably say they could find a number of songs to hate."

Even George Martin, the band's long-time producer, has said he thinks the album would have been better had it been shorter. In fact, he told the members of the band that if they pruned the set to a mere 14 to 16 titles, they would have "a really super album."

The problem for many listeners wasn't just that the Beatles failed to separate the wheat from the chaff. Rather, it was that the band's whole sensibility seemed to have changed. Where once the four Fabs had seemed cheerily irreverent, suddenly they were writing bitter, sarcastic social criticism in such songs as "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" or "Piggies."

"There's a lot of spooky stuff on there," says Bill Flanagan, vice president/editorial director at VH1. As Flanagan points out, such songs show "a much bleaker view of the world than what we were used to getting from the Beatles."

Flanagan was 13 when "The Beatles" was released, and he remembers that, even then, it seemed as if the album was about something bigger than pop music. "I remember, when it came out, thinking: 'Well, of course there's no cover picture on it. It's too serious for that,' " he says.

Nor was he the only one who found something portentous about "The White Album." Charles Manson, a charismatic drifter who had briefly tried his hand at songwriting, was convinced that secret messages were hidden in the Beatles' music. After listening obsessively to the album, Manson concluded that the Beatles were instructing him to begin the apocalypse.

Instructing his followers to drive to Beverly Hills, he had them murder the inhabitants of two households. Manson's gang painted the words "Helter Skelter" - a song title from "The White Album" - in blood on the walls, believing that this "secret code" would spark a race war that would ultimatelyelevate Manson to his rightful place as ruler of America.

While it would be absurd to blame the Beatles for those killings, there's no denying that "The Beatles" reflected a world different from the cheery psychedelia of "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The gentle idealism of the peace-and-love counterculture was beginning to curdle, and the Beatles were in the thick of it.

The album also reflected a certain amount of contention within the band. As Garbarini points out, it's only natural for fans to disagree about the album, because that's what the Beatles themselves did.

"It was the first album where they went into the studio as four individuals, not quite as a band," he says. "And if you talk to the individual Beatles about it - which I have done - you get a very 'Rashomon'-kind of situation, where they're all viewing it differently."

Drummer Ringo Starr, for instance, almost quit the Beatles during the making of "The White Album," citing the almost unbearable tension between the four in the studio. "Yet he still told me he loved 'The White Album,' because at least they were playing like a band again," says Garbarini.

Just how together the Beatles were when they made "The Beatles" is still heavily debated by fans and critics. Some songs - Paul McCartney's "Blackbird," John Lennon's "Julia," George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - were virtual solo projects, with little or no input from the other three members.

"The cliche about 'The White Album' is that it was four solo albums put together," says Flanagan. "But actually, more than half the album isn't like that. It's a band ... 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey,' 'Birthday,' 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' - those are real Beatles songs."

Adds Garbarini, "The paradox was that they were more individual than they had ever been, and yet when they would work together on a song - and this was something they all told me, too - what would result was more than the sum of the parts. Even if they were hating each other's guts at the time, they would come together and support each other on those songs."

That mixture of affection and anger, support and dissent, echoes through the songs themselves, giving "The Beatles" an emotional intensity beyond the group's other albums. Which, suggests Garbarini, is why it continues to hold a special fascination.

"If you debate Beatle albums, you can get into all kinds of things intellectually," he says. "But when it gets to your gut, the album that is still the most interesting to listen to - to put on and lose yourself in - is still 'The White Album.' "

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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