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Rearranging The Beatles 'White Album' to create one single, perfect record

@TylerGolsen

One of the many things to admire about The Beatles was their prolific work ethic. In the span of eight years, the four lads from Liverpool released 12 full-length studio albums. When paired with the Magical Mystery Tour EP, the Past Masters collections, the Anthology albums, and other miscellaneous releases, The Beatles wrote and recorded more than 300 songs as a group. 

In 1968, hot off the success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and regrouping after their sometimes-turbulent trip to Rishikesh, India, to meet with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles demoed 26 new compositions at George Harrison’s Kinfauns house, most of which provided to be the bedrock for what would become the band’s most eclectic, subversive, and polarising album of their career: The Beatles, most commonly known as The White Album.

It’s fascinating to think about what makes this album tick. What songs make up the true essence of the album and what is simply filler? Do some songs that are easily brushed off actually essential to the album’s listening experience? And most infamously of all: what would it be like if The White Album was a single album? That’s what we’re going to find out.

For full disclosure, I already disagree with the premise I’ve set for myself. I’m one of the people that defends the album, through thick and thin, as a piece of art that should be kept whole. Every piece of filler, every ridiculous song, every moment of the album creates a very specific feeling, and listening to the record in its entirety is a completely unique experience that is felt differently by anyone who takes the time. There are plenty of reasons why ‘Wild Honey Pie’ should not have been included on this LP, but taking it off ruins the spirit of the recording, which is that of a warts-and-all expression of artistic discontent. The Beatles were so dysfunctional during this period that Ringo Starr quit during recordings and was replaced by Paul McCartney’s drumming on the first two songs. The Beatles starts off with only 3/4ths of The Beatles! 

Much has been said regarding the band dynamic at this time: Paul McCartney, unwilling to yield his artistic vision, would create whole songs in solitude, playing all the instruments himself. John Lennon, largely uninterested in his own recordings, much less anybody else’s, threw out half baked ideas along with genuinely good songs as if to mess with the group. George Harrison, struggling to show his prominence as an equal contributor to the band, was only allotted a few songs to express his own growth as a musician and songwriter. Ringo Starr, constantly feeling underused and underappreciated, mainly waited around the studio while the others tried to pull their pieces together. Often, the band members would be working in separate studios.

The atmosphere was tense and territorial, something that would worsen to the point of eroding the band’s working relationship on later projects. George Martin, once the master organiser and instrumental contributor to ideas and compositions, would now try to organise four disparate artists. Personnel would sometimes simply not show up for sessions or spontaneously go on holiday. The strain of recording under frayed relationships led longtime recording engineer Geoff Emerick to cease his partnership with the group. The once tight-knit working unit was infiltrated with wives – most prominently Yoko Ono – whose from then-on constant presence in the studio only further strained relationships (although it did not cause the breakup of the group, as is commonly misconstrued). Morale was at a low, but that led to a creative hotbed of ideas, some of which received extensive polishing, and some of which were left raw and uncut. 

The results speak for themselves: a bizarre, brazen, unconventional collection of rock, pop, music hall, blues, hard rock, experimental, proto-metal, and sound collage (most infamously). While time has looked back fondly on The White Album, it’s hard not to wonder what it would be like as a more conventional album.

So that’s what I’ve done here.

In the song analysis, I’ve tried to suppress the personal opinion I have regarding the songs, but nothing is ever objective, and everyone who does their own version of this exercise will produce a different album. Someone will give a very compelling reason why ‘Revolution 9’ needs to be kept while ‘Blackbird’ must be thrown to the wayside, and that’s perfectly fine because this is all theoretical: The White Album will never change, and it will continue to be the artistic milestone that perhaps best defines The Beatles and their various stylings. There will never be another White Album, and there’s always something new to take away when you listen to it. Its legacy is set, so now all we can do is ponder what maybe could have been, for better or for worse.


The Beatles (Single Album)

Side One

  1. ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’
  2. ‘Dear Prudence’
  3. ‘Savoy Truffle’*
  4. ‘Martha My Dear’
  5. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’*
  6. ‘Yer Blues’
  7. ‘Blackbird’
  8. ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’

Side Two

  1. ‘Birthday’
  2. ‘Julia’
  3. ‘Not Guilty’*
  4. ‘Glass Onion’
  5. ‘Helter Skelter’
  6. ‘Long, Long, Long’*
  7. ‘I’m So Tired’
  8. ‘Good Night’

All songs written by Lennon-McCartney, except * written by Harrison.


