My reviews for music released originally in 1968.
1. The Beatles (10/10)
In an era with increasingly elaborate cover art – driven in part by the Beatles themselves, especially with Sgt. Pepper – the Beatles released a plain white album, with just their name on the front. This symbolic gesture came at a time when many – though hardly all – psychedelic bands were still very much releasing psychedelic – or psychedelia-influenced – music. Yes, the Byrds had released Sweetheart of the Rodeo in August, but almost everyone else was still very much committed to psychedelia as the genre.
- The Beach Boys were still releasing psychedelic pop records and would continue to do so.
- Cream was as psychedelic as ever.
- The Doors were still a long way from recording their roots albums.
- The Grateful Dead had just released a definitive psychedelic album.
- Hendrix had just released his magnum opus, which was still quite psychedelic.
- Pink Floyd had begun to move to something resembling prog rock, but were still recording psychedelic songs.
- The Small Faces, about to break up, had released their psychedelic record in the spring.
- Even the Stones, who were into psychedelia for all of five minutes, and who would soon issue their best, very anti-psychedelic, work – starting with Beggars’ Banquet, released a few weeks after The White Album – were still including “psychedelic” instruments – such as the tamboura – on some of their more traditional rock songs.
- Only the Kinks and the Who – of the major British groups – who had never taken up psychedelia in the first place, were not following the trend in autumn 1968.
So the cover was a shock – and a signal. At this point the Beatles were the biggest and most important band in the world and they were consciously spurning what they had just helped create and define. Can you imagine the impact? In a world where it was still possible to determine the biggest band in the world, in a world that existed prior to the internet, the most popular, and I think – to most people who had never listened to the Velvets and Frank Zappa, i.e. most people – the most innovative band in the world, releases an album cover that basically says “the style of music that has been dominating the charts for the last two years is over; move on.”
Now, obviously not everyone did move on; psychedelic music was still being made into the early ’70s. But a lot of musicians seem to have taken this as a signal; by the end of the decade none of the originators of psychedelic music would be making it any more, and those still producing it would be bands that got started in that era – like Spirit – when it seemed like it was the musical norm.
The recording process for The White Album was both the longest and most fractured of any Beatles album to date. The Beatles often could not work together because of personal and creative disagreements. Harrison’s solo debut was released a couple weeks before this album came out and Starr quit temporarily during the album, leaving McCartney to play drums on a few songs. George Martin went on a deliberate vacation in the middle of the record to protest their behaviour, leaving Chris Thomas to produce many early versions of songs and produce and play on pieces that made the final cut. Geoff Emerick, the most prominent of their engineers, quit during the sessions as a protest as well. By the end of the recordings, both Harrison and Lennon had also temporarily quit.
The result is the most fractured and least consistent album they had recorded since before Rubber Soul but I don’t know that this is a criticism. The White Album was like nothing else ever recorded up until that point. People had released double albums before: as discussed, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa released the first ever rock double albums within a month or so of each other back in the early summer of 1966. But both albums were essentially just larger statements – following previous work, in the case of Bob Dylan – and really didn’t strive to “do everything.” Cream released Wheels of Fire earlier in 1968, before they broke up, which established a brief practice within the industry of putting out a new studio album pared with a record of live tracks. (Pink Floyd, for example, followed suit in 1969). Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland reached perhaps a little farther than these others, but still inhabited a musical landscape where everything made sense together, was still recognizably connected in one supragenre of psychedelic blues rock. The White Album was completely different: genre and style changed drastically throughout, usually from song to song, with each of the band’s now four songwriters writing seemingly in any style that came to mind.
Never before had a rock band attempted – whether consciously or not – to play in every conceivable style possible on a single album. And this became a new standard for double – and later triple-albums, making it possible to do everything, or to show everything you can do. The Clash attempted it with London Calling and then again, with less success, with Sandinista!. Husker Du did the same with Zen Arcade. Guns and Roses attempted it – sort of – with Use Your Illusion. The Smashing Pumpkins tried it with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And those are just a couple of examples. There have been numerous attempts to do things within a more limited scope, but those albums have much more in common, I would say, with Blonde on Blonde than with the White Album – albums like Exile on Main St., Manasas, Being There, etc.
But it wasn’t just influential on double albums. By trying nearly everything within the scope of popular music – and some stuff outside of it – the Beatles showed that rock bands could do absolutely anything. They had already proven the value of the recording studio to pop / rock bands, but now they showed that there were literally no boundaries. After the White Album, nobody could really object to amateur musicians delving into one genre or the other; they could only object to the way they did it – or to the quality of the songs. And it’s this reason I think that for me places the White Album as the equal – or near equal – of their very best work. Its range and scope was unrivaled in its day and I think it’s rather hard to find another similarly ambitious album where even the “filler” is good or at least interesting / notable / provocative.
McCartney’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which opens the album, reveals an increasingly prominent side of his writing: his ability to absolutely skewer other artists in parody – in this case a band he was a big fan of, the Beach Boys. Whether he intended it or not – and his reflections sound like he didn’t really – he shows both the absurdity of the patriotism of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” and, more so, the absurdity of all these songs about women on the road. It features some of McCartney’s finest guitar playing, which helps it work as a song on its own, even if you don’t know the targets. The song is also notable for containing, in addition to the samples, three bass parts, played by all three main Beatles. And I should also note that this is a far cry from anything that had opened a Beatles album in two years: straight-ahead, American rock and roll.
The lead-off track segues into “Dear Prudence” by way of its closing – and opening – airplane take-off. This is one of the more straightforward songs Lennon had come up with recently, merely written to keep Mia Farrow’s sister from going insane. Though straightforward, it is one of his strongest efforts on the album and seems to represent Lennon taking note of Harrison’s musical preoccupations – so says Pollack. It is the rare Lennon song that shows off McCartney’s talents as a one man band, as he is responsible for much of the final arrangement and sound of the song, such as the great use of dynamics.
