Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the post below he looks at “The White Album”.
“The White Album”: One need not say much more to evoke the alternately dreamlike and daunting experience of encountering the Beatles’ 1968 magnum opus. The year 1968 shaped our aesthetic interpretation with student riots in Europe and race riots in the U.S., assassinations (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy), political repression (in Chicago and Prague), and the inevitable loss of innocence as pop psychedelia began unraveling into drug addiction and death. What had begun in exhilaration and optimism had crested the hill and now careened in descent towards dissolution; but for the moment, the Beatles’ eponymous double album offered a breathtaking vista of monkeys, tigers, and blackbirds entertaining kings, queens, children, cowboys, and Jamaicans. Their sentiments could range from deep inside love (“I Will” and “I’m So Tired”), through outright sarcasm (“Sexy Sadie” and “Piggies”), to sheer terror (“Revolution 9”).
These recordings still hold the ability to capture our collective attention and individual fantasies, reminding us of how new and exciting music was. The album begins with a tip of the hat to the Beach Boys (and indirectly to Chuck Berry) as a jet roars into “Back in the USSR” (even as the USSR roared into Czechoslovakia). As the jet’s roar fades into “Dear Prudence,” we begin to wonder if this song about Mia Farrow’s introverted sister shields some darker purpose in the thicket of bass and drums. McCartney and Lennon seem to be talking about two different realities. Journalists of the time gossiped about the impending dissolution of the Beatles, sensing the internal tensions and multi-polar tug of personal interests. Listeners wondered about the future of civilization.
Forty years ago on Friday 22 November 1968, the Beatles’ commercial venture, Apple Records, issued their anti-Sgt. Pepper’s album, The Beatles. Gone were Peter Blake’s pop art colors and crowded imagery. The Granny Smith apple, known for its sourness, replaced the aura of fab-four comradery—of first moustaches and satin band-uniforms—with individual portraits and collaged domestic snapshots spread like memories on a bed sheet. Now, like other groups of the era, the Beatles sought to re-imagine themselves more as individuals than as a group.
The very same day that the Beatles released their eponymous “white album,” Pye released The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (with catchy Ray Davies’ tunes like “Picture Book”). Two weeks later, the Stones would finally see their own much-delayed Beggar’s Banquet released, with its carefully constructed DIY sound. But the Beatles would dominate the Christmas market that year, even as they inspired a cottage industry of cryptographers who believed they had deciphered from John Lennon’s clues the meaning behind Paul McCartney’s apparent death in a car crash. Lennon, when interviewed by a young teen from Toronto, spoke about multiple layers of meaning in the music, even as he backed away from the youth’s interpretations. Indeed today, we still find ourselves disaggregating the sounds and words of this compilation, wondering what it all means…, if anything.
We look back on this era and see a generation trying to make sense of the chaos, searching for meaning in songs and art. Perhaps we see ourselves trying to understand our selves, wondering what our future might hold, just as the Beatles struggled with these issues. Perhaps in repeatedly returning to this album, we continue to ponder our choices.