The Beatles: The Beatles (The White Album) – [Record 179]
The Beatles is the ninth studio album by English rock group the Beatles, released on 22 November 1968. It is a double album and commonly known as the White Album, as it has no graphics or text other than the band’s name embossed (and, on the early LP and CD releases, a serial number) on its plain white sleeve.
Most of the songs on the album were written during early 1968 at a Transcendental Meditation course in Rishikesh, India. Though the group’s experience of the course was mixed, the lack of external influences and drugs sparked the band’s creativity and they returned to England with around 40 new songs. They regrouped at George Harrison’s house, Kinfauns, in May and recorded demos of 26 songs, enough for a double album. The group returned to Abbey Road Studios to record the new material, but their experiences from Rishikesh did not help motivate them in the studios. Because the Beatles had unlimited recording time, there was little attempt to rehearse anything as a group, so everything was captured on tape, after which they would overdub voices and additional instruments. Arguments broke out between the Beatles, and witnesses in the studio saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney quarrel with one another. The feuds intensified when Lennon’s new partner, Yoko Ono, started spending time with him at the studio. McCartney was not happy about the avant-garde piece “Revolution 9”, while Lennon disliked several of McCartney’s songs. After a series of problems, including producer George Martin taking a sudden leave of absence and engineer Geoff Emerick quitting, Ringo Starr left the band briefly in August, and consequently did not play on several tracks. The sessions for the album lasted until October, and contributed towards the band’s eventual disbandment.
Upon its release, The Beatles received mixed reviews from music journalists. Most critics found its satirical songs unimportant and apolitical amid a turbulent political and social climate, although some praised Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting on the album. The band and Martin have since debated whether the group should have released a single album instead. Nonetheless, The Beatles reached number one on the charts in both the United Kingdom and the United States and has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.
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. The 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.
Background: By 1968, the Beatles had enjoyed commercial and critical success. The previous year’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had stayed at number one in the UK charts for 22 weeks and sold 250,000 copies in the first week after release. Time magazine had written in 1967 that Sgt. Pepper’s constituted a “historic departure in the progress of music – any music” while Timothy Leary declared that the band were prototypes of “evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species”. The group had a negative critical response for the film Magical Mystery Tour, but fan response was nevertheless positive.
Most of the songs were written during a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India, in the spring of 1968. The retreat involved long periods of meditation, initially conceived by the band as a spiritual respite from all worldly endeavours – a chance, in John Lennon’s words, to “get away from everything”. Both Lennon and Paul McCartney quickly re-engaged themselves in songwriting, often meeting “clandestinely in the afternoons in each other’s rooms” to review their new work. “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing,” Lennon would later recall, “I did write some of my best songs there.” Beatles author Ian MacDonald said Sgt Pepper was “shaped by LSD” and that Lennon was “permanently tripping” by early 1968, but the Beatles took no drugs with them to India aside from marijuana, and the clear minds helped the group with their songwriting.
The Beatles left Rishikesh before the end of the course. Ringo Starr was the first to leave, as he could not stomach the food on offer, while McCartney tried to commit further before leaving in mid March. Lennon and George Harrison were more interested in Indian religion, and remained there until April. According to author Geoffrey Giuliano, Lennon left Rishikesh because he felt personally betrayed after hearing rumours that the Maharishi had behaved inappropriately towards women who accompanied the Beatles to India, though McCartney and Harrison later discovered this to be untrue and Lennon’s wife Cynthia reported there was “not a shred of evidence or justification”. The group filmed the trip to Rishikesh on 8mm film, some of which subsequently appeared in the Beatles Anthology television series in 1995.
The group members wrote around 40 new compositions in Rishikesh, 26 of which would be recorded in very rough form at Kinfauns, Harrison’s home in Esher, in May 1968. Lennon wrote the bulk of the new material, contributing 14 songs. Lennon and McCartney brought existing demos they had recorded at home to the session, and worked on them together. Some home demos and group sessions at Kinfauns were later released on the 1996 compilation Anthology 3.
Recording: The Beatles was recorded between 30 May and 14 October 1968, largely at Abbey Road Studios, with some sessions at Trident Studios. The group block-booked time at Abbey Road through to July, and their times at Rishikesh were soon forgotten in the atmosphere of the studio, with sessions occurring at irregular hours. The group’s self-belief that they could do anything led to the formation of a new multimedia business corporation Apple Corps, an enterprise that drained the group financially with a series of financially unsuccessful projects. The open-ended studio time led to a new way of working out songs. Instead of tightly rehearsing a backing track, as had happened in previous sessions, the group would simply record all the rehearsals and jamming onto tape, then select which performance had been best to overdub. Harrison’s song “Not Guilty” was left off the album despite recording 102 takes.
The sessions for The Beatles marked the first appearance in the studio of Lennon’s new domestic and artistic partner, Yoko Ono, who accompanied him to Abbey Road to work on “Revolution 1” and would thereafter be a more or less constant presence at all Beatles sessions. Ono’s presence was highly unorthodox, as prior to that point, the Beatles had generally worked in isolation. McCartney’s girlfriend at the time, Francie Schwartz, was also present at some sessions, as were the other two Beatles’ wives, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starkey.
During the album’s sessions, the band upgraded from 4-track recording to 8-track. As work began, Abbey Road Studios possessed, but had yet to install, an 8-track machine that had supposedly been sitting in a storage room for months. This was in accordance with EMI’s policy of testing and customising new gear extensively before putting it into use in the studios. The Beatles recorded “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” at Trident because it had an 8-track recorder. When they learned that EMI also had one, they insisted on using it, and engineers Ken Scott and Dave Harries took the machine (without authorisation from the studio chiefs) into Abbey Road Studio 2 for the band’s use.
Author Mark Lewisohn reports that the Beatles held their first and only 24-hour session at Abbey Road near the end of the creation of The Beatles, which occurred during the final mixing and sequencing for the album. The session was attended by Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin. Unlike most LPs, there was no customary three-second gap between tracks, and the master was edited so that songs segued together, via a straight edit, a crossfade, or an incidental piece of music.
Personal issues: The studio efforts on The Beatles captured the work of four increasingly individualised artists who frequently found themselves at odds. Lewisohn notes that several backing tracks do not feature the full group, and overdubs tended to be limited to whoever wrote the song. Sometimes McCartney would record in one studio for prolonged periods of time, while Lennon would record in another, each man using different engineers. At one point in the sessions, Martin, whose authority over the band in the studio had waned, spontaneously left to go on holiday, leaving Chris Thomas in charge of producing. Lennon’s devotion to Ono over the other Beatles, and the pair’s addiction to heroin, made working conditions difficult as he became prone to bouts of temper.
Recording engineer Geoff Emerick, who had worked with the group since Revolver, had become fed up with the album sessions. At one point, while recording “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, Emerick recalled Martin criticising McCartney’s lead vocal performance, to which McCartney replied, “Well you come down and sing it”. On 16 July, Emerick announced that he was no longer willing to work with them and left.
The frustration and sudden departures were not limited to EMI personnel. On 20 August, Lennon, working on overdubs for “Yer Blues” in Studio 3, visited McCartney in Studio 2, where he was working on “Mother Nature’s Son”. The positive spirit of the session disappeared immediately, and engineer Ken Scott later claimed “you could cut the atmosphere with a knife”. On 22 August, Starr abruptly left the studio, explaining later that he felt that his role was minimised compared to that of the other members, and that he was tired of waiting through the long and contentious recording sessions. He frequently turned up to sessions and sat waiting in the reception area for the others to turn up. McCartney played drums on “Dear Prudence” because Starr had left the group while the song was being recorded. Lewisohn also reports that, in the case of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, also recorded during Starr’s absence, the three remaining Beatles each made contributions on bass and drums, with the result that those parts may be composite tracks played by Lennon, McCartney and/or Harrison.
Lennon, McCartney and Harrison pleaded with Starr to return. He agreed, and upon his return on 5 September, he found his drum kit decorated with red, white, and blue flowers, a welcome-back gesture from Harrison. McCartney described the sessions for The Beatles as a turning point for the group, saying “there was a lot of friction during that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself”, while Lennon later said “the break-up of the Beatles can be heard on that album.” Of the album’s 30 tracks, only 15 have all four band members performing.