So there it is! Not bad, huh? OK, chances are very good that you disagree with at least one, if not some or most, of my decisions. Yes, I did include ‘Good Night’. No, I didn’t include any ‘Revolutions’, or any ‘Honey Pies’. Yes, I did include ‘Not Guilty’, a song that wasn’t even on the original double album. Yes, most of the ridiculous songs that I previously said made the album what it is are gone, but give me the chance to explain.

First, some statistics: the length of this single album is 49:52, reducing the original 93-minute cut by about 44 minutes. Lennon has six songs with ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Yer Blues’, ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, ‘Julia’, ‘Glass Onion’, and ‘I’m So Tired’ all making the cut, giving him a 37.5% stake.

McCartney, meanwhile, has five songs with ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Birthday’, and ‘Helter Skelter’ all included, giving him a 31.25% stake. Harrison has four songs with his creations of ‘Savoy Truffle’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Not Guilty’, and ‘Long, Long, Long’, allowing him a 25% stake. Starr has one song (‘Good Night’), giving him a 6.25% stake in the album.

While ‘Good Night’ was written by Lennon and arranged by Martin, Starr sings lead and is therefore given credit as his song. Even though songs written by either Lennon or McCartney are given the Lennon-McCartney tag, the lead singer is the one who wrote most or all of the song, so they’re given credit appropriately. 

So what’s going on here? Well, I took two views into account: George Martin’s and my own. All the other Beatles have expressed certain contentment with the material being a double album, but Martin wished to pair it down to a single album, so I attempted to combine what I believe he would have chosen with what I would have chosen. As such, I took the 30 songs that make up the double album and arranged them into three categories:

  • Absolute‘, the songs I knew would be included (which I limited to five).
  • Give a Chance‘, the songs that should be considered for inclusion.
  • The Floor‘, which are the songs that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Also included were seven demos/half-finished songs that were left off of the album: ‘Child of Nature’ (Lennon), ‘Look At Me’ (Lennon), ‘Junk’ (McCartney), ‘Not Guilty’ (Harrison), ‘Circles’ (Harrison), ‘Sour Milk Sea’ (Harrison), and ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ (Lennon). 

I’ll go into specific details further down, but the ‘Absolutes’ were purposefully restricted to five for brevity purposes, while ‘The Floor’ only had nine songs on it. The ‘Give a Chance’s were 23 songs strong, and after the Absolutes were assembled, the process of sorting through the 23 candidates to fill out the rest of the album was daunting. Endless listening and relistening occurred, and eventually, I decided that if Sir George had his way, the sillier, less conventional songs would be scrapped in favour of fully fleshed out, meaningful compositions. However, the spirit of the album can hopefully still be felt. 

Some of the songs were retained closely to where they appeared on the original double album: ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ start the album, ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ ends side one, ‘Birthday’ starts side two, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’ follow each other, and ‘Good Night’ ends the album. Other than that, songs were shuffled to positions that worked with the flow of the album. No one has more than two of their own compositions in a row, and the style attempts to be erratic, changing from high energy to calm acoustic respites.

Anyway, here is the breakdown, song by song, in alphabetical order, of what’s going on. Placing refers to where the composition ended up in the long run. Final Cut indicates that it made the single album and where it is on the single album. Give a Chance means it was considered, but ultimately left off the final single album. The Floor refers to songs that were not considered for the final single album at all (Note: this is where the opinions get hot and heavy.

Let’s get into it.

Reordering The Beatles White Album:

‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song One

This was one of the five absolutes I decided had to be on the album no matter what. That roaring jet is so synonymous with the album that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other.

A solid rocker with Beach Boys-inspired harmony structures, McCartney creates a fresh rock and roll scorcher with a modern twist.

Birthday

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song One

Another Absolute I had (one of three that started with B. Maybe I have a thing for Paul McCartney songs that start with B…) this one was just a personal favourite.

While not any more essential than some others, Starr’s drums and McCartney’s vocals are worthy of preservation, especially since McCartney gets bogged down as a balladeer. That’s unfair, as he could write the rockers just as well as John. Sometimes, even better. 

Blackbird

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Seven

The final of three Absolutes that start with B, ‘Blackbird’ is McCartney’s understated masterpiece: it’s harmonically complex but instrumentally simple.

All Paul needs is a guitar, a voice, and some clicking shoes to give a stirring performance. Whether a love song or an inspirational call for racial equality, McCartney’s acoustic highlight on the album remains graceful and elegant, even over 50 years later.

Child of Nature

Placing: The Floor

There’s not much to this acoustic demo, and it’s no wonder that only Lennon paid it much mind at the time.

