The eponymous one, with the number stamped on the cover

So. Your Humble Blogger has been, for no particularly good reason, listening to the White Album recently. YHB was born in 1969, as I may have mentioned before, so I have no recollection of the Beatles as an active group. To put it in mindset terms, the Beatles had always been the greatest band in the history of history, has always been fresh-faced kids to went all beardy and hippie, and had always been broken up. They had always recorded strange and experimental stuff with odd instruments and effects, too. I spent a lot of time listening to the album (most of the Beatles albums, actually), and listening to it intently in the way teenagers do, memorizing the lyrics and the intros and the solos.

Then the mp3 happened, and I shuffled all my music and only rarely listened to albums after that. Twenty years ago? No, fifteen. Or so. Anyway, I don’t know that I had listened to the White Album in fifteen years (maybe once or twice), but I have heard most of the songs fairly frequently. Then last week I put it in the car and started listening to it. And it occurred to me that for an album that isn’t a novelty album at all, there are an awful lot of joke songs. I can’t really imagine what it would be like listening to it without knowing that already.

The first song is “Back in the USSR”, which is obviously a joke song. It’s a good song, and it might be a good joke (although, you know, dated) but it’s a joke song. The next songs is “Dear Prudence”, which is not obviously not a joke song, if you know what I mean. It’s arguable, but on first listen? And the word Prudence is in the title. The next song is “Glass Onion”—joke song. “Ob-La-Di”—joke song. “Wild Honey Pie”joke song. Or whatever it is, but not a serious song, anyway. “Bungalow Bill” is a serious joke song. And then the seventh song is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which is not a joke song (I think), but it’s a George song. And the side ends with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which is three or four joke songs. The whole side is over, twenty-five minutes or so you have been sitting there listening to the first Beatles album in a year and a half, and there are no Lennon/McCartney songs that don’t seem to be jokes. What was that like?

And it goes on: out of thirty songs (thirty tracks, anyway) I think I count eight that are recognizably not joke songs (“Blackbird”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Sexy Sadie”, “Helter Skelter”, “Long, Long, Long”, and “Cry Baby Cry”), just over a quarter of the album, and less than that by length.

Of course, listeners in 1968 would have already known that the Beatles were funny people, with two very funny movies distributed. I think the Beatles are probably some sort of record for the funniest people in a band that isn’t a novelty band of some kind. Any of the four could have been comic actors in movies or television, and three of them were (and that’s assuming you don’t count George’s cameos in various things). But that doesn’t mean people were expecting joke songs. I don’t know that I count any joke songs on Rubber Soul and only two or three on Revolver; Sgt. Pepper is a kind of joke concept album, but still has only two or three songs that wouldn’t have been recognized as actual songs in 1965. Actually, in 1965 they released the Help! album, a soundtrack to a comic film, and all the songs were recognizable as Beatles songs, not as jokes.

Not that all the joke songs on the White Album are funny. I can easily imagine a Beatles fan from 1968 listening to the thing and wondering what the hell was going in here, and assuming that the joke was on him, the purchaser of the album. I can much more easily imagine that than imagine that person immediately getting the greatness of the thing. I don’t remember not getting the greatness of it (and I do think it’s a great piece of music), but as I said, it had always been there by the time I got to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “The eponymous one, with the number stamped on the cover

  1. Jacob

    My sense is that there was more of that in those days — songs that were on the edge of jokes but not quite. Or the other way around. Other albums from that era include Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, featuring songs like “Punky’s Dilemma” (“Wish I was a Kellog’s Cornflake, floatin’ in a bowl makin’ movies”). Also In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which, well, I’m not sure, but seems goofy. I don’t know. “Jeremiah was a bullfrog”? I mean, you get the sense that somebody was smoking something.

  2. Chaos

    I’m not trying to compare the White Album to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, per se, but i’ll note that, when 69 Love Songs came out, there were a number of us who were Magnetic Fields fans, and that the general first impression was along the lines of “about half the album is filler, but which half?”

    I do think the White Album reads as uneven on first listen (heck, i think it reads as uneven on 572nd list, or whatever i’m up to, but i have never liked “Blackbird”, so there we are). But, first off, i think you may be constructing the argument that the first side is full of joke songs because of having heard it a zillion times, rather than despite that — i never get anything on the first run through something except “does it sound interesting?”, which, well, yes, so let’s go from there.

    Also, i dunno, is there a visceral objection to joke songs? I think the objection is to filler. Is there really that much on the first side that reads as filler on first listen? “Wild Honey Pie”, maybe. Certainly not “Dear Prudence”, almost certainly not “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, and definitely not the opening chords of “Back in the USSR”, which is after all what people are going to use to figure out if it’s a joke album, even if that does turn out to be a joke song (or at least a song based on a joke) a verse in.

    Anyway, the point is that i think our hypothetical 1968 consumer can take care of himself, and doesn’t need too much of our sympathy on this front.

  3. Jed

    I think another way of looking at a distinction somewhat like Chaos’s is that there’s a difference between (a) songs that are funny and/or silly, but are nonetheless full complete enjoyable songs, and (b) musical or conceptual jokes that aren’t really what most people would consider to be songs. Though I’m sure that (as w/Chaos’s distinction) different people would draw the lines differently.

    I think there are subcategories too. Back in the USSR is a satire/parody. “Ob-La-Di” is a little silly in places, but mostly not overtly funny.

    My overall conception of the White Album as a kid (when my father’s Beatles albums were most of what I listened to when I listened to anything intentionally) was that it was long and weird. I loved some of the songs, but mostly felt it was too experimental, not melodic enough, not catchy enough. So I mostly just didn’t listen to it.


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