The Beatles’ ‘White Album’: Brilliance Overcame Adversity
It Took the Likes of Eric Clapton to Break the Tension
Most rock fans have a cheerful attachment to the Beatles’ White Album…the band’s only self-titled disc that came in a white package. It would be their first album released on the fledgling Apple label.
The White Album was a joyful potpourri of cleverness, masterful individual songwriting (“Dear Prudence,” “Blackbird,” “Mother Nature’s Son”) humor (“Rocky Raccoon,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun”), social satire (“Piggies,” Revolution”) rock ‘n’ roll (“Helter Skelter” “Back in the USSR”), throwaway fun (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”) and just one difficult to listen to (“Revolution #9”).
The White Album was 30 songs worth of pure listening pleasure. Rolling Stone ranked the White Album number 10 among all rock albums ever. This is all the more amazing when you learn that recording the White Album was anything but pleasurable. In fact, Paul McCartney called it “the tension album.”
In February 1968, the four Beatles traveled with their wives or girlfriends to Rishikesh, India, to learn Transcendental Meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The details of their growing disillusionment with the Maharishi are unimportant here. (The song, “Sexy Sadie,” says it all.) The fact is, they were back in Abbey Road Studios by May of that year to record what would become the White Album.
On the one hand, John, Paul and George had written a boatload of songs during those hot, lazy Indian days and nights. It’s important to note that these songs were written while the boys were free from the influence of drugs and alcohol. Is that one reason why the songs on the White Album shined so brightly?
On the other hand, something had drastically changed in the individual Beatles’ demeanors. Geoff Emerick, the recording engineer at Abbey Road, described the change in his book about recording the Beatles, Here, There and Everywhere:
They had come back from their trip to India completely different people. They had once been fastidious and fashionable; now they were unkempt. The had once been witty and full of humor; now they were solemn and prickly. They had once bonded together as life-long friends; now they resented each other’s company.
To make matters worse, there seemed to be a fifth Beatle roaming about who didn’t have, uh, much musical experience.
We’ll skip the details of John Lennon’s romantic entanglements. At some point during the making of the White Album, Yoko Ono not only accompanied John in the studio, but followed him wherever he went. Emerick: “If [John] went to the toilet, she’d walk him down the hall and wait outside, hunched down on the floor.” The Beatles’ great producer, George Martin, remarked to Emerick, “What on earth is John thinking?”
But it was the effect on the other Beatles that mattered most. Emerick:
You could tell from the icy chill and the looks on the faces of Paul, George and Ringo that they didn’t like it one bit. Their ranks had always been closed, and it was unthinkable that an outsider could penetrate their inner circle so quickly and so thoroughly.
Eric Clapton to the Rescue
There was one “outsider,” however, who would be most welcome. In fact, one could speculate that his presence at Abbey Road at least temporarily salved the festering wounds of India and perhaps made the four realize that there were a part of a larger musical community. (In fact, the Beatles were the ones leading it.)
On Friday, September 6, 1968, Cream guitarist Eric Clapton stepped into Studio Two at Abbey Road to play lead guitar on George Harrison’s new song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
It almost didn’t happen. In a car together from their homes in Surrey to the London studio, George asked his good friend to help out. According to Mark Lewisohn, Clapton exclaimed, “No one plays on Beatles sessions!” George answered, “So what? It’s my song.”
Eric Clapton’s powerful performance on his Les Paul guitar made the song one of the many memorable moments of the White Album. And, according to George Harrison, there was the intangible benefit:
It made them all try a bit harder. They were all on their best behavior.
The White Album was released on November 22, 1968. Despite the turbulent five months of recording and mixing the record, “critics were ecstatic at the huge selection and diversity of taste on the LP.”
Brilliance had indeed overcome adversity…with a little help from Eric Clapton.
I couldn’t find any decent recordings of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but here’s a very short promo for the album, an exceedingly positive spin, courtesy of YouTube: