How is it possible that The Beatles album that became known as The White Album is now 40 years old?
It was released in November 1968 and was their ninth album. It was exactly five years from the November 22 release of their second album With the Beatles. Not a long time, but a lot of changes in them, rock music, America, the world. I would have missed the anniversary but for a great podcast episode on NPR's All Songs Considered. Host Bob Boilen talked with Bruce Spizer, author of The Beatles On Apple Records, about how it came to be.
This is when The Beatles were dissolving and had gone to India and gone transcendental. (Ringo didn't like the food and left India. That Ringo...)
I remember it being released. I first heard the tracks on the radio where it was a release event.
Double albums were quite rare then. The list price then was $11.79. I didn't like the non-cover, but I did like the 4 photos inside (see above) and the poster and the lyrics. Everyone calls it "The White Album" but it really is simply titled "The Beatles" and that is embossed slightly below the middle of the album's right side. The vinyl albums had the serial number 2960203.
This was the first Beatles album that was released in America only in a stereo version. Before this, you could buy mono versions of albums and they were a bit cheaper and sounded better if you only had a crappy record player instead of an actual stereo.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had been released the previous year. That album had commercial success, critical success and was so influential that the follow-up had to be something different. (Time magazine said in 1967 that Sgt. Pepper was a "historic departure in the progress of music—any music."
It kicks off with that airplane landing and a Beach Boys style rocker (Beach Boy Mike Love was in India with them), and then dissolves into Prudence. That one is about Mia Farrow's sister from their India mediation period. That was a trip that generated a number of songs here. "Sexy Sadie" is a disguised attack on the Maharishi who they suspected was using his position to seduce women.
I liked the softer tracks ("I Will," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Mother Nature's Son," "Blackbird," "Julia") and the rockier tracks ("Back in the USSR," "Birthday," "Helter Skelter"). It took me longer to get anything from some of the others - 8 minutes of "Revolution 9," "Wild Honey Pie," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road."
I have read that the only western instrument available to the group during their Indian visit was the acoustic guitar. That probably explains the folky feel of so many of the songs written there that stayed that way on the album.
This was the album that was their formal transition from 4-track to 8-track recording which explains lots of the collage effects. I always loved that Paul sings the bass line on "I Will" - the same way my friends and I would sing the bass, guitar and drums of songs thinking we sounded pretty darn good.
I still have a "Paul Lives. WMCA Swings" button from the "Paul is Dead" rumor period that was fueled by some studio games they were playing on these tracks.
Eventually, I liked everything on the album in some way or another. I always tended to like Paul's pop tunes, so Martha & Rocky became friends. I figured out how to pick out some songs on the guitar though I never did get "Blackbird" right.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles is The Beatles' best-selling album at 19-times platinum and the tenth-best-selling album of all time in the United States. Technically, that's a cheat because they count each sale as 2 records, so ohers like Abbey Road probably has sold more.
Listen to the November 24, 2008 podcast if you're a fan. Lots of new info there - even more in Spizer's books.
This was the first recording session where a girlfriend/wife was always there (Yoko Ono), though Paul's girlfriend at the time showed up too.
When they were recoding in August, Ringo left the studio session for two weeks because he felt he was playing less and less of a role in the process. McCartney played drums on "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Dear Prudence" had all the others did some bass and drums.
George's friend, Eric Clapton, played lead on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". (Harrison played on Cream's "Badge" for their last album Goodbye.
After the album was finished, Harrison and Lennon left the band, but I mark Paul's public departure in 1970 as "the end" officially.
How strange is it that on the 40th anniversary of the album's release the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano published a lengthy article which said:
"Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled."
I guess the Vatican has gotten past John Lennon's comment that The Beatles are "more popular than Jesus" from the 1960's.
Great album and a good book to read as you listen to it. 1968 was not a great year for me, but music definitely helped me get through it. After 40 years, a lot of the bad stuff has fallen away. This album has remained.
Noe The White Album is available in all formats.
1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
2. Dear Prudence
3. Glass Onion
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
5. Wild Honey Pie
6. Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
9. Martha My Dear
10. I'm So Tired
13. Rocky Raccoon
14. Don't Pass Me By
15. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?
16. I Will
2. Yer Blues
3. Mother Nature's Son
4. Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
5. Sexy Sadie
6. Helter Skelter
7. Long, Long, Long
8. Revolution 1
9. Honey Pie
10. Savoy Truffle
11. Cry Baby Cry
12. Revolution 9
13. Good Night
More NPR Beatles stories