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

None More White: The Beatle’s White Album

By Vince Carducci | 18 November 2008 |

The Beatles is called the White Album, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels.

In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles‘ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.

But The Beatles’ cover is more than a milestone in the Beatles’ evolution and ultimate demise (in many cultures, white is the color of death and mourning) or an icon of 1960s counterculture gone sour; it’s a sophisticated work of art in its own right.

The Beatles 'White Album'

Designed by British artist Richard Hamilton (who is credited with coining the term Pop Art and is this year’s winner of the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Prize for painting), The Beatles’ cover is an important piece of art history, not to mention graphic design and in particular of the album art genre, which along with Andy Warhol’s concept for The Velvet Underground and Nico (AKA ‘the Banana Album’) constitutes an early example of the mash-up of high and low culture we now know as the postmodern.

For the first half of the 20th century, records were packaged in plain paper sleeves that if anything identified only the manufacturer, not the artists whose performances were captured on their black-lacquer grooves. Alex Steinweiss of the Columbia Records promotional department invented cover art in the early 1940s, at a time when audio recordings were produced under wartime materials restrictions. But according to design historian Steven Heller, the corporate suits quickly saw the value of cover art as sales of those recordings outpaced product sent to market unadorned.

Thus cover art became a way of branding record companies and their artists. After World War II, Blue Note Records established hip-cat cred with bold sans-serif lettering, noir black-and-white photography, and Bauhaus-inspired designs. Highbrow art was often used on classical music recordings to evoke an appropriate visual ambiance for the aural soundscapes within. Jackson Pollock’s painting White Light reproduced on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, drew a parallel between Abstract Expressionism and the post-bop avant-garde. Gatefolds, die-cuts, foil-embossing, and other embellishments added a “deluxe” patina to essentially democratic merchandise.

The stark white cover of The Beatles repudiates the promotional mandate of traditional album art and yet it’s totally about the commodity form—the sequential number printed on the lower right of the original issue kept track of the copies sold. (The one I got from my godmother for Christmas in 1968, its first disk stolen during a kegger in the 1970s at Michigan State, bears the serial number 0797940; the one I currently play is numbered 1340907, both relatively low numbers given the millions of units moved in the last 40 years.) Early on, “smart Beatle” John Lennon created controversy by observing that the group was better known than Jesus. Arriving at the dawn of the age of globalization, the Beatles’ White Album decreed that the group was bigger than even the market. In retrospect, it was a more audacious and compelling claim.

Vince Carducci |

18 November 2008

Not once in the entire spread did Mojo use the album’s proper name. For the record, its title is The Beatles. Because it arrived artfully housed in a plain white sleeve, the set immediately earned the nickname “The White Album,” and for 40 years, everybody has referred to it that way.

Calling their ninth album The Beatles, ironically, implied a collective partnership that was virtually non-existent by 1968. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were hardly on speaking terms, let alone writing together, and nearly every song was recorded in sessions overseen by the individual composers. The others acted as session musicians and background singers when their fellow Beatles requested it.

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Released on Nov. 22, 1968, five years to the day after I Want to Hold Your Hand, the 93-minute album, first on the Apple Records label, was brilliant, fun, mysterious, difficult, joyful, dangerous and radiant all at the same time. Today, it is the Beatles’ top-selling album, no small feat, when you factor in Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road, hitting the platinum-sales mark 19 times. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles is the 10th best-selling album in history, by anybody.

Most of the songs were written in early 1968 during the quartet’s visit to Rishikesh, India, to study Transcendental Mediation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was the last excursion the four old friends would ever take together.

The highs and lows of ashram life run through the lyrics of Lennon’s Dear Prudence, I’m So Tired, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey and, most explicitly, Sexy Sadie, originally written as a vitriolic kiss-off to the guru after Lennon decided he wasn’t so holy after all.

Yer Blues Lennon in a period of painful transition: “Yes I’m lonely, wanna die,” he screams, meditation clearly not doing the trick for him. He would, within a month, begin his obsessive relationship with Yoko Ono, who turns up as a ghostly image in Julia, a ballad Lennon dedicated to his late mother.

McCartney, meanwhile, came up with three of his most idyllic acoustic songs: I Will, Blackbird, and Mother Nature’s Son arrived during the Indian retreat.

Harrison turned in one of his most enduring compositions, the brooding but elegant While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the bouncy Piggies, a sly poke at the British class system.

The finished product came to include Lennon’s feisty Revolution 1 and hallucinogenic Happiness is Warm Gun, his spooky sound collage Revolution 9 and his trippy word-game Glass Onion. Lennon wrote a kids’ song, Good Night, for Ringo Starr to sing; the drummer even got his first-ever solo songwriting credit, for a country throwaway called Don’t Pass Me By.

Ultimately, the album’s patchwork quality worked in its favor, like a book of dynamic short stories, each more complex and illustrative than the one before. There was, in fact, so much blinding color over its 93 minutes that wrapping it in anything but stark white, the absolute absence of color, would have felt like over-saturation.

Bill DeYoung | Art & Entertainment

26 December 2008