The Continued Allure of the Beatles and the Sixties and Listening to ‘The White Album’

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 20th 2018

The Sixties never really went away. We have had the baby boomers and their endless nostalgia about themselves and their youth – followed by the soft disappointment for many of the decades that came after, culturally and politically, which has meant that the allure of the sixties has continued to burn bright.

The Beatles ‘White Album’ turns fifty this week – last year it was ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and next it will be ‘Abbey Road’. It has been marked by a mammoth rerelease – with a Super Deluxe edition of what was already a huge double album becoming a remastered six CDs and one Blu-ray disc.

‘The White Album’ (so-called because of its striking blank white cover but officially called ‘The Beatles’) was released into the world on November 22nd 1968. This was an environment in which the Beatles as a group and as individuals were seen as major shapers and shifters – whose every utterance and activity was seized upon and closely examined.

In late 1968 a large part of the Western world was waiting with expectation and excitement for the next move by the Beatles and their next album. The previous year had seen their acclaimed ‘Sgt. Pepper’ define ‘the summer of love’ and their less acclaimed, indeed universally panned ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ TV special.

The Beatles were in transition. They had tragically lost their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967 when he committed suicide. This left them without his protective advice and authority and was, over time, to contribute to their break-up. They went to India in early 1968 to a retreat led by the Maharishi to explore transcendental meditation. And they came back and launched their own business and record label, Apple, which started as a hippy dream, was really a tax write-off, and ended as an acrimonious mess.

1968 was a year of change and turmoil. There was the ongoing Vietnam war which showed no end and was devouring Lyndon Johnson’s US Presidency; the assassination of Martin Luther King; Biafra and the Nigerian civil war; the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Paris uprising and more. Revolt and rebellion seemed everywhere. The Chicago Democratic Convention resulted in chaos and police brutality, while the year ended with the narrow victory of Republican Richard Nixon in the US November Presidential election.

The Beatles were by this point synonymous with the Sixties. They had redefined what pop and rock music was, what musicians could be and do, and had become arbiters of a wider cultural intelligence and creativity. They had been pioneers of what was a far-reaching social revolution in Britain, but which was happening across the West. This was true to such an extent in the UK that for those of us who have grown up after the Beatles, it is impossible to comprehend that post-war Britain could be divided into two eras: pre- and post-Beatles.

The Britain that gave birth to the Beatles was one where wartime conscription had just ended – without which they would not have been possible (as they would have been drafted as young men). Harold Macmillan was still Prime Minister, deference and the overhang of the Victorian era still hung in the air, while internationally the Cold War and nuclear standoff cast a shadow over nearly every aspect of life.

Then along came the Beatles – fresh-faced, cheeky, filled with wit and sarcasm, and impatient with the old stuffy Britain. One key moment in many was the November 1963 Royal Command Performance, shown live on TV, where Lennon commented in what was a daring remark for then (and in front of the Queen Mother too) – ‘Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.’ Tame now, but then an example of breaking through the old taboos.

Fast forward to ‘The White Album’ in 1968 – a double album of thirty tracks covering nearly every style within rock and pop, from 1950s rock to reggae, folk, music hall, blues and hard rock, and even avant-garde. It was so anticipated that at the time it was viewed as a bit of an anti-climax. People felt it was too varied. They noted its lack of coherence and authenticity, with subsequently the consensus being that it is the sound of the Beatles slowing beginning to break-up; the reality was that many Lennon and McCartney tracks were worked on as solo tracks by their composers before adding group effects.

For the radicals and ‘new left’ of the day, as well as people waiting for ‘the word’, the Beatles were copping out in an age demanding you take a stand. Whereas Lennon in ‘Revolution’ (the B-side version to ‘Hey Jude’) showed his ambiguity towards the new left (he also hesitated on taking sides in another version, ‘Revolution 1’), the Rolling Stones in ‘Street Fighting Man’ declared their intentions and which side they were on.

‘The White Album’ is a huge set and group of statements and at the time and for years afterwards the general view was that it could have done with some editing, maybe into a stellar single album. Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, in the 1970s, wrote that it was ‘an odd, patchy collection’ filled with brilliance in places, but that it showed that ‘the Beatle Dream was almost over’.

