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The Boston Phoenix Beatlemania

Covering the Beatles' "White Album"

By Douglas Wolk

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  I've heard the Beatles' "White Album" (official title: The Beatles; Apple, 1968) so many times that I can replay the entire thing in my head. That's frustrating: it's reached the point where it's less a piece of living music to me than a formula, a memorized text, territory so familiar that it goes past me without my noticing. As an experiment in reopening my ears, I recently made a tape that has the weirdest, best, or most distinctive cover version I could find of every "White Album" song.

As it turns out, hearing all of The Beatles' compositions separated from the Beatles' performances is pretty fascinating. The covers started popping up right away: shortly after the release of the "White Album," soul-jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis recorded Mother Nature's Son (Verve, out of print), which was drawn entirely from its repertoire. (His "Back in the U.S.S.R." rocks.) But even versions that were just exploiting the Beatles' cultural value are sometimes surprising. I seriously doubt that Ella Fitzgerald would have picked up "Savoy Truffle" on her own (if she had, she might've gotten the words right), but when producer Richard Perry foisted it on her for 1969's Ella (Reprise), he created a fascinating, if awful, artifact. The arrangement brings out the swinging subtext of George Harrison's music; hearing Ella and the musicians struggle with the song's hairpin swerves also makes it clear just how peculiar its rhythms and its phrasing are.

For some artists, covering one of these songs was a way of establishing their own identity. Harry Nilsson, who spent the better part of his career being a Beatle-wanna-be, sings "Mother Nature's Son" so faithfully it's almost pointless; Ambrose Slade, just starting out and yet to shorten their name to Slade, grope vaguely toward their glam future with the help of "Martha My Dear." For others, it's a party trick: Kurt Hoffman's Band of Weeds figured out how to play a reasonable approximation of "Revolution 9" live, bringing out dozens of hooks that the original tape collage doesn't seem it even has. Danbert Nobacon of Chumbawamba sang "Piggies" on 1990's Fuck EMI compilation, essentially to change the last line to "clutching forks and knives to eat Nobacon."

Through it all, the songs are unbelievably resilient. "Dear Prudence" holds up beautifully in a new drum 'n' bass reading by DJ Kazimir: as soon as the synthesizers start pinging out its signature guitar riff, it sounds as if it had always wanted double-time breaks. California performance-art pranksters Bren't Lewiis reduce "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" to a deadpan recitation and some guy banging on an extruded aluminum sailboat mast, and the joke still works the same way. The Texas Chainsaw Orchestra's exactly-what-you-think-it-is rendition of "Birthday" just underlines how many variations the song works on its simple blues riff. And if "Blackbird" can survive Sarah Vaughan's horrifically misguided 1980 disco-jazz rendition with the simple grace of its melody intact, it could probably survive Armageddon.

One reason the Beatles' songs attract reinterpreters is that they're eccentric and detailed as compositions -- but it's hard to figure out how they work unless you've got a good guide. Fortunately, there's a great one on the Web. For a bit over 10 years, Alan W. Pollack has been posting detailed notes on each Beatles song to the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.beatles, which is archived at http://rmb.simplenet.com/public/files/awp/awp.html. (He went through his favorites for a while, then started working through the entire repertoire chronologically; at the moment, he's halfway through Abbey Road.) Pollack breaks down every song by tonality, arrangement, and overall structure, analyzing everything section by section with good humor and only a little bit of theoryspeak. Some of what he describes might not have made much sense to the Beatles themselves, who couldn't read music in the '60s, but it's an excellent resource for listeners.

There's at least one other way to hear the Beatles: as performance separated from the context of songs. Texas Beatles fan Steve Dirkx has released a CD-R called The Butcher's Covers: 22 minutes of music made almost entirely from samples of Beatles records -- or, as he puts it, "I did willfully and with no malice aforethought unlawfully tamper with the Sacred Recordings of the Cherished Tunesmiths." He's not the first to do this, by any means (more than 20 years ago, the Residents weighed in with their "Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life" single, and more recently Big City Orchestra's album Beatlerape covered the same territory), but his take on the idea is exceptional fun. "Ringo Is George Is Acid," for instance, extracts a breakbeat from "Strawberry Fields Forever," piano from "Lady Madonna," and guitar from "Revolution" and ends up with something that's just short of an original composition. Hearing these too-familiar sounds out of their usual context blows the dust off them; it's also a reminder of why they're great, and how they got to be so familiar in the first place.

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