Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Beatles

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles wrapped up the recording of The Beatles, known colloquially as The White Album, the first album released on the fledgling Apple label. The two-disk set was a potpourri of cleverness, masterful individual songwriting ("Dear Prudence," "Blackbird," "Mother Nature’s Son") humor ("Rocky Raccoon," "Happiness is a Warm Gun"), social satire ("Piggies," "Revolution") rock 'n' roll ("Helter Skelter," "Back in the USSR"), throwaway fun ("The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?") and but one difficult to listen to ("Revolution #9"); it was 30 songs worth of pure listening pleasure. Rolling Stone ranked The White Album number 10 among all rock albums ever (the Beatles merely filling up five spots in the top ten). This is all the more amazing considering that Paul McCartney called it "the tension album."

In February 1968, the Beatles traveled with their wives or girlfriends to Rishikesh, India, to learn Transcendental Meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The details of their growing disillusionment with the Maharishi are unimportant here. (The song, "Sexy Sadie," says it all.) The fact is, they were back in Abbey Road Studios by May. On the one hand, John, Paul and George had written a ton of songs during those hot, lazy Indian days and nights, interestingly free from the influence of drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, something had drastically changed in the individual Beatles' demeanors. Geoff Emerick, the recording engineer at Abbey Road, described the change in his book about recording The Beatles, Here, There and Everywhere:

They had come back from their trip to India completely different people. They had once been fastidious and fashionable; now they were unkempt. The had once been witty and full of humor; now they were solemn and prickly. They had once bonded together as life-long friends; now they resented each other’s company.

To make matters worse, there was be a fifth entity roaming about who didn't have, uh, much musical experience. We'll skip the details of John Lennon's romantic entanglements, but during the recording of The White Album, Yoko Ono not only accompanied John in the studio, but followed him wherever he went. Emerick: "If [John] went to the toilet, she'd walk him down the hall and wait outside, hunched down on the floor." The Beatles' producer, George Martin, remarked to Emerick, "What on earth is John thinking?"

But it was the effect on the other Beatles that mattered most. 

Emerick: You could tell from the icy chill and the looks on the faces of Paul, George and Ringo that they didn’t like it one bit. Their ranks had always been closed, and it was unthinkable that an outsider could penetrate their inner circle so quickly and so thoroughly.
There was one “outsider,” however, who would be most welcome. In fact, one could speculate that his presence at Abbey Road at least temporarily salved the festering wounds of India and perhaps made the four realize that there was a part of a larger musical community. (indeed, the Beatles were the ones leading it.)

On Friday, September 6, 1968, Cream guitarist Eric Clapton stepped into Studio Two at Abbey Road to play lead guitar on George Harrison's new song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." It almost didn’t happen. In a car together from their homes in Surrey to the London studio, George asked his good friend to help out. According to Mark Lewisohn, Clapton exclaimed, "No one plays on Beatles sessions!" George answered, "So what? It's my song."
Eric Clapton’s powerful performance on his Les Paul guitar made the song one of the many memorable moments of The White Album. And, according to George Harrison, there was the intangible benefit:  It made them all try a bit harder. They were all on their best behavior.

Brilliance had indeed overcome adversity…with a little help from a friend.

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