“Glass Onion” is a song written about the Beatles cultists responsible for the “Paul is dead” rumour and also those who tried to read other secret meanings into Beatles’ songs – and Lennon’s in particular, since his songs often featured the oddest lyrics. It is yet another self-referential song; far and away the most self-referential the Beatles recorded. (“I Am the Walrus” mentions “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and apparently “Lady Madonna” mentions “I Am the Walrus”.) It can be seen as an outright attack on the fans who were trying to read too much into everything the Beatles did, such as those responsible for the “Paul is Dead” myth. Musically, it features an interesting string arrangement by Martin, and is in the style of an updated talking-blues – if that string arrangement and those sound-effects weren’t present.
“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” is one of McCartney’s silly little love songs. But it is notable for being the first truly non rock song on the record, being heavily influenced by ska, reggae and the African “highligh” genre, all of which had made their way to Britain during the ’60s. (Lennon’s “I Call Your Name” had far subtler Jamaican musical influences years earlier.) It’s hardly authentic – the tempo was changed so that it was less ska in the final version – but it again shows the ridiculous stylistic diversity of a band when the very idea of a band recording music in a style of a foreign culture was pretty much unheard of only a couple years prior. It was a no. 1 hit for a one-hit wonder around Christmas time, because Lennon and Harrison would not let McCartney release it as a Beatles single.
“Wild Honey Pie” is the first “filler alert” moment of the album, as it is a song fragment of McCartney just fooling around – and it has nothing really to do with “Honey Pie,” another song on the album. It is also the first song on the album to clearly show the fractures in the band. (Nothing on the sleeve indicated Starr was not present for the first two songs.) As the album progresses there are more and more of these types of solo efforts and near-solo efforts. It’s hard to know what the album would have sounded like if a different, more complete song, a number of which did not make the cut and found their way on to Abbey Road or the later solo efforts, had been used in its stead. The way it is, it acts like a bridge between songs, something that has become absolutely standard in ambitious rock albums. These kinds of segues are now so normal we don’t even notice them as unusual things.
Though seemingly a children’s song, like a number of the songs on the White Album, “Bungalow Bill” is actually an attack on a person the Beatles met in India who killed a tiger. It features a chorus performed by the whole band and two significant others, and it features the one and only female lead vocal on a Beatles song when Yoko Ono sings the mother’s line. The gang vocal thing predates the trend that has dominated much of indie rock the past few years, but it was obviously preceded by “Yellow Submarine”. The impressive sounding flamenco guitar that opens the song is really a mellotron set on “Spanish guitar”; a setting I think most people didn’t know existed, which is surprising given the mellotron’s prominence duplicating strings, brass, winds and vocals throughout much of its use on record. It was played by Chris Thomas who was sitting in for Martin at the time.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was my favourite Beatles song for years probably for the simple fact that it features the greatest guitar playing of any Beatles song, provided by a famously uncredited Eric Clapton – who was soon to perform with Lennon in The Dirty Mac and his Plastic Ono Band. Clapton’s performance is certainly one of the most famous guest performances of all time. His lead guitar is probably the best guitar playing on a Beatles song and one of his finest performances of the ’60s. Lennon’s guitar part is barely audible, on the contrary. It is Harrison’s best song to date. For him, it was a writing exercise; he literally wrote about the first thing he saw: his guitar. At least that’s the official story.
Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a suite of sorts, mixing together a number of song fragments in different rock and roll sub-genres, inspired by various different things including magazines and acid trips. It is one of the absolute highlights of the album, featuring all sorts of complicated time signatures, one of the rare whole-band performances, and one of the few examples of the Beatles ever playing in separate time at the same time – in the doo-wop section. It is, for me, one of the highlights of the latter stages of their career. And it’s an example of how, even when they weren’t doing crazy things with the studio, the Beatles were still innovative.
“Martha My Dear” is one of McCartney’s explorations of pre-rock and roll British music; this time the genre is music hall. But beneath this veneer is it a very complex composition featuring various non- traditional musical ideas, including odd section lengths and a slightly different bridge the second time around. It is another example of a near-solo effort by McCartney. It is a stark contrast to the – mostly – rock and roll that dominates the album to this point.
“I’m So Tired” features calm and mild verses and far louder, manic choruses, showing, about as well as anything they ever did, the Beatles’ sense of dynamics. It also has a lot of samples thrown in to make the whole recording very dense. I put it among what I think is an excellent set of songs from Lennon this time out. He was moving into new territory beyond the radical experiments he had made with his lyrics, and now began a more mature process of incorporating some of that radicalism into his more traditional style, as a result creating more accessible songs which still managed to be innovative and lyrically interesting.
“Blackbird” is another McCartney solo piece, this time inspired by Bach and black girls – in that order. “Blackbird” is one of McCartney’s most endearing solo acoustic numbers and has actually become a bit famous despite being buried deep within the album. It vaguely connects with the social unrest that was going on in the United States, if you believe McCartney’s version of the story, which I don’t really. I think it appeals so much because it is simpler – at least recording-wise – than virtually everything else on what could have been an absolutely impenetrable album, had some band other than the most popular band in the world released it. And unlike the other simpler songs on the album, the lyrics are not about dead mothers and the like.
“Piggies” is another one of the pseudo-children’s songs on the album, featuring lyrics about animals and accompanying animal noises. It is really about class – or the police, take your pick – so, like “Bungalow Bill”, one has to listen to the lyrics, though obviously that song was a real story and this song uses symbology instead. It is not one of Harrison’s best efforts but it has some musical ideas worth noting, as when the classical instruments – harpsichord, strings – accompanying the band play the blues in the bridge, which is pretty fucking out there if I do say so myself.
“Rocky Raccoon” is another McCartney parody, this time of folk and “country and western” music. It has become a bit of a classic – like “Blackbird” – and is one of McCartney’s best story songs; as a result its nature as parody is once again obscured, something he had a special gift for. McCartney kept changing the lyrics – you can hear it in the Anthology demo, for example – often stressing more and more absurd scenarios for his story as he ad-libbed. But the final lyrics are slightly more restrained which, like I said, sort of hides the parodic side of the thing. And really, the best parodies are those where the audience is not exactly sure if it’s a parody.