Songs: Some songs that the individual Beatles were working on during this period eventually were released on solo albums. According to the bootlegged album of the songs recorded at Kinfauns, these include Lennon’s “Look at Me”, “What’s the New Mary Jane”, and “Child of Nature” (eventually reworked as “Jealous Guy”); McCartney’s “Junk” and Harrison’s “Not Guilty” and “Circles”.
The only western instrument available to the group during their Indian visit was the acoustic guitar, and thus many of the songs on The Beatles were written and first performed on that instrument. Some of these songs remained acoustic on The Beatles (“Rocky Raccoon”, “Blackbird”, “Julia”, “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son”) and were recorded in the studio either solo, or by only part of the group.
McCartney wrote “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as a surreal parody of Chuck Berry’s song “Back in the U.S.A.”. A field recording of aeroplane taking off and landing was used at the start of the track, and intermittently throughout it, while the backing vocals were sung by Lennon and Harrison in the style of the Beach Boys at the request of Mike Love, who had accompanied the group to India. The track became widely bootlegged in the Soviet Union and became an underground hit. McCartney subsequently recorded a cover album, Choba B CCCP, based on a transliteration on the Russian version of the title.
“Dear Prudence” was recorded at Trident. Lennon wrote the track about Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, and was typical of the acoustic songs written in Rishikesh.
“Glass Onion” was the first backing track recorded as a full band since Starr’s brief departure. MacDonald claimed Lennon deliberately wrote the lyrics to mock fans who claimed to find “hidden messages” in songs, and referenced other songs in the Beatles catalogue – “The Walrus was Paul” refers back to “I Am The Walrus” (which itself refers to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). McCartney, in turn, overdubbed a recorder part after the line “I told you about the Fool on the Hill”, as a deliberate parody of the earlier song. A string section was added to the track in October.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was written by McCartney as a pastiche of ska music. The track took a surprising amount of time to complete, with McCartney demanding perfectionism that annoyed his colleagues. Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney, suggested the title and played bongos on the initial take. He demanded a cut of publishing when the song was released, but the song was credited to “Lennon-McCartney”. After working for three days on the backing track, the work was scrapped and replaced with a new recording. Lennon hated the song, calling it “granny music shit”, while engineer Richard Lush recalled that Starr was getting fed up having to record the same backing track repetitively, and pinpoints this session as a key indication that the Beatles were going to break up. McCartney attempted to remake the backing track for a third time, but this was abandoned after a few takes and the second version was used as the final mix. The group, save for McCartney, were fed up with the track by the end of recording, and refused to release it as a single. Marmalade recorded a version that became a number one hit. In 2004, an online poll by Mars ranked the song as the worst ever.
McCartney recorded “Wild Honey Pie” on 20 August at the end of the session for “Mother Nature’s Son”. It is typical of the brief snippets of songs he recorded between takes during the album sessions.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” was written by Lennon after an American visitor to Rishikesh left for a few weeks to hunt tigers. It was recorded as an audio vérité exercise, featuring vocal performances from almost everyone who happened to be in the studio at the time. Ono sings one line and co-sings another, while Chris Thomas played the mellotron, including improvisations at the end of the track. The Spanish guitar at the beginning of the recording was overdubbed later by Harrison.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was written by Harrison during a visit he made to his parents’ home in Cheshire. He first recorded the song as a solo performance, on acoustic guitar, on 25 July – a version that remained unreleased until Anthology 3. He was unhappy with the group’s first attempt to record the track, and so invited his friend Eric Clapton to come and play on it. Clapton was unsure about guesting on a Beatles record, but Harrison said the decision was “nothing to do with them. It’s my song.” Clapton’s solo was treated with automatic double tracking to attain the desired effect; he gave Harrison the guitar he used, which Harrison later named “Lucy”. Harrison soon reciprocated by collaborating with Clapton on the song “Badge” for Cream’s final studio album, Goodbye. Harrison, too, was not formally credited at first, but was identified as “L’Angelo Misterioso” on the cover.
