“What we’re trying to do is rock ‘n roll, ‘with less of your philosorock,’ is what we’re saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are,” said John Lennon in 1968 while recording The White Album and the mammoth double LP can certainly be seen as that. The record is jam-packed with deep rocker cuts and the odd irreverent tune and largely constructed in the foothills of Northern India while the Fab Four tried to find some spiritual balance. It is, without doubt, the most archetypal Beatles album ever made.
Across a myriad of tracks, the group had returned from the conceptual piece of Sgt. Pepper and were now getting back to their roots. The album also allowed each member of the band more room to add their own songs, a decision which meant that George Harrison got his opportunity to shine more clearly and the diversifying sounds of John Lennon and Paul McCartney were also afforded further space to grow their chasm.
It means the album is delicately balanced throughout. As well as being full of big-hitting Beatles numbers such as ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, it is balanced by stranger pieces such as ‘Savoy Truffle’, ‘Dear Prudence’ and countless other masterpieces to offer a holistic view of the group during this period. Across a plethora of songs, The Beatles once again proved to be on top of the world despite their inner turmoil.
The fact that much of the record was recorded while the four members of the most famous band in the world tried desperately to pull themselves apart somehow makes the fact the album is so giant all the more impressive. Perhaps they didn’t want to spend much time in the editing room but with 30 songs to choose from, the album can feel a bit imposing.
Below, we’re offering a helping hand by ranking the songs on The White Album in order of greatness and offering you as listeners the first port of call when devouring the mammoth LP. It’s one of their best albums and deserves the extra attention.
The Beatles White Album ranked worst to best:
30. ‘Good Night’
The placement of this song has, ironically, had a rather large hand at placing it dead last in our list. The final song of such an epic album is middle of the road fodder. It, therefore, feels like a damp squib.
There is a burst of George Martin’s orchestral arrangement but otherwise, the song is such a let down as the final moment of this LP that it has forced itself into last place.
29. ‘Wild Honey Pie’
A short shift of gears amid the rocking record, one of The Beatles shortest songs is thankfully swift as it arrives as a mess of instrumentation and confused sounds.
The song certainly adds some colour and has remarkably been picked up by some big acts for a cover or two as well. However, in comparison to the rest of the canon, it falls flat.
28. ‘Revolution 9’
A brief jaunt through the complex inner workings of John Lennon’s mind this is not. The song, so connected with his obsession with the number nine, is a chaotic cacophony of sonic vignettes, none of which have much substance.
If you’re looking for the weirder side of the Fab Four then you’ve found it, but a good song that does not make.
27. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’
A Ringo Starr song is always worth paying a little bit of attention to. The track, a classic Ringo number, imbued with tender innocence and, on this occasion, a thigh-slapping country twist.
It’s hard to see this song as anything but making up the numbers and fulfilling Ringo’s quota of songwriting credits.
26. ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’
A song which Lennon called one of Paul’s best, the track feels a little silly in comparison to the rest of the record. The song is a continuation of McCartney’s music hall fodder and was largely composed and recorded by him alone.
“That’s Paul,” Lennon recalled to David Sheff in 1980. “He even recorded it by himself in another room. That’s how it was getting in those days. We came in, and he’d made the whole record. Him drumming, him playing the piano, him singing. But he couldn’t… maybe he couldn’t make the break from the Beatles. I don’t know what it was, you know. I enjoyed the track. Still, I can’t speak for George, but I was always hurt when Paul would knock something off without involving us. But that’s just the way it was then.”
25. ‘Revolution 1’
One of Lennon’s more politically-minded songs arrived at a time of unprecedented Band disharmony. “We recorded the song twice,” remembers Lennon. “The Beatles were getting real tense with each other. I did the slow version (Revolution 1) and I wanted to put it out as a single: as a statement of the Beatles’ position on Vietnam and the Beatles’ position on revolution.”
The issue was that the song was too slow to be considered a single, “Now, if you go into the details of what a hit record is and isn’t, maybe,” conceded the singer. “But the Beatles could have afforded to put out a slow, understandable version of ‘Revolution’ as a single, whether it was a gold record or a wooden record.”
