Would the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album (otherwise known as the White Album) have been stronger as a single-disc work? Was it as fragmented and disjointed as critics then claimed? As Paul McCartney exclaimed in the Anthology documentary, “I mean, it’s great, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles White Album! So shut up!”
Initially, music critics like the New York Times’ Nik Cohn dismissed it as “boring beyond belief,” calling half the songs as “profound mediocrities.” Today, Rolling Stone and AllMusic have reassessed the White Album’s seemingly erratic feel, arguing that context is key to appreciating the work. “The band touches on anything and everything it can,” writes AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine. “This makes for a frustratingly scattershot record or a singularly gripping musical experience, depending on your view, but what makes the so-called White Album interesting is its mess.”
Regardless of various opinions on the album’s consistency and overall quality, most listeners agree that The Beatles contains some deeply spiritual and self-reflective moments, and at times rocks hard. A perfect example of the playful and sometimes rougher sound of some tracks is “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.” Its meaning remains vague — does “monkey” refer to drug addiction, or a term used by their spiritual guru the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? No matter the interpretation, the track soars with John Lennon’s screaming vocals and piercing lead guitar as well as McCartney’s furious bass playing.
Principal songwriter Lennon composed the track in 1968; according to George Harrison, the Beatles’ time studying under the Maharishi partially inspired the song’s title. “Everybody’s got something to hide” was the spiritual guru’s frequent mantra, but Harrison once stated that he never knew what “except for me and my monkey” signified. In 1980, Lennon explained that the phrase referred to his blooming romance with Yoko Ono. “Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love. Everything is clear and open when you’re in love,” he said. “Everybody was sort of tense around us — you know, ‘What is SHE doing here at the session? Why is she with him?’ All this sort of madness is going on around us, because we just happened to want to be together all the time.”
However, McCartney posited a different scenario in Barry Miles’ Many Years from Now. During the White Album period, Lennon began experimenting with harder drugs, particularly heroin. “Now John started talking about fixes and monkeys and it was a harder terminology which the rest of us weren’t into. We were disappointed that he was getting into heroin because we didn’t really see how we could help him,” he said. “We just hoped it wouldn’t go too far. In actual fact, he did end up clean but this was the period when he was on it. It was a tough period for John, but often that adversity and that craziness can lead to good art, as I think it did in this case.” Lennon always denied this interpretation, although lyrics such as “the deeper you go, the higher you fly” could be read as a drug reference.
No matter how the track is analyzed, its beginnings derive from the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh, India. While studying Transcendental Meditation from February until approximately April 1968, they also composed an astounding number of songs, only some of which made it onto the White Album. When they regrouped in London that May, all four came bearing notebooks chock full of these tracks, and they began recording demos at Harrison’s Esher bungalow. As is evident in the original demo, the as-yet-untitled song originated as a slower, acoustic-driven track. The lyrics were also in their infancy, often filled with “come ons”; this was a typical feature of Lennon’s early song drafts. He would fill still blank verses with repeated phrases or nonsense syllables.
Recording on “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” commenced on June 26, 1968, although these initial sessions consisted of rehearsals. The next day they recorded six takes of the track; on the last take, they overdubbed two lead guitars, bells, and shaker. According to the Beatles Bible, a “reduction mix to free up spare tracks also resulted in the song being sped up from 3’07″ to 2’29″; it would end up faster still following a later mix.” The reduced mix resulted in speeding up the tempo and changing the key in addition to shortening the track’s length. Refinements on take eight continued on July 1, when McCartney recorded an additional bass guitar part and Lennon laid down new lead vocals. By July 23, more backing vocals, the “come on, come on” ending, handclaps, and another bass part were all recorded.
Two more reduction mixes were made, which now made the latest version take ten. According to the Beatles Bible, these reductions made room for Lennon to redo his vocals. This take thus replaced his vocals recorded on July 1. Two more reduction mixes were made (takes 11 and 12), Lennon laid down another vocal track and more shouting, handclaps, another McCartney bass part, and additional percussion by Ringo Starr completed the session. Once these tasks were completed, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” was mixed for mono, followed by the stereo mix on October 12.
Technical details aside, what makes “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” stand out? From the first thud of Starr’s drums, the raucous tone immediately grabs the listener by the collar. After a brief, slower start, the band kicks into high gear by rapidly accelerating the tempo. “Come on, come on — come on is such a joy,” Lennon almost shouts, raspiness coloring his voice. “Take it easy!” he cries, the rhythm pattern changing once again. After delivering the chorus, Lennon’s guitar pierces through the noise, signaling another change in the track. “The deeper you go, the higher you fly; the higher you fly, the deeper you go,” he intones, leaving it to the listener to determine his meaning.
By the time he reaches the next verse, he further obscures the words’ meaning: “Your inside is out, and your outside is in; your outside is in, and your inside is out.” These phrases perfectly illustrate Lennon’s obvious love for wordplay, present in his writings (A Spaniard in the Works, In His Own Write, and Skywriting by Word of Mouth) as well as songs like “I Am the Walrus,” “Come Together,” “Revolution 1,” and “Glass Onion,” among many others. But even more importantly, the song simply rocks.
Their previous albums focused on their mastery of studio recording and creating fantastical imagery through their words. With the White Album, the group planned to return to their pure rock roots.“That was really all I wanted to do — make a very loud raunchy rock and roll record with the Beatles, which it is,” Lennon once said. With tracks like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” and “Helter Skelter” (inspired by the Who, who claimed they had just recorded the loudest, dirtiest song ever), the Beatles sought to reestablish their position as one of music’s best, most dangerous bands. “Sgt. Pepper did its thing; it was the album of the decade — of the century, maybe,” Starr stated. “It was very innovative, great songs — glad I was on it — but (on) the White Album, we ended up being more of a band again and that’s what I always love. I love being in a band.”
McCartney once said that the Beatles had one overreaching goal for the White Album: “We just tried to get it loud, guitars, can we have them sound louder, the drums louder.” As the song fades out, the lead guitar screams through the speakers, the bass and rhythm guitars pound, and the joyful cries of the Beatles themselves linger: “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” embodies the spirit of the early Beatles, the young, hungry group who would stomp the floor and “mach schau” for jaded Hamburg patrons in seedy clubs. The Beatles’ frantic cries of “come on” at the end of the track strongly echo their past, but the track also demonstrates how years of experience molded them into a totally original and unparalleled live band. Raunchy and loud? Mission accomplished.