After the success of Sergeant Pepper, the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India to stay with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The trip was meant to provide an escape from their daily lives in the form of meditation.
There they began to write The Beatles or – as its popularly known because of its pure white cover – The White Album.
The writing sessions for The White Album took place amidst the of calm of the band’s mediation practices, but the recording sessions at Abbey Road studios could not have been less peaceful. There were major creative differences between the band. This, along with John Lennon’s increasing heroin addiction, resulted in regular arguments, refusal by the band members to work with each other and even Ringo Starr briefly quitting altogether. (He was eventually convinced to return by George Harrison.)
Because of these differences, the album features less co-operation between the band members than any other Beatles release. In the past, they had worked on songs as a unit, but now songs tended to be written by one band member on their own, who then enlisted the other Beatles to perform instrumental tracks for it.
It’s not surprising, then, that The White Album pulls in so many directions. The only Western instrument available to the band at Rishikesh was the acoustic guitar, so most of the songs are acoustic-based. But the album also features ska music, music hall parody, character sketches, political critiques and pastiches. It’s more diverse than any other Beatles album. Not every song is brilliant, though. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ feels hollow, ‘Birthday’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey’ are less like compositions and more like novelties.
However, The White Album has a lot of gems hiding between the filler. ‘Back in the USSR’ is a stomper that got banned by both the USA and the Soviet Union. ‘Helter Skelter’ is basically proto-metal. ‘Revolution 9’ is the most experimental piece ever heard on a pop album. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a veritable rock masterpiece.
All this makes the album feel fragmented, as if by attempting to explore so many sonic ideas its tearing itself apart. It’s almost become a cliche to say that, in this way, The White Album is the sound of the Beatles breaking apart. The band would split a year later, after all.
Despite all this – maybe because of it – The White Album is a rock monolith, a key part of the Beatles’ story. While Sergeant Pepper was an exercise in perfectionism, The White Album is a testament to the power of runaway creativity.