Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Build Your Own White Album: Part Two - A Doll's House

Long version here, summary here: You know how people sometimes say The Beatles’ White Album would work better as a single album than a double (“people” in this context actually includes Ringo Starr and George Martin)? In a fit of madness, I decided to try and construct what that might look like. The first part of this series was just my 15 favorite tracks, but for this one I tried to bring some actual discipline to it. I was taking the position that it’s 1968, the Beatles have given me 30 songs for consideration on their new album, and I’ve had to whittle it down to 15.

Now what criteria do you use to do this?

- Quality. Obviously that’s the first step, but it’s not just what I think are the 15 best songs (different than my 15 favorite songs).

- Art vs. commerce. The balance is important. This is a Beatles album and a canonized masterpiece, but it’s also a pop record.

- Band politics. I’ve stated before my belief that this is the best album John Lennon has ever put his name to, Beatle, solo or otherwise. But this is a Beatles album, so Paul’s got to have his tracks, George has got to have his tracks, and yes, SPOILER ALERT, Ringo gets his. Although Paul is still going to be pissed.

- Reduce duplication. The Justice League has this same rule on their charter. Basically, if there are two songs that have a similar sound, I should really only pick one in the interest of variety, which as far as I’m concerned has always been the key ingredient in Beatles releases. At the same time…

- A sense of unity. Not in theme or sound (although I did sketch out a “Revolution”-themed concept album, and it’s as dumb as you’d expect), but in, I don’t know, feeling. “Savoy Truffle” is a year or so too late to fit in on this. “Mother Nature’s Son” would have probably fit in better on a McCartney solo release. Basically, I’m looking for tracks that embody “White Albumyness,” and no, I don’t know what that means either.

- Sequencing. It’s sequenced the way I would sequence an album. I’ll get more into that on the track-by-track stuff.

Without further ado, here is The Beatles’ ninth LP studio album: A Doll’s House. If you like, follow along by jumbling up your White Album on iTunes or whatever – it’s what I did.

SIDE ONE

1. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey (2:25)
2. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (3:09)
3. Julia (2:54)
4. Piggies (2:03)
5. Happiness is a Warm Gun (2:44)
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (3:14)
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (4:48)

SIDE TWO

1. Birthday (2:43)
2. Dear Prudence (3:54)
3. Blackbird (2:19)
4. Glass Onion (2:18)
5. I’m So Tired (2:03)
6. Don’t Pass Me By (3:46)
7. Back in the USSR (2:44)
8. Long, Long, Long (3:05)

And now I shall explain myself.

1. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
The main motivating force behind me even taking on such a crazy project, and the thing that kept me going when it seemed impossible, was my absolute belief that this would be the perfect song to open the album with. It’s a powerful track with a lot of energy to kick things off with, and it’s welcoming with the guitar lines and drums giving way to the barreling distorted textures, which build up energy and release it with the chorus. It also nicely introduces the album musically. It says, a little more definitively than “Back in the USSR” does, I think, that this is what the album is about. Still complex structurally, but returning to a more direct arrangement with guitars, bass and drums.

2. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
I think piano-driven white ska is a good counter to “Monkey”; I like having a pair of tracks at the front that are both muscular but in different ways. And it’s commercial and a good song, so a prominent position is important. And, politically, since Paul does not appear again on Side One, it’s good to get him out there right away.

3. Julia
Perhaps too obvious to follow up two strong, energetic songs by taking it down a notch? Ah well, I like the effect anyway. I wanted something quieter and simpler; could have been “Blackbird” or it could have been “Mother Nature’s Son,” but I wanted this for its purity.

4. Piggies
And then picking it up, but not so much as to be jarring, we have George Harrison’s first of three tracks. This was in direct competition with “Martha My Dear”; I contend that you don’t actually need both, that although the arrangements are very different they have a similar thing going on. “Martha My Dear” I think is the better song musically, but I balked at removing Harrison’s social commentary in favor of McCartney’s pure whimsy, and anyway Paul can always put it on Ram or something.

5. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Although “Happiness” is, I think, the best song on the album, you can’t deploy it too early; you’ve got to ease into this stuff, and I think after "Piggies with" the harpsichord and the dark lyrics/whimsical sound and pig noises, you’re about ready for it. Still wanted it to be on Side One so it’s prominent.

6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
The Spanish guitar at the beginning of this transitions well from “Happiness” – for a moment you might almost think it’s a new “movement” – and then goes off into its own thing. Counters the structural weirdness of “Happiness” with something direct, warm, and inviting, but still unusual and worthy in its own way. This is a track that I don’t think “needs” to be on the album, but makes it stronger anyway for exactly that reason.

7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Kept the “’Ey oop” transition because I could not improve upon it. The longest song on the album rounds out the first side, and I think it’s a good track to close the halfway point on. It’s big and grand – you need to work up to it, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you want to hold to the very end.

8. Birthday
Works both as an opening to a record side (again, I can’t improve upon this idea, nor does it need improving upon), and works as a lighter, more energetic antidote to “Weeps” if you’re listening on CD. Refocusing on rock ‘n’ roll, and too pure and energetic not to include.

9. Dear Prudence
Okay, I made this playlist on iTunes, but the problem is that I don’t have the equipment, know-how or inclination to remove the jet airplane sound from the end of “Back in the USSR” on the original. So we’ll just pretend it’s not there, and we’ll also pretend that “Birthday” crossfades with “Prudence” in a similar way, because I think this song does benefit from being led into like that. Starts off much more stripped down than “Birthday”, obviously, but by the end becomes almost as full, so I think this fits well here, and you do need this song on the album.

