This week marks 50 years since the release of The Beatles’s self-titled ninth record, known more adoringly by the world as The White Album.
If the cover is as simple as they come – a sea of white accompanied by the band’s name imprinted just over halfway down – the tracks it contains are anything but: a compilation of oddities with varying genres that were clearly deemed too extraordinary for the charts (none were released as singles in the UK).
The majority of tracks were written in the spring of 1968 when the quartet famously travelled to Rishikesh in India to partake in a course of Transcendental Meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When the band returned home, their recording sessions for the album would spark creative differences, prompting walkouts and rivalries that would continue until the group disbanded in 1970.
The White Album may showcase both the top and bottom of each band member's game, but the result remains The Beatles’s most enchanting record. Below is a ranking of all 30 tracks.
30. Wild Honey Pie
Thankfully one of The Beatles’s shortest songs. An experimental number included merely because George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, was a fan.
29. Revolution 9
A chaotic eight-minute sound collage that falls short as a continuation of the avant-garde style embraced in Revolver track “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It’s just a shame that this recording doesn’t have as much to grab onto.
28. Good Night
It seems strange to end an album of this stature with a mediocre song sung by Ringo. Despite a vibrant orchestral arrangement from George Martin, “Good Night” – like all lullabies – might put you to sleep.
27. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
Essentially a Paul McCartney track song (he recorded it alone) and as good a song inspired by the sight of two monkeys having sex on a street in India could ever be.
26. Don’t Pass Me By
This country ditty from Ringo was written years before The White Album, and – while suitably thigh-slapping – doesn’t ever outlive its making-up-the-numbers status.
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25. Honey Pie
A catchy if uninspiring homage to music hall entertainment from a wartime-era that succeeds in feeling fresh. One of the record’s weaker McCartney tracks.
24. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
John Lennon himself described this song as “a bit of fun”. He’s not wrong. Despite arriving early on, “Bungalow Bill” lingers in the mind as a slice of tone-shifting oddness.
23. Revolution 1
If the rockier version – released as a B-side to “Hey Jude” – renders this bluesier version average in comparison, its politically charged lyrics, expressing Lennon’s anti-war sentiment, make it a must-listen.
22. Rocky Raccoon
This country pastiche, set “somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota", is proof of McCartney’s songwriting versatility, and is bolstered by a vibrant honky-tonk piano from the group's long-time record producer George Martin.
21. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
With its jangly guitar riff, repetitive lyrics and frantic bass line, this song – borne from the growing unease with Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio – grows more fun with each listen.
20. Martha My Dear
One of the album’s most unfairly maligned tracks, “Martha My Dear” – inspired by McCartney’s Old English Sheepdog of the same name – is the first of two songs recorded by the singer in a music hall style (see also: "Honey Pie"). The results are irresistibly charming.
19. Cry Baby Cry
Lennon translated elements of the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” for this effort, which comes with an added eerie McCartney segment titled “Can You Take Me Back?” Unremarkable, but remains easy listening.
18. I’m So Tired
The weary vocals from John Lennon remains desperately alluring to this day. A favourite of his, the song is best when viewed as a sequel to Revolver track, “I’m Only Sleeping”.
The opening to the second-half treads familiar Beatles ground with an improvised riff that could be the record’s biggest earworm. Hilariously, Lennon would go on to call it “garbage”.
16. Long Long Long
Or: George Harrison’s love letter to God. Through his muted delivery, you can almost smell the Indian incense that was burning while the song was recorded in an attempt to create its sedate atmosphere. It worked flawlessly.
15. Mother Nature’s Son
Inspired by a Maharishi lecture, “Mother Nature’s Song” was recorded at the height of the group’s hostility with one another. The anguish in McCartney’s vocals alone makes this one of the album’s most emotional songs.
On first listen, “Piggies” is too strange to enjoy. Once its Orwellian nature is embraced, however, it becomes a joyous two fingers in the face of establishment told by Harrison in baroque pop form. Also, the harpsichord section is a record highlight.
