Forty-five years ago today, The Beatles released what would be their highest-selling and arguably most polarizing album to date, an eponymous release commonly known as The White Album. Like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it, The White Album has over time become a yardstick for rating a band’s discography. To be able to, often erroneously, deem a band’s records as “their White Album”, and have people know what that means, speaks to its pervasive influence.
A sprawling double-LP at 30 tracks, The White Album is as varied as it is ambitious. Laced with humor, curiosity, and trademark-Beatles joy, the tracks spread from the outright silly (“Piggies”), to the searingly aggressive (“Helter Skelter”), to the disturbingly effective avant-garde (“Revolution 9”). Each one of these songs, even the occasionally flawed inclusions, add to the charm and cohesion of the expertly-sequenced record, cementing its place among their crowning achievements .
Because The Beatles are one of the most beloved and scrutinized bands in the history of, well, ever, there’s little that hasn’t already been said about the making of The White Album and the context surrounding it. Because of this, we’ve gathered artists, writers, and comedians to remember these songs and give us personal stories and anecdotes about what they mean to them.
Ted Feldman, guitarist for Bear Hands
In 1968, I was 19 years from being born, so I don’t have any authentic insight into what life was like before the Beatles or what I was doing the day the Beatles broke up, or how this double album changed everything. Did it? I came to the White Album in pieces, none of which I fully understood. Years later, I realize that was a fairly appropriate way to receive such a scattershot collection.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was always what I singled out as The Song, probably because it covers so much ground — in the lyrical imagery, the melodies, the changing time signature… I have no idea what the song is about, nor do I care, as Lennon probably didn’t either (see opening stanza: “She’s not a girl who misses much/ Do do do do do/ Oh yea”).
But there are so many candidates for The Song on this record, it’s a joke. I mean there are so many songs on this record period, but… Between the Cold War Beach Boys ribbing opener to the over-earnest orchestral closer, they threw in a sly fuck you to Beatlemaniacs, an anthemic fuck you to posturing political protesters, a song about fucking in the road and only about fucking in the road, a ballad that is now every beginning guitarist’s first great fucking accomplishment, and eight fucking minutes of sound collage. Fuck.
01. Back In The USSR
Graham Colton, singer-songwriter
My dad used to play the White Album for my brother and I on the way to school. I have fond memories of singing along to “Martha My Dear” and “Back in the U.S.S.R” at 7:30 a.m.. I love the White Album because it’s so stripped down and simple but still a total move forward. For me, The White Album is where the individual personalities really started to emerge. George’s slide guitar, Paul’s lovable goofiness, Ringo’s cardboard drums fills, and John’s vocals are cemented flags in the ground for everyone else to emulate.
02. Dear Prudence
Chris Ryan, bassist for Deer Tick
I remember learning the bassline to “Dear Prudence” in my youth and it revolutionizing my attitude towards what the bass was capable of. It remains one of my favorite basslines, as McCartney is one of my favorite bass players. I try to apply this influence in our recent song “Hey Doll”, but still know Sir Paul would have blown me out of the water.
03. Glass Onion
Cameron Matthews, vocalist for Bear Ceuse
“Glass Onion” is the most self-referential Beatles song ever written. Quoting your own mythology seems like an ill-advised and narcissistic effort. But Lennon pulls it off with aplomb. He sings of “Strawberry Fields”, the “Fool on the Hill”, “Lady Madonna”, and trolls the conspiracy theorists by naming Paul as “the walrus.” As a kid, knowing those references and hearing “Glass Onion” for the first time, I think I laughed out loud. Lennon was looking back at his career with the Beatles through this smudgy monocle, while being classically funny. To me, every Beatles song surrounds “Glass Onion”. It is the 1st and 1st of Beatles discography. The nexus of the Lennon-McCartney-verse. And to top it all off, it’s a supremely weird song. The outro orchestration is eerie and gorgeous, before tumbling into “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. What should’ve been a filler-tune, turned out to be one of Lennon’s most important singles.
04. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Max Blau, Staff Writer for Creative Loafing
I didn’t delve deep into The Beatles’ catalogue until late in my college years (I’m a Rolling Stones devotee). I had certainly heard the hits and a few albums in my childhood — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Come Together” stand out as the earliest ones. But I remember all the words to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to this day because I had to memorize it for a Catholic school play. The theatrical production featured scores of uniform-wearing elementary school children singing and shouting off-key about the whimsical adventures of Desmond and Molly Jones. I vaguely recall a pianist jovially banging away on the keys while teachers encouraged kids to clap in sync. I don’t remember the actual show’s performance — just the monotony of rehearsing that song on repeat.
Lennon and McCartney technically co-wrote “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, but it certainly reminds me more of the latter’s songwriting. I’ve since gravitated toward Lennon and Harrison’s songs, which I think has something to do with my early McCartney reluctance. While I love most of the White Album, I can’t shake those slightly-traumatic elementary school performances. That continues to this day.
05. Wild Honey Pie
Jennings Carney, vocalist and bassist for Pontiak
I had eaten some mushrooms one afternoon during the late fall while I was relaxing on my couch and drinking a beer. Playing the White Album was a favorite pasttime of mine. Just about the time I began peaking, “Wild Honey Pie” came on. I couldn’t get it straight. I couldn’t make it out. I saw the music falling apart, barely able to hold itself together; the voices completely foreign and intelligible. Like a thousand spring coils bouncing around and all over pell mell. I thought, What the fuck is going on? Is this a joke? Which was immediately followed with another thought, This is fucking genius! I was in the middle of a giant Beatles Sound Zoo. And then finally Paul sang, “I love you, honey pie,” and I began to laugh really hard.
Dusty Jermier, bassist for Wooden Shjips
I was working as a cook at a girls camp on Cass Lake in Northern Minnesota. After a long day of cooking and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’d go to a nearby tavern called The Squirrels Nest to play pool. Deer and Fish trophies on the walls… and many other animals that I didn’t know much about… mostly country music in the Jukebox but also The White Album.
At first, when songs like “Wild Honey Pie” came on, I felt self-conscious, being the out-of-state long hair. I soon realized how silly I was… everyone there would sing along to those tunes, even “Wild Honey Pie”.
“Wild Honey Pie”… which local payed a quarter for the 50 seconds? It wasn’t me. Beers cost a dollar… each second was worth a sip. They must have really liked that song.
Over the course of the summer, I heard every track from the album get played. Some of those songs are not easy for singing and dancing. Good Music, Friendly People, and Happy Times.
06. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
A.C. Newman, singer-songwriter
“The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill” is not the best song on the album but I remember singing it into a tape recorder with my brothers and sisters when I was a little kid, so it’s my favorite. It’s the warped cousin of the classic children’s song “Ob La Di…”. I love the key change inside the chords of the chorus, the goofy narrative, the way Lennon sings “all the children sing!” a different way each time. It’s a darker, funnier musical world than the more iconic Yellow Submarine, like Lennon decided to briefly work McCartney’s side of the street just to mess with him.
07. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Dean Wareham, singer-songwriter, composer
I have very early memories, blackbirds and piggies, of the White Album, the only Beatles record in my parents’ record collection. I like Paul’s comment to those who say it would have been better as a single album: “Fuck off, it’s the Beatles’ White Album.” It’s hard to pick one favorite but I nominate “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, penned by my favorite Beatle, George. There are many cool things going on here — the piano intro, Ringo’s hi-hat pattern, funny George lyrics: “I look at the floor, and I see it needs sweeping!” — but the highlight is the playing of not-my-favorite guitarist Eric Clapton, here forced out of his comfort zone, where he succeeds in finding a cool sound (the classic Beatles tape-delay trick) and delivers a great guitar solo
08. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Sky Ferreira, singer-songwriter
It’s definitely one of my favorite songs off The White Album. I made [a remix of it] when I was like 15 on Garageband just to put it on Myspace. I saw this weird Dr. Dre thing, so I did it over “Still D.R.E.” when I was just bored one day. It was weird because I had no idea it was going to work. I just randomly started singing over it and I was like, oh, I guess I’ll just leave it at this instead of trying to write something over it. It was like after school one day. It’s funny; people always ask me what are my favorite Beatles, like who’s your favorite member. At first it was George Harrison, it was always between George Harrison and John Lennon, but I think Ringo is the funniest. He’s the one I’d want to hang out with.
