When Two Become One: The Beatles (aka The White Album)

We all have albums in our collection that run a bit on the long side. There are several reasons why this might be, and hopefully for the artist’s sake, it’s not because they aren’t as good at writing songs as they think they are. In many cases, the artist or band may have written and recorded so many songs in a studio session that they felt justified in making a double-length album, which is the exact type of album I want to focus this series on. And in spite of settling on a familiar title, I highly doubt I’m going to be covering a Spice Girls album anytime soon.

The first album I’ll comment on in this series is by the quintessential quartet, The Beatles, with their self-titled double-album from 1968. My first memorable encounter with what is famously known as “The White Album” (or at least my first dive into their material outside of childhood) was relatively basic. It was in the midst of the summer of 2009 spent in Thunder Bay, Ontario between university semesters, and I was browsing for some bargains at a Salvation Army thrift store. I spotted the album, and between the low price, great condition, and the self-admission that it was rather odd that I didn’t own a single Beatles album, I gladly brought it home (after paying, of course). 24 years seemed a bit late in the game for me to go without one of their recordings in my ownership, but it is what it is.

The Beatles has everything and the kitchen sink thrown in. Aggressive rockers, blues shuffles, novelty numbers, ballads, dabbling in country, folk music, lullabies.. you name it! If you can’t find a song on here that appeals to you, I’d question whether you liked music at all. A whole lot of ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily think would work well together, but the variety is part of what makes this such a memorable release, not to mention the intriguing minimalism of the packaging.

That all said, why would I dare to cut down the album length? Because I can! It’s only out of fun, so don’t take my choices too seriously because I’m not either. It’s one of those experiments that can differ drastically depending on who conducts it, and I’d be curious to see someone else’s picks.

To start with, I’ll explain a few songs of note that I did NOT include on my cut of the album.

“Glass Onion” – I actually dig this song quite a bit, but it’s basically full of lyrics that call back to other songs from their career with some musical themes revisited as well. It’s a theme that several bands do when they stage a big reunion and comeback album, a decision The Beatles unfortunately never had much time to consider ignoring a resistible Lorne Michaels offer. For that reason, it’s not a difficult choice to leave off if the ultimate goal is streamlining the record.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” – This one comes with a bit of a story. It was either in grade six or seven when our teacher used this song as a demonstration of some point he was trying to teach us that I can no longer remember. The version he initially played us was a cover of some kind and not this one. I’ll give it that this is the superior version, but I felt like I heard this song one time too many before I even owned the album. That gave me burn-out on this song for many years. Unfortunately, I can’t track it down, but pretty much every cover I found of it sounded preferable to how that version played out in my memory. Though listening to more covers will make me legitimately hate this song. I’ll add I also used “The Fool On The Hill” in a lyrical analysis project a year later in a time where you could count the number of albums I owned on one hand. It didn’t wear on me as much as this one. Quite the opposite, in fact. By extension, I chose to leave out “Savoy Truffle” since it references “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in the lyrics, but I suppose a small change could have been made to keep that from happening.

“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” – This song is rather crass for its day coming from a mainstream act, which does lend to the amusement, but it feels like an inside joke taken to the extreme. A fan club release in my alternate universe, perhaps.

“Don’t Pass Me By” and “Good Night” – I’d hate to cut out a Ringo track since it seems he technically should get one per album. That being said, you’d think it may even be harder for me to cut two of them. It really wasn’t. These ones still haven’t clicked with me. At least can sleep easier knowing “Good Night” is only sung and not written by Richard Starkey.

“Revolution 9” – That’s an easy one to omit at eight minutes and fifteen seconds, making plenty of time available for other tracks. You can practically pick any three of my selections to fill its position on the album, and who wouldn’t make a swap like that? There’s good reason as to why this song is heavily parodied, pointing out some of the band’s experimental excesses. Much of what they applied here can be (or had already been) used in the context of other more fleshed-out songs in their discography.

The other songs I’ve excluded I either don’t have too strong of opinions on or they were right on the borderline for inclusion, so I’ll just move forward with my cut of the album. I’ll keep this within the limitation of the vinyl format and aim for around a 40 to 45-minute run time.

Side One:

  1. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” (2:42) 

  2. “Dear Prudence” (3:56) 

  3. “Yer Blues” (4:01) 

  4. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (4:44) 

  5. Martha My Dear” (2:26) 

  6. “Wild Honey Pie” (0:52) 

  7. “I’m So Tired” (2:03) 

  8. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” (2:24) 

Running Time (Side One): 23:18

Side Two:

  1. “Mother Nature’s Son” (2:46) 

  2. “Helter Skelter” (4:30) 

  3. “Blackbird” (2:17) 

  4. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” (2:41) 

  5. “I Will” (1:44) 

  6. “Sexy Sadie” (3:14) 

  7. “Revolution 1” (4:12) 

  8. “Julia” (2:57) 

Running Time (Side Two): 24:21

Total Running Time: 47:39

Thirty tracks total on the original release have been boiled down to a relatively-succinct sixteen. It turns out that I broke my running time aim, but the length is in the ballpark of Abbey Road. With so much slicing and dicing of their material, now comes time for some further explanations.

