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Review: The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album

If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it (or admit it) or not.

The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album
Photo: Apple Corps

If you’re in a band, the Beatles taught you everything, whether you know it—or admit it—or not. They taught bands how to form and look and act, how to play, write, tour, and record. They even taught bands how to break up and go solo. Imagine a world without George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” or, indeed, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s not so easy, even if you try.

The Beatles not only schooled other bands, they also educated teachers, who sometimes went on to teach the band’s music in their classrooms. For as much as anywhere else, the Beatles have invaded academia and pedagogy. Indeed, there’s a wealth of scholarship built around “the boys,” covering every aspect of their work, be it musical, cultural, or personal, whether discussing that work in toto or focusing on one specific album.

The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album does just that. Edited by Mark Osteen, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland, the book is a fine scholarly addition to the study of the Beatles. Where else but academia might one find erudite discussions of Ringo’s drumming and John Lennon’s use of the phrase “oh yeah”? Those are just two of many elements covered in this volume. Taking a cue from the band and the album, the book cuts through three layers of the Beatles onion: social/personal context; the music itself; and the continued impact and influence of The White Album—or, as it’s officially called, The Beatles.

In his lengthy introduction Osteen sets the stage:

“[In some ways] the White Album resembles one of those nineteenth-century novels that Henry James famously dubbed ‘large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary’. [Yet the album’s] bagginess, along with its frequent use of bricolage, self-referentiality, fragmentation, and pastiche, is not Victorian but postmodernist.”

This postmodern pluralism, its grab bag of musical styles and moods spread over four sides of vinyl, is precisely what’s most often cited as either the album’s primary appeal or its sorest failure. Is it playfully purposeful or haphazardly dispersed? Masterpiece or mess? The sprawling, uneven ambitiousness and abundance of material, as well as the infamous background of the album’s making—the internal strife, each Beatle supposedly using the others as players rather than co-members, Yoko Ono’s omnipresence—don’t necessarily contradict a sense of thematic wholeness, as this book makes quite clear.

Osteen sees “a brand of cohesion that both reflects the upheavals the Beatles experienced around the time of recording and reveals that, despite their differences, they shared numerous concerns and employed many of the same tropes and devices. The White Album’s diversity camouflages a set of consistent motifs and situations that surface under close analysis.”

Perhaps the most common motif noted among the essays is that the Beatles took a turn in 1968 toward the natural with The White Album, to a simpler, less ornate approach, the far-out faux-baroque flourishes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, both released in 1967, giving way to a more grounded earthiness. If those previous albums were flowers, The White Album was dirt, a return to the basic element of the Beatles own growth. They would be a band again, rather than (or along with being) recording artists.

The problem was that they weren’t the same band and it wasn’t the same time. The vicissitudes of fame, of personal and financial growth, plus the increased antagonism within the band itself, foretold a new approach. This, combined with massive social upheavals around the world, forced not only the Beatles themselves, but their fans to reassess their allegiances. Despite intermittent political commitment from the band members throughout the years, the Beatles had been primarily apolitical—or, rather, their political engagement or contribution came through mainly in the more cultural forms of image and, of course, music. Yet by 1968, apoliticism was anathema to youth culture, as Michael R. Frontani discusses in his chapter “‘…Out/In…’ The Beatles’ Image in Transition During the ‘Year of the Barricades’.”

In the thrill and exuberance of the early years of Beatlemania, Frontani writes, “[s]ex, primarily, provided a basis for unity…the attraction of the subversive qualities of an image constructed to embody unconstrained romantic and carnal relationships. The Beatles […] were a vehicle for youths to fully engage in a euphoric sense of being young […] Eventually, other youths icons arose and diluted the Beatles dominance, but none could dethrone them.”

The band’s imperial power was never stronger than upon Sgt. Pepper’s release in June 1967, and yet, how quickly the tide turned. Frontani describes the rise of the New Left and the worldwide violence in the protest-fraught spring of 1968, before concluding succinctly: “And the Beatles missed it.” They left for India as hippie heroes and came back out-of-step millionaires, or like older brothers who’d gone off from an adoring family to study abroad and returned to a resentful household in violent disarray. The Flower Power emblematized by Sgt. Pepper—that dreadnought soundtrack to the Summer of Love—had proved ineffective in stopping wars or assassinations. It turned out one needed a little more than just love. But being the Beatles, the band never truly lost their footing musically or even culturally; one might say they went from being perceived as kings to princes. Not a bad demotion.

