When the world went White

On this day in 1968, popular music was forever changed. Sitting along the banks of the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India, two members of the Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison, began work on what most listeners now know as The White Album.

While the proper title is simply “The Beatles,” it was dubbed The White Album, owing to its plain white cover, designed by British painter, Richard Hamilton. The album signaled a musical turning point for both the group and the rest of the world.

It was the Beatles’ only double album, but length is perhaps its least distinguishing feature. It marked their first full album project following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in August 1967. It also proved to be their best selling album ever, with over 20 million sold. The sales were nothing short of meteoric — four million units during the first month after its release — a sales record for any double album up to that time.

The arguably banal aspect of the album’s sales aside, its true watershed quality owes to the developmental trajectory of both the band as a unit and of the individual members themselves.

The music journalist, Lester Bangs, said of the work, “It was the first album by the Beatles or in the history of rock by four solo artists in one band…”

Bangs’ observation is both a commentary on the musical virtuosity of the four band members and an effective description of the increasingly fractured dynamic between them.

Perhaps as an outgrowth of the influence that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had on the band, the album has been ascribed a great deal of metaphysical and spiritual character. Its heavily mythologized presence is especially apparent as fans (and detractors) have attempted to find meaning in the often cryptic lyrics.

This scavenger hunt for deeper meaning was also fueled by the climate of the times. The late 1960s was a period during which American culture saw the confluence of social and political upheaval, experimentation with recreational drugs and burgeoning innovation in popular music.

The Beatles historian, Ian McDonald, argues in his book, Revolution in the Head, that the band’s cryptic messages became not merely vague but intentionally and perhaps dangerously open-ended. He cites oblique passages in songs like Glass Onion (e.g., the walrus was Paul) and Piggies (what they need’s a damn good whacking).

Another music historian, Steve Turner, author of A Hard Day’s Write, contends that with this album, “The Beatles had perhaps laid themselves open to misinterpretation by mixing up the languages of poetry and nonsense.”

Joe Stewart, writing for thewhitealbumproject.org reminds us about the album’s connection with far less savory acolytes: “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.”

Stewart goes on to theorize that this unintended — and likely unwelcome — association with Manson propelled the growing schism between boundary-pushing youth culture and those who were more conservative and traditional in their views.

Interestingly, the White Album continues to exert an influence on the music industry. Many artists have used the monochrome color scheme (and naming convention) for their own albums. Moreover, the particulars of the album’s copyright have permitted an especially fecund adaptation of its contents. As the singer Elvis Costello told Rolling Stone magazine, “The scope and license of the White Album has permitted everyone from OutKast to Radiohead to Green Day to Joanna Newsom to roll their picture out on a broader, bolder canvas.”

Indeed it has.