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A Comprehensive Look At The Beatles Self-Titled Double Album Masterpiece

The Beatles self-titled double-album masterpiece has been described as the most diverse record in pop history

The Beatles self-titled double-album masterpiece has been described as the most diverse record in pop history

   The set of four photographic portraits taken by John Kelly in the autumn of 1968 have themselves become iconic.

On one hand, The Beatles (aka the White Album) is the most diverse record that the Beatles, or probably any pop band in history, has ever made. On the other, as Paul McCartney recalled, “That was the tension album. We were all in the midst of that psychedelic thing, or just coming out of it. In any case, it was weird. Never before had we recorded with beds in the studio and people visiting for hours on end: business meetings and all that. There was a lot of friction during that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself.” Lester Bangs described it perfectly: “It was the first album by The Beatles or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band.” In saying that Bangs was simply following John Lennon’s lead.

It was the first album by The Beatles or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band.

~ Lester Bangs
on the White Album

Almost five months in the making, nearly 94 minutes in length, it had no graphics or text other than the band’s name embossed on its plain white sleeve. The Beatles was their ninth official British album release and fifteenth American album. It was also the first full album project the group undertook following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in August of the previous year. It went on to become their best-selling album ever with certified sales at over 24 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) making it the fourth-highest certified release in U.S. history.

On one hand, The Beatles (aka the White Album) is the most diverse record that the Beatles, or probably any pop band in history, has ever made. On the other, as Paul McCartney recalled, “That was the tension album. We were all in the midst of that psychedelic thing, or just coming out of it. In any case, it was weird. Never before had we recorded with beds in the studio and people visiting for hours on end: business meetings and all that. There was a lot of friction during that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself.” Lester Bangs described it perfectly: “It was the first album by The Beatles or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band.” In saying that Bangs was simply following John Lennon’s lead.

It was the first album by The Beatles or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band.

~ Lester Bangs,
on the White Album

Almost five months in the making, nearly 94 minutes in length, it had no graphics or text other than the band’s name embossed on its plain white sleeve. The Beatles was their ninth official British album release and fifteenth American album. It was also the first full album project the group undertook following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in August of the previous year. It went on to become their best-selling album ever with certified sales at over 24 million units by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) making it the fourth-highest certified release in U.S. history.

John Patrick Byrne – A Doll’s House 1968

The White Album’s original working title was A Doll’s House, which is the name of Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece 19th-century play. In addition, according to Geoffrey Giuliano, author of The Beatles Album, an illustration was prepared for the cover of A Doll’s House by the famed artist John Patrick Byrne (aka Patrick). However, the working title was changed when the British progressive band Family released its debut album, similarly titled Music in a Doll’s House on 19 July 1968. The art later re-surfaced as the cover for the compilation album The Beatles Ballads twelve years later.

The illustration prepared for the cover of A Doll’s House by famed artist John Patrick Byrne (aka Patrick).

The White Album’s original working title was A Doll’s House, which is the name of Henrik Ibsen’s masterpiece 19th-century play. In addition, according to Geoffrey Giuliano, author of The Beatles Album, an illustration was prepared for the cover of A Doll’s House by the famed artist John Byrne (aka Patrick). However, the working title was changed when the British progressive band Family released its debut album, similarly titled Music in a Doll’s House on the 19 July 1968. That album, co-produced by Dave Mason of Traffic, featured an ambitious psychedelic sound.

Cultural Responses

Illustration by Pablo Lobato

Ian MacDonald, in his book Revolution in the Head, argues that The Beatles was the album in which the band’s cryptic messages to its fan base became not merely vague but intentionally and perhaps dangerously open-ended, citing oblique passages in songs like Glass Onion (e.g., “the walrus was Paul”) and Piggies (“what they need’s a damn good whacking”).

These pronouncements and many others on the album came to attract extraordinary popular interest at a time when more of the world’s youth were using drugs recreationally and looking for spiritual, political, and strategic advice from the Beatles. Steve Turner, too, in his book A Hard Day’s Write, maintains that with this album, “The Beatles had perhaps laid themselves open to misinterpretation by mixing up the languages of poetry and nonsense.”

