Fifty years ago last month, an album was released that telegraphed — or should have — the coming breakup of the biggest act in rock and roll at the time.
The Beatles, more commonly known as The White Album, dropped Nov. 22, 1968. That was about 90 percent of the way through a year that saw the assassination of two major political figures in this country, the U.S. in an unpopular war, and this and other countries worldwide in turmoil.
It was the first album release in a year and a half for the band that gave the LP its name, an act that had cranked out albums and singles like clockwork for five years. In that year and a half, the Fab Four had gone from the multi-level artistry and imagery of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, to a plain, white-sleeved double disk that was the obverse of a concept album.
A Beatle fan from the very early days — I liked what I heard in 1963, when the first of their songs to get air time in the U.S. popped up briefly — I had owned many of their previous LPs. But The Beatles emerged a few months into my first, failed marriage, in the first semester of a college sophomore year that wouldn’t end well.
My parents weren’t buying me Beatles’ albums for Christmas any more, the LP (as was usual for the band) didn’t produce any singles to hear on AM radio, and there wasn’t an FM rock station to be heard in Janesville, Wis. I started hearing about the album before I heard it, from fellow students at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County Center.
Comments about songs like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” created a buzz at the High School with Ashtrays. But it wasn’t until the following spring, after my marriage had ruptured and I started hanging out with new friends who had the album, that I really heard some of the album cuts.
I liked what I heard, on friends’ stereos and on Radio Free Madison later that year. But I didn’t have a copy of the album in my collection for several years, until I bought a reel-to-reel deck and got a tape from a friend.
(I must have listened to that, and the OPs, a lot. I’ve played the album repeatedly the last two weeks, and my brain picks up after the end of one song and starts the next every time. I have the remastered CD version now.)
The back story of the album is interesting. Most of the songs were written while the band members were in Rishikesh, India, recreating and learning Transcendental Meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
While they were supposed to be getting away from it all, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in particular, were secretively getting together and writing songs; it was also a productive period for George Harrison, who had played second fiddle to that duo in the Fab Four’s songwriting previously.
Some 40 songs were written while the band was in India, even though they bailed early on the TM course. The Beatles recorded rough cuts of 26 songs after returning to England, in May 1968, 14 of them Lennon’s work. Studio work on the album started late that month, and continued through October.
Cracks in the Fab Four facade that had begun appearing earlier became more obvious during those months. Lennon’s new significant other, Yoko Ono, began showing up at the recording sessions; band members’ wives and girlfriends, although their presence in the studio had been discouraged, had been present previously.
But none were likely as involved as Ono, a conceptual/performance artist in her own right (or wrong). The four Beatles were not involved in recording every song, often working in separate studios; Lennon and Ono’s heroin use was an issue, and producer George Martin — the Fifth Beatle whose work was so important to the band’s success — left on vacation midway through the project. Engineer Geoff Emerick also bailed on the band.
Despite all that, when released the album got good critical reviews and was a commercial hit — No. 1 in the U.K. on release. It sold three million-plus copies in the U.S. in a month or so, and hit No. 1 here by the end of the year.
The reception was not universally positive. The politically radical of the time slammed the Beatles for not being more overtly political, even though Lennon left the door open to revolutionary violence with his ambivalence in “Revolution No. 1” — “When you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out (in).”
(The more-up-tempo single recorded later, but released before the album, did not have that caveat. The B side of the first 45 released on the band’s new Apple Records label, the “Hey Jude/Revolution” single was the Fab Four’s biggest-seller of all time, five million-plus bought by the end of 1968.)
The impact of The Beatles culturally was at least as significant as the record sales. Some of that was benign — African-American comedian Flip Wilson’s doing “Rocky Raccoon” on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” for instance; “Back in the U.S.S.R” was bootlegged into the former Soviet Union, and was an underground hit there.
Other effects were not so amusing. Cult leader and murder-mastermind Charles Manson’s drug-addled, psychopathic mind distorted two songs from the album into imperatives to kill people whose deaths he hoped would trigger a race war. One of those, “Helter Skelter,” was inspired by English playground equipment; “Blackbird,” to a normal listener, doesn’t seem to have much to do with racial conflict.
To this listener, binge-playing the album 50 years after its debut, most of the songs hold up pretty well. The rockers — “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Back,” “Savoy Truffle,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide,” etc. — definitely rock, compared to most of the songs on the Fab Four’s two previous albums. The guitar riff in “Yer Blues” still gets me.
As does the one in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which also marked Harrison’s arrival as a songwriter, and is one of the better things the Beatles every did. (Although it wasn’t his guitar doing the weeping — Eric Clapton, the friend who stole George’s girl, was picking it. Although he did later give the Quiet Beatle that six-string.)
Some of the other cuts bear more resemblance to songs from Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour; some are more lasting than others. “Revolution No. 9” is about what you’d expect if Yoko Ono spends too much time in the studio …
George Martin argued that the double album was too much, and that the band should have made it a single disk of the best work. Sir George was perhaps a genius, and the nearly-indispensable man in the Beatles pantheon, but we should be glad he lost this argument.