When I was younger, I was a fool for anniversary or look-back releases of critically acclaimed pop culture touchstones. Twenty-fifth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird with recently discovered Harper Lee journal entries? Yes, please. Criterion edition of Fargo with commentary track? Of course (had it been ten years already)? As I got older, however, I started to see them more as opportunities to cash in on nostalgia to make a buck. Perhaps this is because I’ve now lived a few rounds of marketers hitting the sweet spot of young adults that have come after me as they rediscover the wave of all the things they forgot they once loved or missed out on things they should know to be cool. Or perhaps it is seeing 25, then 30, then 40, and now 50-year remastered releases of the Beatles catalog.
I was rather late to the table when it came to discovering the Beatles for myself. While my mother (who was my primary tastemaker in my youth) owned the album, Meet the Beatles, I suspect that she was not particularly fond of the latter-years of the Fab Four (having been more of a fan of the crooners of the 50s). All of that to say that my first recollection of hearing the Beatles would have likely been in the form of elevator music (arguably at its height in the mid-1970s) or as a piece of sheet music for, say Yesterday, to be murdered by our seventh grade choir. Needless to say, I was not smitten.
Understanding that their growing impact was not going away, I made a concerted effort in my mid-20s, plucking the White Album from a display at the library. But I got busy and returned it, unlistened to. A few years later, I heard Why Don’t We Do It In The Road in a bar. As is my custom, I went to the jukebox to find out the artist of my newly discovered ear delight. This was the Beatles? Not long after, I heard Blackbird. Once I found out that both songs were on the White Album, I was on board forever.
The Beatles catalog is like the horoscope, you can tell a lot about a person by their favorite release (and anyone who even remotely likes the Beatles has one). I’ve considered that I like the White Album best only because I knew it first—and this might be true—but I did try the others. I could recognize the significance of Rubber Soul, as it was the band’s most significant break with its former boy-band image. But none of the songs sunk in too deep with me (except the lovely In My Life) I felt the same way about Revolver. Solid songs, all of them, and that stunning ending with Tomorrow Never Knows, but little beyond technical and cultural admiration. I’ve always wanted to like Sgt. Peppers more than I do. For me, it’s always felt like I’ve stumbled into a really great party where everyone is incredibly high. It can be a lot of fun, but mostly you feel left out of the joke.
But the White Album was different for me. Critics say that it is a record of a band falling apart. I say it sounds like a band at the height of their power that they are at once allowed to do whatever they want and seemingly longing for simpler lives. I recently read an article that when John Lennon and George Harrison came home from their famous trip to India, they reportedly sanded the psychedelic artwork from both of their guitars. It was a symbolic gesture of what was to come on those songs. Many of them are acoustic at their core, a fair amount of it percussive piano which inherently appeals to me.
I had remembered (incorrectly) that I only liked the McCartney songs—the aforementioned Why Don’t We Do It in the Road, and Blackbird, plus Rocky Raccoon, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, and Mother Nature’s Son and others. I would have told you before that all of Lennon’s compositions were overly self-indulgent or creepy, but that’s not true (although Revolution 9 does tend to throw the balance in that direction). Happiness is a Warm Gun is sublime as well as subversive. Sexy Sadie shows a kind of delicious restraint even as it scathes. And Revolution 1, well, it defined a generation (especially when it was later used to sell gym shoes…)
I’m not sure I’ll actually pick up the 50th anniversary reissue, my nerd root doesn’t reach deep enough to revel in multiple takes of the same song (on this one George randomly picked up a flute and played the last line of the second verse!), but I did listen to Terry Gross interview Giles Martin on NPR and have been enjoying the customized Spotify playlist of my favorite tracks.