While on the surface The Beatles (usually referred to as “The White Album”) may seem like group effort, the name is a bit of a misnomer. The truth is that the band splintered apart during the making of this album, with each member going in a different direction. The White Album is a collection of solo efforts, including the first from Ringo (the charming “Don’t Pass Me By”), whose only other solo songwriting contribution in the entire Beatles catalog is “Octopus’s Garden” on Abbey Road. Harrison is limited to just one song per side (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies,” “Long, Long, Long” and “Savoy Truffle”), but at least my all-time favorite Beatles song (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) is among them. I just wish he could have gotten some more space. The other 25 songs are either the work of Lennon or McCartney. While their songs were always credited to both of them (they had a partnership), they drifted apart during the White Album sessions, and really these songs are the work of one or the other.
The White Album kind of reminds me of that Simpsons joke from the “Behind the Laughter” episode where Homer calls the Thanksgiving where everyone brought their lawyers to the dinner table the best Thanksgiving ever, elaborating that “emotionally it was terrible, but the turkey was so moist.” The Beatles is like that: the group chemistry was terrible, but the content didn’t suffer. Ringo quit the band for a time until the other members convinced him to come back, an indication that he was more important to the band than the haters give him credit for. It took me a while to get into The White Album, but I actually really like it now, which is saying a lot, because at first I said I would never like it. It was just too much to take in, and all of it was unfamiliar, since exactly zero of its 30 songs appear on the Beatles’ amazing compilation album 1, which was my introduction to the band.
Now I can just put on the album and enjoy the ride, since it’s one every Beatles fan must take. They touch on pretty much everything here, and it’s a long, winding trip down the rabbit hole. Yet at the same time it’s not. In many ways, it feels like a double-barreled shotgun blast, since the lack of clear direction and focus give the album the broad, shallow feel. It’s the world of the Beatles through a wide-angle lens, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different. The kaleidoscopic innocence of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is clearly in the rear view mirror by the time “Revolution 9” gives way to “Good Night,” and only a telephoto lens can still catch the earthy brilliance of Rubber Soul somewhere on the distant mountainside.