“Don’t Pass Me By” marks Starr’s debut as a solo composer and we can tell – he only knew three chords on the piano, or something like that. It is definitely the worst thing on the album though it features some inspired fiddle playing by that guest musician. It was written in 1963 or 1964 but never passed the mustard until the Beatles decided to record and release everything. (And actually they didn’t as White Album outtakes would make it on to Abbey Road, All Things Must Pass and McCartney.) Starr would do a much better job the next time around.
“Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” is another McCartney parody, this time of empty blues lyrics – inspired by watching monkeys have sex in India. It features his one man band antics again and some great singing. (To really hear some great singing, listen to the demo on Anthology which features even better singing overall to a much more slowly paced, and less engaging, arrangement of the song.) I think the arrangement raises it above the level of filler myself.
“I Will” is not a parody but an earnest song about commitment. It has an unusual feature in that the bass line is a vocalization by McCartney rather than a guitar part – again, showing off his rather incredible vocal abilities. It demonstrates McCartney still hasn’t outgrown his knack for ballads, which his previous tracks may have suggested up until this point. It’s interesting to me that “Blackbird” and “Rocky Raccoon” have become quite widely known – and played – and yet “I Will” has not. Perhaps it’s too serious.
“Julia” is one of Lennon’s most personal songs, about his mother who died when he was 17, and therefore a bit of a preview of Plastic Ono Band in substance if not in tone. In an interview he indicated Yoko Ono might have had a hand in writing it, which seems hard to understand given the personal nature of the song. It, along with “Blackbird,” is the simplest recording on the album: double tracked vocals and guitar. That’s it. So the first half of the album ends on a folky singer-songwriter bent – two in a row – completely at odds with much of the material on the album and with what the Beatles had been doing for the past couple years.
“Birthday” is another of the pseudo-children’s songs scattered throughout the album, although unlike the singalong “Bungalow Bill” or the baroque pop of “Piggies,” it is a rock and roll song. It is the only collaborative effort between the two main songwriters on the album and the only time they both sang lead together. (Lennon helped with the lyrics, or both the lyrics and the music, depending on whose memory we’re consulting.) It features some of McCartney’s best singing and though it is a traditional rock and roll song – with one of their most famous riffs – it features certain non-traditional elements, including an extended drum break, which was unusual for the Beatles, and the usual studio trickery: running instruments through speakers or amps they weren’t intended for, etc. It was intentionally written as a song that would get played again and again and again, which is what happened; how many times have you been subjected to this at a stadium or something? Funnily enough, it was buried in the middle of their longest album – perhaps because they were aware of how catchy it was.
A live-in-the-studio confessional song about suicide posing as a devastating parody of British blues, “Yer Blues” is another highlight. Lennon’s lyrics are apparently intended as seriously confessional – and mention a Bob Dylan song perhaps as a hint to that – but the over-the-top delivery parodies the dominance of blues music in England at the time. (Lennon may have been thinking particularly of Cream, and of Fleetwood Mac, of whom he was a fan.) The best parts of the parody are Harrison’s and Lennon’s guitar solos, which go absolutely nowhere but last about as long as any Beatles’ solos had to that point. They are hilarious. The song was recorded in a tiny little room next to the booth, which adds to its feel of claustrophobia.
“Mother Nature’s Son” is yet another solo effort from McCartney and is one of the earnest ones, rather than a parody, as it was inspired by a spiritual lecture he heard in India. It’s pleasant and features a subtle backing arrangement. But for me it isn’t a standout. This is the kind of thing that McCartney could toss off whenever he wanted. That’s impressive, for sure, but it gets a little tiresome.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” is a complete reversal from the previous track: it is one of the most manic songs the Beatles ever recorded. It is almost spoken-sung and it features all four band members overdubbing percussion to the performance. The lyrics are supposedly about how weird it was for Lennon to be in love at a time when everyone was worried about Ono’s influence on him. It briefly changes time near the end, just to mess with us.
“Sexy Sadie” was written about the yogi that the Beatles spent time with in India after he hit on one of the female guests. Lennon changed her name because Harrison made a fuss. In contrast to the previous song, it is stately and slowly paced and prominently features a piano instead of guitar and percussion noise. As they had often done, they ran the piano through a speaker to give it a non-traditional sound. The over-the-top doo-wop vocals add to the change in atmosphere. Another highlight from Lennon.
And “Sexy Sadie” totally doesn’t prepare you for “Helter Skelter,” the loudest and most violent rock song the Beatles ever recorded. Shockingly written by McCartney of all people, it shows just how varied he could be, and demonstrates his command of more aspects of rock music than some of us – me – would be inclined to grant him. Originally, the song started off as a ridiculously long jam – nearly half an hour during one take – with McCartney’s complementary ridiculous lyrics. (No doubt these lyrics come from the general parodic mood he was in at the time.) However, McCartney was encouraged by the Who into making it louder, faster and far more over the top – Townshend apparently described “I Can See for Miles” as loud, raw and dirty. McCartney didn’t agree and sought to out do them which, I think we can agree, he did. (At least in 1968 – the Who then outdid them many times over in the volume, rawness and dirt departments later on, especially live.) The song features all sorts of noises and other tricks – false endings – in addition to the loud and fast guitar playing, which could pass for metal – just being invented at the time. Listen to this and tell me the Beatles were a “pop band.”
One of the dominant features of the White Album is the contrast from song to song: “Long Long Long” is the complete opposite to “Helter Skelter.” Nonetheless, mostly surrounded by rock songs, its placement in the album order is decidedly odd. It is one of Harrison’s finest love songs and it features a near-Spectoresque ‘Wall of Sound’ behind it, despite the relatively sparse instrumentation; it shows the skill of all those involved that they get such a huge sound out of relatively few instruments. This Spector-worship would rear its ugly head later on when Lennon and Harrison would in fact hire Spector – or allow him to be hired, but more on that later. Some regard this as Harrison’s’ finest Beatles song – rather than “Here Comes the Sun” or “Something” – and there are times when I am inclined to agree.