Bob Dylan’s songs had been similarly mined for hidden meanings, but the massive countercultural analysis of The Beatles surpassed anything that had gone before. Even Lennon’s seemingly direct engagement with the tumultuous political issues of 1968 in Revolution 1 carried a nuanced obliqueness and ended up sending messages the author may not have intended. In the album’s version of the song, Lennon advises those who “talk about destruction” to “count me out.” As MacDonald notes, however, Lennon then follows the sung word out with the spoken word in.

On the one I released as a single, we did it in a much more commercial style… and I left out the ‘count me in’ because I’m a coward, I don’t want to be killed.

~ John Lennon
on Revolution

At the time of the album’s release, which followed the up-tempo single version of the song, Revolution, in which Lennon definitely wanted to be counted out, that single word in was taken by many on the radical left as Lennon’s acknowledgment, after considered thought, that violence in the pursuit of political aims was indeed justified in some cases. At a time of increasing unrest in the streets and campuses of Paris and Berkeley, the album’s lyrics seemed to many to mark a reversal of Lennon’s position on the question, which was hotly debated during this period.

However, the recording chronology belies the interpretation that from the single to the album Lennon moved from a definite position to one of ambivalence, since despite the single’s earlier release it was the album version that was recorded first.

Rolling Stone Issue No. 61 - June 25, 1970

The search for hidden meanings within the songs reached its low point when cult leader Charles Manson used the record to persuade members of his Family that the album was, in fact, an apocalyptic message predicting a prolonged race war and justifying the murder of wealthy people.

The album’s association with a high-profile mass murder was one of many factors that helped to deepen the accelerating divide between those who were profoundly skeptical of the youth culture movement unfolding in the mid to late 60s in the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, and those who admired its openness and spontaneity.

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote a best-selling book about the Manson Family that explicated, among other things, the cult’s fixation with identifying hidden messages within The Beatles album. Bugliosi’s book was entitled Helter Skelter, the term Manson took from the album’s song title and construed as the impending conflict he believed was fast approaching.

Special magazine published covering 'The Great Hoax'.

In September 1969, a rumor of Paul McCartney’s supposed death began spreading across college campuses in the U.S. In October of 1969 a Detroit radio program began to promote theories based on clues supposedly left on The Beatles and other Beatles albums suggesting that McCartney had died in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike. The ensuing hunt for such clues to a supposed cover-up that the Beatles presumably wanted to suppress (and simultaneously publicize) has become a classic example of the development and persistence of urban legends. The rumors declined after an interview with McCartney, who had been secluded with his family in Scotland, was published in Life magazine in Nov. 1969.

References to the legend are still occasionally made in popular culture. McCartney himself poked fun at it with his 1993 live album, titling it Paul Is Live, with cover art parodying clues allegedly placed on the cover of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. In 2009, Time magazine included Paul is dead in its feature on ten of the world’s most enduring conspiracy theories.

On the 40th anniversary of the album’s release the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a lengthy article which declared that Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled. Forgiving Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, the paper called the White Album the creative summit of the Beatles career, comparing it favorably to contemporary music and taking note of the now antiquated equipment used, concluding that a listening experience like that offered by the Beatles is truly rare.

Cultural Responses

The Beatles by Pablo Lobato

Illustration by Pablo Lobato

Ian MacDonald, in his book Revolution in the Head, argues that The Beatles was the album in which the band’s cryptic messages to its fan base became not merely vague but intentionally and perhaps dangerously open-ended, citing oblique passages in songs like Glass Onion (e.g., “the walrus was Paul”) and Piggies (“what they need’s a damn good whacking”).

These pronouncements and many others on the album came to attract extraordinary popular interest at a time when more of the world’s youth were using drugs recreationally and looking for spiritual, political, and strategic advice from the Beatles. Steve Turner, too, in his book A Hard Day’s Write, maintains that with this album, “The Beatles had perhaps laid themselves open to misinterpretation by mixing up the languages of poetry and nonsense.”

