50 Years on From its Release, Why the Beatles’ White Album is Still the Perfect Album for Children to Listen to….
50 years ago the Beatles released their 9th studio album called ‘The Beatles’ which then became more commonly known as The White Album. Many of the songs were written while they were in India during a transcendental meditation course. It was then recorded in London at the famous Abbey Road Studios and subsequently released on the 22nd November 1968. It is still today regarded by many as one of the greatest albums ever made.
A few days ago, due of the media attention discussing the album's 50 year anniversary of it’s release, I went back and listened to it in full. One of the criticisms the album sometimes received is that there’s not a lot of continuity in the album with too wide a variety of genres being presented. The styles captured in the album include rock and roll, pop, blues, heavy metal, ska, lullaby, ballads and the weird avant-garde.
After listening to the album again, I’ve since realised that because of this, The White Album might be one of the most perfect albums for children to listen to because it exposes this variety of song styles all within one piece of art.
Below are a selection of those songs from the album (with links to recordings) and our description of their style which can be listened to, explored and discussed with primary school children so they too can learn about this amazing album. We’ve also included some ideas for how a primary school teacher could approach building a music lesson plan for their class on it.
But first, here's a short intro video about it:
- Back in the USSR - this is the opening song of the album and it's title is a parody of Chuck Berry’s song ‘Back in the USA’. It was also heavily inspired by the Beach Boys’ style of harmony who were very popular at the time. The song opens with a jet plane passing over and the driving piano and guitar accompaniment keep this surf rock classic flying throughout.
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - in a recent interview Paul McCartney, who wrote the song, said when he, George and Ringo were working on it, they were having a bit of trouble with it. John Lennon, who arrived late, came in and instantly added the opening piano riff and the rest of the song clicked into place. The song is almost in a Jamaican ska style where the accompaniment in the piano is always playing on the off-beat. The bass line keeps the driving pulse throughout and the introduction of brass lines creates a very happy pop vibe.
Performance - here’s a link to the lyrics - this would be a great song to try in the classroom. It’s easy to sing along to and the lyrics are good fun.
- While my guitar gently weeps - written by George Harrison, this is regarded by many as the best track on the album. There’s a definite sense of sorrow throughout out the song from the pained guitar solo to the somber lyrics and singing style. The falling chord sequence under the vocals is indicative of the blues rock style as is the wailing guitar and punchy drums lines particularly as the song reaches its climax.
- Dear Prudence - The Beatles were great at writing ballads and this is one of their best examples. The songs starts with broken guitar chordal accompaniment and builds as more instruments and vocals enter throughout the song. Interestingly, the songs verses are written almost exactly in the same format as a limerick. The first, second and fifth lines all rhyme and each contain 7-10 syllables.
- Blackbird - this is one of the top 10 most covered songs ever. Paul McCartney wrote the song after being inspired by the troubled race relations in America at the time. The song was recorded by McCartney on his own and was in part inspired by J.S. Bach’s piece Bourrée which he tried to learn as a child. The bass and melody lines ascending together in Bach’s piece became the basis for the main chord sequence in Blackbird.
Performance - this would be another great song to try in the classroom. Again it’s easy to sing and has a nice uplifting message in the song. Click here for the lyrics.
- Julia - this song also has a similar style broken guitar chordal accompaniment like Dear Prudence. Julia was John Lennon’s mother who died when he was young. Throughout it, the vocals are sung almost as a whisper and are presented in a very reverent style. Like Blackbird was recorded by Paul McCartney and his guitar, this song is sung and played by just John Lennon.
- Goodnight - this piece ends the album and was written by John Lennon for Ringo Starr to sing. The piece also features a lush orchestral arrangement by The Beatles’ producer George Martin. The song is a lullaby which wouldn’t be out of place in Disney movie. The violins mirror Ringo’s vocal melody while the instruments like flute and French horn provide soaring counter melodies.
Listening - listen to the piece in the classroom and discuss what instruments can be heard. These include: strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass), flute, French horn, clarinet, harp and vibraphone.
