Following Every Thread: A Discussion of the White Album

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles, or as it is more commonly known, The White Album. Released in November 1968, the band’s ninth studio album regularly ranks near the top of many best rock albums of all time lists. The Brit Track convened a panel in the Hilton’s Galleria 5 on Saturday to examine the White Album along with Yellow Submarine. J.M. Tuffley, R. Alan Siler, and Angela Hartley led the group through a consideration of these works.

While both albums were addressed in the session, the focus was clearly on the White Album. Critics tend to refer to this album, with its wild mix of musical textures, as eclectic. Tuffley put it more directly: the album is a Polaroid of where their (the Beatles’) brains were at any particular moment. There was a great deal of variety, change, and disruption in the production elements across the album. Normally an album enjoys the use of a consistent body of musicians and production staff. The White Album, however, was essentially the product of “creative chaos” with regular turnover not just of production staff but the absence of Ringo Starr as well.

The creation of this album came at a particular moment of transformation for the group and they had to deal with a series of both internal and external tensions. For the first time band members had their attention diverted by the presence of girlfriends and wives. There was the ongoing contractual pressure to publish songs for both Paul McCartney and John Lennon which in turn left George Harrison’s growing corpus of music on the sidelines. Add to this an increasing full portfolio of outside business interests and you’ve got a potent mix.

At the time of recording the band had just completed its experiment with transcendentalism and if there is a single external influence upon the album, the panel felt that was it. Even more, McCartney and Lennon were breaking away, increasingly pursuing their own creative interests and voices. This manifested itself in a struggle over creative control as well as the direction of the band. It was the because of the friction that developed when McCartney tried to tell drummer Ringo Starr how he should play that Starr left. Siler, a drummer himself, came to Starr’s defense. He argued that while most see Starr as the weak link in the band, Ringo doesn’t get the credit he deserves for not just adapting to the complexity of McCartney and Lennon’s compositions but being able to innovate both technically and stylistically. As creators, Siler emphasized that the Beatles were open to composition techniques that were very experimental and innovative. In fact, he argued, the depth of this is often understated. In the end, the White Album represented for Tuffley the last opportunity for the band to follow every thread they wished, and get away with it!

Yellow Submarine is the final album in a stylistic trilogy along with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. The movie was released in July 1968 while the album appeared only in January 1969. Yellow Submarine was actually the third film in a deal with United Artists and by the time the film went into production the band members didn’t want to do it. This project was the last in which both George Martin and Brian Epstein were still orchestrating the band’s endeavors. Martin was famous for a stringent, disciplined work ethic, which he imposed upon the band, while Epstein’s business acumen and marketing sense had played an important role as well. Their absence after Yellow Submarine had an impact on the shape of the band’s later work.

The Beatles work remains so powerful and influential that reissues and rereleases regularly occur. Rumors about a reissue of the White Album abound. Whether that happens or not, it is clear that the convergence of forces in and around the Beatles in 1967-68 resulted in one of the most significant albums ever produced.

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