In the end the revolutionary nature of Richard Hamilton’s final design was in its utter simplicity

Richard Hamilton, a notable pop artist who had organized a Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Tate Gallery the previous year, was responsible for the albums original sleeve design. It is the only sleeve of a Beatles studio album not to show the members of the band on the front. His design was in stark contrast to Peter Blake’s vivid cover art for Sgt. Pepper, and consisted of a plain white sleeve with the band’s name discreetly embossed slightly below the middle of the album’s right side. The cover also featured a unique stamped serial number, “to create,” in Hamilton’s words, “the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.”

Paul McCartney requested the design be as stark a contrast to Sgt Pepper’s day-glo explosion as possible… he got it!

~ Richard Hamilton

Hamilton intended the cover design to resemble the “look” of conceptual art, an emerging movement in contemporary art at the time. The album’s inter-gatefold opened at the top originally, not the sides.

Peter Blake's iconic Sgt. Pepper album cover design

Peter Blake’s iconic sleeve design for Sgt Pepper

Richard Hamilton's minimalist sleeve design for 'The Beatles'

Richard Hamilton’s minimalist sleeve design

Most assume the stark white cover that adorns The Beatles’ ninth LP was the brainchild of John Lennon or Yoko Ono. It’s minimalist and conceptual art influence was definitely in step with the pair’s avant-garde leanings. Lennon himself had utilized both a white canvas and white balloons in his “You Are Here” exhibition held July of that year at the Robert Fraser Gallery.

Hamilton produced an iconic masterpiece of minimalist modern design

He had landed the job via mutual friend and gallery owner Robert Fraser. In the early stages of his design, he proposed that the white sleeve be augmented with a coffee cup stain, that was deemed “too flippant”. He then suggested that the cover be impregnated with apple pulp, in homage to The Beatles’ company Apple Corp, this too was considered “impractical” and was also rejected. In the end the revolutionary nature of Hamilton’s design was in it’s simplicity.

Hamilton's inter-gatefold design for the Beatles 'White Album'

The inter-sleeve was a bit more conventional, with song titles listed on the inter-left gatefold, on the lower right, and four black and white portraits on the lower portion of the inter-gatefolds right side. The poster, with its collage of snapshots and contact sheets put together by Hamilton, along with the color portraits of the individual members, was also included with the album. As the music contained within was less a collaboration and more the result of three distinct songwriters in John, Paul and George, so too did Hamilton’s design, with it’s utilization of solo shots of each band member, focus on The Beatles as individuals rather than a group.

This 1976 45rpm sleeve design mimics the white album

The first two million copies of the LP also had an individual edition number. Copies were numbered, the same system used at all 12 pressing plants (so there are 12 1s, 12 2s, etc). Also, due to a dispute over banding (where the space between songs is visible on the record disc), some copies are banded and some aren’t – even between copies pressed at the same plant. John got 00001 “because he shouted the loudest” recalled Paul. No singles were issued from the album until 1976, when “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was released as a single with “Julia” as the B-side.

The album included a set of four color photographs taken by John Kelly during the autumn of 1968. Richard Hamilton also came up with the montage idea for the large free poster, which included the lyrics on it’s rear. Original copies of the album also had a top opening sleeve, and black paper inner sleeves.

The first UK release album cover had outlets at its top, as it was called as the “Open Top” cover. Flaps inside the gatefold cover were visible at the left and the right sides. Early copies were issued with a protector sheet placed on the top of each photo and had a custom black inner sleeve. The music publisher’s name for George’s and Ringo’s songs was printed “Apple Publishing Ltd.” on the first printing and was changed afterwards to “Harrisongs Ltd.” and “Startling Mus.”

The albums design and art direction are officially credited to Richard Hamilton, Gordon House and Jeremy Banks, with photography by John Kelly.

Hamilton's photo collage poster included with the album

The back of poster included all the song lyrics

Hamilton’s original sleeve design has been altered numerous times over the years to adjust to the various media used for its release with separate designs created for vinyl records, reel-to-reel tapess, 8-track tape, cassettes, compact disc and mp3’s.

On Vinyl

The US version of “The Beatles” did not feature black sleeves as the UK version did, and the four photos were smaller. Reports indicate that Capitol had compressed most of the album but George Harrison discovered this and set things right, although due to some mechanical error there is audible evidence of this during “Cry Baby Cry”, near the line “all the children”.

Above: An extremely rare deluxe all-white vinyl version of the Beatles double-album was released by Apple Records in 1968. This special edition is highly prized by collectors. Apple Records, 1968

Above: This extremely rare original British release of the White Album in which the records were inserted from the top rather than the sides. It was known as the “Open Top” cover. Note the flaps inside the gatefold cover were visible at the left and the right sides. Apple Records, 1968

Vinyl Re-issues

Later vinyl record releases in the U.S. showed the title in grey printed (rather than embossed) letters. Early copies on compact disc were also numbered. Later CD releases rendered the album’s title in black or grey. The 30th anniversary CD release was done to look like the original album sleeve, with an embossed title and serial number, including a small reproduction of the poster and pictures.

This Capitol Records 1978 Limited Edition re-issue was pressed on white vinyl.

