This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) Gobshout.com. It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...
There is an unwritten law which states that whenever two or more people who know (or think they know) anything about music are gathered together and plied with drugs and alcohol, one of them will eventually produce the following sentence, or a variation thereof:
"The White Album is brilliant, sure, but it would have made a much better single album with all the extras and the rubbish songs cut out.”
I was thinking about this the other day, prompted by an excellent documentary from NPR, celebrating the album's 40th anniversary. And so I came home and listened to the whole thing through for the first time in ages and thought really hard about this. If everyone holds this as a kind of universal truth, then surely I as a huge Beatles fan should be able to easily and effectively edit this behemoth of weirdness into a coherent single disc. I've been at this for a week or so now and, because I am relentlessly self-interested, I thought you might be interested in reading my results.
Right up front, I will tell you that it's not easy. I gave myself only one rule: I'm not going to be pissing about with a stopwatch and a CD burner, so I've tried this numerically. The White Album has 30 tracks. An edited version will therefore have 15.
On first listening, there are those tracks that immediately offer themselves, in the manner of a lemming faced with a cliff, for deletion. These include Wild Honey Pie, Why Don't we do it in the Road, and Savoy Truffle, all of which could be easily relegated off our newly cut record. 12 to go. Told you it wasn't easy.
So now we have to get a bit more ruthless if we're to reach our target. Next up for the chop are songs such as Long, Long, Long, Everybody's got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey and Honey Pie, which are pretty good, but perhaps unnecessary and really don't add much to the overall canon of the band. And then we're faced with the tape-looping insanity of Revolution 9. It's gotta go really, hasn't it? It's a piece of musical history, undoubtedly, and a huge technical achievement, but with my new-found power, I'm relegating it to a limited edition EP to be released later and discussed in hushed tones by groups of stoned teenagers. One simple reason for this: if there's only 15 tracks, then anything with Yoko Ono's sex noise on it (allegedly) is cut. End of.
With eight more tracks still to cut, and side four virtually decimated, I'm finding it difficult. At this point, personal attachment to songs got thrown out of the window, and I decided that a harder nose was required. So we wave farewell to Piggies, which I happen to like but is perhaps more of a curio.
After two days of internal toil, I decide that Glass Onion must not go the same way. There's too much weight in that song, it contains that marvellous bit of teasing about “The Walrus was Paul”, it would not be right to fling this to the cutting room floor. So instead I cut Birthday which, despite having an awesome Harrison lick, and a middle-eight to which Noel Gallagher probably debases himself regularly, is now at the bottom of my newly shuffled heap. It's followed there by Yer Blues, which is again a great song (with that Dylan reference...) but I'm clutching at straws now.
At this point (around tea-time last Tuesday) I had an epiphany. After three days of listening to the remaining tracks, I decided that perhaps the bottom-up approach wasn't working any more. So I took a top-down approach, thinking about songs that absolutely must not be cut. You (hopefully) don't need me to tell you how great While My Guitar Gently Weeps is, how Blackbird is one of the greatest acoustic ballads ever crafted, or how good the guitar work is on Helter Skelter. These things you know. I came up with seven tracks that would definitely make anyone's final cut, and then set about intense listening of the remaining fourteen, half of which would have to go if I was to prove the above theory.
It is not true that the first cut is the deepest, I began to feel a sense of loss as I planed down the record and dropped such musical gems as I'm So Tired, Sexy Sadie, and Goodnight. These are songs that other musicians (particularly The Coral) might dream of writing, but we're getting towards (to use a well-worn phrase) squeaky-bum time. Two more cuts needed.
But it's virtually impossible. I can't pick out two more to go. By now I was dreaming about the album, it was under my skin. The gaps I had created haunted me, and this is where I had to give up. If I had my naked balls beneath the threatening shadow of a mallet, I would probably concede Glass Onion and make the point that Revolution 1 is really an acoustic version of an already extant single and hence could probably be reserved for future B-Sides... But I wouldn't be happy about it. You'd have to literally threaten my balls to get me to cut any more tracks. Two weeks it took me, but here's my final fifteen:
1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
2. Dear Prudence
3. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
4. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
5. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
6. Happiness is a Warm Gun
7. Martha My Dear
9. Rocky Racoon
10. Don't Pass Me By
11. I Will
13. Mother Nature's Son
14. Helter Skelter
15. Cry Baby Cry
Now that is one hell of a single disc. But if you want to set this up as a playlist, I challenge you not to feel the occasional twinge of nostalgia for the tracks that are missing. I guess the point is that The White Album is what it is, warts and all. Some warts are obviously useless, but some are cute little moles, beauty spots on the glorious face of music. I invite anyone to post their own single-disc cuts below, or to just point out what you think I've got wrong, but the next time someone tells you how you could easily make a great single disc out of The White Album, challenge them to do it.