Scene Selections: the White Album turns 50
On Nov. 22, the Beatles’ White Album — the iconic white square with “The Beatles” stamped in irregular print — celebrates 50 years since its release. With the release of “The Beatles” in 1968, the Beatles introduced some of the group’s most beloved and controversial tracks, a grab-bag of gems that Scene writer Charlie Kenney describes as an “incoherent, out-of-order rainbow” in contrast to the album’s emblematic white. As an early anniversary present, Scene writers take a deep dive into the White Album’s historic lineup and consider the songs and their significance, then and now.
“Back In The U.S.S.R.”
By Ryan Israel, Scene Writer
“The Beatles: Rock Band” is one of the greatest video games ever created. I vividly and fondly remember spending many fifth grade days in my best friend’s basement, playing hour after hour of the Rock Band game on the Wii. I often found myself on the mic, channelling my inner Paul McCartney, and the song that I was best at singing — and that I enjoyed the most — was the classic White Album track “Back In The U.S.S.R.”
At the time I performed the song, I barely understood who The Beatles were or what the U.S.S.R. was. I couldn’t begin to comprehend the band’s notoriety or the track’s political undertones and cultural relevance. I could, however, comprehend that the track absolutely slapped. McCartney’s fast-paced piano and George Harrison’s guitar riffs hooked me on the band’s style and led me to explore more of their music. The catchy verse “That Georgia’s always on my (x9) mind” was stuck in my head for a solid week. And, for what it’s worth, I still remember all the lyrics.
By Matt Munhall, Scene Writer
I suspect very few people would point to “Rocky Raccoon” as one of their favorite tracks off the White Album. Producer George Martin regarded it as filler and thought it should be cut in service of “a very, very good single album rather than a double.” Martin had a point, yet a song like “Rocky Raccoon” cuts to the heart of what makes the White Album brilliant: It’s not just a collection of really good songs, but a sprawling mess that tests the limits of what a pop album can be. The Beatles were so popular by 1968 that no one could convince them not to release a parody country ballad about a gunslinger named Rocky Racoon that climaxes with a honky tonk piano solo. Sure, it’s a silly McCartney character sketch on which he adopts a rather awful caricature of a western accent to tell the tale of cowboy in the Black Hills of Dakota who’s gunned down at a hoedown by his romantic rival. (“Would I go to all that trouble about Gideon’s Bible and all that stuff?” Lennon later scoffed.) But it’s exactly that willingness to go far afield from the power pop that made them famous that makes the White Album such a thrilling listen.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
By Jake Winningham, Scene Writer
George Harrison was every bit the songwriter Paul McCartney and John Lennon were, and he beat them at their own game on “The White Album”’s finest moment. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the sound of a band coming apart at the seams; the Beatles had just returned from a trip to India, and Yoko Ono was beginning to show up to rehearsals. Amidst the fray, Harrison created what may be his signature composition. With an arrangement that showcases the band’s newly found Eastern music influences — check out McCartney’s instantly recognizable opening piano figure and Ringo Starr’s trademark restrained drumming — the song leaves plenty of room for Harrison’s friend and future romantic rival Eric Clapton to lay down perhaps the best fretwork in the Beatles’ oeuvre. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has only grown in stature since the band’s breakup and Harrison’s death. For proof, look no further than its performance at Harrison’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where Prince laid down what is still the greatest guitar solo this writer has ever heard.
By Sara Schelcht, Scene Writer
I’m really not much of a crier, but when I stood in the nosebleeds as Paul McCartney performed “Blackbird” last summer, the number of tears I cried was ridiculous. As the White Album turns 50 this month, I marvel at the fact that I got to see the track performed as it was originally — McCartney alone with a guitar, a bird chirping somewhere in the background. The crying was absolutely necessary.
“Blackbird” is the melancholy of defeat with a hint of hope, its timely release just a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 took effect. Paul McCartney has never been clear about whether the lyrics were in reference to this or something else entirely, and that makes it all the more poignant. Listeners are told, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly,” and the ambiguity of the advice resonates with so many kinds of hurt. “Blackbird” is simultaneously heartbreaking and optimistic, its simplicity giving the contradictory emotions the room they need to coexist.
By Charlie Kenney, Scene Writer
“Helter Skelter” is a song about an English amusement park ride — a ‘helter skelter’ ride surprisingly. They are towers with ladders inside of them and a slide wrapping around them. Nothing too groundbreaking, to be honest. Really one of the more innocent amusement park rides out there.
But, Charles Manson interpreted the song “Helter Skelter” as a cryptic message warning about a forthcoming apocalyptic race war between the white and the blacks. If anything, that should tell you that the contents of “Helter Skelter” aren’t exactly as innocent as the amusement park ride that inspired them.
“Helter Skelter” is, without a doubt, the most raucous, harsh and aggressive song The Beatles ever recorded. It’s the Beatles at their most pissed off. Or, it’s them on drugs again. We can’t really be sure.
The sixth track on the White album’s B-Side, the song opens with abrasive guitar riffs and a Paul McCartney who is begging for a sore throat — sounding more reminiscent of 1990s Seattle than 1960s Liverpool. McCartney takes the listener into a ‘helter skelter’ and hauntingly describes it with his screams: “When I get to the bottom / I go back to the top of the slide.”
In “Helter Skelter,” The Beatles and McCartney ruin the innocence of a perfectly good amusement park ride. And, they don’t do so because they want to start a race war. McCartney, the writer of and lead vocalist in the song, does so because, as he put so eloquently in in a 1968 interview with Radio Luxembourg, “So we did it like that, ‘cuz I like noise.”
By Carlos De Loera, Scene Writer
YES I’M LONELY! *BOOM CHA DIDDY DA WHAAAA UUHH WHAAA UUH WHAAAA.* WANNA DIE! *BOOM CHA DIDDY DA WHAAAA UUHH WHAAA UUH WHAAAA.*
That intro is a slap to the face. A very raw and honest look into the mindset of John Lennon. Lennon said he wrote the song in a moment when he was “trying to reach God and feeling suicidal” in India. So how much of it is a deep inner look at the workings of Lennon’s mind, and how much of it is just the acid-induced thoughts of a hippie? I don’t know and I’m not really sure if there’s the difference. All I know is that this song swings, baby. Lennon strips the Beatles back to their blues-inspired roots with somewhat nonsensical lyrics and biting guitar solos. With this song, Lennon once again provides the grit and rawness that distinguishes his compositions from the more tender and regulated pieces by his bandmates. He may have been the most annoying of all the Beatles, but Lennon really knew how to write ‘em and you know the reason why.