Above: 1978 saw two re-issues (one by Capitol Records, the other by Parlophone) Capitol’s purple label 30-track 2-LP set with the album pressed on white vinyl was housed in a gatefold sleeve and contained the 4 color photos and original poster. (Capitol SWBO 101)

Released in 1978 only in South Africa, this rare Parlophone re-issue was pressed on clear vinyl.

Above: South African only double LP pressed on clear vinyl with a unique non-embossed front laminated white gatefold sleeve with the track-listing printed in gold. Only 400 of this extremely rare Parlophone re-issue were manufactured, an is the only issue in the world on clear vinyl. (PCSJ7067/8)

On January 7, 1982, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released the album with a non-embossed unnumbered version of the cover art containing an ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING banner across the top. Neither the poster nor the portraits were included. The labels to these discs were white with black text and the Capitol dome logo at three o’clock. The MFSL discs were made with Super Vinyl, providing an extraordinary quiet playing surface. Although MFSL leased the album from Capitol and used the company’s sub-master, fans believe they sounded superior to the standard British and American pressings. The discs were stored in static-free, dust-free rice paper inner sleeves enclosed in an off-white gatefold with a reinforced stiff board that fit into the custom fabricated album jacket.

In 1985, EMI Electrola released a DMM (direct metal mastering) white vinyl pressing of the album in Germany, which was imported to the United States in large numbers. Another popular white vinyl pressing was manufactured in France. The 1978 Parlophone white vinyl export pressing and the German DMM pressing are considered by many to be the best-sounding versions of the album. This is due to the use of the famed Neumann lathe on the 1978 export pressing and the use of the DMM process on the 1985 pressing.

On Tape

The album was was released on twin 8-track stereo continuous playing cartridges (3¾ ips) with the catalogue no.8X2-PCS 8501. The album was also available on 5″ reel-to-reel tape in 1968 with the catalogue numbers DTA-PMC 7067/8 (3¾ ips twin-track mono tape), and DTD-PCS 7067/8 (3¾ ips 4-track stereo) both these editions were packaged in a “jewel” box. The album was also available on 7″ reel-to-reel tape in 1968, Apple catalogue number Y2WB-101, (3¾ ips twin-track stereo tape), the entire album was placed on one 7″ reel. Prior to 1973 the album was released on stereo twin-cassette tapes (1⅞ ips) with the catalogue number TC2-PCS 4501. In November 1988 the double-album was re-released once again on twin cassette tapes (in stereo only) using the original catalogue number TC2-PCS 4501.

Tape versions of the album did not feature a white cover. Instead, cassette, reel-to-reel, and 8-track versions (first issued in early 1969) contained cover artwork that featured a black and white (with no grey) version of the John Kelly photographs. In both the cassette and 8-track versions of the album, the two tapes were sold in a black slip-cover box. This departure from the LP’s design not only made it difficult for less-informed fans to identify the tape in record stores, but it also led some fans to jokingly refer to the 8-track or cassette not as the “white album” but as the “black tape.”

8-Track Black Shell (1969)
This issue contained 2 cartridges individually numbered “8XW-160” and “8XW-161” in a black custom Apple slip-on title box.

The 1976-1979 re-issue no longer had the Apple graphic on the outer slip-on box.

8-Track White Shell (1969)
This issue contained 2 cartridges individually numbered “8XW-160” and “8XW-161” in white custom Apple slip-on title box.

Apple Y2WB-101 7″ stereo 3¾ ips | brown box, 1 reel
This 7″ Reel to Reel issue contained edited versions of Glass Onion, Don’t Pass Me By, Yer Blues, Helter Skelter, and Revolution # 9, and omits Can You Take Me Back.

Apple Records 1968

Apple/Ampex L 101/L2 101 7″ stereo 7½ ips | blue box, 2 reels
The sound quality was enhanced on these blue-box versions when the tapes were recorded for playback at 7½ ips. This made for twice the tape length and a heavier reel for the same amount of musical material.

The album on twin-cassettes.

Capitol/Apple Cassette (1969)
The original cassette release contained 2 cassettes Apple 4XWB 101 and were individually numbered “4XW-160” and “4XW-161” in a black custom Apple slip-on title box. In 1988, Capitol/EMI re-issued this 2-cassette version of the album with the same cover artwork as the original cassettes but without the black slip-cover box

1971 re-issue cassette inlay.

EMI/Apple Double Cassette (1971)
The ‘White Album’ cassette originally came in a cigarette type packet/card box. In mid-1971 it was re-issued without the box and used this standard inlay design.

