The 50th Anniversary of The White Album
On November 22, 1968, the Beatles released pop music’s quintessential double LP
John Lennon, Paul Mccartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr created what would be the longest Beatles album (93½ minutes) between May 30 and October 14, 1968. Released a month later as simply The Beatles, it became, for obvious reasons, better known as The White Album (for those born after streaming: the double LP’S jacket was minimalist and monochromatic). The band’s ninth studio effort, produced by George Martin, ambitiously merged rock, blues, folk, country, music hall and avant-garde music; its scaled-down production, like the album’s jacket, dramatically departed from the trailblazing psychedelia of 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Upon release, some critics found the approach scattershot, the quality of the songs dramatically uneven. But most raved. Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times wrote, “Musically, there is beauty, horror, surprise, chaos, order. And that is the world; and that is what the Beatles are on about.” And it has continued to thrill. In 2009, Chuck Klosterman graded the double LP with an “almost beyond an A+.”
And yet, The White Album is the sound of a great band splintering. “Every track is an individual track,” Lennon reflected in 1970. “There isn’t any Beatle music on it.” Lennon and Mccartney found themselves creatively and personally at odds. The experience, Mccartney later stated, was more fraught than the recording of any other Beatles album. Of the 30 songs—many written during the Fab Four’s stay with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in early 1968—McCartney would sing lead on 12, Lennon on 11, Harrison on four and Ringo on two. (“Revolution 9,” a sound collage, has no lead vocals.) In all, around 53 musicians, producers and engineers contributed to its recording—one of whom, longtime engineer Geoff Emerick, quit over the escalating friction (he returned for 1969’s Abbey Road).
The cracks between the four would deepen. In 1970, after releasing two more albums, the Beatles—certainly the most successful of any pop group in history and, to many people, the greatest—would break up.
→ A three-cd reissue of The White Album was released November 9, along with a super-deluxe, seven-disc box set—including outtakes and acoustic demos.