The White Album
Apple Records · 22 November 1968
It’s June 1, 1967: The Summer of Love. The Beatles released arguably the most important album to change rock history and pop culture. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a concept album filled with revolutionary songwriting collaborations within the band, powerful stories of family members and strangers, and innovative instrumentations that pushed music technology to a new level. Fans anxiously waited for what The Beatles had next…because how can a band follow an album like Sgt. Pepper?
Flash forward eighteen months: The Beatles came back to feed their hungry fans with The Beatles, a two-record set that lived inside a gatefold sleeve. Even though the record was uninspiringly named The Beatles, fans ignored its simplicity and renamed the album after its plain design: The White Album.
Where Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band exuded collaboration and cohesion, The White Album acted as its rival. The album’s four sides contained thirty tracks: twelve written by John Lennon, twelve written by Paul McCartney, one written by John and Yoko, four written by George Harrison, and one written by Ringo Starr. Every track on the album, with the exception of ‘Good Night,’ was sung by the Beatle who wrote the track. As for sequencing, there are no two songs sung by the same singer in a row; there is one song by George on each side of the record and then one song by Ringo on each record. The album’s structure alone tells the story of the disintegration of The Beatles: the formulaic order of songs suggests the album being one of politics and negotiation rather collaboration.
The White Album was arguably not a Beatles album. In John Lennon’s words, “each track is an individual track. It’s John and the band, Paul and the band, George and the band, like that.” In the months of recording, John Lennon spent every second of the day with Yoko Ono, destroying any potential for Paul to write and collaborate with John.
This disarray of a backstory sheds a beautiful light that became The White Album. This was the beginning of each member’s creation of self-identity as they were given the opportunity to express their individual emotions towards the band and their musical journey.
Paul did what he does best and made light, carefree tracks like ‘Ob-La-DI, Ob-La-Da,’ which is championed by a perky piano, and ‘Martha My Dear,’ a typical uncomplicated Paul McCartney love song. With the lack of collaboration with John, though, Paul explored a new side to his usual cheerful songwriting with tracks like ‘Blackbird,’ a beautifully solemn song that dances between happiness and sorrow.
John took full advantage of this individuality with tracks that revealed his honest and raw emotions. In ‘Julia,’ John pays respect to his mother whom he saw killed in a car accident as a child. ‘I’m So Tired’ was John’s outcry while spending weeks meditating in India with the Maharishi. It was in this song where John confesses his obsession for Yoko, even though John was with his wife Cynthia in India.
George shook the world with what is arguably the strongest track on the album, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ His poetic lyrics are perfectly weaved into his guitar playing, and he addresses the audience on a personal and emotional level: “I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping / While my guitar gently weeps.” With the increased turmoil between the four members, it is argued that George, being the youngest and shyest of the members, uses this song to express the conflict and destruction within the Beatles.
Then there’s Ringo who, after nine albums, finally gets his big break with his first written track on an album. Simple and slightly cliché, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ is often underestimated compared to the stronger tracks on the album, but it sure is catchy.
While often seen as a disorderly album where entropy prevails, The White Album was a necessary collection of tracks for the Beatles to further understand who they were as artists. It may have been filled with oddball and failing tracks, but it allowed the Beatles to dive deep into their emotions and inspirations. The White Album was a monumental album that pushed them to redefine themselves from a unified band to four talented individuals, all of whom would continue to shape rock history.