This w/u is a simple track-by-track description of this classic album. It will be shorter than a normal album review write-up, because so much of the background has been more than ably filled in by other noders, so this will concentrate merely on describing each song in turn.
Back in the U.S.S.R., the opening track, is not (as was once claimed in a now-edited w/u above) the song written for Mike Love's birthday - that song was in fact 'Happy Birthday Michael Love/Thank You Guru dev' (aka Spiritual Regeneration), a simple Beach Boys pastiche mostly by Paul McCartney which has never had an official release. Love was involved in this song's genesis however, suggesting the lyrical idea for the middle eight (the Ukraine girls and Moscow girls parodying the Beach Boys' California Girls.)
The song is obviously an affectionate parody of the Beach Boys (especially with the 'bow bow bow' backing vocals in the middle eight), but is at least as inspired by Chuck Berry. According to McCartney, the lyrics started out as a parody of the 'I'm Backing Britain' campaign that was current at the time, as 'I'm Backing the UK'. This then mutated into 'I'm Backing the USSR', before, inspired by Berry's Back In The USA it was put into its final form. (This process - moving from political satire to nonsense comedy lyric - was repeated the next year in McCartney's simillar Get Back).
This was one of the few songs on the album completed during Ringo Starr's temporary absence from the band (he quit briefly, feeling underappreciated). The drum track is a composite - McCartney holding down the basic beat while both John Lennon and George Harrison add drum overdubs. Ironically, Starr would frequently guest with the Beach Boys in the 1980s playing this song live.
Dear Prudence, the second song, is the polar opposite of the previous track's uptempo rock style. During the band's sojourn in Rishikesh, the three songwriters had spent a lot of time with folk/pop singer Donovan, who taught them all simple finger picking techniques, which came in useful as they were all writing on acoustic guitars at the time. Lennon was a particularly assiduous student, and the few patterns Donovan taught him appear all over his songs on the White album.
This song was written for Prudence Farrow, sister of the actress Mia Farrow, who was also along on the retreat (for a supposed religious retreat to learn to teach meditation, this seems a peculiarly star-studded affair - the four Beatles, Harrison's model wife, Donovan, a Beach Boy, and a film star who also happened to be Frank Sinatra's ex wife, a collection which somehow doesn't suggest the 'simple life'). Farrow was far more comitted to meditation than many of the others on the retreat, whose attitudes ranged from dilletantism (McCartney), to sincere interest (Harrison and Love). Farrow by contrast spent several days locked in her room refusing to come out and refusing to communicate with anyone. As a response, Lennon wrote this simple, charming ditty to sing outside her window and try to persuade her to come out.
A charming, beautiful song, the chord progression is one that has been used many times since (probably best by Paul Weller with Wild Wood) but never to such effect. One of Lennon's minor masterpieces.
Glass Onion, another Lennon song, is worlds apart in effect. This far more uptempo song is pure nonsense, with the lyrics mostly made up of snatches of other Beatles songs, but with a sinister undertone that is hard to explain.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a song that nearly broke up the Beatles. McCartney wrote this trite piece of semi-reggae nonsense (the title comes from a Jamaican expression apparently meaning 'life goes on', and was the name of a band McCartney was acquainted with - the leader of the band in question later threatened to sue for credit, and was given an out of court settlement) and was convinced it was a potentially massive hit single, forcing the band into multiple retakes. Lennon on the other hand hated the song and resented the time and effort spent on it. However, Lennon eventually saved the song, with his uptempo piano part born out of frustration. In the end both Lennon and McCartney were proved right - the song was a number one hit for the band Marmalade who did a note-for-note cover version, but it was also one of the worst tracks the Beatles ever did.
Wild Honey Pie A piece written and performed entirely by McCartney, this is just a little throwaway piece done during the session for Why Don't We Do It In The Road?. You've probably spent longer reading this paragraph than the song takes to listen to.
