When most people think of The Beatles’ most influential album, they usually think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you listen to what came before, you can see why. It took The Beatles’ own Revolver and Rubber Soul, along with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and turned it up to 11.
But let’s be honest. Sgt. Pepper’s sounds dated. There are songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver that still sound fresh and modern 45 years later. Sgt. Pepper’s is more a snapshot of the era in which it was recorded. If you want to look at the most influential album The Beatles ever recorded, you have to take a serious listen to their self-titled follow-up, colloquially known as The White Album.
It, too, is clearly a product of the sixties, but as often as not, the songs defy definition. A few, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” have achieved timelessness. Not bad considering that the guest guitarist, Eric Clapton, was pining for George Harrison’s wife as the song was recorded.
The White Album emerged during an era when The Beatles had abandoned live touring for the studio. So from 1966 until 1969, The Beatles would practically live at Abbey Road. By now, Apple Records was a going concern and Brian Epstein had already passed away. The Beatles were the biggest band in the world and could literally do no wrong. (Almost. The Magical Mystery Tour proved they could make a bad movie.)
So what do you do when you’ve created the album against which all future rock albums will be compared? (The Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was an admitted dig while Dark Side of the Moon is constantly referred to as Pink Floyd’s Sgt. Pepper’s.) The smart answer is “Anything we want.” But with the exception of “Revolution 9,” the band is surprisingly less self-indulgent than many bands at their peak. (Taking notes, Coldplay? Go ask U2 how they recovered for that faux pas.) They kick it off with a Beach Boys parody (“Back in the USSR”) and end it with a show tune (“Good Night”). In between, they hit blues, ragtime, psychedelia, and even heavy metal. To this day, “Helter Skelter,” even without help from Charles Manson, remains one of the most menacing songs ever recorded, giving even Black Sabbath a run for its money. Without it, there would have been no Who’s “Miles and Miles” and likely no “Smoke on the Water.”
Most of the songs, “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Blackbird,” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” (which you can hear the vibe from in “Cut Me Some Slack” by Paul jamming with Nirvana) don’t sound fixed to any point in time. A few (“Birthday,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) are definitely relics of the later sixties. But the album as a whole, which defies categorization, is a work of art, one that endures nearly fifty years later. Not bad when you consider that Ringo quit in the middle of it and demonstrated that The Beatles were four musicians, not three musicians and a drummer. Paul drums on a couple of songs, but thankfully, they lured Ringo back into the studio before they finished.
Let It Be is overproduced. Abbey Road might be a better album artistically. But The White Album, more than Sgt. Pepper’s, continues to redefine rock 45 years after it was released.