“Happiness Is A Warm Gun” evolved out of song fragments that Lennon wrote in Rishikesh. MacDonald claimed that this way of building a song was influenced by the work of the Incredible String Band. The basic backing track ran to 95 takes, due to the irregular time signatures and variations in style throughout the song. The final version consisted of the best half of two takes edited together. Lennon later described the song as one of his favourites, while the rest of the band found the recording rejuvenating, as it forced them to re-hone their skills as a group playing live together to get it right. Apple press officer Derek Taylor made an uncredited contribution to the song’s lyrics.
McCartney got the title of “Martha My Dear” from his sheepdog, but the lyrics are otherwise unrelated. The entire track is played by him backed with session musicians, and features no other Beatles. Martin composed a brass band arrangement for the track.
“I’m So Tired” was written in India when Lennon was having difficulty sleeping. It was recorded at the same session as “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. The lyrics make reference to Walter Raleigh, calling him a “stupid get” for introducing tobacco to Europe; while the track ends with Lennon mumbling “Monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?” This became part of the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory, when fans claimed that when the track was reversed, they could hear “Paul is dead man, miss him miss him”.
“Blackbird” features McCartney solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar with a metronome ticking in the background. MacDonald considers the track to be the best acoustic performance on the album. The birdsong on track was taken from the Abbey Road sound effects collection, and was recorded on one of the first EMI portable tape recorders.
Harrison wrote “Piggies” as an attack on modern society. According to MacDonald, Lennon and Harrison’s mother Louise helped with the lyrics. Thomas suggested playing a harpsichord, and Harrison agreed it would be a good idea. Along with “Helter Skelter”, this was one of the key tracks that Charles Manson interpreted as being an incitement to mass-murder.
“Rocky Raccoon” evolved from a jam session between Lennon and Donovan in Rishikesh. The song was taped in a single session, and was one of the tracks that Martin felt was “filler” and only put on because the album was a double.
“Don’t Pass Me By” was Starr’s first solo composition for the band, who had been toying with the idea of writing a self-reflective song for some time, possibly as far back as 1963. It went by the working titles of “Ringo’s Tune” and “This Is Some Friendly”. The basic track consisted of Starr drumming while McCartney played piano. Martin composed an orchestral introduction to the song but it was rejected as being “too bizarre” and left off the album. Instead, Jack Fallon played a bluegrass fiddle part.
“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” was written by McCartney in India after he saw two monkeys copulating in the street and wondered why humans were too civilised to do the same. He played all the instruments except drums, which were contributed by Starr. The simplistic lyric was very much in Lennon’s style, and Lennon was annoyed about not being asked to play on it. McCartney suggested it was “tit for tat” as he had not contributed to “Revolution 9”.
“I Will” was written and sung by McCartney, with Lennon and Starr accompanying on percussion. In between numerous takes, the three Beatles broke off to busk some other songs. A snippet of a track known as “Can You Take Me Back?” was put between “Cry Baby Cry” and “Revolution 9”, while recordings of Cilla Black’s hit “Step Inside Love” and a joke number, “Los Paranoias”, were released on Anthology 3.
“Julia” was the last track to be recorded for the album and features Lennon on solo acoustic guitar which he played in a style similar to McCartney’s on “Blackbird”. This is the only Beatles recording on which Lennon performs alone. The lyrics deal with the loss of his mother and his relationship with Ono, the “ocean child” referred to in the lyrics. Ono helped with the lyrics, but the song was still credited to Lennon-McCartney as expected.
“Birthday” was the only true Lennon-McCartney co-write on the album. They were inspired to write the song after seeing the first UK showing of the rock-n-roll film The Girl Can’t Help It on television, and sang the lead vocal in the style of the film’s musical star, Little Richard. Ono, and Harrison’s wife Patti, added backing vocals to the track.
“Yer Blues” was written by Lennon in India. Despite meditating and the tranquil atmosphere, he still felt unhappy, which was reflected in the lyrics. The style was influenced by the British Blues Boom of 1968, which included groups such as Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack. The backing track was recorded in a small room next to Studio 2 at Abbey Road. Unusually for a Beatles recording, the four track source tape was edited directly, resulting in an abrupt cut-off at 3’17” into the start of another take (which ran into the fade out). The song was one of the few late-era Beatles songs that Lennon performed live. The first run-through was with a supergroup of Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell on 11 December 1968 at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and later with the Plastic Ono Band on 13 September 1969 (as captured on the live album Live Peace in Toronto).