09. Martha My Dear
Zach Hart, founder of We Listen For You
Every possible Sunday for the last five months, I randomly select a cassette, grab my boombox, and head for the car. The first stop is Dunkin Donuts for an unsafe extra large coffee, the best terrible coffee in town, and a walk to my favorite spot in Louisville. It’s a lone park bench on top of a big hill overlooking a very small park with walkways and tennis courts. What follows is my imagination while listening to “Martha My Dear”:
The bouncy piano intro seemed to wash over the park and my imagination took hold. A couple playing tennis morphed into a ballet of physical awe, the most impossible shots returned with ease, the two scraping their white shoes against the faded green ground. “Take a good look around you.” Four dogs sprinted up the hill and began to roll down, childlike, only to have their momentum halt and repeat the action. “Take a good look around you.” Cars began to lose control and crash into the park space under the road. The drivers and passengers sauntered out of the wreckage unharmed with big smiles. “Take a good look around you.” The cars kept crashing and the park filled with people grinning as the dogs rolled away down the hill toward the graceful tennis players.
The song ended and I hit the stop button. My imagination faded and the park returned to reality. Sloppy tennis, fetch, and cars plodding down the street. I tried to open the tape deck, but it was frozen shut. I pried at it again and again. Nothing. The tape was stuck for weeks.
10. I’m So Tired
Josh Terry, staff writer for Consequence of Sound
While making The White Album on a trip to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Himalayan meditation center at Rishikesh, India, John Lennon suffered from a bout of insomnia and wrote “I’m So Tired”. It’s a simple but twisted lullaby that finds Lennon at his wit’s end. Though you can hear Lennon’s exhaustion, his voice has never sounded more convincing when he screams, “I wonder, should I call you? But I know what you would do.” Lennon, unable to sleep and his mind buzzing with nicotine, even curses out Sir Walter Raleigh, the 16th century explorer known for bringing tobacco to England in one of the funnier moments on the LP. To this day, I still get chills when the drums really start to kick in near the minute mark.
Eliza Skinner, comedian and writer
“Blackbird” might just be the perfect song. It’s the song that makes all the other songs feel stupid. When other songs took hours to get ready to go out, “Blackbird” just threw on a t-shirt and looks better than everyone. “Blackbird” doesn’t even know how to put on make-up. And the other songs can’t even hate “Blackbird”, because it’s actually really nice and cool and lets you borrow its sweater, like, whenever. It’s perfect.
Mark Mulcahy, singer-songwriter
Somehow I’m all tied up with this album. It’s the most I know about The Beatles and whenever I say I like a song by them it’s on The Beatles. The newly unmanaged psychotroped four lads all whacked on the Marashi and Yoko and paranoia. Showbusiness I think. I had those four pictures on the wall over my bed on little pulleys so I could lower my favorite Beatle down and stare into his eyes. What a weirdo. I did a cover of “Blackbird” which I love. It’s not all gold (“Birthday”) but the platinum (“Mother Natures Son”, “I’m So Tired”) is forever mintable.
David Harris, editor for Spectrum Culture
If it’s good enough for Charlie Manson, it’s good enough for me. It’s the song where the Beatles go for Baroque, harpsichord and string quartet style. George Harrison wanted to make a pointed social comment about wealth and greed, blending Orwellian metaphor with biting satire, creating a strange disconnect from the stately sounds of its beginning with lyrics that are silly and juvenile.
Harrison wasn’t a piggy about sharing writing credit, at least. He had a little help from his friends, crediting Lennon with the “clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon” lyric and even his own mother pitched in the infamous “what they need is a damned good whacking!” Not everyone was a fan. Critic Ian MacDonald called the song “dreadful” and an “embarrassing blot on (Harrison’s) discography.” I wonder what George’s dear old mam would have to say about that.
Mike Milosh, singer-songwriter
Well, a baroque like little do… how could one not want to talk about this little track. I mean, harpsichords, baroque string lines, and ensemble like singing… I can’t say this was a hugely inspirational track for me sonically but there is something about the absurdity of the song, the break from any form of traditional intentions in song writing, and lyrical content that is very thought provoking. This is one of those little tracks that seems innocuous at first but when viewed with any sort of historical lens is hard to dismiss as trite in any way (and probably more pertinent in todays political and economic climate). More importantly to me, a reminder that song has power. It can send a message instantaneously; this for me is the inspiration in the track.
