October 25, 2018 | Arts and Culture
power to the people
fifty years of the beatles’ white album
Let’s talk about that cover. Or, to focus the issue, let’s see how long we can talk about it. White background, black text, “The Beatles,”—that’s all we’re given to work with. Context is everything. So, placed in proper aesthetic sequence, following the detailed, pop-art explosions of the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band covers, and far beyond the boy band posing of earlier albums, The Beatles’ artwork has obvious significance: it’s the first troll. By 1968, the band had grown so big, so world-devouringly important, it knew that, like Jesus or clean water, it had transcended the need to market itself.
There’s a reason the album’s actual title was immediately and forever discarded for the colloquial White Album; confronted with the cultural vastness of The Beatles, a blank, infinite field of space seems more manageable. But behind narcissism lurks a curious, inadvertent generosity. The artwork names the biggest musical phenomenon that had ever walked the earth, erases the phenomenon, and leaves the consumer to fill in the blank. As though that weren’t enough, each of the record five million original copies was stamped with another troll—an individualized “collector’s number.” And that’s only the cover to a sprawling double album that, in so many more ways, bridged the gap between listeners and pop stars and fifty years on, still looms large in our understanding of that relationship.
It’s fitting that such a loose, undisciplined statement grew out of what was in many ways the tightest strung and most self-consciously iconic era of the band’s career. The previous year’s Sgt. Pepper had been rigorously conceived—a psychedelic song cycle that demanded to be heard complete and in order, each successive track like a chapter in a novel. Though commonplace now, this sonic unity was unprecedented. Albums were rarely conceived as more than a reproduction of a live performance, and never as a performance in themselves—a notion the Beatles shattered explicitly with the bookending music-hall concept of Sgt.Pepper. Today, listening to the title track segue seamlessly from rowdy applause to the plinking riff of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” it’s difficult not to get a little giddy imagining the minds blown. And the response was indeed overwhelming. Radio stations reorganized programing to play Sgt. Pepper in full, Time Magazine called the album “a historic departure in the progress of music,” and the band ascended from stadium pop stars to high artists with serious expectations on their back.
So they ran away, decamping to India for a transcendental meditation retreat with guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Famously, this would prove neither restorative nor pleasurable, and per Lennon, the band mostly “sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food.” In this bored isolation, with no more than a shared bag of hash keeping them together, the unity that had shone through Pepper’s day-glo military outfits fell apart. No longer pitted against the world, the Beatles turned upon themselves, upon everything they had created. Their seamless interplay, on which so much praise had been heaped, was forsaken, as members retreated into isolation to write new songs. When it came time to record, the four were rarely in the same room together, electing to combine their parts through studio overdubs.
It’s often said that The White Album doesn’t quite sound like an album; it more often resembles a series of random tracks stitched together. That’d constitute a critique were this most bands, but the Beatles encompassed three songwriters of idiosyncrasy unrivaled in rock ’n’ roll. That they could ever pool into a stable creative unit, an unshakeable brand, was remarkable. And for the first time, listeners could hear them forgoing the group identity to forward their own creative whims. This brought no loss in brilliance; classics like “Blackbird” and “Julia” feature only their songwriters on the track. But across the record’s many sounds—grounded in their basic pop/rock, but incorporating hard blues, mournful folk, some truly frigged-up experimentation, and a whole bunch of English novelty crap—the band’s genius appears fractured and abstract.
And then there was the flip side—in the literal sense of “flip over the record side please; this song is bad and I don’t want to hear it anymore.” The Beatles had produced flawed music before, but without a united front, the missteps now had individual targets on their backs. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Honey Pie” revealed McCartney’s inexplicable obsession with sing-along children’s kitsch. Sick of being undervalued, Harrison had strained too hard with the overblown arrangements for “Piggies” and “Savoy Truffle.” Lennon, bit hardest by India’s spiritual disillusionment, had grown unbearably cynical— with songs like “Glass Onion” and “Bungalow Bill” laying it on all too thick. And then there was Ringo, a first-time songwriter whose self-consciously titled contribution—“Don’t Pass Me By”—had ironically produced the most skippable track on the album.
But taken as a whole, The White Album is unimaginable without these songs; minus their flaws, it certainly wouldn’t be as important, and it probably wouldn’t be as great. There’s nothing else like it: pure chaos—the most iconic moments in music history competing against songs that baffle belief. Occasionally, a stretch of something like logic will arise in the track listing—the run of animal titled songs on side B, the cheeky joke of putting the wholesome “I Will” right after “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” the long, wet fart of bullshit on Side A that lets you skip right from “Dear Prudence” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”—but on the whole, as the tracks scroll by, there’s a constant feeling of discovery.
Figuring out the best way to listen to 90 minutes of The White Album can therefore feel like an economic exercise, a measuring of opportunity cost. Am I so sick of hearing “Back in the U.S.S.R” that I want to start the album on “Dear Prudence”? Do I lift the needle between “Birthday” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” or do I give John Lennon screaming “I WANT TAH DIEEE” another chance to win me over? Do I suffer all the way through “Revolution 9” just to hear Ringo sing me “Good Night?” Does hearing Ringo sing me “Good Night” mean anything if I haven’t just suffered all the way through “Revolution 9?” All these judgements will be made at some point, though it’s unlikely they’ll stick. The White Album is curious in that people’s opinions about its songs will often shift wildly, even though their actual opinion about the album itself rarely does. It will always be overlong and unwieldy, but any day we might wake up and realize with shock that “Martha My Dear” is the prettiest song in the English language.
It’s therefore a remarkably individuating record, the platform from which many music nerds have reverse engineered their taste and preference (a love for loud music often begins with “Helter Skelter”). It grants the courage to direct sacrilegious words—“garbage,” “trash,” “whaaaa—??”—against the most important band of all time, and opens the doorway to critical thought of all stripes. And right now, it’s an especially depressing contrast to our era of curated streaming, where Spotify Discover makes actual discovery unnecessary, and Drake’s Scorpion can be the most popular album in the world despite nobody actually listening to the whole thing. And while double albums would come from other bands—often just as indulgent, sprawling, and overflowing with ideas—never again would one prove so humbling of its artist and elevate so many of its listeners. So come on, take the Magical Mystery Tour.