The lasting impact of two truly revolutionary “White” albums
February 1, 2018
In 1967, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” single-handedly ruptured the world of pop music. It came as a surprise to many, then, when The Beatles left on a transcendental meditation retreat in India following the success of their psychedelic classic.
A year later, they returned with “White Album,” the cover of which was starkly minimal to directly contrast their last record. When asked to explain the band’s sudden spiritual awakening, George Harrison said that the band had all the money they could ever ask for—“But, it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?”
Meanwhile, the members of The Velvet Underground had just dumped Andy Warhol as their manager, ending their fifteen minutes of fame and resigning the band to the seedy underbelly of New York. Guitarist Sterling Morrison, recounting to a Rolling Stone reporter the recording process for their own 1968 album, “White Light/White Heat,” could not sound more dissimilar from Harrison. “Our lives,” he said simply, “were chaos.”
Fifty years on, “White Album” and “WL/WH” now both share deserved spots in the pantheon of classic rock albums. However, the very different contexts that birthed these records is still an important part of the conversation about their legacy.
Sonically, the two represent opposite spectrums of the rock zeitgeist.But spiritually, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground share an artistic core at the center of their work. Context, then, is the key to deciphering the shared creative mindset that produced two of the greatest albums of all time in 1968.
“White Album” is not, by any means, an experimental album. Aside from an avant-garde musique concrete piece, “Revolution 9”—present on the final album largely due to the campaigning of its creator, the ever-grandiloquent John Lennon—every other song is perfectly in line with The Beatles songbook.
What marks it, then, as notably experimental—as opposed to the rest of their near-perfect oeuvre— is its perfection in spite of its context. The elegant pacing and sonic cohesion of their last album is met with equal-but-opposite force here: “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is a blistering rock ballad, “I’m So Tired” is a gentle number dripping with intricate longing, and “Rocky Raccoon” is a lovely Western ditty set in a Dakota mining town.
These are only examples from disc one of the record—”White Album” is a marathon 30 tracks long.
Throughout the 90-odd minutes and across wildly varying moods, however, The Beatles characteristically never make a misstep. Each song stands alone as a well-constructed, well-written genre piece, but patched together the final product presents a deliberate quiltwork, the sum of which is greater than its parts.
It doesn’t hurt that Lennon and Paul McCartney were at the peak of their songwriting careers. While maintaining the impeccable pop sensibilities of their most famous work, “White Album” also managed to set a standard present to this day for lyrical maturity and complex songcraft.
Late album highlight “Cry Baby Cry” effortlessly evokes, in turn, nostalgia, a strong sense of history, and the occult. On brief interlude “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” McCartney exhibits a more raw lyrical style, distilling a glance of emotion briefly into focus so that it feels like looking through a window right as its shudders close.
By crafting such a bold, unpredictable album, The Beatles moved their sound in a more innovative direction.
Despite being the most commercial group of the time—and likely of all time—they blatantly rejected commercialisation with this release. Conversely, an irreverence towards commercialism was the tenet upon which The Velvet Underground was founded, and their sound is a direct result of this.
Founding member John Cale treated the group as an aural experiment and was determined to push music’s boundaries into a new era.
In this regard, he succeeded. The fingerprints of The Velvet Underground, whose forays into pure harsh noise were at their loudest and best on “White Light/White Heat,” are obvious across the punk and garage movements.
The Beatles had the luxury of hit sales to help jumpstart their spiritual journey. For The Velvet Underground and other hard rock musicians, nirvana had to be found elsewhere. Hard drugs were oftentimes an unfortunate escape, but white noise and violent feedback could provide an equally potent bliss. The Velvet Underground partook in both.
The characters that stumble their way across the tight 40-minute runtime of “WL/WH” are strikingly different from the familial bunch that populate “White Album.”
Lou Reed, the band’s frontman and main songwriter, often points to outsiders as the stars in his songs: “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” the album’s centerpiece, is a haunting medical horror tale about a transsexual woman’s lobotomy.
Reed alternatively takes her perspective—“Sick with silence, she weeps sincerely/Saying words that have oh so clearly been said/So long ago”—and that of the doctor’s assistant—”The patient, it seems, is not so well sleeping/The screams echo up the hall/Don’t panic, someone give him pentathol instantly.”
Moments like these, however, are counterbalanced by the album’s sustained dark humor, showcased on the brilliant spoken-word shortstory “The Gift” and on the epic album-closer “Sister Ray.”
Incredibly, “ WL/WH” and “White Album” both pull off the same trick by employing completely opposite means: to change the rock landscape, The Beatles divorced themselves from their surroundings, while The Velvet Underground doubled-down and sunk themselves into their environment.
Today, in a music industry vastly different from that of 1968, the creative boldness that fueled these two records still sounds remarkably fresh. As artistic achievements, these albums mark the high water point for innovation and quality. Here’s to another half century.
Contact Peter Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.