Which Beatles Album is Actually Their Best?
My Side of a Debate with Tom Kipp
Experience Music Project Pop Conference,
Seattle, WA, April 20, 2013
I wrote this once about the White Album: “The Beatles is their most fractured album, and their ugliest; their most unsettling and their most moving. It’s their best album, and nothing else in rock and roll has ever come close to it.” That’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that as a writer you have to allow yourself every 10 years or so. There’s no proving a thing like that. There’s no convincing anyone that Never Mind the Bollocks or The Chronic or Superfly or Can’s fifth album or Taylor Swift’s latest one doesn’t blow the White Album away. To affront someone into agreeing with you is not the purpose of a statement like that. A statement like that is partly a provocation—but mostly, it’s a statement of conviction. When I wrote it, I believed it absolutely. I believe it this moment, absolutely. I believed it for many years before I wrote it. I believed it for many years before I realized I believed it. But the instant I did realize it, I had that feeling you seldom have of coming upon a personal value, a totalizing opinion that fits you—not like a suit of armor protecting you from being reached or contradicted, but like a second skin, something you wear with comfort and satisfaction, knowing that it expresses you. I felt I was meeting myself on the road of growing up. I shook my own hand and said hello to myself. When a work enables that moment, you become bound to it in a very special way.
Beyond that, there are several reasons I’ve insisted for years that the White Album is the Beatles’ greatest achievement. The first is that it’s remarkable among their LPs, and among pop LPs at that time, for being so random, chaotic, cluttered, inconsistent, excessive, misshapen—all the words that for some reason are applied as negatives by those who take the mainstream position (dare I call it the George Martin position?) that the White Album might be a great Beatles LP if only they’d “boiled it down” to one record.
But the White Album won’t be boiled down. It won’t be remade into something shapely, harmonious, exquisitely judged, eminently agreeable, or intestinally soothing. It was made by people who were themselves none of those things, and it wasn’t made to be any of those things. It wasn’t made to be A Hard Day’s Night or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper—or, for that matter, Blue Hawaii. Among their albums—and I’m not forgetting Let It Be, which for reasons we all know must be considered the outlier in their catalog—the White Album is the only one that was clearly meant to sound as overstuffed and scattershot as it does. Its goal is to take it all in, and to put it all out; to devour and regurgitate. There’s no evidence that the Beatles sat down and strategized it that way, but the evidence of unconscious intent is in every groove. We can take a lot from the fact that John and Paul spent a 24-hour session at Abbey Road painstakingly sequencing the album we hear today in all its apparent randomness.
John Lennon once said of Let It Be, “This is us with our trousers off.” But no, the White Album is the Beatles with their trousers off. Sometimes it’s the Beatles with the tops of their heads off. The White Album shows the Beatles glamorous, and the Beatles not so glamorous. It shows us the Beatles as themselves, and it shows them in sometimes grotesque disguise. It shows them in focus, and it shows them distorted. It shows the Beatles as a tight, functioning unit, and it shows each in isolation, dreaming private dreams. It’s as openhearted as a declaration of emotion, and as secretive as a closed door. This veering between extremes makes it infinitely more interesting than most works that have clean edges, clear meanings, and singular motive. The line between self-indulgence and grandeur may be thin to the point of invisibility, but it’s usually at that vanishing point that interior visions are extracted in all their chaos, and major work is done.
The White Album takes rock ‘n’ roll so deep and far that it reaches that place where genius recreates itself. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” in particular is foundational rock ‘n’ roll at the outer limit. But the White Album goes way beyond rock ‘n’ roll to a diversity that is famously ridiculous. Among the genres covered (some not even named in 1968) are avant-garde; blues; comedy; country and western; folk; freak folk; hard rock; heavy metal; Hollywood; jazz; music hall; musique concrete; pop-punk; psych; rock ‘n’ roll; rock; singer-songwriter; ska; soul; sunshine pop; and surf. Side 3 is the heaviest of all, ranging from the great rock ‘n’ roll birthday song to a deeply creepy devotional hymn that dares the quietest of dynamics and climaxes in the eeriest sound on any Beatles record.
So many rock and soul albums since 1968 have wanted to be the White Album, or have at least begun in the space it opened up. What’s Going On, Exile On Main Street, Something/Anything?, Journey Through the Past, Songs in the Key of Life, Tusk, London Calling, Zen Arcade, Sign o’ the Times, Rattle & Hum, Daydream Nation, Being There, OK Computer, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Gold. I’ve heard the White Album repeatedly in rap albums, particularly those of De La Soul and Eminem, with their skits and squiggles, their jumbles of noise and voice. The White Album has gone into the work of musicians as diverse as Phish—whose live performance of the White Album included a Dadaist recreation of “Revolution 9”—and Jay-Z, whose Black Album was appropriated by Danger Mouse for the history-making Grey Album—a masterpiece that crowned the mashup genre and led directly to Jay-Z’s duet with Paul McCartney at the 2005 Grammys.
I also elevate the White Album because, after 35 years and innumerable listens, I still don’t feel comfortable with it. I’m convinced the Beatles intended that—to disturb, to discomfort. To undercut every affirmation with retraction, to barb and bully every piece of polished melody with distortion and dissonance. I think the desire was to show the Beatles working at their collective art—to expose the gears grinding within their music, all the oil and acid that went into that final, beautifully finished Beatle product. It’s as if everything between the layers and beneath the surfaces, everything that was made implicit in their art by the subtlety of their craft, finally had to rise in all its rawness.
More than any record I know, the White Album is the sound of the hidden becoming visible. The aural texture is not only in the songs, it’s also in the spaces within and between songs—all those half-heard noises, ghost vocals, submerged conversations. Listening as a kid, often in the dark, I absorbed these transmissions from the twilight zone, and they became the soundtrack of my imagination. I’m still hearing those sounds, and trying to locate them, today. What I didn’t realize until much later is that they were the sound of Faulkner’s past that’s never past, the invisible that’s all around us.
Finally, there’s everything besides the music that comes with the White Album. I’d never pretend, for instance, that my fascination with it has nothing to do with Charles Manson. Given that I think Manson responded to the album in his psychotic way much as I respond to it in my non-psychotic way, my fascination has everything to do with him. The same goes for the “Paul is dead” myth, which made much out of playing certain parts of the album backward: someone else’s way of bringing out what they think is hidden.
So the White Album is more than the music. It’s the social history around it, the physical thing that it is, the associations it carries, for me and for others—and there’s never been an album more open to a listener’s personal colonization of every sound on it. The White Album is more, in the sense that certain works are more than words on a page, images on film, strokes on canvas. And not just a little more, a lot more: a lifetime’s worth of more.
A work is great for what it makes you feel and think; what it makes you want. Sometimes what you want is to clear away the noise and murk, and return to simplicity. It’s the log-cabin fantasy. Holden Caulfield had one. Sometimes I have one. But give me the choice between a cabin and a mansion, and I’ll take the mansion. I’ll take the White Album. Within it, I’ll have my bedroom, my basement, my attic. I’ll have sun and moon, water and wind, my birthday party and my last goodnight. I’ll live a lifetime inside this mansion of an album.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Devin McKinney