White on White

The Beatles– 50thAnniversary

 Released November 22, 1968

By Madeline Bocaro ©

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We all feverishly anticipate the 50thanniversary remaster of  The Beatles to be released on November 9, 2018.

For most of us who got the album upon its release in 1968 as kids, our sound systems were highly inferior. We ran the gamut from radios to our tinny sounding portable childhood record players, to finally being able to use our parents’ Hi-Fi systems. By simply tweaking the tone, bass and treble knobs we uncovered countless revelations hidden within the breadth of sounds in Beatles recordings. Surprisingly, newer technologies took us backwards, reverting to inferior CD compression and then streaming music.

We never dreamed that decades later, vinyl would make a resurgence – and further that The Beatles master tapes would be enhanced by engineers who actually worked on the recordings, and by (the late) legendary producer George Martin’s son, Giles. The 2009 remasters were a wonderful sonic exposé. Yet here we are almost ten years later, anticipating an extensive ‘ultimate’ box set with even more clarity, lots of outtakes and demos! The sneak previews are blowing my mind…

Before the avalanche of technical critique and analysis begins, let’s remember this masterpiece just as it was when we first beheld its absolute whiteness and inhaled the smell of two new vinyl records wafting from the gatefold sleeve. Let’s celebrate the ensuing years of its assimilation through our membranes into our entire being –  before our white covers yellowed and showed the first signs of ring-wear. 

In early 1968, the Beatles were musically prolific while in India (with their respective girlfriends / wives) studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Individually and together, they composed most of the thirty songs for their new album in India on acoustic guitars. There was a strict no-drugs policy at the ashram – the songs were written with the clearest of minds. Demos were made at George’s home Kinfauns in Escher in May – an odd exercise for the band. They had always recorded live in the studio.

After five months of recording (May through October), the album was released on November 22, 1968.  The self-titled double album was their 9th new studio album. It was the first Beatles offering on their new label – Apple Records. The album followed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack (released six months apart in 1967). Although some were taken aback by this contrast to their previous psychedelic masterpiece, most fans were overwhelmed and elated by the abundance of diverse Beatles music on the new double album.

It was epic! We played it repeatedly, endlessly.

We were so intimate with the music that It became a continuous symphony – we knew the exact length of the silent gaps between each song and which tune perfectly followed each one. Everyone had their favorite Beatle’s 8” x 10” color portrait which came with the album (or all four of them) and the poster on their wall.

 

 

The Beatles’ four-sided album was our soundtrack to 1969, the turbulent final year of the 1960s which abruptly ended an era of hope and dreams for the future. In fact, misconstrued meanings of two songs on the LP influenced the horrific Manson murders in August 1969.

The Beatles as a unit were also fracturing. The album contains more individual efforts than combined ones. Due to mounting tensions, Ringo left the band during the sessions. He later returned when apologetic bouquets of flowers were draped over his drum kit by his band mates.  Producer George Martin conspicuously took a ‘vacation’ as did producer engineer Geoff Emerick. With the old-school headmasters now gone (they had been for many years the cutting-edge translators of the band’s musical ideas) younger engineers Chris Thomas and Ken Scott happily took over. This brought a more relaxed atmosphere to the sessions and the Beatles were now happily free to do as they pleased, working through the night until dawn – recording multiple lengthy takes of each song. Of the album’s 30 tracks, only half of them have all four Beatles performing together.

Not one of the 30 songs were issued as a single in the U.K., nor in the USA (continuing the practice that no single should appear on a Beatles album). However, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ with the B-side ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was released and hit No.1 in Australia, Switzerland and Japan. (Scottish pop band Marmalade’s cover version of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ reached No. 1 in the U.K. in January 1969).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu2mEkhcrQA

The Beatles’ single ‘Hey Jude’/’Revolution’, recorded during the album sessions was released August 26 preceding the album by three months.

The progenitor of Pop-art, painter Richard Hamilton created the stark minimalist cover of The Beatles (white album) in 1968. Despite Hamilton’s protestations to keep it minimal, the cover bore the album title (the band’s name) in embossed white Helvetica lettering.  The cover strikingly contrasted Sgt. Pepper’s psychedelic cover bursting with color. Hamilton’s philosophy was, “Pop Art should be popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamourous and big business.”

