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40 Years later: The White Album

I was not a first generation Beatles fan, as most of you know.  My mother ingrained the Fab Four in my brain from an early age.  My first recollection of The White album was a strange one.  It was well into my late teens (mid-1990’s) that I had even seen the album itself.  I hadn’t seen the poster or photos that accompanied it, until I sought it out in my mom’s collection specifically, but I digress.  I remember first hearing it on my mom’s dubbed cassette when I was about 10 years old.

Those first few listens really weirded me out actually.  I remember Honey Pie really not settling well with me.  I was fascinated though, that a rock group would make up an album full of songs about animals.  I would as my mom to play the “Beetles” album about the animals for me all the time.  There were racoons, mother nature, blackbirds, a weird guy named Bill running through the jungle hunting tigers, airplane sounds, raccoons, piggies…anyway you get the idea.

That phase passed quickly as I became consumed with The Beatles, but that album with it’s kaleidoscope of sounds, tape loops, rock and roll, and animals will always hold a fond memory. 

On the 40th anniversary of its release, CRANK it up loud, and enjoy the sounds of the White Album again.  I have my mono-Purple Chick Deluxe edition set queued up to play.

What are you recollections of The White album?  We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about the Beatles’ masterpiece in the comments below.

Here’s what we’ve read.

The culmination of the year that was 1968 was the release of the Beatles album familiarly known as the White Album. A collection of songs with roots in a myriad of musical styles, this two-disc collection would be the soundtrack to the individual and collective lives of millions of people for the next several months. From the hippie ghettos of western civilization to the suburban bedrooms of America’s youth and even to the arid hills east of Los Angeles where a megomaniacal manchild named Chares Manson raised in the California prison system was creating a family bent on murder and mayhem, the White Album would become a totem of the cultural changes that shattered the known western world. It’s not that the White Album was the best rock album to come out that year. Indeed, other works could just as easily claim that title: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland; Cream’s Wheels of Fire; Big Brother’s Cheap Thrills; or event the first Creedence Clearwater disc. No, it was because the White Album was from the top of the rock pantheon–the Beatles.

The music ranged from British dance hall ditties to folk tinged ballads with some serious hard rock in between. Then there was the John Cage/Stockhausen mishmash of sound called “Revolution #9”. A counterpart to the other song titled Revolution (known as “Revolution #1”), “Revolution #9” was meant to be the chaotic sounds of revolution as conceived by John Lennon. At times reminiscent of a political protest and other times more like a football game, the entire collage reminds many listeners of a trip on LSD. Revolution #1, on the other hand, represented a debate going on between the Beatles, within John Lennon’s mind , and in the larger society over the merits of revolutionary change and the forms any such change should take. Chairman Mao and dogmatic cadres or Fabian-like evolutionary change spurred by a revolutionary change in consciousness. Of course, this latter possibility was also open to interpretation. Would this change in consciousness be towards the “new man” that Che Guevara wrote about or would it be the new consciousness Timothy Leary spoke of and Charles reich would attempt to denote in his 1970 book The Greening of America?

The Beatles didn’t have the answers. Indeed, they were asking the questions like everyone else. However, in the convulsive year that was 1968, when all the pillars of what already was were being challenged, there were many who did think the Beatles had the answers. One of these was the aforementioned Charles Manson. His conclusions regarding the tunes “Helter Skelter” and “Piggies” combined with a racist and apocalyptic vision fueled an exceptionally gory spate of Hollywood murders and a particularly surreal series of spectacular trials. White Panther John Sinclair, meanwhile, wrote an open letter to John Lennon regarding the latter’s apparent hesitation regarding the political upheaval and dramatic shift to the left among the youth of the world. The letter was responded to by Lennon and was read by millions of readers in underground newspapers across the world. To be more precise, the letters concerned the single release of the song and not the album release. This difference was essential, primarily because the lyrics that read

But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
On the single version, go like this on the album version
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out (in).