10. Blackbird
I’m no fool – even if I didn’t have the benefit of 40 years telling me “Blackbird” is a classic in the halls of popular music, I’d like to think I’d’ve been able to spot it at the time. If I had my druthers, I’d probably sub this out for another Lennon tune – “Sexy Sadie” – but Paul needs his tracks, and this is toe-tapping and commercial while still being poignant. Discipline: I has it.

11. Glass Onion
I think this hits really nicely after Blackbird. The transition is jarring, but the song kind of demands it – the song itself is jarring. We get our quota of bluesy rock with this song.

12. I’m So Tired
The laziness of the strings on the outro of “Glass Onion” segues well into “I’m So Tired,” which I didn’t mean to do but turned out anyway. I guess I’m just a genius. Takes the tempo down after some toe-tapping numbers. Again, I was tempted to say that this song didn’t “need” to be on here, but it does – it’s a very affecting oddball.

13. Don’t Pass Me By
This is maybe a little gimmicky, but the backwards Lennon mumbling on the end of “I’m So Tired” could be made to flow into Ringo’s piano noodling, artificially suggestion a sort of “live performance” link between the two. Okay, so the song itself – yeah, maybe this doesn’t need to be on here, and maybe this doesn’t deserve to be on here with so much other great material that doesn’t make the cut, but Ringo gets to do a song on an album. And I’m not going to tell him the first song he’s written himself doesn’t get to go on. And I’d just replace it with another Lennon song, and McCartney’s going to have a fit as it is. But I’m being too hard on “Don’t Pass Me By,” because it’s not like this is anything less than a good song (better recording than a song, though).

14. Back in the USSR
On here for commercial reasons. We do need our McCartney rockers (and rockers, period), and it’s not like this isn’t a great song. Why I’m putting it second from the end is so that it functions as what appears to be the climax. You get a big, bombastic song to be the sort of public finale – and we know it works because I stole the idea from the Sgt. Pepper reprise going into “A Day In The Life.”

15. Long, Long, Long
And like “A Day In The Life,” it starts out unassumingly, almost disappointingly after the bombast of the previous track if you didn’t know any better (and as a record producer in 1968 I am counting on you not knowing any better) before building into something grand of its own. But I wanted to play a trick; as the “official” followup to Sgt. Pepper, “USSR”/”Long” mirrors “Reprise”/”Day” but also goes in a different direction – where Pepper ends on that massive, legendary chord, this more stripped-down album ends on that bare, angular guitar chord (well, and a drum hit, but I’ll probably edit that out).

So that’s how it turned out. A few of the obvious things to point out:

1. Lennon dominates this album. Seven Johns, three Pauls, three Georges, a Ringo and a Lennon/McCartney in “Birthday.” I don’t feel too bad about this, though, and I will tell you why. First, McCartney has taken over as defacto leader of the Beatles at this point – Pepper was largely his show, and Abbey Road will be again, so why not let Lennon have this one? Second, it puts George and Paul on equal footing; this is a good boost for George, who has absolutely blossomed as a songwriter by this point, and perhaps a wakeup for Paul, whose numbers on the White Album are, I think, his weakest since the early Beatles albums.

2. Where the hell is “Sexy Sadie”?! I know, right? But this is DISCIPLINE. Another John song means one less George or Paul (or Ringo), and I tell myself that the last “movement” of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” sort of covers the same territory but more succinctly. Can I issue this as a single or something? A double A-side with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”?

And finally…

3. This is, I think, a pretty good condensation of the White Album (I would gladly challenge anyone else’s attempt to go down the same rabbit hole I been down), and if it had been this way all along, I don’t think anyone could say it was anything less than an excellent album. But it’s just not as good as the existing White Album. Comparatively, it’s a bit charmless. Yes, you don’t really “need” “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” but what kind of heartlessness is that? Honestly, there are maybe five or six tracks I could say “Yes, we could lose these,” but that’s still an incredibly strong twenty-five track album. Man, I’ve even developed an appreciation for “Rocky Raccoon,” and that’s for real.

So this debate is over, right? (Or wrong?) I have rigorously tested the “Should’ve been a single album” hypothesis. It is demonstrably false.

Pass it on.

4 comments:

Bill Reed said...

"...Monkey" is my favorite "obscure" Beatles song, and I'm glad to see somebody give it due recognition for being awesome.

plok said...

Absolutely false! Why look, even allowing for different tastes in things like "Birthday" and "Ob-La-Di", you still had to go to such insane lengths as to leave out "Sexy Sadie" AND "Cry Baby Cry", and if I were doing this (you've got me thinking about it, damn you) I'm not sure I could get them back on. Yes: even "Rocky Raccoon" is missed.

I have to mull this one a lot more than the other one, before I can make a full comment: all those segues, I have to add them up.

Also: you are clearly dangerously insane.

Justin said...

Bill Reed: The "obscure" Beatles song is sort of a funny phenomenon, because as a total nerd for the Beatles I can't even tell what's obscure. I mean, the Beatles have legendary *B-sides*.

That said, my favorite "obscurity" is "Hey Bulldog." One of my top 3 favorite Beatles songs, period (would "You're Going To Lose That Girl" be considered obscure?).

Plok: No, man, it's like I *was* dangerously insane but I came out the other side. I AM CURED.

I did actually rush it a bit at the end ... I saw Andrew was going to put up his White Album post soon, and I'd already committed to this tracklisting and didn't want him to make some brilliant point that would make me have to start over again (for all I know, he's going to prove to me, with diagrams and math, why "Helter Skelter" is the best song on the album or something).

But if you do try it ... you'll get to a point where you're at like nineteen and NO FOUR SONGS CAN POSSIBLY BE CUT.

Justin said...

You know, my dad was right ... you'd never get away with only three Paul songs on a record. NOT THAT I AM RE-DOING THIS. I'm just pointing out it's impossible *squared*.