1976 re-issue gold cassette inlay

EMI/Apple Gold Re-Issue Double Play Cassette (1976)
The cassette was re-issued in the UK in 1976. Known as the ‘Gold Re-Issue” early versions used metallic gold paint. Bar-coded gold inlays appeared later on around 1985.

note: Gold inlay’s were originally accompanied by the same old yellow labelled cassettes, but these soon gave way to white labels. Direct blue inked cassettes began to appear around 1977, these being the first Dolby versions of the Beatles albums.
Below: The most elaborate cassette re-issued yet was released in 1987 as a XDR [eXtended Dynamic Range] Cassette. The “XDR Quality System” tapes were the final generation of UK Beatle cassettes, they were issued during the same year that the Beatles albums were first issued on Compact Disc and, for the first time, all the cassettes presented the tracks in the correct running order*. The XDR inlays were mainly white but included all of the original artwork found on the back covers and gatefolds of the vinyl editions. The White Album, which had previously been issued as a single “Double Play Tape”, was now issued on a pair of cassettes (so like the vinyl version, it was now spread over 4 sides).
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel A
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel A (shown above)
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel B
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel B (shown above)
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel C
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel C (shown above)
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel D
1987 Cassette Re-Issue Panel D (shown above)
The XDR tape shells were clear plastic with details printed in white ink (including a Parlophone logo) and the cassettes were all housed in completely clear boxes (front AND back). As with the CD’s, original XDR tapes (including The White Album through to Let it be) did NOT include any Apple logo’s on the inlay or on the shell, it was only from around 1992/93 that re-pressings of Beatles cassettes and CD’s began to include the full colour Apple logo. By 1993 Compact Discs were outselling cassettes and with the advent of CD-R and MP3 players at the turn of the Millennium, the cassette era came to an end.

Digital Releases

The White Album became available for the first time on compact disc in 1987.
In 1987 the Beatles (White Album) was re-issued for the first time on CD (Apple/Capitol)

30th Anniversary Edition Japan

In 1998, a 30th Anniversary re-issue of the album was released on a two-disc compact disc version in the United Kingdom. The packaging of this release is virtually identical to its vinyl counterpart. It has the same pure white gatefold cover, complete with the title “The BEATLES” in a slightly raised, embossed graphic at a slight angle. It also included the now-classic sequentially numbered serial number on the front of this cover, thus making this one a real limited edition. The interior of this cover features the song titles on the left-hand side, and the four black-and-white photos of the group members on the right. This version of the cover even accurately mimics the original British vinyl pressing from 1968, with the openings for the discs at the top rather than the sides. There are miniatures of the four full-colour glossy portrait photos included, as well as an exact replica of the poster with the photo collage on one side, and the album’s complete song lyrics on the opposite side. The CDs are housed in black sleeves, which were also used for the original British album. This commemorative double CD album is housed in a clear plastic slipcase. (shown above right as it was packaged in Japan)

The 2009 remastered release was available for the first time in both mono and stereo (Apple/Capitol/EMI)

On September 9th, 2009 Apple Records in conjunction with Capitol Records and EMI released the long awaited completely remastered Beatles catalog. The “White Album” was considered by many the centerpiece of this release. Both the mono and stereo versions of the ‘White Album’ were re-issued in their own distinctly designed packages. The stereo version was available separately for purchase, however the mono version (shown below) was only available by purchasing the complete limited edition mono box-set. For these new releases, the slipcover holding the CD digipak was embossed in much the same style as the original sleeve (though lacking a serial number).

September 9, 2009: The limited edition Beatles mono box-set with the “White Album” as it’s centerpiece was release by Apple Records.

The Beatles Collection Stuffed Inside USB Apple

On December 7, 2009 EMI Music and Apple Corps Ltd. released the entire Beatles catalog on a special limited edition (30,000 seems to be the total number of Apples being made available) 16GB USB stick. Included on the stick are the re-mastered audio recordings for The Beatles’ 14 stereo titles, as well as all of the re-mastered CDs’ visual elements, including 13 mini-documentary films about the studio albums, replicated original UK album art, rare photos and expanded liner notes.

The USB Apple release was met with both joy and disappointment from diehard Beatles fans. On the one hand, it’s a very cool piece of Beatles merchandise, it’s a limited edition and it’s the entire catalog, which kind of makes it a must have. On the other hand, it costs £200 in the UK and $279 in the US, which is pretty pricey.

The Beatles on iTunes

On November 16, 2010 the complete Beatles catalog finally became available for downloading and purchasing from the iTunes music store. At last, The Beatles music is accessible for a new generation of music fans, bringing them firmly into the 21st century. For many Beatles fans young and old this event has been a long time coming. After many years legal wrangling between EMI, the Beatles own company Apple, and the ‘other’ Apple behind iTunes have prevented the bands back catalogue from been available to download.

Thanks to the Beatles and EMI, we are now realizing a dream we’ve had since we launched iTunes 10 years ago.”

~ Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

Paul McCartney has said in the official press release:” “We’re really excited to bring the Beatles’ music to iTunes. It’s fantastic to see the songs we originally released on vinyl receive as much love in the digital world as they did the first time around.”

In the same press release, Ringo Starr is more forthright about his opinion of the band finally making it onto iTunes. “I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes.” He said, “At last, if you want it–you can get it now–The Beatles from Liverpool to now! Peace and Love, Ringo.”

The Beatles (White Album) as it appeared for sale for the first time in Apple's iTunes store

Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, and lifelong Beatles fan, couldn’t resist celebrating the Beatles’ arrival with an obvious quip. “It has been a long and winding road to get here,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to the Beatles and EMI, we are now realizing a dream we’ve had since we launched iTunes 10 years ago.”