However, John would continue to work and tweak the song to perfection until it came out three years later under a new title: ‘Jealous Guy’.

Circles

Placing: The Floor

The nadir of Harrison’s fascination with Indian music and culture, this demo consists mainly of an organ that attacks the ear with what resembles a cat caught in a garbage compactor.

It swirls around for a while before giving up, which, I’m sure, is an accurate description of what happened to this song during the beginning stages of The White Album. It was never recorded by the band and was later revisited by Harrison on Gone Troppo.

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

Placing: The Floor

I mean, it sounds like they’re having fun, doesn’t it?

That guitar figure at the beginning is interesting, as is the tuba repurposing the melody at the end. Otherwise, this song has pretty much nothing going for it, including Yoko Ono’s lead vocal turn.

Cry Baby Cry

Placing: Give a Chance

A true mystery in the Beatles catalogue is the second song after the original Lennon composition: a creepy McCartney snippet of repeating the phrase “Can You Take Me Back” against an atmospheric acoustic guitar. Why it’s there and what it means isn’t clear, but it certainly is disconcerting coming after a half baked Lennon song that only has a few interesting points.

Still, the curiosity around the two songs put together is enough to warrant considering, and it certainly contributes to the original double album’s quirkiness.

Dear Prudence

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Two

If you start with ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, you have to follow with ‘Dear Prudence’. That jet/acoustic transition-segway is seamless and perfect: a breath of fresh air after the joy and exhaustion of returning from foreign territory.

Lennon was at his most welcoming and encouraging, revealing a tender side that would also be explored later in the album. Here though, Lennon includes the rest of the boys to play along (minus Starr: McCartney would handle drums for this and ‘U.S.S.R.’).

Don’t Pass Me By

Placing: Give a Chance

Starr’s single writing contribution to the album is simple, folksy, and light in every way possible. That’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, it perfectly encompasses Starr’s personality and output while in The Beatles (when your best composition is about an octopus, it’s not terribly strong competition).

The problem is, however, that it is so inconsequential that nobody would notice if it weren’t there. Sorry, Ringo, but not this time around.

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

Placing: Give a Chance

A personal favourite, I would have probably given this song the edge over the other Lennon rocker (‘Yer Blues’), but it wasn’t to be. Playful and fun while dealing with heroin addiction, Lennon’s ode to Yoko Ono is almost proto-punk, similar to how ‘Helter Skelter’ is proto-metal.

Often unfairly overlooked due to it being placed near the middle of a 30 song set, ‘Monkey’ deserves more attention than it gets, which is usually close to none. Tragic.

Glass Onion

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Four

Most of the songs on the truncated single album are more conventional than the wacky experiments that pepper the double album, but this slice of psychedelia has everything: references to both pot and old Lennon compositions (and the ‘Paul Is Dead’ references if you’re so inclined), Starr’s first appearance on the record, and a bizarrely downtrodden string coda.

I always felt it worked better on the latter half of the album, so I switched it around to the back half.

Good Night

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Eight

Am I a sucker falling for this child’s lullaby turned Hollywood finale-on-Zoloft? Probably, but it does make for a great closer. Starr’s vocal is delicate, and honestly, it’s more memorable than ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, so here it stays.

I love Ringo and need to put him on here somewhere, even if his two songs are slightly below par. You can’t place ‘Good Night’ anywhere but at the end, putting a nice overdramatic bow on one hell of an album.

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Eight

Perhaps Lennon’s most complex piece on the album (musically at least: Revolution 9 gets the “complexity” prize, if “complexity” equates to “batshit crazy”, this song goes through three distinct sections at different times signatures and styles.

Lennon said that it seemed to go through “all the different kinds of rock music”, and he’s not wrong. From blues to psychedelic to doo-wop, Lennon was reaching far beyond conventional rock music, and pulled out something that was completely new and exciting. Not bad for an under three-minute ode to sexual desire.

Helter Skelter

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Five

McCartney had a way of shutting people up. Sick of always being labelled as only writing ballads, McCartney did away with the formula (the only real traditional ballad from the recording sessions, ‘Etcetera’, has yet to see the official light of day) and created a response to Pete Townshend and The Who, who claimed to be the loudest, dirtiest band in the world.

Unimpressed with what he heard, Paul sought to make a song filled with distortion, screaming, and general chaos, ultimately constructing a volatile time bomb of a song that feels like it’s about to blow at any moment. The fact that Charles Manson appropriated it for devious murders only adds to its mythos. 