13. Rocky Raccoon
Tim Cohen, singer-songwriter for Magic Trick
My one year old daughter Sonya’s middle name is Raquelle, and one of her nicknames is “Rocky.” She is also nicknamed “Tiny”, “Chookie”, “Booger T. Washington”, “Pooky”, “Ding-Dong”, and “Professor”. I keep coming back to Rocky. And what better way to introduce her to the music of the Beatles than to sing her to sleep with this lovely ditty of her “namesake”? A story replete with all the necessary touches of a great lullaby; infidelity, jealousy, violence, revenge, alcoholism, medical malpractice, and a bit of Gideon’s subtle proselytizing to send this angelic little girl to dreamland. Still, it’s really the melody that counts, isn’t it?
14. Don’t Pass Me By
Marc with a C, singer-songwriter
On an album rife with doin’ it in the road, Walrus Pauls, and metaphorically cannibalistic piggies, “Don’t Pass Me By” is arguably one of the most straight ahead yet mysterious tunes in the Beatles catalog. It’s often overlooked as “just another Ringo song,” but it’s possibly the weirdest one he’d lend his voice to. Framed by a ragtime piano emanating from what sounds like a Leslie speaker, Ringo lays down a jaunty ode to a lover that doesn’t show up at the scheduled time, only to later reveal that said significant other has actually been decapitated. The song is deceptively ordinary with such contrastingly dark undertones, and for my money, it’s not only the coolest song on the White Album, but one that clearly had an unmistakable impact on my own career trajectory.
15. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
Zack Weil, vocalist and guitarist for Oozing Wound
Yeah, seriously, why don’t we do it in the road? Probably because “nobody will be watching,” which is weird because I am sure that being watched was an issue for Paul, or all the Beatles for that matter. He never really stops to let the question be answered, does he? I guess my replies would be: “because gravel,” or “because why not car?” Paul never responds to any of my correspondence, but all I can say Paul is that I’ll be watching…watching that damn road.
The song is about two monkeys doing it, on the road as it were, in India. You never know where inspiration is going to come from so it should be noted that for a guy going to India in order to find himself, wrote a blues song about the freeness of animal lust. In that sense, we are all just monkeys looking for the easiest…tail that we can get. Am I right, guys? Hey, why don’t we do it on the information super highway?
16. I Will
Ian O’Neill, vocalist and guitarist for Deer Tick
My friend Julian Veronesi from Titus Andronicus played this song at a garage show while we were going to high school together in Massachusetts. His rendition was amateur but sweet and really stuck with me. We were still learning to play music with any adequacy.
Christina Rentz, Publicist for Merge Records
I discovered The Beatles in high school when The Beatles Anthology aired on network television. After growing up with no real exposure to music outside of ’70s frat rock, New Kids on the Block, a George Michael cassette, and commercial country radio, my mind was blown. I became obsessed. I hoarded my babysitting money and bought every Beatles album on CD from the nearest record store which was at the mall about 30 miles away.
Fast forward many years and many musical obsessions later, my fiance and I were on a roadtrip which we decided to use as an opportunity to choose the music for our first dance. We settled upon “I Will”, which is, in our opinion, the perfect song for a wedding dance. It is short, sweet, and impossible to dance to.
My custom-framed poster of The White Album (more babysitting money) may be in retirement at the moment, but my son knows all of the words to “I Will”.
Kelcey Ayer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for Local Natives
“Julia” is one of those songs that’s so powerful because of how small and simple it is. It takes its time and doesn’t rush anything, almost forcing you to slow down and pay attention. It also sounds like a demo in a way, cause it doesn’t sound labored at all. The double of his vocal take comes in and out without much reason, but it just works. It just goes to show how brilliant Lennon was. His heart was fully in everything he wrote, sometimes for better or worse, but here is such a great example of what he could do best. He literally could be saying anything, but he commands you to feel what he wants you to by his tone and his vibe. Damnit he’s so good, what an asshole.