The latter version obviously showed some ambivalence on the part of the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) regarding an approach that ignored the fact of the violence being used against the protesters. One other aspect of Sinclair’s argument had to do with these lyrics:

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

It was Sinclair’s contention that both the institutions and one’s mind needed to be freed. Lennon eventually came around to a mode of thinking considerably closer to Sinclair’s. In fact, he helped spearhead a campaign to get Sinclair released from prison after he was sentenced to ten years for giving a narc one joint of marijuana.

But the four songs mentioned above were not the album. “Back In the USSR” poked gentle fun at the American rockers who celebrated the United States as the greatest place to be while conveniently ignoring its legacy of racism and war. “Julia” is a beautiful poem to Lennon’s mother, his first son and even Yoko Ono-the “ocean child” of the lyrics. “Blackbird” is a song about Rosa Parks and her refusal to move when ordered to do so by the realities of American apartheid. As we all know, that refusal was a pivotal movement in the struggle to rid the nation of that disgrace. George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was inspired by an epigram of the I Ching and is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed by a Beatle. Ad infinitum. I’ll let the reader fill in the spaces regarding the rest of the selections on this double disc.

Everyone had (or has) their favorite Beatle. Mine was always John Lennon. Similarly, everyone has their favorite Beatles song(s) and album(s). Without a doubt, mine is the White Album.

Source: Counter Punch


9 Responses

  1. Great post! (Great blog, too) Your words largely echo mine, whereas The White Album was the last of the Beatles albums that I explored. I “came into” the beatles in the mid 1990s when I was about 15 and it was up to me to buy my own beatles albums. Not easy for a 13 year old from a lower-middle class family. I bought them on tape cassette as CDs were out of my budget and the White Album being a double album was always the most expensive. It was literally the last album for me to get my hand on–I was about 16 by that time–and when I heard it … wowzah. It was an indescribable feeling–frightened me a bit–and altogether blew my mind. It still does. I will be glad to crank the White Album till my neighbors call the cops on me in celebration of sucha a seminal moment in modern music history!

  2. I started to collect Beatles records when I was about 10 years old and “The White Album” was the last one I bought, in the early 80’s. Probably because it was a double album and a bit more expencive than the others. But I also think it was the least appealing to me, because of the lack of a picture of the band on the front. I didn’t know a whole lot about the Beatles albums at that age and time, and I used to buy them from what cover I liked the most. I don’t think I really understood “The White Album” before I was about 16/17 years old. I prefered the 1962-66 period in my early Beatles-fan days. It was a bit chaotic and heavy for me at that time. My favorite were “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da”. I thought it was a teriffic song and I was so dissapointed when I later started to read more about the band and found out that John Lennon hated it and called it granny music. I didn’t have clue what he was talking about, I was just a kid and I adored it. And I still love that song, it’s so much fun. But the album continued to grow on me, and these days, it’s probabaly the one I listen to the most. It’s so much stuff on it, the musical variation of it all and the atmosphere of the album has some kind of a weirdness and wildness to it. And I love that. “The White Album” rocks.

  3. I have an interesting story about the White Album. I’m also a second generation fan– always a listener, but didn’t really become a fan until around 8th grade or so. I remember for my birthday that year I had asked for Brittney Spears’s album “Baby One More Time”, which was huge then. Cut me a little slack… I was a dorky 13 year old, I didn’t know any better! My dad had gone to the record store earlier that day and when we were cleaning up from dinner I slid into the kitchen and he had something sticking out of his pocket. I ran up and grabbed it thinking it was my beloved Brittney. To my dismay it was not, it was none other than the White Album. You couldn’t imagine my disappointment. I mean, I liked the songs on the album, I had heard some of them before from the radio or whatnot, but this was not the “Oh baby, baby” that I was expecting. I smiled and said thank you through gritted teeth and went to my room. After a bit of sulking I decided to play the CDs because, well, I didn’t have anything else to play. By the time “Good Night” finished playing, Brittney was out the door. My heart belonged to The Beatles in a serious way. I can’t thank my dad enough for being the brilliant man he is and not supporting the joke of a pop industry that was the 90s. That was a life changing birthday and truly a life changing record!

