The White Album in context

People who remember when vinyl records were the only option often complain about how streaming or downloading music denies the listener the total experience – no graphics, no photos, no lyrics, no nothing. The same people said that about CDs, too, and now that CDs are on the way out, we seem to be left with downloads and streaming. And reissued vinyl, I suppose, but to me reissuing vintage albums seems like putting the cart after the horse. As it were. The point of this eludes me. And they’re so bloody expensive.

Coming in Nov. 9 – on CD and vinyl and download – is the 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles, the 93-minute magnum opus everyone has always referred to as The White Album.

All you hipsters, allow me to put The Beatles in context. The year 1968 had been a difficult one for the Fabs. Their journey to India in the spring, to study transcendental meditation, had ended badly. On his return, John Lennon immediately hooked up with Yoko Ono, and the press – notably Britain’s famous Fleet Street – had a field day.

They hated her. The slant-eyed jokes and insulting editorial cartoons were vicious. Our John left his sweet blonde Liverpool wife for this? Understand that England saw the Beatles as public property, and divorce, and a very public affair with a married Japanese “artist,” were not in the least acceptable.

When they got a look at the full-frontal cover for John and Yoko’s experimental album Two Virgins, the press really released the hounds on the Beatles. This was some freaky shit, man.

Into this atmosphere came the Paul McCartney-penned “Hey Jude,” such a wonderful, exhilarating and unexpectedly happy single, with John’s ferocious “Revolution” on the B-side. This record was impossible to ignore, Yoko or no Yoko, and it not only became the soundtrack for the fall of 1968, it became the best-selling single the group ever had.

Nobody could have predicted what would come next.

Albums had pictures on them. Happy-go-lucky photos of the Fab Four (in the early days), smart and arty-looking designs (Rubber Soul and Revolver) and multi-colored pastiches (during the band’s psychedelic period).

The Beatles appeared on November 22, almost exactly five years to the day after “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

This album jacket was all white. No pictures, no printing. The title, The Beatles, was embossed on the cover in awkward block letters, and each cover was individually numbered, like a lithograph. When you were a kid, and you knew nothing about art, you didn’t understand any of it. In those days, after all the media attention given Two Virgins, we were sure the record company had whitewashed another naked album cover.

The song titles were not revealed until you tossed the shrink wrap and opened the cover up. And there were those four individual black and white photos, simple as block prints. Inside there was a big folded poster with a bunch of tiny photos spread out, collage style.

It was an ugly poster. It’s still an ugly poster. The lyrics were printed on the back. It was all very mysterious.

The four photos were included, too, as full color 8x10s. You’ve seen them here and there over the years, reprinted everywhere.

So The Beatles, as you played the two records, had no visual reference points. Like you would put on Sgt. Pepper and marvel at all the weird stuff photographed on the front cover, or wonder what all those dumb cartoons were about inside Magical Mystery Tour.

The music, from the first note to the last, was sublime. It was all over the place. It was different. It was great to hear John still at the top of his game, and not crashed in some opium den with his freaky girlfriend. He contributed “Julia,” a love song to Yoko. And the bitter “Sexy Sadie,” a dig at his Indian guru. And “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” And “Dear Prudence.” And “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” which made zero sense to us, but was one of the most joyous, exhilarating songs on the record.

The music is sharp, pointed, and occasionally angry. The snarling electric guitars had never been better recorded. The drums pounded and resounded.

McCartney is both whimsical and fierce (see the bookends “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Martha My Dear,” “Blackbird” and “Helter Skelter”) and even George Harrison is on fire, turning in four fine songs. None of them, I remember being glad to discover, were dreary like his ’67 dirge “Blue Jay Way.” There was no filtered Indian pseudo-mysticism on display.

The whole point seemed to be, LISTEN TO IT and don’t focus on what we look like, or whether we look happy (they weren’t, as we all found out later, but so great were the Beatles that they could turn their bitterness towards one another into cool creative music). There was absolutely NOTHING predictable about this album.

Each record label had a bright green apple on one side, a sliced apple on the other. That was different, too.

These days, I still don’t think the White Album songs belong on compilations next to “Penny Lane” or “Yellow Submarine.” It is its own experience.

The Beatles seemed to think so too, as “Hey Jude/Revolution” – remember, THE BIGGEST SINGLE THEY EVER HAD – was not included on the album. Instead, they put 30 more songs on it. And none of the LP tracks were issued as singles.

I can’t explain what it meant to be a 10-year-old kid, staring at that blank cover and listening to “Revolution 9” for the first time. Frankly, it scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t know why. There were no smiling Beatles looking back, reassuring me that the world was still OK.

@2014 and 2018