John Schmersal, singer-songwriter for Crooks on Tape and Vertical Scratchers
Some songs you listen to and they just give you a feeling. I remember listening to “Julia” when I was a young child and it resonating with me like a lullaby. There was something comforting about it, but also mysterious. I didn’t question what things were about then, it seemed at least to be about a girl named “Julia”. The seaside personified. This is one of those rare songs that I have grown with, instead of outgrown.
“Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you Julia.” John Lennon wrote and recorded this song for his deceased mother while the whole world was watching the Beatles. The Beatles were reality TV before it existed. Listening to this song still feels like I am privy to something that wasn’t meant for my or anyone else’s ears. It remains like a lightning bolt of purity, an about face to the world. The longing for something unattainable.
Tierney Tough, vocalist and keyboardist for The Pauses
I’m sure birthday party-goers across the world have skipped out on their friends’ parties just to potentially avoid hearing this song. Maybe not… but, even John Lennon hated it and called it “garbage.” I guess he’s said that about a lot of McCartney’s songs though.
As much as I probably agree, I do have some feelings for this one. You see, my introduction to the fab four was through a fabulous band of seven-ish animatronic creatures called the Rock-a-Fire Explosion. They had a permanent gig at this place called Showbiz Pizza in the ’80s (think a nicer Cavern Club, with ballpits and pizza aplenty).
I distinctly remember freaking out in front of the stage to a Ringo-esque dog, a hillbilly bear, and the bandleader, a gorilla named “Fatz Geronimo”, as they ripped through a medley of Beatles classics. The closer was a balls-out, pantomimed version of “Birthday“, and a request for me to kiss the scary bear on his nose, all while I celebrated turning five years old with some other kids that I barely knew. It was like Beatlemania, but for robots.
So, as cringe-worthy as the song may be, it still reminds me of good times… oh, and pizza.
19. Yer Blues
Steven Hyden, staff writer for Grantland
I like “Yer Blues”. It’s not my favorite song on the White Album (my heart says “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, my head says “Dear Prudence”, and the contrarian part of my head says “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”), but I appreciate “Yer Blues” as the rare song on this record where all of the Beatles are playing together in the same room. This hardly ever happened on Beatles albums after 1966 – yeah, Let it Be was recorded live, but at least on “Yer Blues” they still seem to at least kind of enjoy being in the Beatles. You can hear them having fun. They holler at each other over flubbed notes and for once it’s not out of frustration. There’s a lot of fucking around on the White Album but only on “Yer Blues” do the Beatles fuck around like they used to, as a gang.
I appreciate how sloppy the take is; Lennon supposedly wrote this song as a goof on British blues purism, and the playing apes the primitivism of Neanderthal garage bands trying and failing to sound like the Yardbirds. (This is clear when you compare the Beatles recording of “Yer Blues” with the murderously tight-as-shit version that Lennon laid down with real-life blues-rock professionals Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell for the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus.) Lyrically, the line that always trips me up is when Lennon references “Dylan’s Mr. Jones” – it just strikes me as funny that Lennon didn’t feel confident enough to make a nod to “Ballad of a Thin Man” without underlining it to the point of obviousness. He could’ve just kept it cryptic like “if I ain’t dead already girl you know the reason why” and left it at that. I guess he really wanted people to know how much he loved Highway 61 Revisited.
Jason Caddell, guitarist for The Dismemberment Plan
I got ahold of Led Zeppelin when I was about 14. I think most teenagers that fall in love with that band either make a right turn to metal, or make a left turn to the blues.
I took a left, and later on “Yer Blues” became my introduction to the White Album. It’s one of the rawest, most desperate tunes they ever recorded. The guitars and the vocals are set to “howl” and never let up.
So many British bands that tried to conjure the spirit of American blues in the late ‘60s got lost in a haze of endless guitar solos and buffoonery, but The Beatles understood that the heavy, eternal power of the form lives in its simplicity and directness. It still gives me chills.
20. Mother Nature’s Son
Adam Kivel, Managing Editor for Consequence of Sound
Like many people born in the ’80s, “The Beatles” was a platonic ideal rather than a collection of four human beings, a concept reinforced by parental adoration and near constant radio play. “The Beatles” was the incantation the DJ on Oldies 104.3 would intone just after my dad had finished singing along to “Love Me Do” long before I knew someone could live their life with the name Ringo and be taken seriously (peace and love, peace and love). Even after I had dug my parents’ old LPs out of the crawlspace, “The Beatles” were just the concept stamped onto the warped copy of Abbey Road.
That all changed with “Mother Nature’s Son”. My 25th time hearing Paul McCartney’s wistful, meandering wordless vocals near the song’s conclusion opened my eyes to the fact that this music was being created by a person, and created in general, rather than a mythical essence that does, has, and will always exist. “Hey, I could go doo-doo-doo too!” While I’d long been a “Lennon guy” for dad’s approval, this was my turning point in my appreciation of Sir Paul, and also a serious shift in my understanding of the artistic process and its expansive opportunity for joy and expression.
Myke C-Town, host of Dead End Hip Hop
This, (tied with “Piggies”), is one of my favorite songs on The White Album. Even though it’s only a few minutes long, I think it’s one of the best songs ever put forth by The Beatles. I love the progression of the simple acoustic guitar and vocals, then later horns and then drums. And Paul McCartney’s voice couldn’t sound any better. It’s so frail and poignant yet beautiful. The greatest thing about this song is the lyrics. I’m sure McCartney wrote this about a specific person he encountered while in India, but the scenario can totally relate to someone that the listener could encounter at any time, in any place. To me…it’s just about anyone enjoying the beauty of listening to music, in general. The right song can always easily take me to a place similar to the one described by McCartney.
21. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide…
Lee Buford, drummer for The Body
Rule #1 of being a punk is you’ve got to hate The Beatles (see Half Japanese “No More Beatlemania” or The Clash’s “London Calling”). That, coupled with the fact that The Beatles are inescapable, made it hard for me to step back and see them for what they are: four one-time best friends making really good albums. Everyone picks their favorite songs off of the White Album based on who wrote them, and while “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” is a Lennon tune, it captures the four of them working perfectly together… And let’s get real, you can’t deny those drums and that guitar tone. The fact that it’s (presumably) written as an “us against the world love song” about John and Yoko’s relationship sold me further as one of my favorite tracks on the album.
Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records
The Beatles, definitely the blandest album by the Beatles (such a long way from Hamburg), and by the time this list made it to Olympia, there were only six songs left to choose from (two Lennon, four McCartney). “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” is like John Lennon writing a Paul McCartney song: eccentric characters, furry animals, whimsical humour. It’s a lot of fun, without the sinister subtext of “Helter Skelter” or the overt sexuality of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”; a joyful romp to which everyone likes to sing along. Is it a drug reference? Probably. Were these guys bored out of their skulls? Absolutely. Shoulda called it after the ominous Revolver, made their bed-peace with each other and moved on to other Promethean realms.
22. Sexy Sadie
Kennith B. Inge, Executive Producer for Dead End Hip Hop
It wasn’t until my elder years that I learned the origin behind “Sexy Sadie”‘s lyrics. You know the story, right? John Lennon wrote the song while leaving India a bit upset at Maharishi making a pass at one of the female members. Lennon originally named the song “Maharishi” but took a less direct approach at George Harrison’s urging and renamed it “Sexy Sadie”.
“Sexy Sadie” is a soulful record that captivated me at first listen. The biting, melodic lyrics echoed Lennon’s disappointment and anger at “Sadie” letting her know that she’ll “get hers yet…no matter how big she think she is.” Although Lennon’s vocals, moving between his natural tone and falsetto, capture the emotions of the moment, it’s the addition of background vocals of Harrison and Paul McCartney that bring synergy to the song.
Jake Lang, writer and editor for Do Androids Dance
At 3:15 long, “Sexy Sadie” is a song that, for many, represents what contemporary music is missing: real songwriting. This isn’t about tweaking or poppin’ bottles in the club, and it’s definitely not about smoking weed. Written and released in 1968, “Sexy Sadie” was written after The Beatles had heard stories about their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his improper sexual advances. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Lennon said the song was written while waiting for their ride out of India. With simplistic yet expressive lyrics, “Sexy Sadie” stands the test of time as the bluesy piano licks and woozy electric wailing tugs at your heartstrings.