- Savoy Truffle - this was written by George Harrison inspired by his friend Eric Capton’s fondness for chocolate. The songs lyrics list many of the different varieties of chocolate while also including a warning that chocolate would wreck Eric’s teeth if he ate too many saying, ‘You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle.’ The song features 6 saxophones along with electric piano and organ accompaniments.
Responding - get the class to listen to the lyrics and list out all of the different types of food they can hear in the song.
- Martha My Dear - apparently the name Martha came from Paul McCartney’s sheepdog. In the song, the violins mirror the vocals at the start before the stately brass enters. The song progresses to introduce a full brass band playing very much in the style of the ‘oom pa’ US marching bands. It’s got an enjoyable light-hearted feel throughout and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
- Piggies - maybe the goofiest of all the songs on the album it features some really pig-like grunting. The arrangement and accompaniment are almost like a piece of baroque music with the strings and harpsichord melodies. It gives an impression of nobility and importance which is then contrasted by the quirky lyrics describing pigs playing in dirt. While the song seems meaningless, in reality the message behind the song is taking an Orwellian swing at the state of capitalism and consumerism.
- Everybody’s got something to hide except me and my monkey - The Beatles always seemed to be able to capture a very piercing electric guitar sound which cuts through the full mix of a song. The start of this song written by John Lennon captures exactly that. The line ‘me and my monkey’ is John Lennon’s reference to himself and his girlfriend Yoko Ono. The interplay between the bass guitar and the lead electric guitar make for a really exciting platform for Lennon’s vocals to sit on top of. The introduction of the bell sounds a bit like the fire alarm has gone off but also adds to the driving rocking beat of the song.
- Helter Skelter - the story goes that Paul McCartney had heard The Who describe their latest single as the heaviest rawest rock song the band had ever done. Inspired by this McCartney composed Helter Skelter to try to be more raw and louder than The Who. It is regarded by many as the first released heavy metal song. The distortion on the guitar and the screaming vocals give this track a very different flavour making it stand out as one of the most unique songs on the album. Also, keep listening until the very end to hear Ringo Starr’s proclamation ‘I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!’
Responding - without injuring themselves, ask the class to show you how they would dance to this song.
- Revolution 1 - this was a hard rock bluesy song written by John Lennon and was released as a B-side to Hey Jude. The song is mostly in compound 12/8 time and features some doo-wop backing vocals. After The Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney went on to release songs with Michael Jackson who later, on McCartney’s advice, got into song publishing. Jackson ended up owning a large chunk of The Beatles back catalogue which included Revolution 1. Jackson’s company then sold the rights of the song to be used in a Nike commercial in the 80’s which the surviving Beatles’ members were not happy with. A lawsuit ensued but it didn’t stop the sports giant from using their song to sell shoes.
- Yer Blues - Ringo Starr said this was his favourite track on the album. He said this was partly due to the fact that he left the recording session for a couple of week after having fallen out with the other members of the band. When he came back they played this song and there was great unity between the 4 of them once again! Like Revolution 1 this is also in 12/8 time and maintains a very ‘typical blues’ oppressed and helpless sounding tone. The song then breaks into a more up-tempo swing blues pulse and then reverts to the slower style until the end.
Listening - ask the class to listen to the piece and clap along to the pulse of the song. With the tempo change, the children will have to react to the change in speed that they hear.
- Revolution 9 - maybe the weirdest song ever. This was done as a collaboration between John Lennon and his girlfriend Yoko Ono who was heavily influenced by the avant garde style of the time. Vocal samples are paired with snippets of an orchestra playing as well as a somber piano line which comes in and out. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is thought provoking and it’s likely no one will ever feel indifferent about it.
Responding - listen to Revolution 9 and discuss if the class thinks this is music? What do they understand music to be? Are sounds in nature music? There’s no right or wrong answers!
I hope you enjoyed our list. Let us know in the comments what your favourite song from the album is.
If you'd like to explore other ways of building pop music in to your music lessons, why not check out our pop song course which is free to sign-up to here: