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The Black & "White" of “The Beatles”

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

It’s always enjoyable to play “What’s your all-time favourite album?” and inevitability the odds of a Beatles record being top of the play pile is always high. Personally I have a hard time with this question as mine flip-flops between a few. I’m always quite decisive when it comes to my fave Beatles release as after all these years of listening to the Fabs, 1968’s “The Beatles” (aka the White Album) holds top spot for me. But I believe it is for reasons that others wouldn’t choose it. Original reviews upon it’s release glomed onto the irony of the self-titled package as supposedly solo/non-group recordings compared to their prior releases. Because of the status of the Beatles career at this stage, the well documented tension during the prolonged recording, and the return to earth after the India/Maharishi holiday-we hear the liberation in the songs not having to fit a theme (Pepper) or Fab Four formula of album in general. John and George have a more profound stamp on things than they did on Sgt. Pepper. George is almost invisible on that album other than “Within You Without You” and John fairing a wee bit better but the real “bigger than Jesus” Lennon mostly lost in a Summer of Love haze-save “A Day In The Life”. Personally, I find that the greatly varied styles of songs that were being recorded at this time very fulfilling (as a fan and musician); great guitar parts, tones and musicianship by George, John and Paul as well as some of Ringo’s best (and most sympathetic) drumming that he ever mustered up in his Beatles career.

Through the first three sides of the album, we are given many (or possibly most) of the truly real & meaningful performances of the post-touring Beatles era. Side 3 alone is a tour-de-force ranging from the honesty & disillusionment of John’s “Sexy Sadie” and “Yer Blues”, George’s beautiful and mystical “Long Long Long” as well as both sides of Paul’s musical personality with “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Helter Skelter”. But it’s the final side of the package that I find most interesting & telling of the Beatles recording history. I believe it to be the defining moment in the way that the Beatles would be remembered and continued to be talked about as arguably the most important musicians and cultural icons of modern times. Shocking as it may sound, we all owe a big thank you for this to the oft-reviled scapegoat of the Beatles’ saga-Yoko Ono. Gasp! How dare he spout such rubbish? Seriously? How can anyone give Yoko credit for something worthwhile? Well-hear me out! It goes like this... After four quite decent Beatles performances ranging from the fab slow version of Revolution (the first song attempted during the documented five months of tense & strained relations recording sessions), Paul’s most successful attempt to capture that song from an earlier sound era in “Honey Pie” to George’s ode to buddy Eric Clapton’s chocolate addition “Savoy Truffle”-it’s after “Cry Baby Cry” that it all changes. For the good I think. In comes a little half-song link that is now referred to as “Can You Take Me Back”. Ad-libbed by Paul while working John & Ringo through almost 100 takes of “I Will”, it is profound & telling of Paul’s personality without him realizing it at that moment. It is not credited on the track listing, lyric poster nor copyrighted I believe. I assume that Yoko is present at this session and that subconsciously Paul is using her to wish for the Beatle togetherness that has been taken from him by this stage. “Can you take me back where I came from brother (read John) can you take me back?” Paul made this more clear in the following year’s “Get Back” but the longing seems real and personal to my ears. This is followed by a very quiet control room conversation between longtime Beatles/Brian Epstein assistant Alistair Taylor and producer George Martin. This is the same Alistair Taylor who Epstein insisted accompany him to the Cavern Club in Liverpool to get his first exposure to the Beatles which was Brian’s ticket out of his family’s retail shops & into the pop management impresario business. We eavesdrop on Taylor apologizing profusely and asking for his forgiveness for forgetting to bring Martin a bottle of claret. “Well, do next time” answers Sir George and then after saying he is indeed forgiven, Taylor calls him a “ cheeky bitch”! Before you can even start wondering if this hidden dialogue is worthy of inclusion on a Beatles LP, you have to wrap your head around an unworldly voice repeating “number 9” over a background of tinkling cocktail piano! What is the word? What is this? Why? Well, if this didn’t cause a majority of Fab fans to run to the Hi-Fi and stop this nonsense, it made others continue to listen and think that they “know something’s happening here but they don’t know what it you Mister Jones? To me, this is precisely the point and the idea of it all. To make you think, to question the motive and either be intrigued or insulted. To be jarred out of your comfort zone and to make you think and react. I think this is what the definition of conceptual art is and that Joe Everyday is exposed to said art without realizing it and therefore before having the personal choice of disregarding it before even knowing what hit them. I think that is not only thought provoking and daring but very clever on Lennon’s part as a “spokesman of a generation” as he was. What? I have to think about something I wasn’t prepared to think about? Genius! This, my fab friends, is the direct effort of the previously mentioned & much maligned conceptional artist Yoko Ono. The inspiration for Beatle John and the catalyst for the freedom of all the Beatles whether they were prepared for the freedom or deemed it necessary just yet. If it instigated the band’s breakup or just upset the Beatlemania apple cart, it started the ball rolling toward the artistic freedom for them all that didn’t seem to be as easily attained in the group setting anymore. Hence, leading to the thought of a life outside the confines of a band that had been the cat’s arse of the music world for over five frenzied years. By this point their success and popularity could not be any greater no matter what could be achieved by them at this stage. The fact that we are still analyzing their achievements and continuing to refer to the Beatles as the greatest and still most influential musicians some fifty years after their dissolution is because it ended when they were still “toppermost of the poppermost” and were still relevant and vital. I would be surprised to hear a music fan say that about the Rolling Stones! Today-the Rolling Stones are thought of for their age and long-standing togetherness as much as their talked about for their truly remarkable run of classic records from “Beggars Banquet” through to “Exile On Main Street”.

The Beatles broke up in 1970. Fact. Their music, image and accomplishments are still cherished to this day seemingly for all the right and same reasons as in the late Sixties. Fact. This is all because they ended it all while still the lightning rod for their times. They didn’t keep hanging on for the sake of everybody else’s happiness. They grew up and needed more of something that could be found outside the Beatles bubble. They wanted freedom, love and peace of mind. I’d like to think that they all eventually found these post 1970. They certainly obtained immortality as the Beatles. Thanks Yoko for your part in making that happen. Us fans appreciate it very much that we can still see the shiny, nearly perfectly formed apple that they were, not the bruised and shriveled core that they could have easily become. Yoko O-no? Yoko O-Yes! And by the way...if Charles Manson would have found the real “hidden meanings” in the White Album, he might have went out and brought someone a bottle of claret instead of what really went down all those years ago.

Jim Harrison is a avid record collector, musician, writer, music historian, husband, father of 4 and the developer of Vinylcat Record Cleaner which you can buy here;

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