Sunday 25 November 2018

The White Album: A Retrospective

Just over 50 years ago in November 1968 The Beatles released the double album The Beatles (aka The White Album). Here we look at the albums recording, reception and its legacy.

Having returned from India in May 1968 with a hatful of new material, the boys met at George’s home in Esher during the middle of May 1968. There they laid down 23 demos using George’s four track Ampex tape machine.

Many of these songs would end up on The Beatles. Some, however, wouldn’t make the final album but were successful songs for other artists like ‘Sour Milk Sea’ which was recorded by Apple artist Jackie Lomax. Also, there were recordings of ‘Circles’ and ‘Junk’, both of which would appear on solo albums by George and Paul respectively. ‘Circles’ would appear on Gone Troppo in 1982 and ‘Junk’ on the album McCartney in 1970.

On Thursday May 30th, The Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios to start work on the album. The first song recorded was ‘Revolution’.  It was during this first session that the sound effects for ‘Revolution 9’ would start to take shape. The following day saw John and Paul working on overdubs for the song. This session was the first Beatle session to be attended by Yoko Ono. Sessions would run from early afternoon until early the following morning. 

Work on ‘Revolution’ continued until June 4th. The next day work began on Ringo’s first solo composition. At the time it didn’t have a title but would become ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. On June 6th the DJ Kenny Everett dropped into the studio. He managed to obtain an interview for his Radio One show. The interview is fun to listen to. It’s the one with Kenny and John ad-libbing the song ‘Cotton Fields’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. The Beatles recorded jingles for Kenny’s radio show during this session. Later that day John did an interview with Victor Spinetti, who had appeared in all three Beatles films to date, for the BBC2 programme Release. Over the next few days work continued on ‘Revolution 9’, mostly by John working in Studio 3.

By June 27th ‘Revolution’ and ‘Revolution 9’ were virtually finished. Work then began on ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’, another song written by John. Work also began on ‘Good Night’. Initially written by Lennon for his son Julian, John decided to give the vocal to Ringo. It is at this point that some of Paul’s songs start to appear on the sessions. ‘Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da’ was difficult to record and the sessions lasted from July 3rd to July 15th.

Following the premiere of the film Yellow Submarine The Beatles returned to the studio on July 18th where work began on ‘Cry Baby Cry’ and ‘Helter Skelter’. Recording started to accelerate at this point. ‘Sexy Sadie’ was commenced and by July 25th George, at last, went to work on one of his composition. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Initially recorded on acoustic guitar, the song would become one of the highlights of the album. The acoustic version would later appear on Anthology 3.

Work on the album temporarily went on hold in early August while The Beatles worked on their new single ‘Hey Jude’. They returned to the studio on August 9th to record the George composition ‘Not Guilty’. This excellent song failed to make the album, but thankfully appeared on Anthology 3. George would record a slower version in 1979 for his solo album George Harrison.

Tensions were starting to rise in the group and on August 22nd Ringo suddenly walked out of the sessions and left the UK. He wanted time to think over his future. Of all the fabs it came as a huge surprise that Ringo should be the first to walk out.

Without Ringo work on ‘Back in the USSR’ began. There was also time to tidy up the songs that had already been recorded.

The Beatles then returned to Trident Studios in London, where ‘Hey Jude’ had been recorded. Trident owned an eight-track recording machine, something Abbey Road didn’t have. This gave The Beatles more scope to experiment. Here they worked on mixing and over-dubs, most notably on ‘Dear Prudence’. This song was written about Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence during their stay in India. Prudence hardly came out for the sessions with the Maharishi, which Lennon took on board and wrote the song.

On September 3rd The Beatles returned to Abbey Road. Mal Evans, the Beatles roadie, smothered Ringo’s drum kit with flowers. Ringo was back and ready to record again. George Martin, their producer, however, took a holiday and engineer Ken Scott ran the sessions. Martin would not work with The Beatles again until October. 

Whilst The Beatles were keen to work on the eight-track machine at Trident, they continued to record at Abbey Road. On September 6th George took the unprecedented step to invite Eric Clapton into the studio to play the guitar solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. George had felt he was not good enough to play the solo and that Clapton could improve the recording. It also eased the rising tensions in the group during these sessions.

By mid-September George started to come to the fore. ‘Piggies’, ‘Savoy Truffle’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’ would all be completed over the next few weeks.  

With recordings virtually finished Ringo took a holiday to Sardinia for two weeks on 14th October. Final mixings were finished, and the album released on November 22nd 1968.

The sleeve was plain white and designed by Richard Hamilton. Each album was individually numbered. The album came with 4 colour photographs and a poster. Some of the individual numbers on the album are particularly valuable. The first 20 were given to The Beatles and their inner circle. We know that Ringo Starr owned issue number one, and John, Paul and George had numbers 2,3and 4- although we don’t know who had which one. Others known to have had one of the first twenty were Neil Aspinall, George Martin and Mal Evans.

Upon its release, the album received many favourable reviews, most notably from Tony Palmer from The Observer. In the USA reviews were also mostly favourable. The good reviews focused on the excellent songs written by Lennon/McCartney and Harrison. 

There were less favourable reviews as well. Time magazine and the New York Times were particularly critical. Some fans also felt the album was too long and should have been a single album.  The experimentation that was part of Sgt. Pepper was missing. 

Despite these mixed reviews the album was a number one across the world.

The album has been re-issued on numerous occasions, most notably in 1998 on 1t’s 30th anniversary.
Today the album is considered one of The Beatles best. Featuring classics like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Back in the USSR’ and ‘Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da’ the album has now become a classic. The album highlights the great song writing talents of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. McCartney with the wonderful ‘Blackbird’, a song highlighting the state of race relations, particularly in the USA at the time. Lennon with ‘Julia’, a song for his much-missed mother with wonderful lyrics. Harrison contributed ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, one of his best compositions. 

The album has that raw style reminiscent in songs like ‘Glass Onion’, ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘Dear Prudence’. 

It was the start of heavy rock with tracks like ‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey’ Bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy all drew influence from the album. Later bands such as Motorhead and Queen would also cite this album as an influence.

The album is not just about rock though. Great acoustics like ‘Julia’, ‘Blackbird and ‘Mother Natures Son’ reveal a softer side that continues to delight fans. The lyrics to these three songs have continued to influence song writers to this day.

The album continues to bring joy to new generations who hear it. With the passing of time, many people see and remember The Beatles as those four lovable mop tops from the early 60s. They seem extremely surprised when they hear The White Album finding it hard to believe it is the same band.
Let’s raise our glasses to The White Album.

Ernie Sutton

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