  4. I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was seven and the first album I got was The White Album. My biggest favourite was “I Will” in that time, I really liked Paul’s voice back then (I like it still of course). Almost every morning when I was walking to primary school, I was humming one of the Fab Four’s songs.What is more, we always had to draw something into the last line just under our homework in our exercise books and I usually drew John, Paul, George, Ringo in fancy colours and styles of letters. The headmaster did not really like it but I did not care:). I am 21 years old now, I go to university here in Hungary and I am still a devoted Beatles fan!!! All the best to the editors of this site, I really love it! Thank you and of course thank JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE and RINGO!!!!

  5. I’m a 2nd generation fan, i loved the Beatles when i was 4 (running around to twist and shout was my fave activity at the time) but went off them when i was 9 (as u do when ur young and impressionable) – it wasnt until the anthology came out when i was 11 that i got hooked again. like the others, i found that the white album was always too expensive becasue it was a double album – when i finally got it for my 16th brithday it was on tape! doh! even tho CD’s were the norm!!!
    My favourite memory of the white album is when i was listening to it in the lounge (still 16!) while looking after my little brother ,and i had to go outside for a couple of minutes. my little brother (13 at the time) came rushing out to me in a panic, looking terribly frightened.
    “Whats that noise?? its really weird and its freaking me out!”
    I wasnt sure what he was talking about until i went back inside, thinking it was a weird insect or something. He had heard Revolution #9. Bless his wee heart it gave him a fright.
    Now he listens to death metal so i dount that rev #9 freaks him out anymore :p .

  6. I will chime in as a 1st gen fan. I was 19 when the White Album was released. It was on the heels of some pretty amazing music: Sgt Pepper, Magical Myst and Yellow Submarine. Brian Epstien died and the Beatles were in India. All of a sudden the White Album hit the stores. A double Album! What more could a fan ask for? Open the album and more surprises. Four individual photo portraits (missed the obvious symbolism), a giant poster with the lyrics and a collage of photos that were explored while listening to the amazing music filling my room. For me, this was the Beatles growing up. Cartoons and acid trips were nice, but this album was definitely a step up in maturity for both the music and image of the Beatles. No longer the Fab Four, but serious music talent.
    By the way, the name “White Album” was the moniker almost immediately! I hardly remember anyone calling it The Beatles.
    The importaint (to me) aspect of all the Beatle Albums was the time in between releases. After absorbing an album, you had to wonder what they would do next and the anticipation was only outdone by what we got.
    Every release was an indescibable experience that, unfortunately, will probably never be repeated.
    Last word: I hope the rumors of a 5.1 White Album are true!!!!

  7. I’ve always had trouble embracing this album fully. The discord within the band comes thru, especially where John is writing his first big batch of introspective songs, and Paul is writing cute ditties and full-out rockers– and George is starting to let loose with his own song writing abilities. Many say it’s the beginning of the musical identity split and I feel it as I listen to this album. I think they tried hard to have more of a group feel with Let It Be and Abbey Road and those albums come across as more cohesive and tighter. I still love the “White Album” but I do wish George Martin would have been able to pare it down to one album’s worth of the best material, instead of it being a 2 album set (as he had hoped).

    Beatle Bob
    (Bootleg reviewer on the Bootlegzone, 910, Beatleglist, etc)

  8. we have the same first thoughts about the White Album, Matt!

    The first cassette tape that my dad bought for me was Rubber Soul and White Album.. compare the music on those and i guess hearing the white album after rubber soul will sound a little differnt.. It hurt my head back then whenever i hear the one line song ‘…do it in the road’… amazing! (wonder what they’re gonna do in the road? 🙂

  9. .. oh yeah, i guess i’m a 3rd gen fan.. being 30 and all. 🙂

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