McCartney wrote “Mother Nature’s Son” in India, and worked on it in isolation from the other members of the band. He performed the track solo alongside a Martin-scored brass arrangement.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” evolved from a jam session, and was originally untitled. The final mix was sped up by mixing the tape running at 43 hertz instead of the usual 50. Harrison claimed the title came from one of the Maharishi’s sayings (with “and my monkey” added later).
“Sexy Sadie” was written as “Maharishi” by Lennon, shortly after he decided to leave Rishikesh. In a 1980 interview, Lennon acknowledged that the Maharishi was the inspiration for the song: “I just called him ‘Sexy Sadie’.”
“Helter Skelter” was written by McCartney and was initially recorded in July as a blues number. The initial takes were performed by the band live and included long passages during which the group jammed on their instruments. Because these takes were too long to practically fit on an LP, the song was shelved until September, when a new, shorter, version was made. By all accounts, the session was chaotic, but nobody dared suggest to any of the Beatles that they were out of control. Harrison reportedly ran around the studio while holding a flaming ashtray above his head, “doing an Arthur Brown”. The stereo version of the LP includes almost an extra minute of music compared to the mono, which culminates in Starr infamously shouting “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Charles Manson was unaware that “Helter Skelter” is the British name for a spiral slide found on a playground or funfair, and assumed the track had something to do with hell. This was one of the key tracks that led Manson to believe the album had coded messages referring to apocalyptic war, and led to his movement of the same name.
The final song on side three is Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long”. He based the song’s structure on Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. The recording session for the track was one of the longest the Beatles ever undertook, running from the afternoon of 7 October through the night until 7am the next day, and then completed in a further session nine hours later. McCartney played Hammond organ on the track, and the effect at the end was made by a particular note on the instrument causing a wine bottle on top of the organ’s Leslie speaker to resonate.
“Revolution 1” was the first track recorded for the album, with sessions for the backing track starting on 30 May. The initial takes were recorded with aim of it being a possible single, but as the session progressed, the arrangement became slower, with more of a laid-back groove. The group ended the chosen take with a six-minute improvisation that had further overdubs added, before being cut to the length heard on the album. The brass arrangement was added later.
“Honey Pie” was written by McCartney as a pastiche of the flapper dance style from the 1920s. The opening section of the track had the sound of an old 78 RPM record overdubbed while Martin arranged a saxophone and clarinet part in the same style. Lennon played the guitar solo on the track, but later said he hated the song, calling it “beyond redemption”.
“Savoy Truffle” was named after one of the types of chocolate found in a box of Mackintosh’s Good News, which Clapton enjoyed eating. The track featured a saxophone sextet arranged by Thomas, who also played keyboards. Harrison later said that Derek Taylor helped him finish the lyrics.
Lennon wrote “Cry Baby Cry” in India, and the lyrics were partly derived from a tagline for an old television commercial. Martin played harmonium on the track.
“Revolution 9” evolved from the overdubs from the “Revolution 1” coda. Lennon, Harrison and Ono added further tape collages and spoken word extracts, in the style of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The track opens with an extract from a Royal Schools of Music examination tape, and ends with Ono’s infamous comment, “you become naked”. Ono was heavily involved in the production, and advised Lennon on what tape loops to use. McCartney did not contribute to the track, and was reportedly unhappy on it being included, though he had led similar tape experiments such as “Carnival of Light” in January 1967. The track has attracted both interest and disapproval from fans and music critics over the years.
“Good Night” was a lullaby written by Lennon for his son Julian, and he specifically wanted Starr to sing it. The early takes featured just Lennon on acoustic guitar and Starr singing. Martin scored an orchestral and choral arrangement that replaced the guitar in the final mix, and also played the celesta.