Bob Dylan’s songs had been similarly mined for hidden meanings, but the massive countercultural analysis of The Beatles surpassed anything that had gone before. Even Lennon’s seemingly direct engagement with the tumultuous political issues of 1968 in Revolution 1 carried a nuanced obliqueness and ended up sending messages the author may not have intended. In the album’s version of the song, Lennon advises those who “talk about destruction” to “count me out.” As MacDonald notes, however, Lennon then follows the sung word “out” with the spoken word in.

On the one I released as a single, we did it in a much more commercial style… and I left out the ‘count me in’ because I’m a coward, I don’t want to be killed.

~ John Lennon

At the time of the album’s release, which followed the up-tempo single version of the song, Revolution, in which Lennon definitely wanted to be counted out,, that single word in was taken by many on the radical left as Lennon’s acknowledgment, after considered thought, that violence in the pursuit of political aims was indeed justified in some cases. At a time of increasing unrest in the streets and campuses of Paris and Berkeley, the album’s lyrics seemed to many to mark a reversal of Lennon’s position on the question, which was hotly debated during this period.

However, the recording chronology belies the interpretation that from the single to the album Lennon moved from a definite position to one of ambivalence, since despite the single’s earlier release it was the album version that was recorded first.

The search for hidden meanings within the songs reached its low point when cult leader Charles Manson used the record to persuade members of his Family that the album was, in fact, an apocalyptic message predicting a prolonged race war and justifying the murder of wealthy people. The album’s association with a high-profile mass murder was one of many factors that helped to deepen the accelerating divide between those who were profoundly skeptical of the youth culture movement unfolding in the mid to late 60’s in the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, and those who admired its openness and spontaneity.

Rolling Stone No. 61 -  Jun 25, 1970

Rolling Stone Issue No. 61 – June 25, 1970

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote a best-selling book about the Manson Family that explicated, among other things, the cult’s fixation with identifying hidden messages within The Beatles album. Bugliosi’s book was entitled Helter Skelter, the term Manson took from the album’s song title and construed as the impending conflict he believed was fast approaching.

The theory became a sensation in the press in 1969.

In September 1969, a rumor of McCartney’s supposed death began spreading across college campuses in the U.S. In October of 1969 a Detroit radio program began to promote theories based on clues supposedly left on The Beatles and other Beatles albums suggesting that McCartney had died in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike. The ensuing hunt for such clues to a supposed cover-up that the Beatles presumably wanted to suppress, and simultaneously publicize, has become a classic example of the development and persistence of urban legends. The rumors declined after a contemporary interview with Paul McCartney, who had been secluded with his family in Scotland, was published in Life magazine in November 1969.

References to the legend are still occasionally made in popular culture. McCartney himself poked fun at it with his 1993 live album, titling it Paul Is Live, with cover art parodying clues allegedly placed on the cover of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. In 2009, Time magazine included Paul is dead in its feature on ten of the world’s most enduring conspiracy theories.

On the 40th anniversary of the album’s release the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a lengthy article which declared that “Forty years later, this album remains a type of magical musical anthology: 30 songs you can go through and listen to at will, certain of finding some pearls that even today remain unparalleled.” Forgiving Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, the paper called the White Album the “creative summit” of the Beatles career, comparing it favorably to contemporary music and taking note of the now antiquated equipment used, concluding that “a listening experience like that offered by the Beatles is truly rare.”

The Charts

Promotional poster issued by Capitol Records 1968.

Promotional poster issued by Apple/Capitol 1968.

It was their first studio album in almost eighteen months, and coming after the blockbuster success of Sgt. Pepper, expectations were high at the time of the release of The Beatles. The album debuted at number one in the U.K. on 1 December 1968, becoming their third album to do so, after Help! and Revolver. It spent seven weeks at the top of the U.K. charts, (including the entire competitive Christmas season) until it was replaced by the Seekers’ Best of the Seekers on 25 January 1969, dropping to #2. However, the album returned to the top spot the following week, spending an eighth week once again in the #1 position on the charts. It returned to the top spot for a final week on 1 February 1969, then spent a further four weeks in the top 10, and a total of 24 weeks in the top 40.

