The Beatles kicked off 1968 by making apologies for their 1967 mistake Magical Mystery Tour, then quickly disappeared to India, where they studied transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Paul and Ringo largely treated the time in Rishikesh as a relaxing vacation — when Ringo wasn’t having fun (and was getting physically ill), he went home, and when Paul got bored, he followed shortly thereafter. John and George were the most serious students, their eventual departure and the allegations surrounding it worthy of a whole post on their own. The period of quiet reflection and soul-searching also produced a period of fruitful creativity, with John, Paul, and George each writing a large number of compositions — so many, that even with those attempts that were discarded or saved for later, the combined material was enough for a double album.
Once back from India, John left his wife Cynthia, made his relationship with Yoko Ono public, dove into avant garde art and music, and started using heroin. Paul broke up with long-term girlfriend Jane Asher and soon started seeing the lovely Linda McCartney. George found himself drawn to working with other musicians such as Eric Clapton, Donovan, and Jackie Lomax, and became increasingly disinterested in the Beatles. Ringo, meanwhile, questioned his role within the group and temporarily left the band after a particularly bad fight with Paul. Oh, and the group thought it would be a great time to launch their very own, unfocused corporation, Apple. The White Album sessions were largely rife with animosity, arguments, and separate recording sessions for each band member. It got so bad that long-time engineer Geoff Emerick did the unthinkable, and decided that working with the Beatles just wasn’t worth it, anymore.
Somehow, though, a lot of brilliant music came out of it all. Despite the presence of some filler and truly questionable inclusions, the White Album remains a tour de force, and includes some of the greatest recordings in the band’s history. The four also found time for the best selling single of their career, and a few songs for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.
1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Among both the finest Beatles songs and the best of George Harrison’s abundant songwriting career, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is quite simply a masterpiece. From the chilling piano intro to George’s pained cries as the song fades out, it couldn’t have possibly been any greater. The fact that George had to bring Eric Clapton into the studio before John and Paul would take the song seriously is a testament to how greatly they patronized him and undervalued his inestimable talent. George turns in a fine set of lyrics, with compelling turns of phrase like “the love there’s that’s sleeping” and “how to unfold your love,” and the earnest hope, bordering on plea, that “with every mistake we must surely be learning.” His vocal performance is beautiful, as are Paul’s accompanying harmonies. And Clapton’s spectacular yet restrained solo goes down in history as one of the greatest ever performed.
VIDEO: The Beatles’ version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps plays over footage of George Harrison playing the song live at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, with friends/fellow musicians such as Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, and Jessie Ed Davis. While My Guitar Gently Weeps lyrics.
2. Happiness is a Warm Gun
A song about heroin, sex, and lord only knows what else, Happiness is a Warm Gun is about as clever and innovative as Beatles tracks got. The song is basically three different tracks culled together, and the first section sets an eerie stage. With the title pulled from the cover story of a gun enthusiast magazine that John found deliciously disturbing, the weapon ends up not only representing violence, but also addiction, and sexual desire. The stylized harmonies of the bang bang shoot shoot backing vocals add an extra layer of disquiet and irony — as, sadly, does history.
VIDEO: Happiness is a Warm Gun plays over various footage of John Lennon, sometimes with Yoko Ono, throughout the 70s. Happiness is a Warm Gun lyrics.
Blackbird is gentle, it’s soothing, and its transcendental. From the sweet perfection of Paul’s vocal, to the soft strumming of his acoustic guitar, to the steady, soft tapping of his foot. Granted, the song’s metaphor makes some ableist assumptions (neither full mobility nor sight being necessary to happiness and “freedom”), but I personally find it hard to feel as though the inspirational and hopeful nature of the lyric doesn’t somehow still come through. I’ve got mixed feelings about the inclusion of of sounds from an actual bird, but with a song that is otherwise this sublime, that really amounts to nitpicking.
VIDEO: The song Blackbird plays over a still black and white photograph of the Beatles form 1968. Blackbird lyrics.
Revolution is probably among my personal favorite Beatles tracks. It’s a song that earned John a lot of shit from both the establishment and radical activists as the time, and which continues to be misunderstood and/or rejected today. John’s voice is dripping with defiance throughout the entire track, from his opening scream to his final ALRIGHT, as his dirty lead guitar wails alongside him. And though it’s not particularly complex, I’ve always been a big fan of Ringo’s drumming here. Among the very best Beatles rock songs.
VIDEO: The studio version of Revolution plays over footage of the Beatles performing the song live on a sound stage in 1968. Revolution lyrics.
5. Hey Jude
Hey Jude is unarguably one of the Beatles’ best known and most enduring classics. The hopeful, inspirational song, originally started for John’s son Julian, clocked in at over 7 minutes — a play length virtually unheard of, not to mention impossible for any other act. Rather than being banned by DJs, though, Hey Jude ended up ultimately becoming the Beatles’ most successful single — and even John, who saw his work of love Revolution relegated to a B-side to make room for the track, had to admit that it was a masterpiece. Ringo sneaks in some inspired drum fills, and Paul puts on his best vocal performance. Finally, in an insurmountable feat, they managed to make over four minutes of “nananana” iconic rather than laughable.
VIDEO: The studio version of Hey Jude plays over footage of the Beatles performing the song live in front of an audience. Most of the shots are close ups of individual band members as they play. Around three minutes into the track, audience members join the Beatles on stage, crowd around them, clap their hands and sing the long final chorus. Hey Jude lyrics.
Bonus Track: Dear Prudence
It’s no secret that 1968 was an incredibly prolific year, but seeing a song as spectacular as Dear Prudence necessarily relegated to a bonus track really drives the point home. Using a finger-picking technique apparently learned from Donovan in India, John’s acoustic guitar chimes and reverberates throughout the entire track. Paul’s bass is relatively subtle yet brilliant and perfectly complimentary. And let us not forget about George’s electric guitar crying out during the last verse. I’ve always considered Dear Prudence to be among John’s sweetest and prettiest songs, and among his most gentle and tender vocals.
VIDEO: Dear Prudence plays over an image of the Beatles’ White Album. Dear Prudence lyrics.
Which songs would have made your 1968 list? The quietly beautiful Julia? The raucous, hard hitting Helter Skelter? Yellow Submarine‘s Hey Bulldog, or the vastly under-looked, trippy track It’s All Too Much? Even better, are you one of the approximately three people on Earth who actually likes Revolution 9? View a full list of Beatles songs by year here, and speak up with your picks in comments. Next week, I’ll be back with the final installment in the series.