|Four albums in one?|
(WARNING: This post contains the word “wank.”)
I’ll be honest: I don’t know what to do this week. I don’t know what to do this week because (and I’m about to commit a cardinal sin here) I’ve never loved the White Album. I’ve never loved the White Album because it’s the opposite of most things I love about the Beatles:
1) As talented as each of them were, the Beatles were much greater as a whole than as individuals. They made magic together that none of them could equal alone.
The White Album is quite deliberately the work of four individuals. Because those individuals are the Beatles, it’s still a better album than most solo artists would ever make. It can top just about anyone. But it can’t top the Beatles themselves, working together as a cohesive band.
2) The Beatles considered “the record” a sacred thing. They approached their own studio work as something timeless, a blueprint for future generations. They were perfectionists in the studio, meticulous in preparation, exhaustive in revision. Every song was worked–and reworked–until it became best version of itself. Precision was key.
Well, to put it tactfully, there’s a lot of imprecision on the White Album. To put it another way, there’s a lot of wank on the White Album: abandoned takes, half-baked ideas, loose performances, and just plain goofiness. And that’s really why I picked “Wild Honey Pie” as this week’s song. I picked it for everything it isn’t, rather than everything it is.
To be fair, it’s easy to sit in 2011 and criticize the White Album as being (ehem) masturbatory. But if you’re a Beatle in 1967-1968, what else is there for you to do? You’ve permanently changed pop culture as both the biggest band commercially and its most respected band artistically. Everything you do is both 1) automatically a hit and 2) over-analyzed. From Hard Day’s Night through Sgt. Pepper, no band was bigger or more “important.” What else can you do but have a laugh?
And make no mistake: the White Album, for all of its merits and snippets of seriousness, is one great, big, audible laugh. We’ve only had a few artists since the Beatles achieve the same level of commercial success and artistic importance–what’s interesting is how many of those artists have put out their version of the White Album, essentially reclaiming their right to blow off some steam. Bob Dylan closed out the 60’s with the (self-admitted) joke album Self-Portrait. Pearl Jam–reluctant heirs to the “voice of Generation X” throne after Cobain’s suicide–rattled off Vitalogy and No Code. Both albums are 75% fantastic, 25% wank. And you know what? Good on them. If the survival of the band meant them blowing off some steam, essentially saying, “we reserve the right not to be taken too seriously,” then go for it.
By 1969, Dylan had certainly earned himself a laugh. God knows Pearl Jam (and everyone else) needed a laugh in 1994. And by 1967-68, “wank” was seemingly the only thing the Beatles hadn’t done.
I celebrate it from a distance, but I rarely listen to it.
What do y’all think? Any favorite tunes on the White Album? Any of you rank the White Album among your favorite Beatles records? If so, I’m sure you’re right. Let me hear it!
Beatles, “Wild Honey Pie”