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Gallery owner Robert Fraser (Paul McCartney’s art dealer) helped him acquire paintings by surrealist Rene Magritte, one of which was the inspiration for the Beatles’ Apple Records logo and label art. (Magritte was also one of the characters in the crowd on the Sgt. Pepper album cover).

Also see:  Apple (Part 2)

By Madeline Bocaro ©

https://madelinex.com/2017/01/07/apple/

 

 

Hamilton conceptualized the pure white cover, adding that if this was “too clean and empty, then maybe we could paint a ring of brown stain to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it – but that was thought a bit too flippant.

It was agreed that the albums should be numbered. As Hamilton said, “It should be treated like a very small edition publication of poems or something!” The irony was that there were millions of albums printed. Each LP had a unique serial number stamped in gray. Numbers 000001 to 000020 were given to the Beatles and their friends. Each factory’s numbering system varied.

Ringo auctioned his copy of the album (No. A0000001) for charity in July of 2013. It was the first No. 1 from the first UK pressing, which sold for $790,000. When the first run ended in early/mid 1971 the numbered albums became highly desirable. The highest white album number is 3,116,706. An “A” on the serial number indicates one of several U.S. pressings.

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To find out the origin of your numbered album, there is an online White Album Registry – a fabulous resource! http://www.whitealbumregistry.com

 

THE SONGS

THE REVOLUTIONS: 1, 2 and 9

 Three versions of the song ‘Revolution’ were recorded in 1968.

Revolution 1 – On this slower bluesy version of the song, John is uncertain whether the revolutionaries could count him ‘out’ or ‘in’ since he only believed in peaceful protest. The sessions for this track developed into ‘Revolution 9’.

Revolution 2 (fast version) – John wanted to release the song as a single, so a fast version of ‘Revolution’ in a higher key was recorded after the slower version which appears on the white album. The distorted guitar sound was achieved by direct injection of the guitar signal into the mixing console. Engineer Geoff Emerick explained that he routed the signal through two microphone preamplifiers in series while keeping the amount of overload just below the point of overheating the console. This was such a severe abuse of the studio equipment that Emerick thought, “If I was the studio manager and saw this going on, I’d fire myself.”

It was rare for Beatles lyrics to contain social commentary. John later regretted using the line about Chairman Mao.The single ‘Hey Jude’ and the fast version of ‘Revolution’ on the B-side were recorded at the same session for The Beatles (white album) at EMI (Abbey Road studios). The single was released on August 26thand topped the charts.

‘Revolution 9’ – The longest and most controversial album track was inspired by Stockhausen’s sound collages and by John’s appreciation of his new love Yoko Ono’s work with John Cage, which liberated Lennon from a conventional beat.

The track evolved from a long ‘Revolution 1’ jam…

“I took the fade-out part, which is what they sometimes do with disco records now, and just layered all this stuff over it.  It has the basic rhythm of the original ‘Revolution’ going on with some twenty loops we put on, things from the archives of EMI. Yoko was there for the whole thing and she made decisions about which loops to use.”

– John Lennon, The Playboy Interview, 1980

“The statement in ‘Revolution’ was mine. The lyrics stand today. It’s still my feeling about politics. I want to see the plan. That is what I used to say to (revolutionaries) Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Count me out if it is for violence. Don’t expect me to be on the barricades unless it is with flowers. For years, on the Beatles’ tours, Brian Epstein had stopped us from saying anything about Vietnam or the war. And he wouldn’t allow questions about it. But on one of the last tours, I said, ‘I’m going to answer about the war. We can’t ignore it.’ I absolutely wanted the Beatles to say something about the war.”

– John 1980

Although he was into avant-garde art and music Paul was away during most of the ‘Revolution 9’ sessions and did not appreciate the results. Of all the unlikely participants, George (who also contributed spoken ad-libs) was an eager one.

