Why bother? That’s the first response. Why bother to buy it? And second, if you have, why bother to listen to all of it? I speak of The Beatles 50th anniversary reissue, with technological clean-ups, remastering and sonic bells and whistles, of The White Album. The album without a name.
Actually a double album without a name, just the band’s name embossed on the cover, white on white. Double albums in 1968, although not unknown, were a rarity and portended that if it is twice the size it must be of twice the import. Two years earlier, Bob Dylan had released Blonde on Blonde. Side four was one song – Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands – outdoing even his standards in smashing the three-minute pop standard.
But The White Album? Promise and reality were singing off different music sheets. It was the shattered reflection in a broken mirror of a band that was bigger than Jesus and yet was falling apart. Or perhaps John, Paul, George and Ringo were just growing up and away from each other. In 1970, the Beatles were no more.
After the thematic brilliance of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which conquered the world a year earlier, staying at No.1 on charts for months, The White Album, conceived in India and then back home in England, was a pastiche of styles. Still, it went to No.1. How could it not, on the tailwind of Sgt Pepper’s success? But really, would you listen to it all the way through?
It starts promisingly: Back in the USSR, Dear Prudence, Glass Onion. And then, oh dear – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. It could only be McCartney’s lyrics and it could only be described as “granny” music by Lennon. What follows is a slew of offcuts from the main trunk, such as Wild Honey Pie, Bungalow Bill, Sexy Sadie, Savoy Truffle. And occasionally a classic such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The band recorded Hey Jude that year but it was only released as a single. Six different versions of it would have been preferable to some of the stuff that made it.
And now the Baby Boomers of the world, cashed up and with time on their hands, can fork out almost $300 for a deluxe boxed set of The White Album, or about $60 for the three-disc set, to relive those times. It’s not a new phenomenon, dusting off the old stuff, finding alternative takes for the hardcore fans, and packaging it all up. Dylan seems to be leading the charge, although Neil Young is not far behind in opening up his archives, too. Others may say there is a very good reason some songs should have been left in the vault.
They just weren’t very good.