The "White" Stuff?
1. It's the greatest album of all-time.
There's an old urban myth in which a reporter was asking one of the Beatles (John, I believe), if Ringo was the best drummer in the world. "Best drummer in the world?!" he shoots back. "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles!"
The same can be said of "The White Album." Not only is it NOT the best album ever made (despite some insistent classic-rock countdowns), it's not even the Beatles' best album. More on that in a bit. But in the meantime, let's just say that many believe it to be the best (whatever THAT means) because it's a rare album in which the idea about the album is so strong, it threatens to overpower the music. A double album of bric-a-brac representing some of the best & the weirdest that the greatest band ever had to offer? Plus, it's got that great non-title (hence the unruly quotation marks around "The White Album"), it's an early double-LP, & it plays like the ultimate cult album by the ultimate mainstream band. Hell, after writing all of that, I like it a bit better myself.
2. It's the Beatles' greatest album.
Yeah, sorry, it's not. In fact, I wouldn't even put it in my Beatles Top 5. (Which is, fer the record, probably: 1. Revolver; 2. Abbey Road; 3. Rubber Soul; 4. Sgt. Pepper; 5. Some sort of a singles collection if it is allowed — like "1," although I prefer the old American edition of The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits — & if not, A Hard Day's Night.) This is for the simple reason that when you break it down, it's actually not one of their stronger albums. Song-for-song, Revolver & Rubber Soul are better, but so too are A Hard Day's Night (definitely), Beatles for Sale (probably), & With The Beatles (most likely). In fact, going song-for-song, "The White Album" is one of their weakest albums.
But what, you say — this is "THE WHITE ALBUM" — are you MAD, MAN? Let me explain. "The White Album" may not be the Beatles' finest album or most consistent album, but it is their best programmed album, no small feat when you (a) consider their catalogue &/or (b) how much random dreck is on this album. The way fragments give way to masterpieces, storming rockers give way to hushed ballads, & serious songs give way to stupid songs, is less like a story than it is a stream-of-conscious survey of ideas, melodies, & emotions. There is no reason on earth why "Blackbird" should go so seamlessly into "Piggies," other than their superficial animal motif, perhaps, but it does, just as the storming "Helter-Skelter" sits perfectly between the cool "Sexy Sadie" & the whisper of "Long Long Long." "The White Album" is less a masterpiece of songs than it is a masterpiece of sequence, & credit must go to Lennon, McCartney, & George Martin, who spent hours & hours choosing the order. For, as a progression of songs, their ordering is as close as rock sequencing gets to genius.
3. It's a preview of their solo careers.
With so many of the songs sounding like little solo pieces — McCartney's cutesy "Martha My Dear" & "I Will," Lennon's brooding "Julia," Harrison's stately "Long Long Long," Ringo's horrible/awesome "Don't Pass Me By" — it is very tempting to pass the album off as the 4 Beatles going into 4 separate rooms & recording four quarters of an album. Certainly the split pictures & packaging contributes to this idea. But as the late, great Ian MacDonald wrote in the masterful Revolution in the Head, the finest work on "The White Album" were group efforts — McCartney's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which he hammered so into the ground that the others hated it by the time they recorded this, the final take, filled with seeming playfulness & spontaneity; Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with yes, Clapton sitting in on lead, but the others doing more than their fare share — just listen to the way McCartney's bass doubles up with Harrison's guitar to push the song along in a kinetic way); & Lennon's "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which, fer my money, may just be the finest Beatles song of them all. The way that Lennon is able to take the song through all of its jarring twists & turns & transitions, ending with the funny/eerie title refrain, is a work of 4, not just one. If they were falling apart & hating each other all the time through the sessions, you coulda fooled me.
4. It's fun to listen to start-to-finish.
Three words: Revolution Number Nine.
5. It could've been even better if the Beatles had gone along with George Martin & picked the "best" songs for a single-disc album.
The problem here is, OK, you have 40, maybe 50 minutes of space: Which half of songs are you gonna cut? At first glance, it seems like the first disc (the "hits" side, as I think of it) is the keeper, but some of the most dynamic tracks — "Yer Blues," "Mother Nature's Son," "Sexy Sadie," "Long Long Long," "Revolution 1," & "Cry Baby Cry" — are on there. So that's out. Well, how about cutting all of the random stupid things like "Wild Honey Pie" & "Why Don't We Do It in the Road"? The thing is, that only shaves off a few minutes. Not counting "Revolution 9," of course, which although the most innovative thing on the album, would also be the first thing to go (or at least be severely edited).
By my count, the only all-around "bad" songs on the album are "Revolution 9," "Savoy Truffle," "Don't Pass Me By," & "Good Night." After that, it's all relative. "Piggies," "Rocky Raccoon," & "Birthday" all have their detractors to be sure, but in my experience, it's just as easy to find someone who will starchly defend these songs as it is to find someone who outright hates them. One man's "Piggies" is another man's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," I suppose.
But more importantly, it is this range of selection that makes "The White Album" be "The White Album." It is a sketchbook, not a finished masterpiece — open & raw in some places, closed & ready-for-manufature in others. The whole point of the album is that you have to dig through it — & you need the good, the not-so-good, & the unfinished in order to make it what it is. In this regard, some of the songs have to be bad for the whole thing to work.
Would I recommend it to someone who doesn't know the Beatles very well? No. Would I choose it for a desert island? Not on yer life. But would I listen to it, privately, while riding on a bus across the country & feel enlightened & fascinated? For sure.
This is an album about journeys, not destinations.