Singles: “Hey Jude” was recorded at the end of July 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles, but was issued separately as a single nearly three months before the album’s release. (It would, however, make its LP debut in the US two years later as the title cut of the compilation album Hey Jude) The B-side, “Revolution”, was a different version of the album’s “Revolution 1”. Lennon had wanted the original version of “Revolution” to be released as a single, but the other three Beatles objected on the grounds that it was too slow. Instead, the single featured a new, faster version, with heavily distorted guitar and an electric piano solo from Nicky Hopkins. This was the first release on Apple Records and went on to be the band’s most successful single, with world sales of over 5 million by the end of 1968 and 7.5 million by October 1972.
The convention amongst record companies in the 1960s is that singles and albums were distinct entities and should not duplicate songs.[d] However, though no singles were taken from The Beatles in either Britain or America, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” backed with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, was a commercial success in several countries, including Australia (where it spent five weeks at number one in the Go Set charts), Japan, Austria, and Switzerland.
Unreleased material: A number of songs were recorded during sessions for The Beatles but were ultimately not included on the album. Some appeared on later releases, others on the respective solo albums, while some have only ever appeared on bootlegs. These included Harrison’s “Circles” (which he eventually re-recorded as a solo track and released on his 1982 album, Gone Troppo), “Not Guilty” (which he re-recorded for his eponymous 1979 album, George Harrison), “Something” (released on Abbey Road) and “Sour Milk Sea” (which Harrison gave to friend and Apple artist Jackie Lomax for his first LP, Is This What You Want?).
Lennon’s “What’s the New Mary Jane” was left off the finished album during mixing, while “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” would be used for the medley on Abbey Road the following year. “Child of Nature” was demoed but not recorded during the album sessions, but would be re-recorded with drastically different lyrics as “Jealous Guy” for Lennon’s Imagine. McCartney’s “Jubilee” (later retitled “Junk” and released on his first solo LP), “Etcetera” and “The Long and Winding Road” (completed in 1969 for Let It Be) were also shelved. The White Album session versions of “Not Guilty” and “What’s the New Mary Jane”, and a demo of “Junk”, were ultimately released on Anthology 3.
“Revolution 1 (Take 20)”, a previously unknown track, surfaced in 2009 on a bootleg and is supposed to connect “Revolution 1” and the avant-garde “Revolution 9” (both of which appeared on The Beatles) in an attempt by Lennon to record one long version of “Revolution” before ultimately splitting the two songs up.
Release: The Beatles was issued on 22 November 1968 in Britain, with a US release following three days later. The album’s working title, A Doll’s House, had been changed when the English progressive rock band Family released the similarly titled Music in a Doll’s House earlier that year. Author Nicholas Schaffner wrote in 1977 of the name that was adopted for the Beatles’ double album: “From the day of release, everybody referred to The Beatles as ‘the White Album.'”
“It was great. It sold. It’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album. Shut up!”
Paul McCartney, refuting suggestions that The Beatles should have been a single album.
It was the first album by the Beatles to be released by Apple Records, as well as their only original double album. Producer Martin has said that he was against the idea of a double album at the time and suggested to the group that they reduce the number of songs to form a single album featuring their stronger work, but that the band decided against this. Interviewed for the Beatles Anthology, Starr said that he now felt that it should have been released as two separate albums (that he nicknamed “The White Album” and “The Whiter Album”). Harrison felt on reflection that some tracks could have been released as B-sides, but “there was a lot of ego in that band.” He also supported the idea of the double album, to clear out the backlog of songs that the group had at the time. By contrast, McCartney said that it was fine as it was, adding: “It’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album. Shut up!”
Mono version: The Beatles was the last Beatles album to be mixed separately for stereo and mono, though the mono version was only issued in the UK and a few other countries. All but one track exist in official mono mixes; the exception is “Revolution 9” which was a direct reduction of the stereo master. The Beatles had not been particularly interested in stereo until this album, but after receiving mail from fans stating they bought both stereo and mono mixes of earlier albums, they decided to make the two different. Several mixes have different track lengths; the mono mix/edit of “Helter Skelter” eliminates the fade-in at the end of the song (and Starr’s ending scream), and the fade out of “Yer Blues” is 11 seconds longer on the mono mix.
In the US, mono records were already being phased out; the US release of The Beatles was the first Beatles LP to be issued in stereo only. In the UK, the following album, Yellow Submarine, was the last to be shipped in mono. The mono version of The Beatles was made available worldwide on 9 September 2009, as part of The Beatles in Mono CD boxed set. A reissue of the original mono LP was released worldwide for the first time in September, 2014.