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill Another joke song, but with a little more substance than the previous two. A Lennon song with an anti-hunting message, based on an American who spent a few days at Rishikesh seeking enlightenment in between tiger hunting expeditions, this has some genuinely great pieces of Lennon nastiness - 'he's an all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother's son', and holds together far better than the preceding two tracks, but still at this point the album is curiously filler-heavy. This song also features the first appearance of a female vocal on a Beatles record (other than the massed chorus on All You Need Is Love), with Yoko Ono singing along on the chorus and having the solo line 'not when he looks so fierce'.
While my Guitar Gently Weeps On the other hand could never be called filler. Easily George Harrison's best composition to this point, the song (like almost every song by anyone in the 60s it seems) was inspired by the I Ching, Harrison taking the phrase 'gently weeps' as the first phrase his eye caught when opening the book at random. As good as the released version is (and it is excellent, with Eric Clapton doing one of the few performances that live up to his reputation on his solo guest spot), the song is still better served by the simple acoustic demo version that was a highlight of the Anthology CDs.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun, the last song on side one, is possibly the best song John Lennon ever wrote. Its impressionistic lyric makes no sense on a rational level, apart from the obvious sexual references ('mother superior jump the gun') and lines which seem to combine both sexual and drug references ('I need a fix 'cos I'm going down'), but gives the impression that it means something to Lennon.
In fact many of the lines refer to people or events in Lennon's experience. For example 'the man in the crowd with the multicoloured mirrors on his hobnail boots' refers to a man Lennon knew who had mirrored toecaps on his shoes to look up women's skirts. More importantly though, the music is among the most complex in rock music (taking 99 takes to complete), with barely two bars in the same time signature throughout. But this isn't the asecptic, dull complexity of prog rock at its worst, where technical virtuosity is substituted for feeling. Rather this is a song that makes no compromises. This music is how it is because this is how it was meant to be - this is a song that cried out to be written and written this way. It grooves - and anyone who criticises Starr's drumming should be pointed to this track, which never sounds disjointed or anything other than funky, despite the theoretically jarring transitions between sections and even individual bars. This is the high-water mark of the Beatles as performers and Lennon as a composer.
Martha My Dear, the first song on side 2, is a McCartney song with little involvement from the other Beatles, other than Starr, who drums. A song based on staccato piano chords, about McCartney's pet dog, this is the kind of effortless show of empty versatility (including a bar of 5/4 quite possibly thrown in to show he could write in odd time signatures just as well as Lennon could) that makes McCartney's solo work so maddening - it's the sound of one of someone who obviously has more songwriting talent than any ten other songwriters living today simply refusing to work, and going with the first thing that enters his head. For anyone else this would be a masterpiece, but for McCartney it's simply below par.
I'm So Tired is another Lennon song, and at this point in the album his contributions are far better than McCartney's. Veering between lethargic, depressed verses and the tortured scream of the chorus, one can almost see in this song the prototype for the quiet/loud dynamics of The Pixies or Nirvana. Some biting lyrics and one of Lennon's best vocal performances make this one of the lost classics of the Beatles' late period.
Blackbird almost makes up for McCartney's laziness on the other tracks. This is a sublime song, whether to be taken literally or (as McCartney now seems to wish, although this may be rewriting history) as a metaphor for black/women's liberation. This is the stuff McCartney does best, not the overpowering ballads he seems to think are his best work. A simple, sparse melody, with minimal backing, and very plain one- and two-syllable words, this produces far more emotion than The Long And Winding Road or My Love ever could, precisely because it doesn't try too hard. Lennon always hated this one, but for once I think this was out of jealousy rather than mere distaste for McCartney's excesses, as this is one of McCartney's very best pieces of work.
Piggies is a Harrison song that is unjustly neglected, possibly because of the Charles Manson associations. The lyrics are rather undirected satire, but they're funny at times, and quite biting in places, and the performance is wonderful (listen to the change in Harrison's voice on the line 'what they need's a damn good whacking'). While it's more than up to the general standard of the album, however, one has to question why Harrison pushed this song ahead of more deserving material like Something (which was demoed at the sessions for this track). Of course, one also has to question why Harrison was only given four tracks out of thirty given some of the drivel Lennon and McCartney were coming up with to pad out the album, such as...
