Week three on a trip through my album collection.
This retrospective had to include “The Beatles”, widely known simply as the white album.
The first time I heard The White Album (WA) I was blown away by the subtle mastery the Fab Four pulled off. From the simple white sleeve to the collection found on the enclosed double album set, this was as close to musical nirvana I’d ever been.
“On this album we rid ourselves of the self-conscious bit. We were doing what we were doing earlier on, but with a better knowledge and technique of recording. Quite a few of the tracks are just straight takes of us playing. “Yer Blues” was recorded in a smaller room just for a change from the big studio, we just did it. And “I will”, “Julia”, and all them, it’s just us singing like that. But the technique makes it a bit better than one of us just singing in the early days. It’s just we know the technique of recording better.
“If we did the first album again, with “Twist and Shout” and all those things on, it would be the same, you know. But we sound more like we sounded then, on this record, than we do on the first record. You know, people who heard us in Liverpool and Hamburg, before we turned into a mass scream — that’s how we played, just heavy rock. But when it was put down on the early records, there was never enough bass in it, the guitar solo never came through, and generally we just didn’t know about recording then. So now we know how to record a bit.”
— Maurice Hindle‘s 1968 interview with John Lennon
The White Album released in November 1968 to extreme accolade. It was their first album in over 18 months and the Beatle hungry public was quickly whipped into a frothy Beatle frenzy. WA shot up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Considering the meteoric success of their previous album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, expectations were high. The WA debuted at #1 in the U.K on December 1, 1968 and held the top spot for a total of eight weeks. WA spent 24 weeks on the UK charts, far less than the more than 200 weeks for Sgt. Pepper.
On the America side of the ocean, WA debuted at 11, climbed to #2 and finally #1 in the third week, staying there for a total of nine. In all WA spent 155 weeks on the Billboard 200. The WA is The Beatles’ best-selling album at 19-times platinum and the tenth-best-selling album of all time in the U.S. (Each sale is counted as two sales, because The Beatles is a double record set.)
The trademark all white sleeve with the simple embossing and serial number might be one of the more brilliant album designs in history. Considering the success of Sgt. Peppers with it’s iconic cover, the designer, notable pop artist Richard Hamilton, chose the all white for it’s simplicity rather than to try to one-up the flair of Sgt. Peppers.
The white sleeve was not the original plan. A painting of the band by “Patrick” (John Byrne) was under consideration to be used as the album’s cover. The piece was later used for the sleeve of the compilation album The Beatles’ Ballads, released in 1980.
“If there is still any doubt that Lennon and McCartney are the greatest songwriters since Schubert, then … [the album The Beatles] … should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making…”
— Tony Palmer, in The Observer
WA sits at #10 on the Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time. (Rubber Soul sits in #5, Revolver #3, and Sgt. Peppers claims the #1 spot.)