Packaging: The album’s sleeve was designed by pop artist Richard Hamilton, in collaboration with McCartney. Hamilton’s design was in stark contrast to Peter Blake’s vivid cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and consisted of a plain white sleeve. The band’s name was discreetly embossed slightly below the middle of the album’s right side, and the cover also featured a unique stamped serial number, “to create,” in Hamilton’s words, “the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.” In 2008, an original pressing of the album with serial number 0000005 sold for £19,201 on eBay.
Later vinyl record releases in the US showed the title in grey printed (rather than embossed) letters. The album included a poster comprising a montage of photographs, with the lyrics of the songs on the back, and a set of four photographic portraits taken by John Kelly during the autumn of 1968 that have themselves become iconic. The photographs for the poster were assembled by Hamilton and McCartney, and sorted them in a variety of ways over several days before arriving at the final result.
Tape versions of the album did not feature a white cover. Instead, cassette and 8-track versions (issued on two cassettes/cartridges in early 1969) contained cover artwork that featured high contrast black and white (with no grey) versions of the four Kelly photographs. A reel-to-reel tape release of the album by Ampex (in two separate volumes, and again using the Kelly cover artwork) features edits on eight tracks.
In September 1978, just before the album’s tenth anniversary, EMI reissued the album pressed on white vinyl in limited editions. In 1981, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) issued a unique half-speed master variation of the album utilising the sound from the original master recording. The discs were pressed on high-quality virgin vinyl.
The album was reissued, along with the rest of the Beatles catalogue, on compact disc in 1987. it was reissued again on CD in 1998 as part of a 30th anniversary series for EMI, featuring a scaled-down replication of the original artwork. This was part of a reissue series from EMI that included albums from other artists such as the Rolling Stones and Roxy Music.
A painting of the band by John Byrne was at an earlier point under consideration to be used as the album’s cover. The piece was later used for the sleeve of the compilation album The Beatles’ Ballads, released in 1980. In 2012 the original artwork was put up for auction.
Critical reception: Upon its release in November 1968, The Beatles received mixed reviews from music critics, most of whom viewed its mild, playful satire as unimportant and conservative. Time magazine wrote that it showcases the “best abilities and worst tendencies” of the Beatles, as it is skilfully performed and sophisticated, but lacks a “sense of taste and purpose”. In his review for The New York Times, Nik Cohn considered the album “boring beyond belief” and said that over half of its songs are “profound mediocrities”. Critics also complained about a lack of unity among the songs and criticised the Beatles for using eclecticism and pastiche as a means of avoiding important issues during a turbulent political and social climate. Jon Landau, writing for the London Daily Times, argued that the band uses parody because they are “afraid of confronting reality” and “the urgencies of the moment”. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice said that the album is both “their most consistent and probably their worst”, and referred to its songs as a “pastiche of musical exercises”. Nonetheless, he ranked it as the tenth best album of the year in his ballot for Jazz & Pop magazine’s annual critics poll.
In a positive review for The Observer, Tony Palmer claimed that, “if there is still any doubt that Lennon and McCartney are the greatest songwriters since Schubert,” the album “should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making”. Richard Goldstein of The New York Times felt that their songwriting had improved and they relied less on the studio tricks of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. NME ’s Alan Smith derided “Revolution #9” as a “pretentious” example of “idiot immaturity”, but declared “God Bless You, Beatles!” to the majority of the album. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone called it their best album yet and contended that they were allowed to appropriate other styles and traditions into rock music because their ability and identity were “so strong that they make it uniquely theirs, and uniquely the Beatles. They are so good that they not only expand the idiom, but they are also able to penetrate it and take it further.”
