To mark the 50th anniversary of what is widely known as the White Album, an English literary and rock-and-roll scholar at The University of Toledo argues the 30-song double album released in November 1968 titled “The Beatles” coherently showcases the fruits of shared psychedelic experiences between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
Dr. Russell Reising, professor in the UT Department of English Language and Literature and original member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Educational Advisory Board, wrote a 22-page lyrical analysis, “Where Everything Flows,” to be published next year in a collection of essays about the record.
“Tense, yes. Clashing, yes. Disconcerting, yes. Incoherent and lacking any kind of unity, no. ‘The Beatles’ is that place we can go, where everything flows. And flow it does through the broadest possible range of musical styles, lyrical evocations and emotional extremes,” said Reising, who has published books about The Beatles’ “Revolver” album and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Through the unique, unprecedented scope of diverse subject matter and varied songs like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Helter Skelter,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon” and “Revolution 9,” Reising said the album reveals the transformations of The Beatles’ philosophical point of view and psychological insights after undergoing LSD experiences resulting in psychedelic music.
“They are an expression of the communal consciousness of The Beatles at the time when they stop taking LSD, and the influence of their experiences starts to make itself felt in songs that might not necessarily sound at all psychedelic,” Reising said.
“The diversity of the album is like an attempt to reproduce in record form the philosophical commitment to integration, unity and incorporation — as opposed to conflict — that comes about as a result of the long, reflective, introspective final phases of an LSD experience that influence how one thinks and lives their lives. It makes them more compassionate and more open to a wider range of experiences.”The book titled “The Beatles Through a Glass Onion: Reconsidering the White Album,” which is expected to be released in March from the University of Michigan Press, will be the first scholarly volume devoted to the album’s legacy in the Fab Four’s career and in rock history.
“The White Album is awfully, awfully good,” Reising said. “This is not one of my favorite albums, but I like it more than a lot of people do.”
“Even after 50 years, the critics’ view of the White Album remains contested,” said Dr. Mark Osteen, professor of English and director of the Center for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland, who edited the book. “Given the disparity in response ranging from ‘the product of a band in disarray’ to ‘a rich tapestry of musical textures,’ we believe that this landmark record — still one of the top-selling rock albums of all time — deserves reconsideration.”
Reising’s essay fits into the book’s first section, which outlines the personal, musical and political contexts for the album. The other chapters focus on the music, musicians, lyrics and the album’s legacy.
The songs travel time and space all over the globe. They feature animals such as McCartney’s dog in “Martha My Dear,” as well as different kinds of people like Chairman Mao, Bungalow Bill and the dentist who will pull Eric Clapton’s teeth. The songs have musical and sonic effects from Western and Eastern traditions, reverse tapes, dainty piano pieces, and religious songs.
“No two songs are the same,” Reising said. “You have everything from musical simplicity to incredible complexity. It’s offering the broadest possible range of ideas, attitudes, emotions and sounds that a day in the life might contain.”
Reising evoked James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” in his commentary on the Fab Four’s songs written between meditative sessions in India in a quest to find inner peace.
“It is commonplace among Melville scholars to refer to the Pequod in ‘Moby Dick’ as a microcosm of the entire world,” Reising said. “We can see ‘The Beatles’ in similar terms.”
“‘The Beatles’ might not exactly be an album whose songs encompass the interconnectedness of all things, but the range of musical styles, of vision, even of length represent something that no other album has even remotely approached, something akin to what James Joyce attempts in ‘Ulysses’ or ‘Finnegan’s Wake.’”
The band became open in the White Album to inviting other significant contributors to their musical efforts.
“They deploy a significant number of ‘partners’ in an unprecedented way,” Reising said. “Either the wife or girlfriend of each Beatle performs on at least one song: Patty Boyd on ‘Piggies,’ Maureen Starkey on ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,’ Francie Schwartz on ‘Revolution 1,’ and Yoko Ono on ‘Birthday.’ Never before had wives or girlfriends been present in the recording studio.”
Other artists, including Clapton, Jackie Lomax and Nicky Hopkins, were included.
“Never before had any such independent or otherwise group-affiliated musicians graced Beatles’ recordings,” Reising said.
He said the album is almost like a day in the life, from sleeplessness to insomnia to gentle easing to sleep. The first song, which starts with screaming jet engines, has a lyric, “Didn’t get to bed last night”; the album has a middle song titled “I’m So Tired”; and the last song is called “Good Night,” ending the album with Starr singing, “Good night, sleep tight,” and then whispering, “Good night… Good night, everybody… Everybody, everywhere… Good night.”
The 50th anniversary of “The Beatles” is Nov. 22, 1968.