“Ringo and I compiled that. We went into the tape library and looked through the entire room and pulled main selections and gave the tapes to John, and he cut them together. The whole thing, ‘Number nine, number nine,’ is because I pulled the box number nine. It was some kind of educational programme. John sat there and decided which bits to cross-fade together, but, if Ringo and I hadn’t gone there in the first place, he wouldn’t have had anything.” 

–  George Harrison to Bill Flanagan, Rock CD magazine USA 1992

 “The ‘number nine…‘ was an engineer’s voice.  They have test tapes to see that the tapes are all right, and the voice was saying: ‘This is number nine megacycles…’  I just liked the way he said, ‘number nine‘ so I made a loop and brought it in whenever I felt like it…It was just so funny, the voice saying, ‘number nine,’ it was like a joke, bringing ‘number nine‘ in it all the time, that’s all it was.  There are many symbolic things about it, but it just happened.”

“In June 1952, I drew four guys playing football and ‘number nine‘ is the number on the guy’s back, and that was pure coincidence.  I was born on 9th October.  I lived at 9 Newcastle Road.  Nine seems to be my number so I’ve stuck with it, and it’s the highest number in the universe, after that you go back to one…It’s just a number that follows me around, but numerologically, apparently I’m a number six or a three or something, but it’s all part of nine.”

– John Lennon to David Sheff, All We Are Saying 1980

In 2009, an 11-minute ‘Take 20’ of ‘Revolution’ was unearthed.

 Revolution9

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The beginning of your musical collaboration with John was The White Album – you can really hear it in songs like Revolution and Everybody’s got something to hide… Do you think the world is ready to acknowledge your positive impact on The Beatles?
No, Never!
Yoko, Mojo No. 300 November 2018

Also see: Revolution: 1,2 and 9

https://madelinex.com/2018/03/21/the-revolution-scream/

AND: Paul’s Song for John – ‘Hey Jude’

https://madelinex.com/2018/08/26/pauls-song-for-a-friend-hey-jude/

 

THE BALLADS: JOHN

 Julia – While in India in early 1968, John received many letters from Yoko Ono whom he had met just over a year prior. Yoko sent him arcane messages such as, ‘I’m a cloud, watch for me in the sky.’John was falling deeply in love with her, as his marriage to Cynthia deteriorated. 

John performs the delicate acoustic ‘Julia’ completely alone. The song is mainly about his estranged mother who was tragically hit by a car just as young Lennon was getting to know her. John blends the auras of Julia and of Yoko who was soon to be his wife, using imagery from nature;

Ocean child (the meaning of Yoko’s name in English)
Seashell eyes / Windy smile / Floating sky
Morning moon / Sleeping sand / Silent cloud… 

In his song of love, John ‘quipped Kahlil Gibran’ quoting his 1926 poem Sand and Foamon ‘Julia’ in the opening line, “Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”

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Dear Prudence – This is about Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence who remained alone in her room during the time in India. (Prudence later became a meditation instructor herself!) As Ringo was ‘estranged’ at this time, Paul does a stellar job on drums, as if in frenetic homage to Ringo himself!

I’m So Tired – John sings quietly at first. Then his vocals become angrily animated – insane from three weeks without sleep.  With Yoko on his mind, he sings “My mind is set on you. I wonder, should I call you, but I know what you would do…” Strung out, John curses Sir Walter Raleigh who imported tobacco to Europe as he lights another cigarette.

Cry Baby Cry – A beautiful, lyrically psychedelic nursery rhyme with a delicate fairy-tale quality.  John later dismissed the song as ‘rubbish’. However, it is quite beautiful. His vibrato vocals are stunning.

Sexy Sadie – John’s beautiful song is contrasted by disdainful lyrics as he became disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the Maharishi who allegedly made sexual advances toward female students.

Happiness is a Warm Gun – A complex and cryptic tune with changing metres. Another of John’s allegorical references to his relationship with Yoko.

 

THE BALLADS: PAUL

Blackbird– I have always especially loved the intimacy of this recording – our ears are right between the acoustic guitar strings and Paul’s fingertips. That close.

