With Wilde’s words in mind, listen again to the White Album, or simply its opening. About seven seconds into the first track, “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” as we hear the descent of a jet—a masterful, momentous sound, universally recognized—there’s another, much odder sound: a sound that is not monumental at all, and that no one could recognize. If you know the Beatles, you know the sound; you can hear it in your head this moment if you try. But what is it? A throat imitating a guitar? A guitar imitating a throat? It’s like something out of Spike Jones. Yet it isn’t to any apparent purpose, comedic or musical. It’s simply there. It has always been there. And whether we’ve thought about it or not, it has influenced how we hear every sound that follows it.
That unassuming oddball sound is our introduction to the underworld of the White Album. This underworld is a place of contradiction and comedy, absurdity and enigma. As the inversion of a world in which everything must be for a reason, it thrives on reasonlessness: proximities that are jarring but intriguing, that make no rational sense but ring bells all over the imagination. It’s full of cries and whispers, mumbles and mutterings, things you can barely make out and things you’ll never make out. Sounds that are wedged in the spaces between songs, or that creep into the margins of the music, as if to undermine it, or inspire it. Sounds that die away, only to rise again as shouts or moans, aftermaths that alter your entire conception of what you thought you heard.
This is the author's version of the work. This publication appears in Gettysburg College's institutional repository by permission of the copyright owner for personal use, not for redistribution.
Devin McKinney. "Weeps Happiness: The Dysfunctional Drama of the White Album." Paper delivered at The Beatles’ White Album: An International Symposium, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, NJ, November 11, 2018.