Friday, November 21, 2008

It Was 40 Years Ago This Week - The White Album

Tomorrow the Beatles will release their first album in a year, titled simply The Beatles.

Copies of the album, one of their most unusual although not one of their best, will be delivered to most New York City record stores tomorrow according to Capitol Records, the distributor.

The album, on the Apple label, has received heavy play on several local FM stations for the last week. It consists of 30 songs on two records, including one long electronic-and-taped-noise composition.

In it, the Beatles sample from most every phase of popular music that it has gone through in the last 40 years, and imitate many of its heroes. There is Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Robert Goulet, Bill Haley and Mantovani. Everywhere there are traces of the Beach Boys, but mostly there lingers the Beatles of 1965.

The album has nothing new and very little that is even recent. The main sound is pre-Rubber Soul. In the year before their Rubber Soul album was released in 1965, there was little but the Chuck Berry era, that long stretch where almost everything done by the Beatles seemed liked bleached Memphis. (Mr. Berry is a black singer and guitarist, who set the style for much rock music in the late 1950's.)

In The Beatles the group takes this old, basic rock sound and sees how many different superstructures are compatible. There are blues, country, easy listening, folk and 1955-to-1962 rock. There are a number of electronic distortions, and there are many put-ons.

Many songs are either so corny or sung in such a way that it is hard to tell whether they are being serious. In most cases, they seem not to be. In an act of lyrical overstatement, they sing "Have You Seen The Bigger Piggies In Their Starched White Shirts?" And it doesn't matter if the words--"Now it's time to say 'good night, good night, sleep tight'"--are sung as a put-on, they still are painful to hear.

It is a light record. The music is light, clean and crisp. The lyrics are light. Usually they are happy but often they are lacking in substance, rather like potato chips.

This new album sounds spectacular at first, but the fascination quickly fades. Where the best American groups--Jefferson Airplane and Blood, Sweat and Tears --produce substantial music that can be lived with, the Beatles tend to produce spectacular but thin music that is best saved for special occasions.

The Beatles, though they might not have intended it, have in essence produced hip Muzak, a soundtrack for head shops, parties and discotheques.

The Beatles is a continuation of the Beatles mystique, or maybe an attempt to ride on its coattails. The Beatles mystique was bolstered in mid-1967 when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and hailed by the underground and music press as the rock album of the decade. It has been a year and a half since that album was released. And one wonders how much the praise heaped upon Sgt. Pepper's was deserved.

Once they were crowned as geniuses, there developed the self-fulfilling expectation of genius that the Beatles now enjoy, a factor that probably will help make this new album a million seller.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was good, and maybe it was the best rock album of the decade. But it wasn't as good as its press. The new album is not nearly as good as Sgt. Pepper's.

The new album has no "A Day In The Life." Considering non-Sgt. Pepper's material, the new album has nothing to compare with "Strawberry Fields" and not even a passable "Penny Lane."
It is hard and exciting in parts ("Back In The U.S.S.R.") and funny in others ("Why Don't We Do It In The Road?")--but only in parts.

It lacks the originality of Music From Big Pink, by the Band, and the all-over excitement of Cheap Thrills, by Big Brother and the Holding Company. It doesn't have the emotion of the Doors or the musical expertise of Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. And by any measure of pure rock power, Blood, Sweat and Tears is far better.

The Beatles' double "White Album" is deemed an eclectic classic today. It's intriguing and amusing, therefore, to revisit Mike Jahn's contemporary New York Times appraisal of The Beatles on the eve of its US release in November 1968.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages.

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