Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Greatest Band: Part Three

The Beatles began recording of The Beatles only thirteen months after completion of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In between, The Beatles had released two albums to support film projects (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine), although the number of new songs on both albums combined totaled only fourteen--essentially, one standard album.

Neither of these albums are considered among the band's best work--"Yellow Submarine," in particular, is generally considered their weakest album--but look at some of the songs that the albums contained:
"Magical Mystery Tour"
"The Fool On The Hill"
"I Am The Walrus"
"Hello Goodbye"
"Strawberry Fields Forever"
"Penny Lane"
"Hey Bulldog"

That's an "off year" for The Beatles.

These two albums continued the beautiful, vivid character studies that were now a trademark of the band. Also of note is one of the very few Beatles' songs that received less attention than it deserved: "Hey Bulldog" is almost criminally underrated.

Then we reach The Beatles, a sprawling, utterly magnificent double album. It's commonly known as The White Album, due to its plain white cover (it's very hard to even see "The Beatles" on the cover).

The Beatles, up to this point, had released tightly-wound, disciplined albums. The White Album, in contrast, was a sprawling, disjointed double album. It was also brilliant, with thirty tracks combining into what can only be described as a statement on the human condition. The music was sensational. It was funny, and sentimental, and soaring.

Most importantly, it was angry. It was dirty. It was dangerous.

The Beatles previous albums had been a refuge, of sorts, from reality. The White Album, though, reflected the social chaos of the era. "Yer Blues" is suicidal, "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" is downright dirty (even though, as it turns out, the song was about monkeys), "Helter Skelter" is fierce, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" is (seemingly) about Lennon's heroin addiction, and "Revolution", "Revolution 1", and "Revolution 9" represent a society coming apart.

Even "Blackbird", a beautiful, peaceful-sounding song, is a social protest.

In their own witty, subversive way, though, The Beatles constantly prank us. "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" is followed by the wonderfully romantic "I Will." The suicidal "Yer Blues" is followed by the lovely, delicate "Mother Nature's Son." "Helter Skelter," a scorching tune, is followed by the entirely genteel "Long, Long, Long.

They also follow "Revolution 1", whose title is self-explanatory, with the utterly trifling (and entirely enjoyable) "Honey Pie."

This album was criticized for being self-indulgent, and compared to their previous albums, it's a fair criticism. The Beatles were beginning to dissolve, and this is the "every man for himself" album.

It also, for the first time, made people uncomfortable. Instead of the serene, joyous optimism of "All You Need Is Love" or the silly band uniforms of Sgt. Pepper, this was Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics with their gloved fists raised.

Do you know what I say about that? Fuck, yes. This is a great, great album precisely because of that anger, because of that chaos. It's great because interspersed with that anger is a tremendous amount of beauty.

This isn't an easy album. It's challenging. It's even disturbing at times.

Thank goodness.

Tomorrow: Let It Be and Abbey Road

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