The progression of The Beatles’ sound during their active years is seldom debated and while they advanced by leaps & bounds with nearly every release there are two very definitive lines in the sand where their evolution can be measured as profound and nearly extinguishing of the work that preceded it. The sharp right turns are palpable 1. ) their decision to cease performing live following their 1966 tour and 2.) their trip to India in 1968. The trip to Rishikesh in 1968 birthed their sprawling self-titled album (affectionately known to us as “The White Album”), amongst other things. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of said trip and the resulting album and while it’s horribly cliche to mark these types of milestone anniversaries (George Carlin once claimed that “we [humans] like round numbers) there seems something apropos about marking this particular one as The White Album was, at once, very much a result of its time in the scope of the Beatles’ history (both musically and personally) but, simultaneously, sonically so far ahead of its time. Even after 50 years the universe may still not have caught up.
The lads traveled to India to study transcendental meditation under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the spirit with which they returned from his teachings and the commune style under which they found themselves living varied significantly, from devotion (George), disillusionment (John), a casual acceptance with a readiness to return to the Western world (Paul) and simply not liking the food (Ringo). While they were there they wrote songs, they couldn’t not write songs. It’s what they did, whether they wanted to or not. Many of those songs came to make up The White Album (with others being recorded for Abbey Road or as solo works throughout the 70’s) and the trip to India, the Maharishi, the community of pop stars and American starlets they lived with for many weeks, the Ganges River, mantras… it can all be heard in the grooves of that album. There was direct reporting, analogous storytelling and even some bitterness at the India experience or perhaps some bitterness at simply being Beatles. For better or worse, higher consciousness or not, they came back different people and the new music reflected all of it. The same 4 men, the same set of instruments but an entirely new perspective and as artists it was impossible for it not to seep into he new songs.
The Beatles’ breakup was a long one and it’s beginnings are here but the irony, the painful irony, is that even under these conditions the music was profound. It was beautiful , fresh and important. It lacked any retread or re-writing of “the hits”. Their success had allowed them one significant luxury, they could make the album they wanted and nobody was in a position to tell them “no”. There is unquestionably more separation. The confines of a “band” were stretched and many of these tracks could be seen as individual songs with less input from the others than may have occurred on earlier works and while it’s sad to put it under the microscope and identify it that way it was somewhat inevitable considering the Beatles’ trajectory and other-worldly fame and attention.
George Harrison is finally allowed to stretch his legs a bit on The White Album and we are blessed with “Piggies”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the criminally overlooked “Long, Long, Long”. Sir George Martin performed less studio trickery than he had on the previous few outings but his brush strokes are all over this record nonetheless. The trip to India forced an introspection for each Beatle and those personal reviews were evident in the songs. The collateral damage that accompanied it though was that they began to realize that perhaps they could be happier making music without the other 3. In hindsight we now know that we would not have them as “The Beatles” for very much longer but even until the bitter end the music they produced was impeccable. This was a very good rock n’ roll band ( see: “Yer Blues”) and when they plugged in it was magic, petty personal trivialities aside.
This is an album full of genius, despite being crafted under less than perfect conditions (a last minute rush to meet a release schedule, the first real signs of personal strain, etc.). That is a reason to celebrate it. Another is that it sounds like nothing else, nothing else The Beatles ever did or that anyone ever did, really. This isn’t a pop album, per se, and it’s not a “60’s album”. Sure, it contains a number of pop songs and specifically it contains the track “Revolution” with it’s anti-Vietnam war stance which could be considered extremely “60’s”, but those songs individually and the album as a whole transcend those rather constricting labels and sounds as unique and powerful as it did then, but not is some backward-looking context. It’s an important album now, today! It ushered in the final phase of the Beatles, one that would be less psychedelic in sound and would not resemble the mop top version of the band in any way. It had only been 4 years since their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show but it may as well have been a whole other lifetime ago.
The 50th Anniversary of the year 1968 will undoubtedly be a consistent theme this year. It was a tumultuous time and in many ways could be regarded as a reflection of our current state. 1968 did have some rays of beauty shine through and The White Album is, without question, one of them. So, whether you know it intimately, are a casual listener or have never heard a note of it, we invite you to celebrate this milestone album.