Raw, flawed and veiled in shadow, The Beatles’ White Album, 50 years on
Ken McNab on the work that captured the world’s biggest band at a crossroads
YOU say you want a revolution… well, we all want to change the world.” Not for the first time, John Lennon’s cultural antennae proved to be a lightning rod for a world mired in social and political transition. Equally, not for the first time, the most maverick of The Beatles caught the prevailing mood of the times.
Revolution was Lennon’s musical dissertation on 1968, a year of violence and dread, and the first song The Beatles recorded for the follow-up to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Vietnam War raged, civil rights protests and vicious backlashes proliferated across America, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of gun-wielding executioners, the hippie enclave at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury had descended into a quagmire of hard drugs and crime, protesters and police clashed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Student power flared at campuses as far field as Berkeley and Paris, Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, numerous countries were held in the stone fist of dictatorships and the dry tinder of Northern Ireland politics sparked into mayhem.
And, on November 5, Richard Nixon defeated Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey to become the 37th president of the United States and, unknowingly, Lennon’s future nemesis.
Only 17 months earlier, Lennon had proclaimed All You Need is Love to build a better world. But the flowers that had blossomed in 1967’s Summer of Love had fast withered, replaced by a dystopia-tinged winter of discontent, from which even The Beatles could not escape. Sergeant Pepper, the band’s benign symbol of psychedelia, had been replaced by the marching sounds of streetfighting men, epitomised by The Rolling Stones’ track of the same name.
This, then, was the backdrop to Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison releasing their ninth album. The eponymously titled The Beatles, a sprawling 30-track double album, was a quixotic quilt embracing almost every style of music from proto heavy metal, rock, pop and calypso to bluegrass-tinged country, chamber music and even the musique concrete of avant-garde.
Released on November 22 – the fifth anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination – it was the most radical collection of songs the quartet assembled and as far removed from Pepper and the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour project as could be imagined. Raw, often flawed and frequently veiled in shadow.
Almost five months in the making, and nearly 94 minutes in length, it had no graphics or text on the white cover other than the band’s name embossed on its sleeve, pop art creativity that guaranteed it would be forever imprinted on public consciousness as simply the White Album. It would go on to become their bestselling album, certified at more than 20 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Between the grooves, however, lay the sound of four musicians entangled by personal and professional partitions, of a band chafing at the limitations each imposed on the other. The White Album is the start of The Beatles’ long goodbye, a farewell that had its trace echoes in the death of their manager and mentor Brian Epstein from a drug overdose in July 1967 and would ultimately culminate in the tatty tombstone of Let It Be.
Yet the album’s roots lay in the bliss of their visit to India in February of 1968 to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a chilled-out setting that inspired a huge outpouring of creativity, especially from Lennon and McCartney. Harrison often chided them when the guitars came out: “We’re here to meditate.” But the pair would often meet clandestinely in each other’s rooms to review their new work. “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing,” Lennon later recalled, “I did write some of my best songs there.”
AFTER returning to Britain all four Beatles gathered at Harrison’s bungalow in Esher and banged out more than 20 of the unvarnished acoustic demos that had been written at the ashrams in Rishikesh, a prodigious amount of songs that, when added to others already in their bottom drawer, would fit only on a double album.
The sessions proper began on May 30 in unorthodox fashion. Lennon, in the midst of a marriage break-up, arrived at Abbey Road studios with his new girlfriend Yoko Ono, a Japanese avant-garde artist. Her malignant presence created an unwanted dynamic between Lennon and the other three who had always seen the studio as a male-dominated sanctuary. Yoko began to make suggestions about their music – the ultimate taboo. Hurt and not a little threatened by Yoko’s arrival in Lennon’s life, McCartney felt the need to get even. Revenge took the form of Francie Schwartz, an American writer, with whom he was having a rebound fling after his split from actress Jane Asher, who also began showing up at the sessions. And so began a bitter stand-off that would last throughout the rest of the recordings for The White Album and, indeed, the remainder of their days as a functioning band, leading to irrational accusations that Ono was to blame for their eventual split in April 1970.
Soon the contentment of Rishikesh was replaced by conflict between all four Beatles. Without Epstein’s calm guidance, they were untethered. Lennon and McCartney no longer sat eyeball to eyeball to turn base metal into musical gold. Rather, each one brought their own fully formed songs into the studio and sang lead, with the other three reduced to the roles of pliable session men during takes. And this was, largely, the pattern that was set in stone for the rest of the sessions.
Over the next five months, tensions that had always bubbled under the