One thing you might notice is my deliberate attempt to bookmark each side of the album differently. I made Side One start and end with energetic songs, and with Side Two I opted for more delicate numbers. Wanting to start the album off with something punchy, it came down to choosing between “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Birthday”. I like “Birthday”, and believe it is an iconic enough song that it would have worked as a standalone single without needing appearing on an album, but it just doesn’t work as an album opener. With “Mother Nature’s Son”, I wanted to pick something unusual to start off an album side with something calm rather than raucous. I almost put the controversial “Helter Skelter” in this slot, but bumped it down one spot in the track listing as it did not fit in with my theme. Wordless melodies are a hard thing to nail, but in “Mother Nature’s Son” McCartney pulls it off brilliantly. As a side note, I was delighted to hear a marvelous cover of this song at the last pre-COVID-19 concert I attended (Eric Johnson), led on vocals by Johnson’s rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Dave Scher. Not that I needed anything to reinforce how much I enjoy this song, but it certainly would have done the trick. “Julia”, my choice for the back end of the second side, I believe I was actually introduced to by another cover. If one of my parents owned the album, I would have remembered hearing it growing up, but the great instrumental take by Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood is my first memory of this one. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band that has two stronger ballads than these on the same album.

What else needs explaining? In general, I find this release to have several comparable songs in terms of mood, energy, etc., so I’ll try not to ramble on too much to avoid sounding like a broken record here as I point out what I perceive as redundancies. There are also plenty of songs here that I would put into the no-brainer category that could be, and likely have been, discussed more persuasively by much more talented writers (those songs include “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Revolution 1”, and “Dear Prudence”).

“Yer Blues” was my pick for throwing one of their blues jams into the mix, with one of the comparable songs on the album that I did leave off being “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”. “Yer Blues” wins for being more on the raw side, using a vocal approach that I find works better, and having a more lively vibe going for it. If desired, it could even be edited down by a minute or so to help squeeze in one of my omissions. All things considered, I’d want to slide “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in its place, but it doesn’t work that way.

“I Will” is a largely sentimental choice, and of all places, it came from a teddy bear. My grandmother bought it for my little sister when our grandpa was in the hospital near the end of his life. However, after some rediscovery efforts, I’ve now come to realize the doll (like many talking dolls) was a bit creepy. At the time and circumstances of hearing it, I was moved by the song, and I didn’t have Beatles bias distorting my opinion of it since I didn’t even know it was a Beatles song. Yet another beautiful vocal performance by McCartney, and it’s concise enough to make it an easy inclusion.

 

 

It’s a lot cuter when it isn’t moving.

 

“Wild Honey Pie” seems like (and is) an odd one, but I felt like putting something weird in there, and it takes up much less time than the infamous “Revolution 9”. However, perhaps in my hypothetical alternate White Album universe “Wild Honey Pie” would simply be called “Honey Pie” since I left that particular song off.

Even with any perceived warts in my logic, imagining a different version of the album was much easier than I thought despite leaving off some songs I quite like that I couldn’t squeeze in (“Rocky Raccoon”, for instance). I didn’t grow up with this album or develop a very deep sentimental attachment to the entirety of The Beatles when I did find it, which may have been a benefit in my whittling down process. There may be some cases where I have lumped too many Lennon or McCartney-sung songs in consecutive order, but I like the flow I’ve structured overall. If it’s of more help to you, I’ve compiled them into a YouTube playlist.

How do you think I did? Do I have a knack for this, or should I put my head down and try harder next time? I’ve already got an idea on how I want to tackle another double-album in the future, and look forward to including it somewhere among my blogs in the new year.

2 thoughts on “When Two Become One: The Beatles (aka The White Album)

  1. A very winding and idiosyncratic review, but the fact remains that the White Album is an extremely winding and idiosyncratic album – people are either frustrated by it, unified by it, or weirdly in between. People always have different perspectives and emotions on the album’s four sides, and how you were introduced to the album could change the impact completely. The White Album is my favorite by The Beatles, simply for the wide variation in those individual song exercises and the broad mood difference in album sides, but everyone approaches this one differently.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The only way you can approach the White Album, my favorite Beatles album, is to construct a review with thoughts as idiosyncratic and personal as the album itself, and I think Armchair Maestro got it right.

    Liked by 1 person

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