The original version of “Revolution” is a lot slower and lot less “lo fi” than the version Lennon – or likely McCartney – rearranged for the b-side of the single. At its base, it is a blues song, slightly rocked up, with traditional do-wop vocals; in contrast to its louder, faster brother. It further features a trombone-heavy brass arrangement, also totally absent form the b-side version. It was the only time the Beatles had released multiple versions of the same song – up until this point – outside of “Love Me Do” and it was evidence of their creative process – for good or ill. When Anthology came out we learned that they did this a lot more often than people thought, and that the final version sometimes went through many tempos and styles, and even completely different instrumentation, showing the range of the band more than ever before. It should be noted that this version of “Revolution” fades out because it ended with a ridiculously long jam – similar in length to one version of “Helter Skelter”, I guess they were in that mood – and that jam morphed into their most notorious piece of music, once they got it into the mixing booth.
“Honey Pie” is totally unrelated to “Wild Honey Pie,” as I have already noted. It is another of McCartney’s music hall numbers and it is notable for actually featuring the rest of the Beatles, unlike most of his other efforts in non-rock genres on the album. It features a surprisingly tasteful traditional – i.e. ’40s – jazz guitar solo from Lennon of all people. It also features a bravura vocal performance from McCartney, if you get around the idea that you are listening to music hall in 1968. Just think of it as a parody. If you listen to enough jazz-pop from the ’30s – and don’t we all? – then it becomes clever and funny.
“Savoy Truffle” is, lyrically, a rather silly song about chocolate addiction and losing your teeth, which features a low-end sax section distorted so that the abilities of the performers are lost in a fog of effects. It pales in comparison with Harrison’s efforts earlier in the album but it features some odd touches including one of those Beatles hallmarks: the changing bass line. The song contains the most self- referential moment – “Glass Onion” is the most self-referential song – in the Beatles catalogue as Harrison refers to “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” a song on the same release.
“Cry Baby Cry” is actually two songs, or rather a song and a song fragment, as McCartney’s “Can You Take Me Back” – for lack of a better name – is tacked on to the end as the coda. “Cry Baby Cry” is sort of a folk-pop song with demented pseudo-lullaby lyrics. “Can You Take Me Back” appears to be just McCartney harping on a phrase for a minute and is the very definition of filler. This makes sense as it was improvised by McCartney while they were trying to record “I Will.” But at least it is not crazily over-produced like “Wild Honey Pie” is.
Nothing in the Beatles catalogue, and probably nothing in popular music – save for Zappa’s suites – and especially not “Can You Take Me Back,” could have prepared listeners for “Revolution No. 9.” The longest “piece” in the Beatles songbook it is unlike anything else they released. (Though McCartney had created something allegedly similar back in January 1967 and Lennon made similar efforts with Yoko Ono on their albums released around this time.) The average popular music fan of 1968 – whether they listened to the Beatles regularly or not – was not prepared for this track. Originating as an extremely extended coda to one of the many versions of “Revolution,” Lennon, Ono and Harrison compiled tape loops of that jam, sounds, voices – including their own – and “classical” music performances and eventually assembled this monster.
What exactly is it? During the two decades since World War II, modern European composers had been experimenting with tape loops, first of conventional instruments, then of any sounds. Most notable among them – in terms of influence on the Beatles anyway – were Karlhein Stockhausen and Edgar Varese. This style of music, musique concrete, had already influenced the Beatles to a rather great effect on Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am the Walrus” and the never-released, nearly mythical early ’67 McCartney composition, “Carnival of Light.” But “No. 9” had little precedent and even today shocks listeners – mostly into skipping over it or dismissing it outright. All I can say is this: whether you’ve ever listened to it or not, and regardless of your definition of “music,” the band that recorded and released “Love Me Do” in the fall of 1962, recorded and released this merely six years later. Now I wouldn’t claim for a moment that this is anything on par with Varese, whom I know, or Stockhausen, whom I don’t, but the Beatles were the only pop / rock musicians in the world, aside from Frank Zappa and the Velvets, to be paying any attention whatsoever to the post-war avant-garde of “classical” music. And unlike Zappa and the Velvets, who had small and minuscule audiences respectively, the Beatles influenced everyone on the planet. The impact of this slice of the avant-garde on, say, 17-year-old kids expecting rock music, must have been immense were they willing to listen to it. After listening to “No. 9” there are no more musical boundaries in the world. This is like Nietzsche for rock musicians: anything is possible.
In typical fashion for the album, it finishes with a lullaby for Lennon’s son, “Good Night,” practically the most traditional sounding thing on the entire album, and completely out of character with everything else – especially the track that leads into it. The orchestration is terribly and deliberately cheesy, possibly in a deliberate semi-self-parody of the Beatles as performing characters during 1967. (And perhaps we can look at it as a sideways attack at McCartney in that sense.) It also alludes to the idea that maybe the Beatles – or likely McCartney – viewed this as yet another fake concert and this was their walk-off number.
Amazingly, the Beatles had actually recorded much more than the 30 songs listed here but, unlike modern bands – or George Harrison during his solo career – who would likely release all of them on some kind of triple album, they decided to keep it at 30. Some of these outtakes would find their way on to later Beatles albums but mostly they would emerge on solo albums in the ’70s and even in the ’80s in the case of one of Harrison’s outtakes.
To get a sense of how insane this monster was, let’s run through the genres as we meet them:
- rock and roll and surf
- folk rock
- psych folk
- singalong psychedelia
- art rock / prog rock via rock and roll
- music hall
- baroque folk
- baroque pop
- country rock
- blues rock
- rock and roll / singalong / novelty
- British blues
- folk pop
- hard rock
- psychedelic pop
- Brill building pop
- blues rock
- jazz pop
- psychedelic blues rock
- baroque folk pop with traditional folk tacked on to the end
- musique concrete
Now I know that seems relatively tame in comparison to genre-hopping of, say, Mr. Bungle, but remember the context: autumn 1968. Find something else of this time that compares in terms of scope. I know of absolutely nothing.
