Writing the White Album

Lennon McCartney White Album Songwriting

Wearing White to Write the White Album

John Lennon says that in India, “We got our mantra, we sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food and writing all those songs. We wrote tons of songs in India.” McCartney said of the thirty songs to be included in the 1968 album “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”), “20 were written while we were with the Maharishi in India: the other 10 we have written in the time since we came back to London.” Lennon said that most of the songs for the White album were written on guitar, so “they have a different feel about them. I missed the piano a bit because you just write differently.”

The songs that were furthest advanced were taped in composers’ demos in the fourth week of May 1968. All 27 of these recordings were made on one four-track Ampex machine at Harrison’s home studio in Esher. They included 15 demos offered by Lennon, 7 by McCartney, and 5 by Harrison. Presumably, each Beatle received a copy of the tape to allow home practice on each others’ compositions.

The day before recording began, McCartney announced, “We might record all 30 songs and pick 14 or so or an album, or it could turn out to be two albums or even a three album pack. We just don’t know until we have finished. A rock album released as a three-record set would not be attempted before 1970, with Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. But all-new two-record sets had come into vogue before the October 17 mastering of The Beatles. The Beatles knew intimately Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (July 1966), Frank Zappa’s Freak Out (late 1966), Donovan’s Gift from a Flower to a Garden (January 1 968), and Cream’s Wheels of Fire (August 1968). Before recording began, George Martin argued that the material should be distilled to a single LP, but he was overridden, so the result was a 30 song double album.

John Lennon White Album

John Lennon White Album

The album has been called a history of rock and roll, because of the wide variety of styles represented and parodied. Tim Riley goes so far as to say, “The varied stereo mixes make them sound like a different band on each track. In moments like the relentless groove of ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, Except Me and My Monkey,’ the lazy upbeats of ‘I’m So Tired,’ and the tight grip of the bridge to ‘Birthday’. Their sense of ensemble is as strong as at any other point in their career. The disparity between songs is linked only by the musical currents that still flow between them.

The new emphasis on simplicity already seen in “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Bulldog” is part of Lennon’s ripening preference for primitivism-for him, “realism” is his art. Although several of his White album lyrics are intentionally obscure, John Lennon also begins here to react against the artifice of 1967. Lennon recalled in 1970 that the White album saw the beginnings of his rock-and-roll-inspired directness. He argues that rock and roll is “real, it’s not perverted or thought about, it’s not a concept. It is a chair, not a design for a chair, or a better chair, or a bigger chair, or a chair with leather or with design . . . it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not chairs for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music.”

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