Others took an even harder view at the time. Nik Cohn in his classic 1969 text ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’ took the stance that the height of the Beatles as true originals had been their early period and such classics as ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. He argued that by the time they got to ‘Sgt. Pepper’ they were playing a role filled with artifice and pretence, a stance that ‘The White Album’ merely magnified.

We expected so much from our heroes then. The years subsequently have been kind to this magnum opus. How many artists today would have the artistic vision and bottle to dare to pull off such a creation? How many mainstream musical acts would if they wanted to be allowed to do so by their record company or promoters? The last major act might be Guns ‘N’ Roses and ‘Use Your Illusion I and II’ – hardly a good example for anyone.

Any doubts about ‘The White Album’ as it is now fall away listening to the music. The original thirty track album has never sounded better; the remastering by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, takes a protective coating off of the tracks. Not every single track has become over-exposed in the way so much of the group’s music has. Thus less familiar tracks shine, and even the weaker songs on the album (Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’, McCartney’s ‘Honey Pie’, Ringo singing the closer ‘Goodnight’) have a new charm. The most controversial piece, Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’, which has many times won the award of worst Beatles track ever – being a collage of sounds, supposedly of ‘revolution’, even has a certain fascination and audacity. No rock act had gone so far before.

The classic tracks have matured and grown with the passing of time – ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and many more. This is the sound of a group breaking new ground.

This reissue gives much more: there are three albums of Abbey Road sessions with lots of wonderful music, but the real treasure and one many of us have waited for is the unveiling of the ‘Esher Demos’. These are the twenty-seven tracks the Beatles recorded acoustically in George’s house in Esher in May, which they had written in India – nineteen of which made the final album, rerecorded in the studio. George put the demos on four track recordings to give to his band mates and it is from his original copy these takes originate.

Seven of these demos were released in the ‘Anthology’ series twenty years ago, and many of us have heard the bootlegs of these sessions, but that doesn’t prepare you fully for what you hear. This is the equivalent of the Beatles Unplugged: relaxed, playful, a bit stoned, playing as friends for each other and no one else with nothing to prove. The tracks have been cleaned up so they sound like they never have, giving a glimpse into the intimacy, joy and camaraderie that was central to being the Beatles.

An undertow to listening to all of this is that we know what happened afterwards. The magical mystery tour that the Beatles took themselves, and the rest of us on was to come to a juddering halt not long after the release of this album. The mosaic of powerful relationships and forces that gave the Beatles such a strength splintered, never to come back again as a collective force. Many people blamed Lennon’s new love, Yoko Ono, others McCartney’s decision to publicly announce he was leaving the group in April 1970 (when Lennon had said previously in private he was leaving towards the end of 1969 but they had agreed to keep it out of the public eye for a period).

Maybe it is reading too much into the music after the years, its feel and its arc, but there is a palpable sense of the coming of shadows and looming darkness which can be felt all over the album: that we have passed through the seasons of the Beatles, from spring to summer, to autumn, with winter beckoning: a crepuscular quality at odds with the famous white cover.

There are strange aspects to listening to such an album today: it vitality masking that it was made fifty years ago. 1968 is a very different time and place to 2018, but as John Harris wrote recently on this reissue in ‘The Guardian’ in the story of human history this is a very short time. Yet, Harris is both right and wrong. Fifty years ago humanity was faced by many of the same challenges as today: war and peace, power, race, class, and the abuse of military might. However, then across the West there was a belief that change for the better was possible and a more humane future achievable. Some of this was youthful naivety, but compared to today and the prevailing pessimism, fear and rage, it feels more attractive and filled with possibilities.

Celebrating and enjoying the Beatles and ‘The White Album’ is to enter a world of wonder, both familiar and continually filled with new discoveries. It raises so many questions. What is the role of music and artists in the commercial world to push boundaries? How can works of originality be made in a culture which constantly recycles and reproduces itself? What do we do in aging societies with the constant desire to look back and celebrate various pasts as golden eras? What do we do when we run out of pop culture anniversaries to mark: start looking forward to the 75th celebrations of ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’?

I love the music of the Beatles and revel in the wonders of ‘The White Album’ reissue, but think there is a small price to pay. We cannot continually live in the past, and have to at some point to stop cannonising the Beatles and the Sixties, instead letting them slip into history. They had the courage and boldness to challenge their elders telling the same old hoary stories, and it is time younger generations showed the same attitude. Then we can still enjoy our Beatles records, but look to a future which isn’t trapped by the past.