23. Helter Skelter
Michael C. Powell, writer for Ad Hoc and The Decibel Tolls
Thanks to growing up around an unusually good, deep cut oriented classic rock station, I heard “Helter Skelter” long before I became aware of the connection to Charles Manson. As such, my first thought when hearing “Helter Skelter” never strays toward Manson’s “vision,” but rather the notion: “Wow, The Beatles wrote the first metal song in 1968, that’s raw.”
Sure, we can wax intellectual on the origins of metal until Beelzebub resurfaces, but there are two unequivocal facts: 1) “Helter Skelter” predates Led Zeppelin I by three months, and 2) the song is still heavy as fuck in 2013. As well, Paul’s nasty, denser than lead chorus riff not only serves as a source of alternative clean energy, it smokes the Stones (hi, haters) in terms of successfully reinterpreting blues into punchy, finger blister-inducing British Invasion rock.
According to the ancient scrolls, Paul wrote “Helter Skelter” to mad dog all the critics who accused him of only writing ballads. Game point, McCartney.
24. Long, Long, Long
John McCauley, vocalist and guitarist for Deer Tick
Long, long, long live George.
25. Revolution 1
Michael Roffman, Editor-in-Chief for Consequence of Sound
I don’t really love politics with my Beatles. Like sugar on Corn Flakes, all that rallying and protesting blemish the wholesome nature of the Fab Four, whose lyrical strengths have always been about tangible things — y’know, fractured relationships, fighting loneliness, and allegories to LSD. So yeah, I’ve never dug “Revolution 1”, and it hasn’t helped that it’s been covered to eternity by obnoxious bands who’ve all sensationalized its ho-hum, fists-in-the-air, parading fanfare.
Rather, I side with McCartney. He originally expressed some hesitations at the song being considered a single, citing fears of controversy and doubts over its sluggish, monotonous tempo. While I think controversy always works to anyone’s advantage — sorry, that’s just the bratty antagonistic in me — I do think the bluesy strut makes for a pedantic listen and one that tires over the years. Not even the sped up, re-recorded single version, later shortened to “Revolution”, could change my mind there.
Still, Lennon was always far too clever to write a fiery, paint-by-numbers protest anthem. As much as I lampoon the track, it’s quite inventive; the way he questions the rioters’ motives and calls for a more intelligent response is some sleight of hand shit right there. Just a shame most dissenters only care to remember its opening salvo (“They say you want a revolution”) as they’re burning rubbish, screaming obscenities, and throwing fecal matter at god knows where and who knows what. People are strange… well, you know.
Brendan Canning, singer-songwriter for Broken Social Scene
I first heard “Revolution 1” on the Beatles 1967-70 compilation. I had the album on blue vinyl which I bought at the Woolco Mall when I was around 11 in my hometown of Ajax, Ontario. About 45 minutes from Toronto. That song is special for me because it rocked out with heavy guitars and it had teeth vs songs like “Help” on the 1964-66 album–the red one. And although we’re talking about the White Album, I had no idea what the White Album was when I was 11. I just knew it as music that soon became a part of my make up and inspiration to pursue a career in pop music. VOX AC 30 TO THE FUCKING MAX!
26. Honey Pie
Nixon Boyd, guitarist and vocalist for Hollerado
The Paul McCartney song, which is in the style of a Tin Pan Alley musical, (one of Paul’s go-to genres to goof on), opens with “exhibit A”- type exposition that sets the premise of the song: “She was a working girl/ North of England way/ Now she’s hit the big time/ In the U.S.A.” I haven’t seen an explanation of the song that boils it down properly, so here it is:
This is Paul creating a female alter ego for himself – the celebrity starlet Honey Pie – that his male narrator sings to in the persona of a lovesick fan with a celebrity crush. By projecting himself into the subject of the song and having his narrator sing to that subject instead of as that subject, he manages to present personal material in a detached way (much cooler). He avoids sounding boastful while still telling a story about his life, about which there was a lot to boast. (And I can’t help but think that a lot of today’s artists would embrace that boastfulness by making damn sure the listener knew it was THEM that made someone “weak in the knees”).
