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Vivid memories of The Beatles’ White Album

The Beatles' White Album has been a great inspiration for musicians through the past five decades, many of whom have covered several of its songs

The Beatles outside the Washington Coliseum on a winter morning in 1964. Photo: Getty Images
The Beatles outside the Washington Coliseum on a winter morning in 1964. Photo: Getty Images

It was one afternoon in 1970 when I first heard a song off The Beatles (aka the White Album). I was 11. School was out for the day and we were in the school bus being transported home in Kolkata. My classmate and friend, David Nath, the late David Nath sadly, was the perkiest of us kids, and always a hit with the girls on the co-ed bus that we all took after school. He could sing and was ever ready to entertain us with songs and pranks on the winding way back to our homes.

That day he sang Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, the happy little song about Desmond and Molly and their love and life. Deceptively cherubic (not much later David would introduce us to new music and also, um, some types of contraband, but that is another story), he had a powerful voice and that song’s easy-to-sing lyrics and ska-influenced melody became a hit with all of us kids who made it a staple part of the list of songs that would be sung on occasion on the bus trip after school.

The Beatles (it got the “White Album" moniker because of its blank white cover) had actually come out in November 1968, but except for Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, as rendered by the always-ahead-of-the-curve David, I first heard the double album only in 1974 at another friend’s place where we would sneakily dip into his elder sister’s collection of records and steal a listen. As kids just turned to this wondrous new thing called rock and roll, they came across as a bewildering array of songs, some of them instantly appealing because of the melody and weird lyrics, such as on Glass Onion and The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, and others, such as George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, because it was among our first revelations about where a lead guitar solo could transport you.

It would be a couple of years before we were equipped to explore the album more carefully and, in an environment where communication technology was non-existent, learn about the backstory of White Album: of how most of the songs were written while The Beatles and a bunch, including wives, girlfriends and friends, were at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh; and of how by the time they recorded the album in London, fissures and differences had already surfaced within the band, which would soon break up quite acrimoniously. We would also scrutinize the lyrics of many of the songs, finding our own interpretations of them. Glass Onion’s references to earlier Beatles’ songs such as I Am The Walrus and Fool On The Hill set off theories similar to those spawned by what Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band really meant.

Many others, as I discovered later, had their own personal experiences with those two records: the grand and intricately created soundscape of Sgt. Pepper’s, a psychedelic “concept" album wrapped around the theme of a fictitious band; and White Album, which was a much more back-to-the-roots record with a relatively stripped-down, minimalist sound and representative of a variety of styles. Where Sgt. Pepper’s was carefully crafted and polished with its songs seguing seamlessly from one to another, White Album was a collection of 30 singular songs that can seem quite disparate from one another. Many of them have inside references to the time The Beatles spent in Rishikesh. Dear Prudence is a reference to Mia Farrow’s sister, who was part of the troupe at the ashram and spent her time being a hermit-like recluse there; Julia was written in memory of Lennon’s mother; and Bungalow Bill recalled an American resident at the ashram who dropped out from transcendental meditation and opted to go hunting.

The ‘White Album’.

For us, barely in our teens when we first explored White Album (and Sgt. Pepper’s), the music was like an aural revolution. True, there were songs such as Ob-La-Di that were pop ditties but there were more intriguing ones such as Happiness Is A Warm Gun whose lyrics can be interpreted to be sexual in nature, and which also allude to the Mother Superior.

In Magnus Mills’ new short novel, The Forensic Records Society, about a few men and their record-listening club replete with control-freakery and authoritarian rules, there is an instance where during a “confessions session" after listening to a record, one of the characters recounts how he was singing Happiness Is A Warm Gun in the bath and was smacked by his aunt when he came out. “Why?" he was asked. “She said I’d been rude about the Mother Superior." “Jumping the gun?" he was asked again. “Yes," he replied.

The White Album hasn’t been on my playlist in years but when I resurrected it last week, it brought memories back in a rush. It was fun too to rediscover the lore behind the album, the stories behind the lyrics, and the astonishing diversity of styles. Revolution 9, a long and avant-garde composition, was apparently inspired by the experimental composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen; for Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?, on the other hand, the inspiration came after Paul McCartney saw two monkeys fornicating on the road in Rishikesh.

For its part, the White Album has been a great inspiration for musicians through the past five decades, many of whom have covered several of its songs. You can try Siouxsie and the Banshees doing a cover of Dear Prudence; Billy Joel’s version of Back In The U.S.S.R. U2’s cover of Helter Skelter; Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Prince’s combined take on While My Guitar Gently Weeps; and many, many more. Heck, even the Grateful Dead did several covers of White Album songs, including Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?!

The lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Revolution’ by The Grateful Dead from Live at Capital Center Landover, MD, 1990

2. ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ by Phish from Live at Glens Falls Civic Center, 2013

3. ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ by Harry Nilsson from ‘Harry’

4. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by Regina Spektor, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’

5. ‘Helter Skelter’ by Aerosmith from ‘Pandora’s Box’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets @sanjoynarayan

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