- IntroductionThe White Album: An Enigma for the Ages
In many ways, the Beatles' ninth and longest studio album is their most enigmatic release. Originally loosed upon the world as The Beatles in November 1968, the so-called White Album is easily the most contentious and least understood masterwork among the band's unmatched artistic corpus. As the essayists in this special issue demonstrate, we are only just beginning to understand the LP's unique creative achievements.
In contrast with the band's previous opus Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The White Album was decidedly more fragmentary and generically diverse. But at the same time, it was also their most determined, self-conscious effort. Begun in May 1968 at EMI's Abbey Road Studios, the album was a font of creative activity that rivals, if not supersedes, some of the most prolific moments of their career. "The entire White Album was written in India," John Lennon later remarked. "We got our mantra, we sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food, and writing all these songs. We wrote tons of songs in India" (qtd. in Badman 388). During the last week of May, the bandmates gathered at Kinfauns, where George Harrison had fashioned a home recording studio, complete with an Ampex four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder.
At Kinfauns, the Beatles compiled 23 demos in preparation for recording the songs that would eventually comprise the White Album. In contrast [End Page 1] with their painstaking efforts in the studio, the Esher Tapes witness the Beatles working in unison and exalting in the pure joy of their music. With its splendid acoustic introduction, the demo for "Revolution" offers a perfect case in point. The band had rarely, if ever, sounded more uninhibited and free. With its enthusiastic handclaps, ad-libs, and lighthearted harmonies, it makes for one of the Beatles' most convivial recordings. Yet for all of their geniality, the Esher Tapes were calculated rough drafts—coherent blueprints for the upcoming project. The group had seldom exhibited such a self-conscious and highly organized approach to their art.
Recorded between May and October 1968, the White Album's progress from text to art concluded on October 16th, when Lennon and Paul McCartney conducted a 24-hour session at EMI Studios in which they organized the songs in an effort to establish thematic unity. As John later recalled, "Paul and I sat up putting the White Album in order until we were going crazy" (All We Are Saying 55). Their strategy distributed the heavier rock and roll tracks on side three, with the animal-oriented songs relegated to side two. In order to create a sense of balance, they apportioned George's songs across all four sides.
With producer George Martin and engineers Ken Scott and John Smith in tow, Lennon and McCartney crossfaded and edited the tracks, ensuring that the album, like Sgt. Pepper, would be mastered without rills. The day-long session made for one of the most self-conscious moments in the history of the Beatles' artistry. Some eight months earlier, The White Album had found its origins in the Maharishi's ashram, only to be rehearsed and recorded at Kinfauns, reborn at EMI and Trident Studios, and transformed for the ages by John and Paul in the control room. And then there was the matter of the cover art. For several months, the group considering entitling the album A Doll's House at the suggestion of John, who wanted to pay homage to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. But with the July release of Family's Music in a Doll's House, the Beatles were forced to go back to the drawing board.
At the suggestion of Robert Fraser, Paul met with Pop Art designer Richard Hamilton, who proposed that the cover effect a dramatic contrast with the colorful albums of their recent psychedelic past. Hamilton recommended a plain white cover imprinted with individual numbers in order to assume the exclusive quality of a limited edition—although in this case, it would be a limited edition comprised, quite ironically, of some five million copies. At Hamilton's urging, the bandmates decided to name...