It was always about the music anyway, and none of the Beatles’s albums had as much of that as The White Album. In the chapters “Children of Nature: Origins of the Beatles’ Tabula Rasa” and “Beatles Unplugged: The White Album in the Shadow of Rishikesh,” Walter Everett and John Kimsey, respectively, engage the album’s musical beginnings. Everett examines what are known as the Kinfauns or Esher demos recorded at Harrison’s home prior to the album’s full recording. Everett not only locates specific early renditions of White Album songs, but provides detailed tables indicating every version of every song demoed at this time. Not simply a completist’s list, this is more a display of the Beatles’s creative output at a truly transitional period in their careers. Likewise, Kimsey offers informative background on the acoustic origins of the album’s material, notably the “clawhammer” or “Travis” picking style taught to the band by singer-songwriter Donovan (a technique one hears on many of the band’s subsequent recordings, especially Lennon’s, both with the Beatles and solo). Both Everett and Kimsey also provide snippets of compositional transcription, which, even if one doesn’t read music, are easily followable due to the songs’ familiarity.

Other chapters focus on each member’s contribution. Perhaps most welcome is Steve Hamelman’s “Blisters on His Fingers: Ringo Starr’s Performance on The Beatles.” While the debate over the drummer’s playing is, by this point, well-defined (in short, feel versus proficiency), Hamelman offers more an assessment of Ringo’s own assessment of his drumming during the recording of The White Album. The drummer had famously declared that he felt he was playing “shitty” at this point, prompting his ostensibly “quitting” the band. (The Beatles are like alcoholism: once a Beatle, always a Beatle.) Hamelman doesn’t quite let the drummer off the hook, but conclusively praises the underrated taste of Starr’s playing—his manner of attack, his knowing the difference between economy and excess, and, importantly, his ability to listen to what the song, and the songwriter, suggests.

With songs and songwriters this good, it must’ve come easy. Just as band tensions were at their peak (another factor in Ringo’s hiatus), the writing was as well. John Covach traces Harrison’s musical growth, from Lennon-McCartney copycat to accomplished Eastern-influenced singer-songwriter—from rockabilly to ragabilly. Stephen Valdez sees Lennon returning, on The White Album, to the rocker he always was, but with an experimental edge, “…a creative mind cleverly pushing its musical limits within the construct of a return to his musical roots.” While Vincent P. Benitez uncovers the “intertextuality” of McCartney’s songs, cross-referencing the artist’s White Album offerings with those from other periods of his prolific solo output, stressing McCartney’s ability to absorb, master and mimic other musical styles and icons, be it the Beach Boys (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”) or Bach (“Blackbird”).

One can give too much self-conscious or simply conscious agency to something, like songwriting, that’s more instinctive, a problem that Ian Inglis acknowledges here: “Attempts to systematically investigate the songwriting process are beset by a range of difficulties. Problems of motivation, intent, reception, interpretation, employment, and interaction between words and music cloud definitive assessments…” Sometimes a scholar may create a thesis rather than discover one, read too deeply into an artist’s motives and moods, pull questionable motifs or tropes like teeth from a stubborn jaw. Overstate, then corroborate.

Citing other scholars, Osteen notes some White Album tropes as “guarded privacy and locked rooms,” a “relentless swing between confrontation and escape,” and, as Osteen himself points out, “at least thirty-five references to eyes and vision.” Further, “forms of the verb ‘wait’ occur eleven times in the lyrics […] The prototypical situation on the album, in other words, is that of suspension on the brink of consummation.”

Is this mere academic over-parsing? That is, were the Beatles aware of how many references to eyes they were including in their most recent batch of songs? Most likely not, but that doesn’t mean the tropes aren’t present. Certainly, in the case of the Beatles one cannot underestimate their subversive, mischievous motives. The essays here largely avoid such academic pitfalls, with the contributors sticking to the evidentiary clues, the proof in the honey pie.

The White Album is an open field, somewhat in the manner of projective verse in poetry or abstract expressionism in painting—an all-over work, a work without frames or borders or distinguishable edges. The album spills and sprawls through pastiche (“Honey Pie”) and spirituality (“Long, Long Long”), through fiction (“Rocky Racoon”) and autobiography (“Julia”), chaos (“Helter Skelter”) and quietude (“Good Night”). The brilliant conceit of the white cover with its embossed limited-edition number (for a work set for unlimited reproduction) combined with the massively diverse material inside, verges on making of the album a mere concept piece: a plain white box that explodes when opened.

The prosaic truth behind the album’s breadth—no one member wanted to give up his songs—frees the album from such a rigid interpretation. What might it have been if the band had listened to producer George Martin and pared the album down to a standard 13 or so songs? Surely another masterpiece, but a closed one, a proscribed artifact without the tentacled reach of the released album. Its plethora of ideas still inspires, drawn upon by artists such as U2, Tori Amos, and Danger Mouse, to name just three covered in this volume.

How many books about the Beatles can the world withstand? Like Jorge Luis Borges’s looming library, a universal tower of books, Beatles-related literature is more voluminous than the Beatles own musical output, estimated at about 10 to 15 hours of officially released material. Try to get through all the Beatles-related literature in 10 hours. And yet, despite the overwhelming abundance of all that verbiage, the reverence remains. In the end, the music the Beatles made is more than equal to the lore they generate.

The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album, edited by Mark Osteen, is now available from the University of Michigan Press.

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