The Beatles has since been regarded favourably by critics. A 2013 BBC News report ranked the album as one of the best ever made. The Daily Telegraph ’s Neil McCormick also viewed it as such and wrote in a retrospective review that even its worst songs work within the context of such an eclectic and unconventional album. AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said that because the songs are so assorted, The Beatles can be “a frustratingly scattershot record or a singularly gripping musical experience, depending on your view”. Rob Sheffield wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that despite “loads of self-indulgent filler”, listeners often pick different highlights, which is “part of the fun”. Slant Magazine’s Eric Henderson claimed that The Beatles remains one of the band’s few albums that “resists reflexive canonisation, which, along with society’s continued fragmentation, keeps the album fresh and surprising”. In his review for The A.V. Club, Chuck Klosterman felt that the album found the band at their best and called it a masterpiece. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it at number 10 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. On the 40th anniversary of the album’s release, Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote that it “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.” In 2011, Kerrang! put the album at number 49 on a list of “The 50 Heaviest Albums Of All Time”. The magazine praised the guitar work in “Helter Skelter”.
Cultural responses: According to MacDonald, lyrics on The Beatles progressed from being vague to open-ended and prone to misinterpretation, such as “Glass Onion” (e.g., “the walrus was Paul”) and “Piggies” (“what they need’s a damn good whacking”). Other artists had been suspected of having hidden meanings in lyrics, but the counterculture of the 1960s analysed The Beatles above and beyond earlier releases. Sociologist Michael A. Katovich writes that the album’s release “engendered a collective appreciation of it as a ‘state-of-the-art’ rendition of the current pop, rock, and folk-rock sounds”. Music writer David N Howard said that the album featured “a panoply of wondrous songs that included acoustic numbers, idiosyncratic pop, heavy-duty hard rock, and flat-out experimentalism”. Other authors have simply remarked on the diversity of material on offer; Gillian Gaar said the album was “the most diverse record the band ever released” while Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis thought the diversity in styles was the album’s most original concept.
Lennon’s lyrics on “Revolution 1” were misinterpreted with messages he did not intend. In the album version, he advises those who “talk about destruction” to “count me out”. As MacDonald notes, however, Lennon then follows the sung word “out” with the spoken word “in”. At the time of the album’s release – which followed, chronologically, the up-tempo single version of the song, “Revolution” – that single word “in” was taken by the radical political left as Lennon’s endorsement of politically motivated violence, which followed the May 1968 Paris riots. However, the album version was recorded first.
Charles Manson first heard the album not long after it was released. He had already claimed to find hidden meanings in songs from earlier Beatles albums, but in The Beatles he interpreted prophetic significance in several of the songs, including “Blackbird”, “Piggies” (particularly the line “what they need’s a damn good whacking”), “Helter Skelter”, “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” and interpreted the lyrics as a sign of imminent violence or war. He played the album repeatedly to his followers, the Manson family, and convinced them that it was an apocalyptic message predicting an uprising of oppressed races, drawing parallels with chapter 9 of the Book of Revelation.
In early 2013, the Recess Gallery in New York City’s SoHo neighbourhood presented We Buy White Albums, an installation by artist Rutherford Chang. The piece was in the form of a record store in which nothing but original pressings of the LP was on display. Chang created a recording in which the sounds of one hundred copies of side one of the LP were overlaid.
Commercial performance: As it was their first studio album in almost eighteen months (and coming after the success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) expectations were high at the time of the release of The Beatles. The album debuted at number 1 in the UK on 7 December 1968. It spent seven weeks at the top of the UK charts (including the entire competitive Christmas season), until it was replaced by the Seekers’ Best of the Seekers on 25 January 1969, dropping to number 2. However, the album returned to the top spot the next week, spending an eighth and final week at number 1. The album was still high in the charts when the Beatles’ follow-up album, Yellow Submarine was released, which reached number 3. In all, The Beatles spent 22 weeks on the UK charts, far fewer than the 149 weeks for Sgt. Pepper. In September 2013 after the British Phonographic Industry changed their sales award rules, the album was declared as having gone platinum, meaning sales of at least 300,000 copies.
In the United States, the album achieved huge commercial success. Capitol Records sold over 3.3 million copies of the White Album to stores within the first four days of the album’s release. It debuted at number 11 on 14 December 1968, jumped to number 2, and reached number 1 in its third week on 28 December, spending a total of nine weeks at the top. In all, The Beatles spent 155 weeks on the Billboard 200. The album has sold over 9.5 million copies in the United States alone and according to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles is the Beatles’ most-certified album at 19-times platinum.