45 Years Ago: The Beatles Release ‘The White Album’
The name of the album may have signified a unified front, but it was really the beginning of the end. On Nov. 22, 1968, the Beatles released their self-titled two-LP set, which would soon be known as ‘The White Album.’
Perhaps its title was a way of showing the world that the tumultuous year they had endured could only strengthen them. After all, the group, which should have celebrated a victory lap following the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ appeared to be in a free-fall. They had suffered the death of manager Brian Epstein, created their first critical disaster (the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film), fallen out with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Apple, their new business venture, was getting off to an inauspicious beginning.
And, unknown to the public at the time, the recording sessions for the album were incredibly fractious, with the songwriters working on their tracks in separate studios and bringing in the others when needed. It didn’t help that John Lennon insisted on having his new girlfriend, Yoko Ono, in the studio with him. Drummer Ringo Starr even quit the band during the sessions for a few weeks over the escalating tensions in the studio. So a little bit of defensive overcompensation from the group could perhaps be forgiven.
Because of the mutual animosity, ‘The Beatles’ became a double album in order to appease all parties involved. And while most people agree that it might have been better served by paring it down to one — except Paul McCartney, who defended its length in ‘Anthology’ with, “It’s great, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles’ ‘White Album.’ Shut up!” — there’s no consensus on which songs should have been omitted.
The record’s chief selling point, actually, is the command with which the group handled its sprawling diversity. McCartney filtered the previous 50 years of American music through his own perspective. He tries his hand at folk (‘Blackbird,’ ‘Mother Nature’s Son’), country (‘Rocky Raccoon’), Tin Pan Alley-style balladry (‘I Will’), vaudeville (‘Honey Pie’), Fats Domino (‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’) and the Beach Boys via Chuck Berry (‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’).
Lennon, for his part, was looking toward the future of music with more abstract songs like ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun,’ ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,’ ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’ and the avant-garde sound collage ‘Revolution 9.’ Conversely, he also wrote some of his most overtly autobiographical material to date in ‘Julia’ and ‘Sexy Sadie,’ his parting shot at the Maharishi.
Meanwhile, George Harrison was very quickly coming into his own as a songwriter, penning ‘Piggies,’ ‘Long Long Long,’ ‘Savoy Truffle’ and one of his most beloved cuts, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ which featured a guest solo from his good friend Eric Clapton. Even Starr got in on the act with his first composition, and while ‘Don’t Pass Me By”s honky-tonk arrangement is charmingly clunky, the Georgia Satellites’ slamming cover gave it the treatment it needed.
But even if the music didn’t reflect the disharmony within the group, the packaging was a subtle hint. For the only time in the Beatles’ history, the album cover did not feature a photograph or drawing of the band. Instead, they went with pop artist Richard Hamilton’s vision of an all-white sleeve with “The BEATLES” embossed slightly off-center and with a serial number stamped below it. The only visual representation of the four men came in the individual photographs by John Kelly that were included inside the album.
Although the Beatles would continue to make music that met their incredibly high standards, the damage that was done during the sessions for ‘The White Album’ would prove to be irreparable. In an attempt to fix the situation, McCartney suggested that the group return to their roots as a rock band without all the added distractions. But as the ‘Let it Be’ movie shows, by then it was too late. Within a year and a half of the release of the ‘The Beatles,’ the group would be dissolved in a series of acrimonious lawsuits.
Listen to the Beatles’ ‘White Album’