24. ‘Honey Pie’
“It’s another one of my fantasy songs,” recalled McCartney in 1994 of ‘Honey Pie’. It’s about as wet as Macca gets and provides a crystalline image of the side of Paul that his bandmate John Lennon couldn’t get along with.
“I very much liked that old crooner style,” continued McCartney. “The strange fruity voice that they used, so ‘Honey Pie’ was me writing one of them to an imaginary woman, across the ocean, on the silver screen, who was called Honey Pie.” The song could possibly be seen as the first steps towards Give My Regards To Broad Street, which probably says it all.
23. ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’
The song may well be one of the silliest titles on the LP but the song’s target was a serious one. Lennon was shocked to have found that while studying in the hills of India that a wealthy American had arrived to not only take part in the Transcendental Meditation course but also go tiger hunting.
Or as Lennon neatly put it: “That was written about a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who took a short break to go shoot a few poor tigers, and then come back to commune with God.” The song is typically laden with fabled folly and nursery rhyme charm.
22. ‘Rocky Raccoon’
This track may be a little lacking in guts to be considered a true country song but there’s certainly a western twang to proceedings. Composed alongside Lennon and folk singer Donovan while in India, the track was inspired by talking blues.
“I like talking-blues so I started off like that, then I did my tongue-in-cheek parody of a western and threw in some amusing lines,” the song doesn’t ever really move beyond this point and should be considered less than the rest of the album.
21. ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’
“That was just a sort of nice line that I made into a song. It was about me and Yoko,” recalled John Lennon. One of the more irreverent songs on the record does have a nugget of tension at its centre. “Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love. Everything is clear and open when you’re in love. Everybody was sort of tense around us.
“All this sort of madness is going on around us because we just happened to want to be together all the time,” remembered Lennon. This sentiment is taken into the track which as well as having a pearl of tension was also a delicately gilded piece of rock-pop.
20. ‘Cry Baby Cry’
John Lennon was known for lifting songs from everyday life and if there’s one thing we see more of during our lifetimes than anything else, it has to be advertising. For John, it was perfect fodder for songwriting. “I’ve got another one here… a few words… I think I got them from an advert. ‘Cry baby cry, make your mother BUY.’ I’ve been playing it over and over on the piano. I’ve let it go now, but it will come back if I really want it. Sometimes I get up from the piano as if I’ve been in a trance, and I know I have let a few things slip away which I could have caught had I wanted something.”
However, on this one, the singer may have misstepped, he later simply referred to the track as “a piece of rubbish.”
19. ‘Martha My Dear’
We’d go as far as to say that ‘Martha My Dear’ gets a rough ride. The song is often referred to as one of the album’s worst but when taken in isolation it’s hard not to find some charm in the number.
Inspired by McCartney’s Old English Sheepdog of the same name, it’s a richly warm song that despite being rightly thought of as in Macca’s ‘Granny Music’ category, is not without its positive moments.
Sometimes songs can arise from where and with a good TV show on the box, The Beatles quickly knocked out a track title ‘Birthday’. “We wanted to see it, so we started recording at five o’clock,” as McCartney notes. “And we said, ‘We’ll do something, We’ll make up a backing track.’ So we kept it very simple— twelve bar blues kind of thing. And we stuck in a few bits here and there in it, with no idea what the song was or what was gonna go on top of it.”
The band went back and delivered some lyrics which they had made up on the spot, “We hadn’t ever thought of it before then. And it’s one of my favourites because of that. I think it works, you know, ‘cos it’s just… It’s a good one to dance to.” We couldn’t agree with Macca more.
17. ‘Long Long Long’
Arguably, by the time The Beatles hit their stride on The White Album, Harrison had shaken off much of his nerves surrounding songwriting and was beginning to contribute with far more regularity.
One such contribution may not rank highly among Harrison’s best songs but it somehow feels more applicable within this release. Imbued with Harrison’s natural tone, the song has a habit of creeping up on you.
16. ‘I’m So Tired’
“‘I’m So Tired’ was me, in India again,” remembered Lennon in 1980. “I couldn’t sleep, I’m meditating all day and couldn’t sleep at night. The story is that. One of my favourite tracks. I just like the sound of it, and I sing it well.” It’s a musical piece that is warm and comforting in equal measure.
