White Album Not All That, Writer Claims

Nik Cohn & Ben Ratliff

Nik Cohn & Ben Ratliff

DEVIN McKINNEY  •  Here, via Rockcritics.com, is a New York Times podcast from September, half of which is devoted to a talk between music critic Ben Ratliff and pop-crit originator Nik Cohn on the remastered version of the White Album (which Ratliff deliciously informs us is currently #16 on the LP charts, “right below Lady Gaga”). Cohn, who was the Times‘s London correspondent on pop matters circa 1968-70, trashed the Beatles’ masterpiece in their pages (see the December 15, 1968, headline bannering this post); now he has softened somewhat, admitting subtleties and qualities precluded at the time by his proto-punk stance. Ratliff, a mere tit-sucker in ’68, does the second-generation thing resonant with many of us, about how he grew up with the album in the house, apprehending adult doom through child’s ears.

Cohn is one of my favorite writers, not only for his pop stuff (I Am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo, Rock from the Beginning, “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night”) but his other stuff (The Heart of the World, Yes We Have No: Travels in the Other England); I’d love to think he loves the album I love more than I love any other album I love. But even though it sounds better to him now than it did then, he is drawn back to words like “flabby” and “smug,” and still finds the White Album a far distant second to its late ’68 rival, Beggars Banquet. Well, Nabokov hated Dostoevsky, too.

But Cohn is fun to listen to, sounding with his undiluted accent like his cheeks are stuffed with eel pie and Newcastle Brown Ale, and he comes up with at least one aperçu that is not only quotable but grimly valid: “‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on — bra,’ is not credible to me.”

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  1. Avatar Alexander wrote:

    Listening to this podcast helped me understand the point of view of critics like Nik Cohn. But it also helped me understand my own point of view towards the White Album, which happens to be nearly identical with Ben Ratliff’s. I am about one year younger than Ratliff, and had a similar experience to his. Though the White Album was not “played in the house” from a young age (my parents had Beatles ’65 and Sgt. Pepper’s), I did have the White Album since around the time I was 11 or 12 (bought with my allowance money), and I listened to it constantly. To me, to listen to the White Album was to enter the diverse community of its images. I still remember a day I was home sick from school, and I listened to all four sides of the album straight through, while reading all the lyrics as they were sung, on the unfolded poster before me on the bed. As an 11-year-old boy in a spiritually impoverished New York suburb at the beginning of the 1980s, the creativity, the surprises, and the mystery of the album could only draw me in and hypnotize me. It couldn’t possibly strike me as arty middle-class pretension.

    Nik Cohn’s reaction to the White Album did remind me, however, of how I reacted to trends in pop music a few years later. As virtually every mainstream band succumbed to 80s production values, I felt the whole world of rock music was not only falling away from me, but falling away from its own past, and from taste itself. And it wasn’t just the grooveless sounds of electronic instruments; it was the cheap emotionalism and operatic pretensions of much of the music. Just as Cohn had no patience for the White Album’s “middle-class” conceits, I experienced 80s music as self-important and wimpy.

    Cohn may still find Obla-di-obla-da “not credible,” but I always did, and still do. I know that Paul McCartney believed it when he wrote it, and even if I sometimes prefer to skip past the song, I genuinely hear Paul’s belief in his words and the music that carries them. And his accidental inversion in the lyrics—along with “Cry Baby Cry,” later in the album—give me a more compelling message that adult relationships are not always what they seem than any other pop songs I can think of.

    Likewise am I convinced that John Lennon meant it when he sang “the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you” (also criticized by Cohn), not just because I happen to know the story of why he wrote it, but because I feel it in the track. And the fact that this song is followed immediately by “Glass Onion” (the gentle, fading guitar picking followed by the deep and abrupt CLUMP…CLUMP of the bass and drums) shows that Lennon could invoke genuine naïveté and nastily deride it, too.

    If you want not-credible, how about Don Henley singing “I can tell you my love for you will still be strong,” or Mister Mister singing “Take these broken wings and learn to fly again, learn to live so free.” Does anyone think that when Simple Minds sang “don’t you forget about me,” they really hoped that someone wouldn’t forget about them? I don’t. I don’t even believe that the Bangles wanted to walk like Egyptians.

    One interesting aside: I was excited to discover that Cohn’s medieval-historian father, whom he mentioned in the conversation, was Norman Cohn, who wrote a book called The Pursuit of the Millennium, a study of millenarian religious cults in medieval Europe. I read this book in my freshman year of college, for a course called “End of the World Movements.” It’s a book about groups of people who lost their feeling of credulity towards the culture of the Papacy.

  2. Avatar Kevin wrote:

    Paul’s granny songs bring down every Beatles’ masterpiece. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in Abbey Road, “When I’m Sixty-Four” in Sgt. Pepper, “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” “Honey Pie” AND “Rocky Raccoon” in the White Album…

  3. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “Paul’s granny songs bring down every Beatles’ masterpiece. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in Abbey Road, “When I’m Sixty-Four” in Sgt. Pepper, “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” “Honey Pie” AND “Rocky Raccoon” in the White Album…

    Not to mention “Your Mother Would Know”

  4. Avatar Water Falls wrote:

    I don’t care how late to this party I am, I’m gonna say this…
    I happen to LOVE Paul’s much maligned granny songs which DID NOT bring down every Beatles’ masterpiece, far from it!
    On this, I know I’m in the minority opinion, but I feel his “granny” songs added a storybook imagery, which I found charming and endearing. Maybe because I was still a kid who hadn’t reached my teens, and wasn’t “angsting” yet about “being cool and hip”, when I heard most of those tunes, and I believe I’m older than a lot of you on this blog. I liked all the songs mentioned, which some, (like ‘When I’m 64, Rocky Racoon, Obladi-Oblada, Maxwell Silver Hammer’,have become bona fide Beatles’ classics, at least in my neck of the woods, when they played it on the radio. Of course, I live in fly over country in a very red state and we’ve never been “hip” no matter how hard we may have tried.
    ‘When I’m 64’, Rocky Racoon, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Maxwell Silver Hammer, Your Mother Should Know, Honey Pie, are the best in that order, IMHO. My two cents for what it’s worth.

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