Long version here, short version here: What if you had to make the Beatles' White Album into a single album by cutting half of its thirty tracks?
Part One is based entirely on my own subjective preferences. The songs that make it won’t necessarily be the “best” songs, or the most “important” ones. I’m not going to try and get an even number of John and Paul songs. These are just the songs I like the best.
How I did it: I listed all 30 songs in a Word document and whittled them away one by one until I was left with 15. Not an easy task. I think I’d got as far as six without too much agony, but then I had 24 incredible songs left and I had no idea where to begin trying to get rid of nine more.
But eventually I did. The songs I picked aren’t necessarily the cool picks, but it has been well-documented that I am not a cool guy, so I’m fine with that. We’ll just go through the album track-by-track and say CUT or KEEP and, briefly, why.
Back in the USSR – CUT
Okay, you see why this is so hard. I mean, Back in the USSR – wonderful, classic, a triumph on most other albums, but it’s up against some real stiff competition here. The bar is essentially set at unfuckingbelievable. So in light of that … well, you make the hard decision and you have to say yeah, musically at least, it’s Another McCartney Rocker, although it is one of the better ones. This one held on to nearly the end of the “culling,” and one of the reasons for that is conceptually, lyrically, it’s effortlessly funny in a way you don’t always see out of McCartney. The borscht-and-Beach-Boys thing is all a joke, of course, but McCartney sounds like he’s keeping a straight face. No mugging to be found here. So don’t think I wanted to cut this, but my crazy self-imposed challenge is my crazy self-imposed challenge.
Dear Prudence - KEEP
Right, this one was never in any danger of not making it. That middley bridge bit (“Look around round round … Look arowwww-owwwww-owwwww-ounnd”) conveys an almost religious awe (which I suppose is appropriate for where it was written). Love the blooping bubbling bass part that kicks in at the second verse, and that fantastic messy lead guitar on the third.
Glass Onion - KEEP
A funny little throwaway it may be, but the energy is fantastic. Lennon’s vocal on “Fix-ing a hoooole in the o-sheann” is sublime, one of my favorite performances of his. But it’s really all about that second at the end of the chorus where everything stops, you get a bit of ring from the piano, and then that papery Beatles drum sound I love so much.
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - KEEP
Don’t pretend you don’t like this song! Here’s a track that (based off the alternate take on the Anthology) is only “quite good” until, according to Beatles legend, Lennon comes into the studio, stoned and irritated that McCartney is still working on it, and demands that it be played with loud, pseudo-ska piano; Paul made a Snickers bar, and John said “Hold on, deep fry that thing and then we’ll talk!” Also: “Hap-ply ever after in the mahketplace.”
Wild Honey Pie - CUT
This was a pretty easy decision, but you know, I like Wild Honey Pie.
Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill - KEEP
What I really like is how immediate this song feels; it sounds put together in about ten minutes with the first mocking words Lennon could think of, and then sung outside Rik Cooke’s window in another ten. You hear a tiny sliver of proto-Elvis Costello in the lyrics if not the melody, too, right? ("So Captain Marvel zapped 'im right between the eyes") And for absolutely no reason I can fathom, I adore that breeeeet of the mellotron or whatever after the final verse.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps - KEEP
There are Beatles Harrisongs that I like better, but I think this is probably George’s most epic Beatles recording, if you are into that sort of thing. Love that high, screechy organ.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun - KEEP
An incredibly bizarre song when you stop to think about it (I don’t know enough music theory to even begin to parse the time signatures of this thing), but you don’t always realize it because it feels so natural. Is it the best song on the album(s)? It might well be, although it has strong competition I’ll get to later.
Martha My Dear - KEEP
Okay, this very nearly got cut. I had this and Don’t Pass Me By left, and I cut this and kept DPMB, and then I changed my mind, and then I changed it again, and then slept on it. Ultimately, I had to go with McCartney’s supreme pop craftsmanship. “Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you” is a pretty perfect marriage of melody and chords, to my mind. Throw in the goofy Yellow Submarine brass for good measure, I’m a sucker for it.
I’m So Tired - KEEP
And during my Martha My Dear/Don’t Pass Me By struggle, I suddenly thought, “Well, we could cut I’m So Tired, couldn’t we? What does it really bring to the table that, say, Happiness Is A Warm Gun doesn’t?” But the answer is atmosphere. How moody self-absorbed high school-me never adopted this as an anthem I can’t figure out. I was not unaware of this track.
Blackbird - CUT
“How could you cut Blackbird?” Well, you know what, it actually wasn’t too hard at all. Very beautiful, very well-put-together (again, this is an inferior song only by comparison to uncut awesomeness elsewhere on the album) and yet … the just-Paul-and-an-acoustic-guitar never wins me over as much as it does a lot of people. If that makes me a bad person, then I am a bad person.
Piggies - CUT
Man, I am just as surprised as you that this didn’t make the cut. Surely I love harpsichord too much to let this go…! My wife’s gonna be mad, this is one of her favorite Beatles songs. Piggies did hold on close to the end, but something just had to give.
Rocky Raccoon - CUT
HATE. No, that’s too strong, I don’t really hate Rocky Raccoon, I just … I just have no time for this, Paul McCartney; no time for these little genre pastiches that only exist as genre pastiches. I cut you twice.
Don’t Pass Me By - CUT
What gave the edge to Martha My Dear is that this is probably a better recording than it is a song. Perfectly fine song if pretty straight-up-and-down basic, but what makes it something special is the arrangement – psychedelic country and western! Oh, and Ringo, I don’t blame you saving up your best drumming for your own song, okay?