Honey Pie

Placing: Give a Chance

Music Hall was popular in the early half of the 1900s, especially in Britain, and it left a lasting impression on Sir Paul as a youth. His love for the genre probably contributed to his well-documented tendencies towards being hokey.

Still, it’s hard not to feel the same joy as McCartney does in this ditty, even as he reaches his peak corniness.

I’m So Tired

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Seven

To be honest, I may have been carried away at putting in the traditional ending structure just like the album. I thought ‘I’m So Tired’ followed by ‘Good Night’ was so clever. It’s not.

But hey, that’s alright, because the song crackles with bluesy energy between its acoustic verses, showing that John could turn two less-than-impressive tunes into a single tour-de-force.

I Will

Placing: Give a Chance

Another one of McCartney’s light acoustic fair, ‘I Will’ feels inconsequential next to ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. A simple love song with some nice vocal bass, ‘I Will’ won’t rise above its peers, not on this list, and not on any list. It’s still a good song, though.

Julia

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Two

This is Lennon at his most emotionally sincere, both paying tribute to his deceased mother and transferring his love to his new partner, Yoko. Simple and heartfelt, ‘Julia’ benefits from an exposure that its author provides: a look into the complicated, often tumultuous fragility of John Lennon.

Here, he is beautiful and on full display, naked in the joy and pain that the women in his life have given and taken away from him.

Junk

Placing: Give a Chance

Another song that wasn’t given enough attention during the sessions, ‘Junk’ never got past a demo version, which is a shame, because that demo (featured on Anthology 3) is beautiful in its casual flaws.

McCartney liked the song enough to include it twice on his self-titled debut album, released less than two years after The White Album.

Long, Long, Long

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Six

A calm meditation on faith, this Harrison cut is the perfect chaser to follow ‘Helter Skelter’’s manic energy. Apart from ‘Here Comes the Sun’, this is probably George’s most beautiful and poignant Beatles song, perfectly contrasting the less than stable surroundings he found himself in during the sessions. In a time of stress and bitter acrimony, Harrison managed to find peace.

Look At Me

Placing: Give a Chance

This John Lennon demo is pleasant and interesting. It could have been something great if the rest of the band got on it. John stuck by the song when he put in on the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band record years later.

Martha My Dear

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Four

Paul only gets one music hall roundup on this list, and ‘Honey Pie’ is just too ridiculous to take seriously enough to put on the final single album.

‘Martha’ has the musical and lyrical edge anyhow, with its early placement working in its favour. We have yet to sift through much of McCartney’s softer side that is littered throughout the album. As such, I made sure to keep this one early on the tracklist.

Mother Nature’s Son

Placing: Give a Chance

Truth be told, I love this song equally with ‘Blackbird’. They’re both tranquil acoustic exercises that inspire beyond any typical songwriter’s capabilities.

It’s almost unfair that McCartney included two of these on the double album because now the choice must be made between them. The fact that I chose ‘Blackbird’ shouldn’t be held against ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. Unfortunately, there can only be one.

Not Guilty

Placing: Final Cut, Side Two, Song Three

The best song that was eventually cut from the album, Harrison logged over 100 takes before the rest of the personnel deemed it unsuitable. That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of the record, since the version on Anthology 3 is fantastically slinky, unearthing all the dirty laundry the group was keeping under wraps.

Understandably, the rest of the band weren’t keen on the song, but even Harrison’s later version on George Harrison couldn’t hold a candle to the freshly opened wound of the version recorded and mixed at The White Album sessions.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

Placing: The Floor

This is the worst song Paul McCartney ever wrote. Ever. That’s including ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and ‘Say Say Say’. Terrible.

Piggies

Placing: Give a Chance

A goofy 1984 rip, Piggies is more intriguing than it is good. It’s a bit too silly to take seriously and the metaphors are a bit muddled. Still, it’s better than most of McCartney’s and Lennon’s compositions at the time. “One more time” indeed.

Revolution 1

Placing: Give a Chance

Leaps and bounds the best ‘Revolution’ on the album (but not the best ‘Revolution’ released), this acoustic blues number is pleasant enough, especially as a connector to the turbocharged single version, but it pales in comparison and ultimately doesn’t really elevate beyond a curiosity.

All things considered, though, it’s hard to overstate how good this song is compared to the next numerical ‘Revolution’.

Revolution 9

Placing: The Floor

Hey ‘Revolution 9’, we were just talking about you! Listen, we need to talk. I’m sorry, but you’re not a cutting edge piece of avant-garde expressionism. You’re not soundtracking a new political movement. You’re not even a song. You’re just a bunch of off-putting sounds assembled by two heroin addicts and George Harrison, who must have felt a certain kinship with John and Yoko at the time, considering that he was also the only other Beatle to play on ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’.