At age sixteen, Paul had taught himself to play the intro of Bach’s “Bourree in E Minor”. The singing blackbird on the recording was culled from a tape labeled Volume Seven: Birds of a Featherin the Abbey Road sound effects collection. We assumed that the song was about a bird, with its chirping intro.  However, Paul later explained,

“I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman experiencing these problems in the States: Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.”

 – Paul McCartney to Miles, Many Years from Now 1997

I Will – Simply a gorgeous ballad from Paul.

Mother Nature’s Son – Also written in India, this ode to nature merged a meditative mindset with Paul’s scenic recollections nature’s beauty of his childhood.

(Another tune about the terrain was also written by John in India while meditating. ‘Child of Nature’ was later reworked to become ‘Jealous Guy’ on his Imaginealbum in 1971).

 

THE BALLADS: GEORGE

 Long, Long, Long – George’s Dylan influenced composition seems to be about a relationship but was later revealed by Harrison to be about God. Meditation had brought him the inner peace to write this song. The tune was inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. It has a sort of freak-out at the end.

THE BALLADS: RINGO

The lush orchestrated lullaby ‘Goodnight’ was written by John for his young son Julian and is beautifully sung by Ringo.

 

 

 

THE BLUES: JOHN

 Yer Blues– Although there is a trace of sarcasm in his performance, we can tell that John’s feelings are frighteningly real. John summed up this song years later:

“Although it was very beautiful, and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on Earth. In ‘Yer Blues,’ when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”

– John

 THE BLUES: PAUL

 Helter Skelter – This was Paul’s concept in response to Pete Townsend’s exclamation that The Who’s upcoming record would be the “dirtiest, loudest song ever.” Wouldn’t we all love to hear the 27-minute version?! Despite being about a fairground roller-coaster, the lyrics were distorted in the mind of Charles Manson, which led to the infamous California murders in August of 1969. This effectively ended the summer of love and the innocent 1960s as we knew it.

THE BLUES: GEORGE

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Thisphilosophical and meditative Harrison song began as an acoustic ballad, but George later decided to bring in his hired gun, Eric Clapton, whose guitar solo blew everyone away.

 

THE ROCKERS: JOHN

Glass Onion – This isJohn deliberately confounding fans who found supposedly hidden messages in Beatles’ songs. He playfully throws several Beatles song titles and lyrics into the mix. The sinister string arrangements lend an eerie backdrop to John’s mystifying clues. Ringo’s drum couplets separate John’s surreal vignettes.

‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey’

“It was about me and Yoko. Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love. Everything is clear and open when you’re in love. Everybody was sort of tense around us: you know, ‘What is she doing here at the session? Why is she with him?’ All this sort of madness is going on around us because we just happened to want to be together all the time.”

– John to David Sheff, All We Are Saying 1980

 

THE ROCKERS: PAUL

Back in the USSR – Paul’s ode to Russian girls was a clever send-up of the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ theme and their mock harmonies. The tile was inspired by Chuck Berry’s ‘Back in the USA’. Paul’s cleverest pun is, “Georgia’s always on my mind”.

Birthday – This was a fun free-for-all. An undeniably good time. Although it’s Paul’s song, Ringo’s eight-measure drum break is the highlight!

 

 

 

JUST FOR FUN

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill – While the Beatles were studying meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh India, an American woman named Nancy Cooke was also a pupil there. Her spoiled son (Richard Cooke III, a college student) came to visit her. He went hunting and killed a tiger, then returned to the commune to pray. John wrote about the hypocrisy of the event. The boy hunter is depicted as ‘Bungalow Bill’ – a play on American wild west character Buffalo Bill – because they were all staying in bungalows at the Maharishi’s ashram at the time. The boy later became a photographer for National Geographic.

After each slowly sung verse, the time signature abruptly changes to an uplifting chorus after three singular drum beats by Ringo (similar to the structure of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’).

Aside from joining in on the chorus, Yoko sings a singular lyric, ‘Not when he looked so fierce…’This was the first and only time a female lead vocal appeared on a Beatles recording.

 

FUN WITH PAUL

Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? – Paul wrote this when he saw monkeys humping in the streets in India.

Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da – The title of Paul’s playful ska tune about a fictitious happy couple with several kids is actually a Nigerian expression meaning ‘Life goes on’.

Rocky Raccoon – McCartney’s sing-along saloon fantasy about a fictitious love triangle reminds me of the funny snide comment George once made to Paul about the characters in his songs, “Do you actually KNOW these people?”

Martha My Dear– A solo tune completely by Paul with session musicians on strings. It was named for his dog, however it had lyrics about his breakup with Jane Asher.

Honey Pie is a McCartney tune based on the 1920s Music Hall sound which his dad loved so much.  There is a scratchy old record sound effect on Paul’s voice.

John played a brilliant solo on Honey Pie – sounded like Django Reinhardt or something. It was one of them where you just close your eyes and happen to hit all the right notes… sounded like a little jazz solo.”

– George Harrison, 1987

Wild Honey Pie was a wonky take-off from this starting point.

 

FUN WITH GEORGE

Piggies– Despite its misconstrued connection to the Manson murders, George’s harpsichord-based tune had nothing to do with policemen. It referenced the politically allegorical tale of George Orwell’s story ‘Animal Farm’. Harrison’s mom added the line about them needing a ‘damn good whacking’.

Savoy Truffle – The guitar solo and brass scream as loudly as the guy in the song who will soon be getting his teeth pulled! It George wrote it about his pal with bad dental hygiene, Eric Clapton who had eaten George’s entire box of Good News chocolates. The tasty sweet descriptions are the actual flavors written inside the box of chocolates.

 

 

 

FUN WITH RINGO

Don’t Pass Me By was Ringo’s first solo composition. The original handwritten lyrics show that it was about a relationship with a blow-up doll, not unlike Roxy Music’s ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache.’

 

Paraphrasing Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel’s hypothetical answer to this question:

How much whiter could this album cover be?

“None more white!”

Outtakes

Some songs from the ‘white album’ sessions were either considered for or included on future Beatles or on solo albums. These include John’s ‘ ‘Look at Me’ and ‘Child of Nature’ (reworked as ‘Jealous Guy’ on Imagine) Paul’s ‘Junk’ and George’s ‘ Not Guilty’ and ‘Circles’.

John’s songs ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ and ‘Polythene Pam’ would be used for the medley on Abbey Road the next year.

Paul taped demos of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Let It Be’ which were later completed in 1969 and appeared on the Let It Be album.

 

Numbering system

UK mono copies bought at the same time have significantly lower numbers than stereo copies.

There are no mono / stereo covers with identical numbers for the UK top-opening sleeves. Numbers up to 0300000 were almost exclusively mono.

Numbers 0300000 to 0600000 were nearly all stereo. However, there were small batches with lower stereo numbers below 0300000.

Allegedly, there are some high mono numbers (above 0300000) but that could be stereo sleeves with the stereo indicator removed (this can very easily be done because the stereo indicator was printed after the sleeves were laminated).

Several low numbered stereo sleeves were exported to other countries. Some records were manufactured internationally, then inserted into the UK sleeves.

In general, numbers below 300k are mono, above are stereo. This probably does not account for the very low numbers given to the band and their inner circle.

The White Album Registry – a fabulous resource!http://www.whitealbumregistry.com

 

TRIVIA:

Anartist named Rutherford Chang opened a record shop that sold nothing but copies of The Beatles (white album). He already has 902 used copies. Chang is particularly attracted to beaten, battered and vandalized copies of the sleeve because they seem to be “more interesting.”

http://rutherfordchang.com/white.html

Chang created a bootleg version of the album, layering audio from 100 different vinyl to form a single track. Listen to Side 1 here. 

Also see:

Revolution: 1, 2, and 9

https://wordpress.com/post/madelinex.com/1969

John’s Song of Love – Julia

https://madelinex.com/2018/10/15/johns-song-of-love-julia/

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3 thoughts on “White on White

  1. What an amazing and informative article. I’m going to have to read it a few more times to soak it all in.
    It just goes to show you can never know too much about the Beatles (both the group and the ‘White Album’).
    Thank you for such a wonderful and in-depth blog.

    Like

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