In the United States, the album was received with huge commercial success. Although it carried a list price of $11.79 (a single album was selling for $3.98), their double album The Beatles sold 4 million units during its first four weeks alone, a record for any double album up to that time. It debuted at #11 on the U.S. charts, then reached #2, and finally peaked at #1 in its third week, spending a total of nine weeks at the top. In all, The Beatles spent 155 weeks on the Billboard 200. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), The Beatles is The Beatles’ best-selling album at 19-times platinum and comes in at #12 in the list of the best selling albums of all time.

In 1969 Apple released the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.

The White Album was particularly notable for blocking the Beatles follow-up album, Yellow Submarine, which was released on 13 January 1969 in the U.S. and on 17 January 1969 in the U.K. It peaked at #3 on 8 February 1969, the same week The White Album was dominating the second position on the charts.

It then spent another four weeks in the Top 10 before dropping down the charts. In all, The Beatles spent 24 weeks on the U.K. charts, a far cry compared to the over 200 weeks spent by Sgt. Pepper.

Promotional poster issued by Capitol Records 1968.

Promotional poster issued by Capitol Records 1968.

It was their first studio album in almost eighteen months, and coming after the blockbuster success of Sgt. Pepper, expectations were high at the time of the release of The Beatles. The album debuted at number one in the UK on 1 December 1968, becoming their third album to do so, after Help! and Revolver.

It spent seven weeks at the top of the U.K. charts, (including the entire competitive Christmas season) until it was replaced by the Seekers’ Best of the Seekers on 25 January 1969, dropping to #2. However, the album returned to the top spot the following week, spending an eighth week once again in the #1 position on the charts. It returned to the top spot for a final week on 1 February 1969, then spent a further four weeks in the top 10, and a total of 24 weeks in the top 40.

In 1969 Apple released the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.

The Yellow Submarine soundtrack album released on 13 January 1969 in the U.S. and on 17 January 1969 in the U.K.

The White Album was particularly notable for blocking the Beatles follow-up album, Yellow Submarine, which was released on 13 January 1969 in the U.S. and on 17 January 1969 in the U.K. It peaked at #3 on 8 February 1969, the same week The White Album was dominating the second position on the charts. It then spent another four weeks in the Top 10 before dropping down the charts. In all, The Beatles spent 24 weeks on the U.K. charts, a far cry compared to the over 200 weeks spent by Sgt. Pepper.

Mono Version

The Beatles was the last Beatles’ album to be released with a unique, alternate mono mix, albeit one issued only in the U.K. and a few other countries. Twenty-eight of the album’s 30 tracks, Revolution 1 and Revolution 9 being the only exceptions, exist in official alternate mono mixes. Several of these mono mixes are quite different from the stereo versions, such as Helter Skelter, where the fade-out and fade-in towards the end have been eliminated.

Beatles’ albums after The Beatles (except Yellow Submarine in the U.K.) occasionally had mono pressings in certain countries such as Brazil, but these editions, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were in each case fold-downs from the regular stereo mixes.

By 1968 in the U.S., mono records were already being phased out, the U.S. release of The Beatles was the first Beatles LP to be issued in the U.S. in stereo only. The mono version of The Beatles was not made available until 9 September 2009, as part of the Beatles in Mono remastered box set released by Apple Records.

Mono Version

The Beatles was the last Beatles’ album to be released with a unique, alternate mono mix, albeit one issued only in the U.K. and a few other countries. Twenty-eight of the album’s 30 tracks, Revolution 1 and Revolution 9 being the only exceptions, exist in official alternate mono mixes. Several of these mono mixes are quite different from the stereo versions, such as Helter Skelter, where the fade-out and fade-in towards the end have been eliminated.

Beatles’ albums after The Beatles, except Yellow Submarine in the U.K., occasionally had mono pressings in certain countries such as Brazil, but these editions, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were in each case fold-downs from the regular stereo mixes.

By 1968 in the U.S., mono records were already being phased out, the U.S. release of The Beatles was the first Beatles LP to be issued in the U.S. in stereo only. The mono version of The Beatles was not made available until 9 September 2009, as part of the Beatles in Mono remastered box set released by Apple Records.

McCartney’s Radio Luxembourg Interview 20 November 1968

The September 1968 Rolling Stone Inter­view with John & Yoko

Lennon Rolling Stone Interview 1968
The Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Colt interviewed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in September 1968 at their temporary basement flat in London […]