As McCartney points out, “It has that very special line, ‘And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/ He was such a stupid git,” and because of it, “There’s no doubt who wrote it. I think it’s 100 per cent, John.”
15. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’
If there’s one song to sum up Paul McCartney then it may well be this one. Arguably the archetypal Macca tune, showing the catchy irreverence at the heart of his writing at this period, the germ of the track was actually from somebody else.
“A fella who used to hang around the clubs used to say, (Jamaican accent) ‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on,'” revealed McCartney of the track. “He got annoyed when I did a song of it, ‘cuz he wanted a cut. I said, ‘Come on, Jimmy, it’s just an expression. If you’d written the song, you could have had a cut.’ He also used to say, ‘Nothin’s too much, just outta sight.’ He was just one of those guys who had great expressions, you know.”
The song sprung off from this phase and noodled its way through music hall Britain to end up as the kind of ditty you might hear sung alongside ‘My Old Kit Bag’.
14. ‘Mother Nature’s Son’
Another song plucked from the foothills of Northern India, this track is taken from the very air of the ashram that welcomed the Fab Four to their transcendental meditations. Inspired by a lecture the track was ironically recorded at one of the band’s most hostile periods.
“That was from a lecture of Maharishi where he was talking about nature,” Lennon remembered of the song. “I had a piece called ‘I’m Just A Child Of Nature,’ which turned into ‘Jealous Guy’ years later. Both inspired from the same lecture of Maharishi.”
Later in 1994, Macca revealed: “I seem to remember writing ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ at my dad’s house in Liverpool… I’ve always loved the song called, ‘Nature Boy’ …’Mother Nature’s Son’ was inspired by that song.” It’s a touching piece that deserves more recognition.
13. ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’
One of The Beatles’ unstoppable classic songs, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, has rock and roll flowing through its very veins but, then again, The White Album was when The Beatles finally got back to rocking. ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ is marked out as one of those songs imbued with the very essence of rock. As well as being inspired by Chuck Berry, it also has a hint of The Beach Boys too.
“Chuck Berry once did a song called ‘Back In The USA,’ which is very American, very Chuck Berry,” said McCartney back in ’68. He added that the song was “very sort of, uhh… you know, you’re serving in the army, and when I get back home I’m gonna kiss the ground. And you know— Can’t wait to get back to the States. And it’s a very American sort of thing, I’ve always thought. So this one is like about… In my mind it’s just about a spy who’s been in America a long long time, you know, and he’s picked up… And he’s very American. But he gets back to the USSR.”
The rock star credentials don’t end there either, McCartney also confessed in 1984: “I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody. And ‘Back in the USA’ was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there. I just liked the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if they were California, you know?”
12. ‘I Will’
If you ever needed one of The Beatles to write you a love song let this track be a reminder that Paul McCartney should always be your go-to guy. The singer is a dab hand at creating effortless ditties it this another charming one.
“So this kind of thing is like a pretty sort of smootchy ballad—’I Will’,” recalled McCartney when speaking about the record. “I don’t know if it’s getting off the subject, but that’s why there’s great variety in this LP,” we couldn’t agree more and this song provides a welcomed refrain from the LP’s rock drive.
It is true that Harrison was far more concerned with inner peace than conquering the globe and he made his feelings clear on songs like ‘Taxman’ and ‘Piggies’. Both written in 1966, it would take two more years for ‘Piggies’ to find a home on The White Album.
“‘Piggies’ is a social comment,” recalled Harrison. “I was stuck for one line in the middle until my mother came up with the lyric, ‘What they need is a damn good whacking’ which is a nice simple way of saying they need a good hiding. It needed to rhyme with ‘backing,’ ‘lacking,’ and had absolutely nothing to do with American policemen or Californian shagnasties!”
10. ‘Glass Onion’
On some songs, Lennon gave an accurate and harsh view of himself, sometimes on songs he allowed narratives and storylines to play out. On other songs, he deliberately messed with Beatles fans for a kick. ‘Glass Onion’ was the latter.
The song was written by Lennon and contained some incendiary lyrics. “The Walrus was Paul” may seem simple enough but after ‘I Am The Walrus’ saw so many conspiracy theories pop up, Lennon decided to add in this lyric to get tongues wagging even more.