The Beatles invented the kitchen sink double album. After its release, numerous other bands would attempt to “do everything” in this manner. Nobody had ever tried this much before, but it would become in some ways the standard other bands – if not critics or fans – would measure themselves by. And that was true of much of their work. People have said it better:
[The album] reveals the popping seams of a band that had the pressure of an entire fissuring generational / political gap on its back. Maybe it’s because it shows The Beatles at the point where even their music couldn’t hide the underlying tensions between John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or maybe because it was (coincidentally?) released at the tail end of a year anyone could agree was the embittered honeymoon’s end for the Love Generation, the year when, to borrow from a famous Yeats poem, the center decidedly could not hold…for whatever reason, The Beatles is still one of the few albums by the Fab Four that resists reflexive canonisation, which, along with society’s continued fragmentation, keeps the album fresh and surprising. (Eric Henderson, Slate, August 2, 2004: http://www.slantmagazine.com/music/review/the-beatles-the-beatles- the-white-album/467)
The comment I made about “Love Me Do” versus “Revolution No. 9” is true of so very much of their work from 1965 on. Can anyone really conceive of how far they had come in only 6 years? They had gone from being a relatively unique rock and roll band – but still a rock and roll band – to making avant-garde “classical” music – among so many other genres – in only 6 years. It’s flabbergasting. Honestly.
2. The Velvet Underground: White Light / White Heat (10/10)
If “Heroin” was not the invention of noise rock, and the kicking down of the (very artificial) door between rock music and noise-as-music outside of rock music, then White Light/White Heat does whatever “Heroin” couldn’t. The hints of feedback and dissonance on the debut are ratcheted up by a factor of at least 10 on this record, though the first side of the record is considerably less noisy than the second.
It’s not just that the Velvets influenced people by showing us all that you too could start a band, they also showed that you could make anything you want sound musical. Few people knew that in 1968.
2. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We’re Only in it for the Money (10/10)
We’re Only in It for the Money is both more radical and less radical than Absolutely Free.
On the one hand, there are a bunch of actual, stand alone songs here, at least one of which appears to contain entirely sincere Zappa (who rarely appears) and those songs, though perhaps dating a little better than the most avant garde songs here, are not among his best songs. “Mom & Dad” was another one of his sincere message songs that he soon stopped writing but I’m not sure it’s as effective as satirical Zappa. “Let’s Make Make the Water Turn Black” works better because it’s Zappa being Zappa, lyrically if not musically.
On the other hand, this record is as challenging or perhaps even more challenging than Absolutely Free. “Are You Hung Up?” is the most radical opening of a popular music recording in the history of the medium – nobody had ever dared to put anything like that as the lead track before… and who had yet recorded anything like that? And the other interludes are often just as jarring. (“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” was the most radical recording yet made by any “rock band” to date, I’m pretty sure.”) Sound effects have also become a normal part of making a record as so many people add dialogue and noises in between real songs now.
With the possible exception of the last track, perhaps, I think you can claim the “proper” music is less sophisticated than on Absolutely Free – or maybe Zappa is just better at combining his ideas so they seem less radical. But the satirical bite is still here – some of which (the misogyny) has dated rather poorly. And, more importantly, the package is the most radical that had ever been assembled for popular music to date. It may not sound like it today, with much of this becoming normal, but these sounds and snippets inserted between and into songs had never been done to this extent before (and only really done by Zappa).
There’s just nothing else like it. (Yes, I prefer Absolutely Free as a listening experience.)
4. The Band: Music From Big Pink (10/10)
A lot of the myth around this album hinges on the idea that some or most of these songs sound as though they have always existed. Though that’s been way overstated over the years, I think it’s true of some of them, certainly some of the originals sound like biblical stories.
Of course some of them certainly do not. (Does “Lonesome Suzie” sound like it’s always existed? Does “Chest Fever”?)
But regardless, the songs are pretty much universally strong but it’s arguably their inimitable singing style and the production that makes the recorded sound old, even though it’s performed using electric instruments.
Putting that aside for a second, this is one of the first “roots rock” albums ever, depending upon what you think of Dylan’s first post-accident record and CCR’s debut. It’s more rock than Dylan and it’s got far better songs than CCR’s debut. Given the huge world of roots since, even if this wasn’t a great set of songs, you could argue it was a hugely important record. But the fact that the songs are good makes it an absolute classic.
4. Blue Cheer: Vincebus Eruptum (10/10)
Probably the invention of Heavy Metal. Read the review.
6. The Soft Machine: Volume 1 (10/10)
7. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (10/10)
8. The United States of America (10/10)
At some point in this mists of time, I wrote the following:
This stuff is mind-blowing. Almost as out there as Zappa and the Mothers (at their very weirdest) or the Velvets (at their very artiest) and not quite as crazy – and far more artsy – as Beefheart was about to get.
It’s too band the sound isn’t exactly great, as apparently these guys were very, very noisy in concert, which doesn’t exactly come across here. The songs aren’t exactly great – Zappa was certainly the better composer – and the band could really use a real rock singer – I get that having a singer like her was part of the radicalism of the project, but I still think the whole thing would have been helped by a stronger, more traditional rock singer – but those are nitpicks.
It is pretty tough for me to imagine that this was released in 1968. Outside of Zappa, nobody else in the world was making “rock” music this challenging or thought-provoking and even half a century later it still sounds out-there. Crazy.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with all of that and the way I wrote it was a little confusing. Only at their weirdest are the USA like the Mothers whereas at their artiest maybe the Velvets might sort of resemble the USA, but the comparisons aren’t really fair. This is a unique band, with basically no precedent in popular music history. (Zappa was a composer, but he was untrained. Byrd was trained.) Some of the music has held up a lot better than the rest, but there’s no denying who out-there and forward-thinking this music was in 1968. And two of these songs are good enough as songs that it’s a shame that only fans of avant garde music will ever know them.
9. Silver Apples (10/10)
Though Simeon’s singing style dates the record a lot – nobody sings like this now – and though the combination of raw electronic noisemakers and drums is an odd one that probably only could have occurred in the late 1960s, it’s still incredibly improbable that this record was made when it was. Nobody else was doing this.
Sure, composers were experimenting with electronic instruments and the odd rock or pop group was tentatively incorporating the mellotron or the Moog (through a keyboard) into the background of their music, nobody else was using oscillators to create music in a pop music context. “High art” experiments with synthesizers were too avant garde and the popular use of synthesizers was too subtle for most listeners to notice. But here the oscillators are in your face; there’s no disguising that this record is voice, drums and some electronic machines (plus the odd other thing).
