Forty-four years ago this Thursday, the Beatles released what was probably their greatest – but most widely debated – album, simply called "The Beatles," but better known to millions as "The White Album" from its plain, alabaster-colored sleeve.
Featuring 30 compositions over two LPs and 90 minutes of music, the epic and sprawling White Album represents the absolute peak of pop music creativity and versatility. Recorded over six tumultuous months – with the Beatles and the world outside their studio engulfed in turmoil and seemingly coming apart at the seams – the record veers from straight rock-and-roll to folk to hard blues to reggae to country to comedy to the avant garde.
The album seems to inadvertently reflect the rapid pace of change and destruction swirling all over the world. Consider some of the events of that annus horribilis, 1968: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated; the Democratic convention in Chicago deteriorated into street violence; France erupted in riots and nationwide strikes; the U.S. military increased its presence in Vietnam; Richard Nixon became the president of the U.S.; the civil rights movement embraced radicalism and militancy; and the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
On a smaller scale, the Beatles’ personal lives were undergoing dramatic changes that year: After returning from a sojourn in India, John Lennon left his wife and publicly paraded Japanese artist Yoko Ono as his lover and artistic partner, outraging and alienating millions of former fans; the Beatles’ ambitious Apple business empire was crumbling amongst a flurry of mismanagement, incompetence and outright theft; George Harrison, tired of years of patronizing behavior by Lennon and Paul McCartney, expressed his displeasure with the band and longed to quit; Paul, seeking to replace the deceased Brian Epstein as the group’s de facto manager, asserted himself more forcefully, upsetting his mates; and even Ringo Starr, frustrated by his lowly status within the group, left for a few weeks. (Just around the time of the album’s release John was arrested for drug possession – conviction of these charges would have grave implications for him after he moved to the U.S. in later years. For good measure, John and Yoko also released an "album" featuring frontal nudity on the sleeve and screams and undulations on the vinyl).
Relations between Paul and John, the songwriting partners who changed the world, were particularly frayed.
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By 1968, the Beatles were so enormously famous, popular and influential, they no longer needed to tour, nor even promote nor advertise their activities – their very name and presence guaranteed huge publicity and notoriety effortlessly.
Indeed, what other pop group could release an album with a plain white cover, no cover photographs, with the group’s name faintly embossed – and still sell millions of copies?
They also no longer needed to present a clean-cut image. By the summer of 1968, the Beatles’ drug use and sexual promiscuity were widely known – even celebrated in some quarters. Their hair grew wilder, their music explored the farthest regions of the genre and the four lads from Liverpool had created an empire no one could have possibly ever conceived. In just five years from the innocent days of "Love Me Do" and "She Loves You," the Beatles had evolved beyond recognition.
But all this change, innovation and creativity came at a terrible price – the Beatles could not stand one another anymore, and many former fans were alienated by their drug use, adoption of Indian religion and other perceived infractions. The British establishment, once their greatest champion and benefactor, had turned against them.
Despite this multitude of bewildering cross-currents, the Beatles somehow created an immortal masterpiece, their magnum opus.
Critics of the White Album -- and they are legion, including even the band's record producer, George Martin – complain the record is too long, self-indulgent and larded with too much “filler.” Those who love the album cite those very factors as why the record is so monumental, so unforgettable, so fascinating and so enduring.
If conflict and turmoil spark creativity, then the White Album is a living testament to that adage. Not only did The Beatles produce the White Album during the chaotic summer of 1968, but they also managed to record the seminal single “Hey Jude/Revolution” in between.
Rock groups of today take five years to accomplish what the Beatles did in a few months.
The legends and minutiae surrounding the recording the album are well-known – the individual Beatles recorded many of their compositions alone without the input of others; John outraged his bandmates by bringing Yoko into the sanctum of the studio during recording sessions; John was openly dismissive of Paul’s "fruity" songs; George brought in his good friend Eric Clapton to play on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and Martin was fed up with the whole affair.
Musically, the White Album delineates – once and for all and without any ambiguities – the starkly different approaches to music-making by Lennon and McCartney. Their once-vaunted songwriting partnership had long since severed.
John’s songs on the album reflect a deep melancholy and distress, mixed with snippets of hope. "Dear Prudence," "Julia" and "I’m So Tired" are some of Lennon’s most tender and personal statements, while "Yer Blues," "Sexy Sadie" and "Revolution 9" unveil a tortured soul.
On the other side of the ledger, most of McCartney’s creations – including "Blackbird," "I Will," "Obladi-Oblada" and "Martha My Dear" exhibit his passion for richly melodious, flawlessly produced professional pop music.
But Paul also uncharacteristically veered off to create the raucous, hard-rocking and disturbing "Helter Skelter" a song about a playground that "inspired" a madman in California named Charles Manson to commit mass murder.
For George Harrison, he delivered an unprecedented four songs on the album, including the aforementioned classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and the criminally underrated "Savoy Truffle."
Even Ringo wrote a song – the charming but forgettable "Don’t Pass Me By," a country ditty that the Beatles would likely never have included in any other album.
In the wake of White Album, the Beatles would survive for less than one more year, but it was really all over by November 1968. The rot had already set in – and what a beautiful "rot" it was.
Most current appraisals of the Beatles catalogue tend to promote "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" or "Abbey Road" as their greatest record. However, these critics seem to forget that the White Album stretched the boundaries of pop music beyond any record in history.