Anyway, the people that tend to like you are also the ones who bought Two Virgins. Hopefully, that’s telling. Sincerely, Tyler.

Rocky Raccoon

Placing: Give a Chance

McCartney really loved the acoustic guitar during this period. Except when he didn’t. Paul is notoriously eclectic in his songwriting, especially at this time. The most amusing part of this song is Paul’s beyond-ridiculous southern accent – if you can even call it that.

No one seems more amused than Sir Paul himself, but ultimately, it’s an interesting tale and it contains a welcome contribution from Sir George Martin and his great honky-tonk piano work, so really I can’t be too hard on poor ol’ Rocky.

Savoy Truffle

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Three

Harrison’s ode to the Stax soul sound, and his friend and collaborator Eric Clapton’s fondness for chocolate delectables, is the highlight of side four of the double album (unfortunately there’s not much competition). Just enjoy it for what it is: a great Harrison tune.

Sexy Sadie

Placing: Give a Chance

Lennon’s veiled kiss-off to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, ‘Sexy Sadie’ is a solid and biting piece that just falls short of inclusion. Unfortunately, John already had a lot of showings, and ‘Sexy Sadie’ doesn’t quite have the drive to really support a push onto the list.

The good news, however, is that Radiohead will always owe John one because without ‘Sexy Sadie’, there would be no ‘Karma Police‘.

Sour Milk Sea

Placing: The Floor

This was best as a Jackie Lomax tune. There’s really not much else to it.

What’s the New Mary Jane

Placing: The Floor

Another failed attempt of John using sound effects to fill out an otherwise uninspired song. The lyrics are pretty ridiculous, and it’s amazing that Lennon was so intent on releasing it in some form.

The only version we have is a fully mixed Anthology 3/White Album Deluxe Edition version, which doesn’t really inspire much confidence in the listener as to John’s mental state during the sessions. It’s intriguing, but not really very interesting beyond its surface-level silliness.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Five

George actually recorded two really beautiful versions of this song: the first and best known is featured on the double album, chocked full of Clapton riffs and Paul is Dead references.

However, the version on Anthology 3 and remixed on Love is sparse, spacey, and fitted with slightly different lyrics. The White Album version is melancholic but nowhere close to the level of the demo. With George Martin’s score on the Love version, the truly heartbreaking emotions come to the surface. Never was Harrison so candid, so raw, so beautiful.

Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?

Placing: Give a Chance

The most fun of the inconsequential White Album tracks, Paul’s 12 bar ode to quick and simple sex was inspired by seeing two monkeys in India doing just that.

Paul, with an assist from Ringo, injects simplicity to its most potent shot, wailing away at a song that never pretends to be anything more than it is: a goofy throwaway. Still, it’s hard not to be taken with its juvenile charm.

Wild Honey Pie

Placing: The Floor

The evil twin of ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road’. Simple and goofy, but like nails on a chalkboard. Next time Patti Boyd says she likes a song, ignore her.

Yer Blues

Placing: Final Cut, Side One, Song Six

A potent explosion of semi-authentic blues, Lennon’s ode to suicide hits a raw nerve unlike anything else on the album. His screams, shouts, and blood-curdling guitar work attack with a force that catches you off guard.

The fact that’s one of the rare songs on the album to feature every member playing on it (in a small closet no less) only contributes to its essential nature on both the double album and the single album.

With all this, what do we come out with? To be honest, nothing really comes out of this. It’s an exploration of one of the best albums of all time, made by the greatest band of all time. It’s exploring what could have been instead of what was. What would have happened if George Martin had enforced his will and cut the album down to a single disc? Would these be the songs he would have chosen, or would these have been the songs that the rest of the band had to agree upon?

Probably not, just like how if everyone was asked to reassemble and compartmentalise The White Album, everyone would give a different tracklist. What these songs mean to people are wide-ranging and hard to really fully grasp. As mentioned before, someone may love ‘Revolution 9’. Someone may hate ‘Blackbird’. Everyone’s different, but the great thing about The White Album is that it has something for everyone. It runs the gamut and is so weirdly fascinating that each song feels essential to the makeup of the album as a whole. That’s why it’s so hard to pick and choose.

George Martin’s desire to reduce the double album to a single album is sensical, but ultimately, you can’t take away anything from the album without losing an essential ingredient. The White Album will live on as one of the weirdest, most uneven albums of all time. It will also be remembered as one of the best. Warts and all.

Stream the reworked album, below.