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? - CUT
Great showcase for Paul’s voice and Ringo’s drumming, though. And it always makes my brother laugh even when he knows it’s coming.
I Will - KEEP
A notable exception to my indifference to just-Paul-and-an-acoustic-guitar, because I love the hell out of this. McCartney at his most sweet and sentimental, but it’s just so pure and warm. The “mouth bass” is goofy, but it serves to nicely deflate would could be too sweet a song without just being dumb mugging. It is, actually, what love sounds like in my head, and I don’t care what you think of me for saying so.
Julia - CUT
“No you didn’t!” Yes I did and I’m sorry and I know it’s one of the most open and naked things John ever wrote (and certainly the most up to this point in his recording career) and it is extremely beautiful, but I only have 15 tracks to work with here, and this is really frigging hard, you guys.
Birthday - KEEP
It’s -- it’s just so nice to hear everyone getting along, you know? It really shows in one of the Beatles’ most enthusiastic recordings. Also a sentimental favorite. There is video of my brother and me, maybe six years old and two years old, respectively, dancing to this. But I will not show this to you.
Yer Blues - CUT
Man, I really really like this, but to be honest? Towards the end I’m totally ready to move on to something else.
Mother Nature’s Son - CUT
Look, I’m not a monster. This song is really exceptionally beautiful. I almost believe in being a poor young country boy singing songs for everyone, just not enough to make it.
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey - KEEP
This is the contender I told you about – the only song that might be as totally rad as Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Gives Birthday a run for its money in the energy department! Firebell clanging away. That spiky guitar sound is king, one of my favorite parts ever.
Sexy Sadie - KEEP
Perhaps a somewhat inessential song, but I adore the icy piano sound on this, with the slight delay. Wonderful recording. I like it, anyway.
Helter Skelter - CUT
Okay, here’s the thing. You can say Honey Pie is kind of an embarrassing thing for Paul to have done, but I contend this is equally embarrassing for the exact same reason. Honey Pie is mugging, and this is mugging. It sounds like a pastiche of hard rock rather than actually being hard rock; it’s Paul with a mask on (EDIT: although, of course, I know that's not exactly the case, being that Helter Skelter is in fact a major influence on the hard rock I'm accusing McCartney of imitating, but that's what it sounds like, forty years later). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good time, but it’s the sort of thing that is supposed to sound effortless but really comes off calculated. Rubs me the wrong way.
Long, Long, Long - KEEP
Strange and beautiful, and when you listen to it, it’s weird how much it’s a prototype of Harrison’s solo stuff – you could almost put this on Living in the Material World and you’d hardly notice. That alone wouldn’t qualify it, but that absolutely terrifying conclusion…! It genuinely gets me spooked if I’m listening to it alone at night; the cabinets are going to open up by themselves and plates are going to start flying through the air and the closet door’s going to open up to reveal a vortex to hell.
Revolution 1 - CUT
Sorry John, you were wrong, the single version of this is better, no offense.
Honey Pie - CUT
Yeah, it’s mugging. It’s like When I’m 64 but not funny, and what’s the point, really?
Savoy Truffle - KEEP
Again, this is a list of songs that I like the best, not what’s most deserving. This doesn’t really fit in on the White Album (a year or so behind, might’ve been great on Magical Mystery Tour, actually), and it superficially resembles Good Morning Good Morning, but I just dig this song. Chugs along so well.
Cry Baby Cry - KEEP
I know, right, what’s this doing on here? I’ve always loved Cry Baby Cry a whole lot and I don’t know why; I guess every Beatles fan has to have his “No, seriously, you guys, you don’t even know how good this song is!” and this is mine.
Revolution 9 - CUT
I am not going to pretend I know anything about musique concrete or the state of avant garde composition circa 1968, so I don’t know if this is “good” or not. I like it; it’s neat, it’s interesting, it’s spooky (although who needs this to be spooky when Long Long Long has that covered considerably more succinctly, right?). I like to listen to it, but I like to listen to the other fifteen tracks better. I had to pick fifteen songs, and this is not really a song, so I don’t think I can be faulted.
Good Night - CUT
I get a bit sentimental about this as well. My dad used to sing it to me when I was little, and I expect I’ll do the same to my kid when he or she comes along, when nobody is looking. But, you know, everything else is just so good.
Aaaaand that does it for the White Album. So, to recap, the winners are Dear Prudence, Glass Onion, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Martha My Dear, I’m So Tired, I Will, Birthday, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide…, Sexy Sadie, Long Long Long, Savoy Truffle, Cry Baby Cry.
And some of the finest losers around are Back in the USSR, Wild Honey Pie, Rocky Raccoon, Piggies, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, Blackbird, Julia, Yer Blues, Mother Nature’s Son, Helter Skelter, Honey Pie, Revolution #1, Revolution #9, Good Night.
So the list turns out to have a pretty strong pro-John, anti-Paul vibe. Which, I assure you, is not typical of me. As Beatles, I consider them pretty near equals from Revolver on (and post-Beatles, if you average out all the good and the bad, they probably come up about the same in my estimation as well, although as a solo artist I am totally in the tank for George, warts and all). But I will go on record as saying that I believe the White Album is the best album John Lennon ever made, Beatle, solo or otherwise, and it’s Paul’s weakest Beatles effort since Rubber Soul. But don't feel too bad, McCartneyans, because about a year or so from now Paul gets his masterpiece, which, of course, is Abbey Road.
Okay, the totally subjective business is out of the way. Now, onto trying to compile that “proper album” I promised. It probably won’t be ready this week. Maybe after Christmas. Maybe after my child is born and has been in school a few years. But eventually … I will the attempt that which probably oughtn't be attempted. Be here then!