Rocky Raccoon is a McCartney pseudo-country shaggy dog tale. Catchy, funny the first time, and ultimately pointless. Notice the sequencing that places three 'animal' songs (Blackbird, Piggies, Raccoon) next to each other. That's about the most interesting thing about this song.
Don't Pass Me By is Ringo's first solo composition, a song which he had been working on for about three years (he mentions the song in a 1965 interview). A fairly interesting backing track with some nice country violin
is let down by some appaling lyrics ('I'm sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair/You were in a car crash and you lost your hair'). A more than adequate first attempt at songwriting, but it no more deserves a place on the same album with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison's songs than this node deserves comparison with George Bernard Shaw's essays on Wagner.
Why Don't We Do It In The Road? was Lennon's favourite McCartney song, and he always felt let down that he had not been invited to participate. A solo performance by McCartney, the 'song', such as it is, consists of the title repeated over a 12-bar blues (along with the line 'no-one will be watching us'. Oops, I've just reproduced an entire lyric - will this fall foul of the new copyright rules? ;) ) in a variety of McCartney's rock screamer voices. A joke track, but one that stands up far better than most to repeated listening.
I Will Again, just as you begin to give up on McCartney's ability to write anything other than jokey half-songs, he pulls another beauty out of nowhere. A gorgeous, simple love song, with a slightly unfocused lyric and minimal instrumentation (guitar, percussion by Lennon, and 'vocal bass'), this is a definite highlight of the album, and has been a favourite for cover versions over the years.
Julia, the last song on disc one, is a Lennon solo composition and performance, and even better than the previous song. Based around a simple finger-picking pattern (again, taught by Donovan), this song combines a eulogy to Lennon's dead mother Julia with a love song to his new lover Yoko Ono ('ocean child' is apparently the meaning of Yoko in Japanese), the two combining in one dream figure. One feels almost embarassed to intrude on such a private outpouring of emotion, but the sheer beauty of this song and performance is overwhelming.
Birthday is a rather dull retro-rocker, led by McCartney, and inspired by Little Richard. This was improvised in the studio, and is a very odd choice for opener of the second disc - a definite let down after the beauty of the end of side two. Better things are to come.
Yer Blues is better , a blues workout, mostly in waltz time, by Lennon. It manages to straddle the fine line between sincerity and parody expertly, sending itself up while at the same time being deadly serious. Lennon remained pleased enough with this track that it was one of only four Beatles songs he ever performed live at a solo performance, and the only one he performed twice (the others, for those who are wondering, are Come Together, I Saw Her Standing There and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds). Not a highlight of the album, but a definite improvement over the previous track.
Mother Nature's Son is another gentle McCartney ballad. Not quite as good as I Will or Blackbird, this is still far better than much of McCartney's other work on the album. This is another song with no input from other Beatles, the only instruments not played by McCartney being the brass band overdubs arranged by George Martin (one of his few contributions to the album - despite Martin's production credit he was increasingly disillusioned by the Beatles' infighting and left a lot of the day to day work on this album and its follow-up, the ill-fated Get Back to assistants. In this case the assistant was Chris Thomas, who went on to produce hit albums by Roxy Music, the Sex Pistols, INXS and Pulp among many others). This song was inspired by the same lecture by the Maharishi that also inspired Lennon's Child Of Nature - the song that later became Jealous Guy
Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey is another song, this time by Lennon, also inspired by the Maharishi. The lyrics were taken entirely from a lecture the Maharishi gave 'except for the bit about the monkey', and married to one of the loudest rock tracks ever recorded at that time. To be honest, the line about the monkey is the saving grace of the song - we all know that the word 'monkey' is the most intrinsically funny word in the English language - but even so, this is a weak song by the standards of Lennon's work on this album.
Sexy Sadie is much better. Another Lennon song, this one was inspired by his disillusionment with the Maharishi (a disillusionment not shared by the other Beatles, especially Harrison, who remained a follower for the rest of his life). In fact the song was originally called 'Maharishi',with the rest of the lyric substantially the same, until legal doubts (and Lennon's own constant wavering on the subject of the Maharishi, about whom he had conflicting feelings) made the name change seem wise (presumably worries about censorship suggested the removal of the lyric 'oh you cunt' that appears in early versions of the lyric). While a little mean-spirited, the song is saved by one of Lennon's best melodies, an inventive arrangement, and a stunning lead vocal which sounds more rueful than the agressive tone Lennon took on earlier versions.
