In the spring of 1968, the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh, India, to take part in a course of transcendental meditation. After years of success and excess, it was a chance for the biggest band in the world to reset, reconnect with themselves and restart writing the music that had earned them their status.
It worked. Meditating for hours each day, Paul McCartney and John Lennon enjoyed a period of wild creativity, conjuring up songs that traversed musical styles, from ska and blues all the way to avant-garde electronics.
Much of what was written in India ended up on the band’s ninth studio album which, although technically self-titled, soon became known as the White Album. Upon release, it dumbfounded some critics — were its 30 songs vigorously creative or simply overlong? For others, its ambition only confirmed the band’s god-like genius.
Whatever the truth, it turned into a hugely influential release. Aside from agitating paranoid anti-communists and allegedly inspiring Californian death cults — yes, really — the album was a touchstone for countless bands that emerged in the decades after its release. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rock record from the last half-century that hasn’t been affected by the White Album in at least some way.
But what were its influences? Today, on the 50th anniversary of the White Album’s release, we’ve picked out six artists who inspired the Beatles, and as a result left an indelible mark on one of the greatest albums of all time.
Chuck Berry/Beach Boys
The opening track is also the one to flaunt its influences in the brashest of ways. The title, Back in the USSR, is an obvious subversion of the Chuck Berry song Back in the USA, with McCartney pining for the sounds of balalaikas rather than skyscrapers and freeways. The trademark propulsion of a Berry tune is here, too — frantic pianos and rip-roaring guitar solos tear through it. But there’s also a definite nod towards the Beach Boys with the falsetto backing vocals that come in a few seconds after the one-minute mark. Is the song an ode to those two artists? Or a smirking parody? Both, probably, and that peculiar tension is what makes it such an arresting start to the album.
While the Beatles were in Rishikesh, they invited a number of musical friends to join them. Donovan, the legendary 60s folk singer, was among the travelling party. He took part in the daily meditations that opened up such a well of creativity for both himself and the band, but it was his guitar-playing that left the deepest imprint on the Beatles’ songwriting. One afternoon, Donovan sat down with Lennon and taught him how to fingerpick — first, Lennon mastered House of the Rising Sun and within days he had learnt to play far more complex arrangements. It led to the compositions of Dear Prudence, Julia and Happiness Is A Warm Gun. A couple of days before the White Album was released, McCartney commented that once Donovan had shown Lennon the technique, “he sort of stuck it in everything then” — although McCartney himself was not immune. As if by osmosis, he incorporated the style into his own writing, penning Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son.
The 60s was a time of audacious innovation for left-field electronic music, and it was all focused around tapes. Steve Reich explored the hallucinatory simplicity of tape looping with his mid-century compositions, It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. Pauline Oliveros was also using tapes but with a broader approach, combining them with various electronic implements to create unearthly drones. Karlheinz Stockhausen, meanwhile, was weaving various tapes into each other to create dizzying collages. It’s possible that all three — and many more — had an effect on the Beatles’ approach to music, but it was Stockhausen who had the most definite influence. The band were already fans of the avant-garde German composer — his face is featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — and they took direct inspiration from his collages on the White Album’s penultimate track, Revolution 9. To put such an long, obscure, structureless song on the album was a controversial move, but it gave innovators like Stockhausen the worldwide recognition they deserved.
The influence of Little Richard on the Beatles started long before the White Album; in fact, it was McCartney’s impression of the rock ‘n’ roll icon that piqued Lennon’s interest when they first met back in the 50s. McCartney could indeed do a faithful recreation of that rasping, chest-dredging growl and used to it good effect on the Beatles’ early songs. On track such as She Loves You, McCartney brought in the featured the high-pitched “woos” that Little Richard had become known for. But as the band matured — once the suits and moptops were ditched and the LSD was taken — his voice changed and evolved. In a way, then, Birthday is something of a throwback, with McCartney absolutely belting out the lead vocal, summoning up memories of the man who first inspired him all over again.
In the year the White Album was released, the British blues boom was still erupting, with Eric Clapton’s Cream at the forefront. And even though Lennon was thousands of miles away, meditating in India, he still felt the tremors. It led to Yer Blues, another song that comes across as a parody as much as it does a tribute. It’s a parody because of that name — a comically British expression, pointing to the peculiar prospect of white men from England playing music that came from the Mississippi Delta — and also because of the jittery, tongue-in-cheek guitar solos. But it’s also a tribute, thanks to those jet-black lyrics (“when I wrote ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding’, Lennon once said) and also because, by and large, this is a thoroughly storming blues song. Lennon was clearly aware of the influence bands such as Cream had on him, and even invited Clapton to perform it live with him a few months after the album’s release.