It is literally the birth of electronic music as a popular genre. It may not sound much at all like the German music that came after it, or most of the other electronic music in after that, but it’s utterly without precedent.
10. The Jeff Beck Group: Truth (10/10)
11. The Stooges (10/10)
12. Fairport Convention: What We Did on Our Holidays (10/10)
13. Ennio Morricone: Once Upon a Time in the West (10/10)
14. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (10/10)
15. God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail with it (9/10)
Even after listening to this record many times, it’s still a mindfuck that it is was made in 1968. With the exception of its most avant garde tracks (like “The Shirt”), there was basically nothing like this being made in the world that the time. It is everything psychedelia wasn’t: it is sparse, it is primitive/naive, it is brief, it is unambitious. Imagine listening to this as a 17-year-old in 1968 – the world must have opened up.
In addition to its crazy, path-breaking nature, Thompson did actually manage to write some pretty catchy songs (mostly song fragments) which might even hold up to more traditional arrangements if anyone ever tried.
This is one of those records that almost stands out of time – it’s hard to understand how it got made, where these people came from and how anyone could have come up with this, especially at a time when you were supposed to learn to play the sitar and hire a string section.
16. Blood, Sweat and Tears: Child is Father to the Man (9/10)
I am not sure if this is the first “rock with horns” record, but it’s very close to being the first. (I’ve never heard The Trip by the Electric Flag but kind of assume there are horns all over that thing, as there are on their next record.) But even if it isn’t the very first, it’s probably the best. Kooper’s songs are more consistent than those of the Electric Flag’s many songwriters, and Kooper’s music is more rooted in classic American genres than later BST music or Chicago (both of which feel like this record with more of an ardent desire to sell records).
Katz isn’t my favourite singer and so his song and his cover work less well for me than the rest of it, and Kooper is self-indulgent here (shock of all shocks) perhaps more than was necessary, but the uniqueness of the large band and its excellence make up for it. (Listen to Kooper’s solo work – it is not as good as this.)
It’s a record that launched its own subgrene, which is a big deal in and of itself. But it’s also pretty great, featuring some of the best vocal performances of Kooper’s career, solid songs and great arrangements.
17. The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (9/10)
There are a number of people who believe this is the Byrds’ best album. And I understand why: it is pretty consistent, song-wise and, sort of, stylistically. And that’s all the more remarkable for what the band was going through, losing one of their primary songwriters and their drummer and failing to re-integrate their original main songwriter into the record. The fact that it is as good as it is is something like a miracle.
I also appreciate that this is probably the only time they fully integrated their three competing sounds – folk rock, psychedelic rock and country – into a coherent whole. On earlier albums, the hints at country often stood out like sore thumbs and some of the folkier tracks felt at odds with the really psychedelic/jazzy stuff.
But I gotta say I personally prefer the more daring earlier records, even if they were not as consistent. And though the songs are good here, my favourite Byrds songs are not on this record.
It’s still a classic – I’m not sure any other band managed to combine country and psychedelic music at all, let alone this well – but I don’t think it’s their very best album. 2nd or 3rd best in my mind.
18. Os Mutantes (9/10)
A unique spin on psychedelia which has been perhaps a touch overrated through time.
19. The Rolling Stones: Beggar’s Banquet (9/10)
20. International Submarine Band: Safe at Home (9/10)
Yes, it’s the first country rock album. But it’s not as good as the later ones. Read the review of Safe at Home.
21. The Pentangle (9/10)
A really unique fusion of folk and jazz. Read the review of The Pentangle’s debut album.
22. The Lee Konitz Duets (9/10)
A classic survey of small group jazz of the time. Read the review.
23. Miles Davis: Nefertiti (9/10)
This is probably best known as Miles’ last wholly acoustic album, before he began to embrace fusion and abandon bop. But that makes it sound like it is somehow more conservative than it actually is. Sure, it’s not free jazz, but this is still pretty out there. In fact, I detect at least a bit of an influence of free on the music (though it is very subtle) in addition to more obvious hard bop and modal strands. It’s a pretty sedate thing for something that is sort of stuck between two worlds. But that’s not a bad thing. It makes it a little unusual in that sense and it also makes sense given where Miles was going with the electric bands that followed. It’s a strong effort with great playing and enough forward-looking-ness (for lack of a better term) to keep things interesting.
But I can’t help looking at in retrospect, and in retrospect it really does feel like a transition.
24. The Kinks: The Village Green Preservation Society (9/10)
25. The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (9/10)
26. The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard Clark (9/10)
It’s funny that Clark quit the Byrds to pursue the music the Byrds themselves ended up pursuing. Though it has been ages since I listened to Sweetheart of the Radio, I think I like this a little more. It’s a little more consistent in its mission, methinks. On the other hand, the Byrds album was first (albeit not by much) and obviously more important because people actually listened to it. Still an important landmark in the country rock merger.
27. Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul (9/10)
Much grittier than I was expecting. Read the review.
28. Creedence Clearwater Revival (9/10)
This is an important record but it is also a flawed record. Because I like it so much I sometimes have to remind myself of that.
So first the importance: along with The Great White Wonder/The Basement Tapes and Music from Big Pink (which was released 2 months after this), this record invented roots rock. More significantly, this record has been more influential on the rock side of roots than those other records (though they’re arguably more influential on the “Americana” side of things). Most roots rock is hard to imagine without CCR, which began with this record.
This record is also great! Their cover of “I Put a Spell on You” is amazing, as is the single edit of their cover of “Suzie Q” (more on that in a moment). Fogerty’s guitar playing is barbed and ferocious and iconic; he was a more talented Neil Young before Neil became famous for playing like this (well, in a more primitive, less bluesy way).
But there some huge issues with this album that CCR resolved with later records:
- First, Fogerty improved by leaps and bounds as a songwriter. The originals here are not particularly great; some are okay but others are pretty weak and he would get much, much better.
- Second, the psychedelic effects are so not CCR and they’d drop them for the next few albums, to great benefit.
- And the album version of “Susie Q” goes on way too long.
Those three things keep me from giving it full marks, even though I want to.
29. The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (8/10)
In 2010, I wrote the following:
This is quite surprising given the culture it was recorded in. Aside from the vocal arrangements, which are often quite elaborate, the arrangements are very sparse, which is the exact opposite of what was in vogue. This is very notable and I am always into things that buck trends. The lack of a guitar on many tracks is very striking. I don’t know if it was because he quite or didn’t want to participate on some songs, or maybe he got mixed out…
Unfortunately, the song writing is not up to the level of the best bands of the era. More inventive arrangements might have helped. Conversely, some better songs with these same unique arrangements might have worked.
It’s pretty impressive but it’s no masterpiece.
I can’t say that I quite agree. I do agree that the lyrics are sometimes kind of not great, but the melodies are significantly stronger than I gave it credit for at the time. And the whole thing is really rather unique, in particular in comparison to so much other music made in 1967 and 1968, which just wanted to drown you in instruments and samples and such.
Hype is a bad thing and I had heard too much when I first heard this record. Now I know better.
30. The Grateful Dead: Anthem of the Sun (10/10)
The first time I heard this I was blown away for some reason. I guess I was so impressed with the idea of Garcia and Lesh mixing it live in the studio that everything else seemed secondary. But, after many years, I can’t say I think it’s a masterpiece any more.
It’s certainly a neat idea for the time, mixing live tracks together to create a new master, and adding studio overdubs. This is certainly the most blatantly (and proudly) that had ever been done up to this point.
But the Dead were an incredible live band and, hearing this record and hearing many live recordings, I’m not sure this record is better because of the editing and additional recordings. It’s better than most of their studio albums, sure, but I’m not sure it’s better than a straight up live album would have been.
I think it’s one of those records where the idea of it is super compelling but the actual finished product is a little less trail-blazing or compelling as the concept behind it.
Still a neat thing to do.
31. Small Faces: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (8/10)
Side one is exactly what you might want from a band that recently discovered their psychedelic side; the songs manage to combine everything that was good about this band by adding additional elements that make the record sound vaguely “trippy.” The songs idiosyncratically British but give you a pretty great sense of time and place, and they’re catchy. They’re also pretty muscular, especially compared to other music in this vein from the era. And they are just psychedelic enough for it to sound relatively “cutting edge.”
But for me, the second side just doesn’t work as well; the songs aren’t quite as strong as the first side and I really don’t know that the story concept has dated very well over the years. It’s a novel idea but it’s not why I listen to rock music, and if I’m going to listen to something else, I want that something else to work seamlessly. This does not.
But, that being said, this is a good set of fairly unique songs, played well by a pretty great band. Try to ignore the spoken word bits.
32. Dr. John, The Night Tripper: Gris-Gris (8/10)
I think this is an authentic and original take on New Orleans music but I really have no idea. Read the review.
33. The Electric Flag: A Long Time Comin’ (8/10)
Imagine the first iteration of Blood, Sweat and Tears – whom Electric Flag fans allege were beat to the punch in group formation and album recording, if not in album release – with less jazz and more blues, a smaller horn section, less of an orchestra, better secondary lead singers, fewer original songs, and a virtuoso lead guitarist instead of a virtuoso keyboardist. That should give you some idea of what The Electric Flag sound like on their proper debut album (as the soundtrack was more of a Bloomfield project with help from these people).
The song selection is not as strong as the BST debut, which isn’t really surprising, but the arrangements often lift the weaker material up. The album also doesn’t quite achieve the same alchemy that BST did, where everything sounds of a piece.
Still, this is excellent “rock with horns,” with particularly good rock arrangements and, of course, Mike Bloomfield.
34. The Incredible String Band: The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (8/10)
Though the previous record might be a little more forward-thinking/path=breaking, this one has dated better to my ears. The songs are more ambitious but there are also more melodies to catch on to. Williamson and Heron are still two guys do not endear themselves to people brought up listening to rock singers – they still manage to sing as if they were recording in completely different era.
Certainly this is among the most creative and out-there psychedelic folk of the era. (See, for example, “A Very Cellular Song.”) Like their previous record, it just doesn’t date as well as most of the ground-breaking psychedelic rock music being made at the same time.
This is one of those records that I respect more than I like. Sure, there are moments I quite like but, for the most part, I find myself thinking “Wow, this was brave” but not coming back to the record enough.
35. Kaleidoscope: A Beacon from Mars (8/10)
With the exception of the two longest tracks, this record is a bit of full-on commitment to the more old timey side of the band, which is not something that’s super welcome. Though the band are excellent performers, and their version of “Greenwood Sidee” is classic, they are too talented to spend all their efforts on that music.
Fortunately “Taxim” and the title track are here to save us from believing they forgot how to play the psychedelic music that made them one of most out-there bands of the era.
The older I get, the more I’m torn with this one: I like the epics (though the title track is a little too long) and I would strongly suggest listening to them if someone was wondering what Kaleidoscope were about; and I like “Greenwood Sidee,” as I mentioned already, and would put that up against any other band’s version. But I can’t say I love how much of this record is devoted to very well-played but old timey (or old timey-sounding) music at the expense of their other styles.
36. Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills: Super Session (8/10)
I loved this record way too much when I first heard it. I was already in a bit of a thing for Bloomfield, I think, and it along with BST’s debut set me off on an Al Kooper obsession.
And it’s full of wonderful musicianship, if you’re into that sort of thing. The performances are pretty damn great. The cover of “Season of the Witch” is my favourite cover of that song.
But it’s really two records in one and they’re not all that unified.
There aren’t really many “songs” here.
Also, the horns, though they add something, feel against the spirit of the whole thing. Some late-night jam session…
This sounds critical, but it’s only critical in relation to my earlier complete infatuation with it. This is one of those records I could listen to over and over again. But it’s flawed.
37. Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac (8/10)
Very solid late ’60s British blues.
38. Traffic (8/10)
39. This Was Jethro Tull (8/10)
40. Deep Purple: The Book of Taliesyn (8/10)
41. The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (8/10)
42. Original Broadway Cast: Hair (8/10)
Daring as all get out, but flawed and dated, especially the lyrics. Read the review of the Original Broadway Cast version of Hair.
43. Laura Nyro: Eli and the 13th Confession (7/10)
Crazy tempo switches are the highlight for me with this record. Read my review of Eli and the 13th Confession.
44. Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets (7/10)
If you look up “transitional album” in the dictionary, there ought to be this album cover. Few major bands of their era ever recorded something so stuck between different eras.
One the one hand are the legacies of the original version of the band:
- there’s one of Barrett’s last songs for the band probably his last solo;
- there are tracks written by both Wright and Waters which sound like they were written for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and were rejected, or were written for its sequel;
- there are a number of “freak out” moments present on these tracks.
On the other hand, the future is also here:
- “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” basically invented space rock;
- and the title track is one of the most “progressive” tracks a rock band had recorded by June 1968, given that prog rock barely existed – if it didn’t yet exist, this track invented it.
So it’s two different things pulling in different directions. And that’s probably a bad thing for anyone other than Floyd diehards. But I have heard this record too many damn times and it sounds pretty good to me, despite the fact that it was made, in some sense, by two different bands.
44. The Doors: Waiting for the Sun (7/10)
45. The Doors: Waiting for the Sun (7/10)
This is the first “wilderness” Doors album (you might say), wherein the band began to lose some of what made them great initially, while searching for new things.
There are some classics Doors songs here, particularly “Five to One.” But there are more flirtations with pop balladry and other things which sort of make you wonder what they were up to. It’s not as bad in that sense as The Soft Parade, but the beginnings of their weird attempt to masquerade as a pop band are here.
The other thing that’s odd about the record, at least in retrospect, is the lack of the entirety of “The Celebration of the Lizard.” If there was a time to include the entire piece on LP, surely it was the late 1960s. I don’t know that it would have made this album better, but it would have made it more interesting and, arguably, more Doors, since most of the musical theatre influence of the first two records has vanished.
Still, this is a record that is pretty decent and only pales in relation to the two previous albums. To the degree that I dislike it, it’s relative. Another band putting this out probably would have impressed me.
46. Sly and the Family Stone: Life (7/10)
More consistent than Dance to the Music, but not necessarily superior. Read the review of Life.
47. Spooky Tooth: It’s All About… (7/10)
Pretty good. Read the review of It’s All About…
48. Fairport Convention (7/10)
I approached this record backwards when I heard it for the first time, many years ago. I had already heard the Denny records and so this came as a surprise. I’m not sure I would feel the way I do about it had I heard it in 1968, but I don’t know.
Basically, Fairport is a different band on their debut album than they would become. As someone else has noted, they’re a little bit like a less psychedelic version of 1966-7 era Jefferson Airplane, right before they got really psychedelic. In some ways, they’re better – they’re more diverse than the Airplane were at the point, though they don’t have as much original material.
But this is kind of a weird, arty kind of folk rock which often does not even remind me of the later, pretty damn great band. This record is hardly bad, but it’s basically a one-off, showing alternative paths they might have pursued had they not more fully embraced British folk music.
49. Townes Van Zandt: For the Sake of the Song (7/10)
This is my first encounter with Townes; fittingly it is his debut.
The songs themselves are pretty strong – and one is hilarious if a little xenophobic (guess which one!) – but not enough for me to induct him into the canon. Alas, I have only ever heard these. Maybe some others would impress more.
The problem isn’t the songs. The problem is the production / arrangements. This album is so over-produced. It is Bryter Layter over-produced – yes, not a great analogy, since it was recorded after this – except there they were trying to turn Nick Drake into a pop star, and here they are just trying to make Townes palatable for Nashville. The production is often, though not always, distracting so that it is hard to actually just sit back and enjoy his songwriting.
Hopefully the rest of his catalogue is not like this.
50. Cream: Wheels of Fire (7/10)
51. The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (7/10)
52. Taj Mahal (7/10)
He’s great, but this is just another blues record. Read the review of Taj Mahal’s debut album.
53. Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Sing Me Back Home (7/10)
I think this is good. Read the review.
54. Randy Newman Creates Something New (7/10)
If you can get by his voice, it’s decent. Read the review of Randy Newman’s debut.
55. Gordon Lightfoot: Did She Mention My Name? (7/10)
It’s fine. Read the review.
56. Simon & Garfunkel: Bookends (7/10)
This is a giant mess, particularly side A, but there’s enough strong stuff here that you can kind of forgive it. Read the review of Bookends.
57. Sly and the Family Stone: Dance to the Music (7/10)
A novel fusion, played extremely well, but lacking in material. Read the review of Dance to the Music.
58. Al Kooper: I Stand Alone (6/10)
A decent set of songs marred by “freak out” ’60s production and artsy fartsy arrangements that now sound dated. Read the review.
59. Nilsson: Aerial Ballet (6/10)
I just don’t get it. Read the review of Aerial Ballet.
Not Ranked: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Winterland (8/10)
These concerts weren’t released until 2011. Read the review.
Not ranked: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival (8/10)
This live album wasn’t released until 2013. Read my review.
Not Ranked: Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (8/10)
This is a solo acoustic performance from before Young was as famous as he would get. The song selection is good, covering almost all his Springfield materiel, the best stuff from his debut album and some other songs (most notably the title track) that sort of got lost by the wayside.
It’s cool to see Young in this setting and his banter is endearingly goofy and self-effacing.
Not ranked: Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra: Elgar: Symphonies 1 & 2 (7/10)
I guess Elgar gets his rep because he was perhaps the first really notable British composer in some time (or up until that point, I don’t know). But I think that reputation is inflated – at least based on my earliest listens to his music – by the general Anglophilia that is a consequence of Britain once ruling much of the world, and of growing up in an English-speaking society. Because frankly, when I put this stuff beside Debussy or Mahler or other great composers’ works of the first decade or so of the 20th century I find this to be a little underwhelming. The first in particular also sounds like it belongs in another century. Maybe this is unfair. Maybe we do have to take into account the lack of a great English high art music tradition in the 19th
century and not hold that against Elgar, but I have to say my initial impressions are that I wasn’t missing much when I didn’t know who he was (save “Pomp and Circumstance” of course).