Helter Skelter is a McCartney track which was an attempt to make the loudest rock and roll record ever, with little thought as to the content. Objective judgement of this song has become almost impossible after Charles Manson permanently associated it with mass murder, but the fact remains it's simply a fun rock song with silly lyrics, no better or worse than Birthday and with no more meaning.
Long, Long, Long , Harrison's song on this side, is the closer of side three, and the best song on what is admittedly the weakest of the four sides of the White Album. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it isn't meant to - this is a genuinely good track, one of Harrison's best, although the much-praised ending (see Revolution In The Head for a totally over-the-top praise of the tag to this track - in fact buy that book anyway, as it's one of the few good pieces of rock music writing out there) actually sounds like what it is, a simple studio accident.
Revolution 1 is a return to form after the comparative weakness of side three. Slower than the single version (simply titled Revolution) this was the first version of the song to be attempted. Lennon wanted this song, a slow acoustic blues with an ambiguous view of the talk of revolution that was current in '68, to be a single, but was informed it was too slow. He made the band recut it in the better known version (called simply Revolution, but by that time McCartney's Hey Jude was the obvious next single. This version was originally much longer - the tag was edited out and used as the basis for Revolution #9. In fact, there was a later version of Revolution cut for the promo film for the single version - in that the arrangement is the same as the single version, but the 'bom shoo-be-doo-wop' backing vocals and 'count me out - in' lyric from this version are used, showing Lennon remained indecisive about this song even after its various releases.
Honey Pie is a nothing 20s jazz pastiche by McCartney. Lennon later (understandably) professed total contempt for this song, but he plays the solo on it with every sign of enjoyment.
Savoy Truffle is a Harrison song, his weakest on the album. A rocker, the lyrics are about tooth decay being brought on by eating too much chocolate, and most of the lyric is a simple recitation of the contents of a box of chocolates.
Cry Baby Cry is another masterpiece by Lennon - and before anyone decides I am contributing here to the posthumous mythologising of Lennon at the expense of the other Beatles, I must point out that on most of the Beatles' late-period work McCartney was clearly the driving force and bringing in the best material. But in this case Lennon was clearly invigorated by his time in India and also by his new affair with Ono.
Contrary to popular perception, while the Beatles abandoned the lush orchestration of the Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour projects, the songs had clearly not become any less obscure or psychedelic. The lyrics to this one are, much like all Lennon's late-period Beatles work, a dreamlike string of faintly disturbing images. Lennon's apparent starting point was to make this a song against commercial manipulation, with the chorus line 'cry baby cry, make your mother buy', but as the song progressed 'buy' was replaced with 'sigh' as the lyric turned into a twisted version of the nursery rhyme 'sing a song of sixpence' (possibly inspired by McCartney's Blackbird as blackbirds are mentioned in the song), with a touch of 'the queen of hearts she baked some tarts' (possibly as filtered through Lewis Carrol's reworking of the images from that rhyme in Alice In Wonderland). An ostensibly meaningless, but slightly disturbing, song that is among Lennon's best.
Revolution #9 is a song about which one can either say far too much or nothing at all. It can't be treated reasonably in a writeup of this length, so all I shall say is that it's a collage of sound inspired by Schoenberg amongst others (probably including Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy, to which it bears a remarkable resemblance), that 90% of listeners find it unlistenable while the other 10% find it among the Beatles' best work, and that I am in the latter group.
Good Night, the last song on the album, is a Lennon song that sounds more like McCartney's work. A lullaby written for Lennon's son Julian, and sung by Starr, this is a lovely, touching song that is often overlooked. Starr turns in one of his least tuneless performances, and Martin provides orchestration that stays just on the right side of outright parody ("Possibly over-lush" - Lennon). A perfect closer to a deeply flawed but fascinating album.