Between the end of 1967 and the early months of 1968, the Beatles underwent some changes, and it can be argued that this period represented a watershed in their career.
They began 1968 by recording the single "Lady Madonna", and then decamped to a spiritual retreat in India. Meanwhile, plans were being laid for the the formation of the Apple company.
Both during the sojourn in India, and in the immediate aftermath, the band members composed lots of new songs, and many of these found their way onto the eponymous double album more commonly referred to as The White Album.
The recording sessions for this work revealed the first hairline cracks in the Beatles facade, cracks which gradually developed into fissures. However, for me The Beatles is one of the most fascinating, if enigmatic, areas of the group's catalogue.
Many rock historians have interpreted the content and atmosphere of The White Album as a retreat from the psychedelic excesses of the previous two years, a trend also reflected by the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, and the output of the likes of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and The Band around the same time. Many of the songs have an acoustic, rustic feel to them, and this is also a product of the circumstances under which they were written in India.
In addition to the stripped down nature of some of the numbers, there are also signs of a return to the band's rock n roll roots on "Back in the USSR", "Birthday" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey". Notwithstanding this general return to a simpler and rootsier sound, the experimental was not totally abandoned, as evidenced by some of the contributions of John Lennon, notably "Revolution 9".
I see The White Album as one of the crucial stepping stones in the transition from "pop" to "serious" rock music. That said, the lyrical content of the tracks on this album varies from the esoteric ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun") to the downright banal ("Rocky Raccoon"). The eclecticism is a large part of the LP's charm, and I think that those who said that a condensed single album would have been a better option are missing the point. The vignettes and fragments are the glue which hold things together.
Underlying many of the songs is a certain darkness,menace, ennui even; symptomatic perhaps of the tensions within the Beatles, and also of the social and political climate which was prevalent in 1968. Largely absent is the ebullience and levity of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Rarely has an album been as apposite and illustrative of its times as The White Album. Its tenor seemed to be in tune with the then nascent counter-culture.
The internal group dynamics are also worth discussing. After Paul McCartney's pre-eminence through most of the 1967 recordings, John Lennon's re-asserts himself as a songwriter on this double album, and his contributions are arguably the most substantial. The continuing emergence of George Harrison's writing and performing prowess is a also a central feature.
Whilst The Beatles is an "album" in the truest sense of the word, this does not mean that there are not highlights. "Dear Prudence", with its pastoral and joyous air, is one of the hidden gems in the Beatles' oeuvre, and features Paul McCartney on drums, after Ringo Starr temporarily left the group.
"Martha My Dear", although lyrically less than profound, is wonderfully tuneful, and appears to have influenced the Electric Light Orchestra melodically.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was one of Harrison's most substantial efforts to date, although the spine-tingling acoustic "demo" version is superior.
The White Album is not as instantly likeable as the Beatles' previous releases, or even what was to follow, but it is essential to an understanding of the group's artistic progression, and the musical, social and cultural landscape of 1968.