“I threw the line in – ‘the Walrus was Paul’ – just to confuse everybody a bit more,” recalls Lennon in 1980, speaking with David Sheff. “And I thought Walrus has now become me, meaning ‘I am the one.’ Only it didn’t mean that in this song. It could have been ‘the fox terrier is Paul,’ you know. I mean, it’s just a bit of poetry. It was just thrown in like that.”
“Well, that was a joke,” concedes Lennon in the same interview.
9. ‘Savoy Truffle’
When George Harrison finally began to find his feet with songwriting on the record he was heralded for his spirituality and his all-encompassing sound, one which managed to feel warm, emotional and engaging all at the same time. However, some songs he still reserved for a bit of fun, one track even saw him poke fun at his friend Eric Clapton.
The track is ‘Savoy Truffle’ and sees Harrison poke fun at his old pal and Clapton’s newly fixed teeth. “‘Savoy Truffle’ on The White Album was written for Eric (Clapton). He’s got this real sweet tooth and he’d just had his mouth worked on. His dentist said he was through with candy.
“So as a tribute I wrote, ‘You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle.’ The truffle was some kind of sweet, just like all the rest— cream tangerine, ginger sling— just candy, to tease Eric.”
8. ‘Sexy Sadie’
This song may well have signified the end of The Beatles but the aim of Lennon’s caustic songwriting pen was, in this instance, was trained on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beatles had become infatuated with India and the teachings of the Maharishi when the four travelled to meet the guru and learn Transcendental Meditation under his tutelage. But, by the time the band had left, Lennon was calling the Guru a “cunt” and a “twat” in a new song he had written for him, later titled ‘Sexy Sadie’.
“That’s about the Maharishi, yes,” recalled Lennon later in his life. “I copped out and I wouldn’t write ‘Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone’. But now it can be told, Fab Listeners.” It was a disastrous time for Lennon. The singer was still struggling to find himself within his new paradigm and the teachings of Maharishi had offered a new light for the Liverpudlian to follow.
Instead, while the group were in India after Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney had left the ashram, Lennon’s friend Alexis Madras arrived with some bad news. The guru had become inappropriate with some female attendees and had proven himself fallible. It meant Lennon’s new hero was on the chopping block for one of his more bubbling pop pieces on the album.
7. ‘Yer Blues’
It’s hard to ignore the gunslinging 12-bar brilliance of ‘Yer Blues’. One of the band’s most obviously R&B inspired songs, Lennon lets rip with a whisky-soaked gem of despair. The song was a sign of the bespectacled Beatle’s career to come and was given a proper airing in 1968 when he shared the stage with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton to perform the track.
As Lennon neatly summarises the song, “‘Yer Blues’ was written in India, too. Up there, trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.” It’s a jarring statement from the singer and one doubtless constructed to elicit a gasp—but it was authentic.
While many of the group under the tutelage were trying to align themselves spiritually and were being afforded the opportunity to do so, Lennon was finding himself more and more miserable. It’s why one of his most depressing songs, ‘Yer Blues’, was written at that time. If transcendental meditation is supposed to reveal the soul, then John’s was in a bad way.
“The funny thing about the [Maharishi’s] camp was that although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day,” recalls Lennon in The Beatles Anthology, “I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In ‘Yer Blues’, when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”
One of Paul McCartney’s most political songs sees the Beatle sit down to write ‘Blackbird’ after seeing countless stories of civil rights suppression in 1968. It’s not only one of his simplest songs (using only his vocals, his acoustic guitar and a metronome tap) but also most powerful.
Macca said of the song in 2008: “We were totally immersed in the whole saga which was unfolding. So I got the idea of using a blackbird as a symbol for a black person. It wasn’t necessarily a black ‘bird’, but it works that way, as much as then you called girls ‘birds’; the Everlys had had ‘Bird Dog,’ so the word ‘bird’ was around. ‘Take these broken wings’ was very much in my mind, but it wasn’t exactly an ornithological ditty; it was purposely symbolic.”
The real power of the track comes from the understated message. It’s a simple one, equality for all should be a given. It’s a message delivered simply, assuredly and without room for questioning.