And by making his alter ego female, he gets to be bad. Paul McCartney is Honey Pie, and you know from the swagger of the vaudevillian (a.k.a Drag Queen) music that he fucking loves dressing up as her (who’s bad!). He is the “working girl” from the North of England who becomes a star on the silver screen, and his narrator is a thinly veiled version of a swooning Beatle maniac. Paul imagining himself as a hot Hollywood starlet with a lovelorn male admirer back in England.
27. Savoy Truffle
This song is on fire. So groovy, heavy, punctuated, and creative. The guitar solo is instantly classic. Plus it’s all about dessert. Yum. This song is so ahead of its time, music STILL hasn’t caught up to it.
28. Cry Baby Cry
Jonathan Meiburg, singer-songwriter for Shearwater
Paul’s humble, repeating “Can you take me back where I came from?” fragment/coda to this song is the saddest and eeriest moment on the album, and my favorite; it magnifies the wry resignation of the rest of the song and makes the swollen “Revolution 9” seem like John’s frightening (and negative) reply. It’s as sticky as one of those little earworms your brain sometimes offers up just as you’re slipping, half-stoned, into a long night of icky dreams.
29. Revolution 9
Jeremy Kolosine, singer-songwriter for Futurisk
I was seven and still in the UK when The White Album came out and my older brother Ron brought it home. On the preceding album and slew of singles, it was like The Beatles had brought you with them on an extensive space journey, full of color and cuddly, mysterious characters. Then suddenly this colorless, get-down-to-work kind of gritty, No More Mr. Nice Moptop hour-and-a-half double-punch woke everyone up, and it seemed my brother and cousins were all woken up with it. And pop music itself had reached manhood. This album asserted The Album more than any other mere collection of 12″ singles had before.
I remember parents and teachers always saying from then on “how dirty and disgraceful” the band members all looked, and yet here was this bright white, spotless album cover with its meticulously arranged collection of songs. It proclaimed that to read a book by its cover is useless, especially if the cover is blank. I remember enjoying the fact that so many Beatles fans even went off negatively on “Revolution 9”, as if they’d been cheated out of a song, after the whole album was full of more than they would ever deserve again. In our house, though, it was disrespectful to skip “Revolution 9” and it would play through with just as much attention as any other track. When I produced the 8-Bit Operators’ Beatles Tribute, I made sure there were not one, but two covers of “Revolution 9”.
30. Good Night
Ashley Eriksson, singer-songwriter for LAKE
I loved The White Album growing up for its rebellious nature and off-the-cuff humor. With that said, “Good Night” was an anachronism, to say the least. I listen to plenty of schmaltzy music lovingly, but this song always annoyed me until recently. Once I found out that Lennon wrote the song as a lullaby for his son, I was able to strip away the schmaltz and hear the beauty of a wonderful, simple, perfect song.
Paula Mejia, freelance writer for Rolling Stone, SPIN, Noisey, and Rookie
The rattle and thump of Seattle rain, tense strings, and unintentional naps; that’s what “Good Night” evokes to this listener. Listening to the swelling White Album closer is an experience more rooted in ecology, and marked by the absence of a human voice at the forefront of the track. Instead your ear is alive with a full orchestral assault of violins (three), shimmering violas (three), the flutes (three), a flutter of a harp, the whisper of a clarinet, a horn’s cackle, a mumbling string bass, and a tinny vibraphone. The song, intended as a lullaby for John Lennon’s then-infant son Julian, is arranged as a self-conscious, opulent orchestral piece. Yet it’s a loaded finish to a record already saturated with ulterior meanings.
At the time of recording, The Beatles had just returned from India and were experiencing a series of circulating ruptures — creatively, professionally, spiritually. Each of these songs were, in a way, a canal for which each member began to pursue their own individual sounds, drifting from the psychedelic group nucleus. The most memorable (and troubling) part of this song is the very end. Ringo Starr’s ominous whisper: “Good night…everybody, everywhere” beckons to more than a slumber. At the brink of a new decade, a decisive shift in the Beatles, punctuated by revolution, “Good Night” is the closing hymn of a record stuck in between a time perpetuated by tumultuous shifts. Forty-five years later, it still beckons to the listener — unsure of what promises tomorrow will bring, but hopeful about the sheer possibility.