The first disc ends on a sanguine note with Lennon’s ode to his deceased mother, Julia. It remains the only Beatles song he wrote and performed by himself.
12. I Will
Crystalline proof that no one can write a love song as effortlessly as McCartney. “I Will” is one of his personal favourite melodies – a choice it’s tough to argue with.
11. Back in the USSR
This track welcomes listeners into the album with arms open wide. McCartney merged the sound of Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys for what he hoped would be a parody of his peers (he loved singing about Ukraine like it was California), but the result transcended his expectations by becoming a stone-cold classic in its own right.
10. Glass Onion
Lennon embraced his cheeky side with “Glass Onion”, a self-referential track which parades as symbolic. Instead, it was designed to trick fans into thinking their songs meant more than they actually do.
9. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
It’s hard to deny the joy of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, perhaps the most head-scratching result of the quartet’s time meditation pilgrimage. McCartney’s ode to reggae – which references ska musician Desmond Dekker – remains one of their most vibrant and downright fun tracks to sing along to.
8. Yer Blues
This track sees Lennon take on the blues to deliver a song that stands tall among the greats he attempted to emulate (see: Sleepy John Estes, John Lee Hooker). The result is evidence that Lennon rarely did wrong – even when he himself half expected to.
7. Savoy Truffle
Step forward the album’s most criminally overlooked song. On paper, a song about Eric Clapton’s sweet tooth may not be the most exciting prospect. However, despite being the only Harrison track on the album not to convey any profound meaning, it doesn’t get much more thrilling or, indeed, better than "Savoy Truffle". The Beatles at their most underrated.
6. Sexy Sadie
Lennon’s scathing response to an allegation that Maharishi had made a sexual advance on Mia Farrow. To this day “Sexy Sadie” drips with bittersweet disdain, its moody final minute – inspiring Radiohead’s ”Karma Police” and “Four Out Of Five” by Arctic Monkeys – managing to spring hairs on end, however many times you’ve heard it.
Lennon and Harrison weren’t the only band members to be spurred into action by politics: “Blackbird” is said to have been written by McCartney in the wake of increasing racial tensions in the US, a subject matter that belies the finished track’s beautiful calmness. For many, it’s the apotheosis of McCartney’s career and remains a standout in his solo live shows.
4. Dear Prudence
Lennon wrote this song in an attempt to lure Prudence Farrow, the sister of Rosemary’s Baby star Mia, out of seclusion after a growing obsession with meditation. It's a delicate delight, which starts slowly and steadily swells in stature with every passing second, finding its way under your skin. One of the band’s most covered songs.
3. Helter Skelter
There’s no denying that “Helter Skelter” is one of the best rock songs ever recorded. Inspired by The Who’s “I Can See for Miles”, it’s McCartney’s raucous attempt to create the loudest noise he possibly could. The fiercest, most blistering track that arguably paved the way for heavy metal is far removed from the tame love songs people were used to from the songwriter.
2. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
A loaded weapon of a track that stands tall as one of Lennon’s best songs. Ostensibly three songs in one, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is something he’d later describe as “a history of rock and roll”. Not bad for a song that lasts for a mere two minutes and 43 seconds. It was banned by the BBC for its sexually provocative imagery conjured in the song’s coda that sees a trigger-friendly Lennon screaming his lyrics as the remaining trio provide lustrous backing vocals (”bang bang, shoot shoot”). Unsurprisingly, it’s said to be McCartney and Harrison’s favourite White Album track.
1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is not just the greatest George Harrison song – it's hands down one of The Beatles’s greatest also. Borne from disharmony – in the world, as well as in the band he’d grown up with – the song marked Harrison’s reunion with the guitar having dedicated his time to the sitar for the previous two years. Perhaps it’s the unlikeliness of its success that makes it so empowering to this day: inspired by a belief that all things are coincidental, Harrison decided to write a song based on the first phrase he happened to see when opening a book. The result? “Gently Weeps”. The finished song, with its pow-wow melody backed by climactic solo from Eric Clapton, is testament to Harrison’s genius. Music really doesn't get better.
The 50th anniversary remix of The White Album is out now
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