There’s a certain fascination attached to this song. One of the slightly stranger moments of the album, ‘Julia’ is one of John Lennon’s most complex songs. Having sadly lost his mother at an early age, Lennon dealt with the traumatic emotions through his music and he was never ashamed to let them play out. It meant some of his work wasn’t for the faint-hearted including a Freudian nightmare by the name of ‘Julia’.
The song ‘Julia’ was certainly inspired by his mother but the real overarching influence came from Yoko Ono, with the line “ocean child calls me” being a particularly obvious reference to Ono’s surname which means ‘child of the sea’.
“Julia was my mother. But it was sort of a combination of Yoko and my mother blended into one,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. The song hangs on this premise and adds a little weight of texture to every note.
4. ‘Dear Prudence’
A bunch of classics moments on the LP were written in the hills of northern India, as the Fab Four took to the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to study Transcendental Meditation. One of the most interesting songs on the album, ‘Dear Prudence’, was written by Harrison and Lennon while they were trying to calm down Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, who had joined them at the programme.
Lennon and Harrison had become close with Prudence after she revealed that she had come to India following a traumatic experience with LSD, they were even assigned as her “team buddies” by the Maharishi. It was a responsibility the duo took very seriously and when they were asked to coax Prudence out of her room and partake in the group’s activities. After Prudence had flown a little too close to the spiritual sun after a particularly gruelling session of psyche-exploration, Harrison and Lennon composed the song to calm her down.
Naturally, the song is therefore gilded in golden hues and a sense of contentedness that is rarely matched in the band’s entire catalogue.
3. ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’
Though not extremely musically gifted, Lennon knew a hook when he saw one and when he glanced over at a magazine and saw the NRA advert with the tagline: ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ he knew he had something. Of course, McCartney certainly had a hand in the track, the complex time signatures should tell you that, but the motif and the sentiment of the track feels straight out of the Lennon playbook.
As one of the tougher moments of the band’s 1968 album, Lennon does a great job of adding in a potent dose of acid-rock amid the swirling blues and doo-wop crescendo. It’s a joyful track.
2. ‘Helter Skelter’
Famously released as the second single from the record, music historians consider the addition of “proto-metal roar” on ‘Helter Skelter as a major early development for music. In fact, it would later be credited as a major influence in the formation of heavy metal music, with many suggesting Macca’s vocals were the beginning of the genre as we know it.
McCartney has grabbed inspiration from everywhere when writing his songs. However, rumour has it that The Beatles bassist had become inspired to write ‘Helter Skelter’ after seeing an interview conducted by the Who’s Pete Townshend. Townshend, who at the time as a cantankerous young upstart, described the song ‘I Can See for Miles’ as their “loudest and dirtiest” song to date.
With those comments, Macca accepted the challenge of pushing the public perception of The Beatles. McCartney, with the words of Townshend ringing in his ears, sat down to create ‘Helter Skelter’.
1. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
Written as an exercise in ‘randomness’ where George Harrison, now comfortable in his nook of creativity, consulted the Chinese Book of Changes. “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be,” Harrison once commented. “Every little item that’s going down has a purpose. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory… I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.” It produced one of the finest songs The Beatles have ever put their name to.
Instead of looking to the help of his bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon to finish the track, Harrison instead turned to Eric Clapton once more. “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records,” Clapton is thought to have said to Harrison with a moment of trepidation. “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.” In a 1987 interview with Guitar Player Magazine, Harrison was asked whether it had bruised his ego to ask Clapton to play on the song. “No, my ego would rather have Eric play on it. I’ll tell you, I worked on that song with John, Paul, and Ringo one day, and they were not interested in it at all,” he said. “And I knew inside of me that it was a nice song.”
Harrison added: “The next day I was with Eric, and I was going into the session, and I said, ‘We’re going to do this song. Come on and play on it’. He said, ‘Oh, no. I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on the Beatles records’. I said, ‘Look, it’s my song, and I want you to play on it’. So Eric came in, and the other guys were as good as gold because he was there. It left me free to just play the rhythm and do the vocal.” It’s a quite stunning piece of avant-garde rock music, centred in spirituality but possessed by the afflictions of stardom.
It allowed Harrison to put extra time and effort into his vocal delivery and the song shines all the more for it. The fact that it was only released as a B-side to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is every reason you need for why George Harrison simply had to leave The Beatles.