getting back to roots and things (beatles ’68 part 4)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 9 min­utes.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN 2013, I be­came aware of Mr. Ruther­ford Chang and his “We Buy White Al­bums” project. It seems Chang had been col­lecting used, ne­glected, and even abused copies of The Bea­tles (lov­ingly known by one and all as The White Album) and had turned his “col­lec­tion” into an art pre­sen­ta­tion at a gallery in New York City.

I was in­trigued: here was a man who ap­proached record col­lecting with an at­ti­tude com­pletely at odds with mine and those of al­most every other col­lector on the planet.

For­tu­nately, others were also in­ter­ested in Rutherford’s project and there were sev­eral ar­ti­cles for me to use as the basis for ten ar­ti­cles on The White Album fo­cusing on Chang’s project and the en­deavors of the Bea­tles in 1968.

As they are five years old and I’m five years worth of being a better writer, I adapted those ten ar­ti­cles into six “new” ar­ti­cles (a list of them fol­lows this ar­ticle below). Each of those ar­ti­cles is rea­son­ably fo­cused and cohesive.

But I still had a thou­sand word left over, and that’s what this ar­ticle is: a pot­pourri of ten­u­ously re­lated bits and pieces, not un­like the make-up of The White Album.


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW art 500

This ghastly image is the ugliest White Album in the world, cre­ated by artist Ruther­ford Chang by com­bining a hun­dred used copies of the album and lay­ering them one atop the other. Chang ti­tled this piece, “The White Album.”

Get back to where?

The Bea­tles have al­ways been given a lot of credit for more or less con­sciously leading the way out of the real and per­ceived “ex­cesses” of psy­che­delia with the “back-to-the-roots” move­ment of 1968. Today, most hip his­to­rians ac­cu­rately credit Dylan’s John Wesley Harding as pointing to a sim­pler and more di­rect form of rock music

Re­leased in De­cember 1967, John Wesley Harding can be seen as leading the way back to the nitty-gritty. This was an album that is nigh on im­pos­sible to beat for sim­plicity and lack of ar­ti­fice, pre­ten­sion, or even ambition.

But even hipper his­to­rians rec­og­nize that it was the Beach Boys who also led the way. (Well, they didn’t ac­tu­ally lead the way, as no one was fol­lowing much of any­thing they did by the second half of 1967.) I

This was mostly due to Brian Wilson turning his back on the ground­breaking Smile album and its LSD-inspired art music, and even­tu­ally re­leasing the lit­er­ally “home-made” Smiley Smile in its stead in Sep­tember 1967.

At the time of its re­lease and for years (and years) af­ter­ward, Smiley Smile was com­pletely mis­un­der­stood: it was seen as a col­lec­tion of throw­aways in­cluding a few sin­gles (“Good Vi­bra­tions” and “He­roes and Vil­lains”), a few Smile left­overs (“Our Prayer” and “Cab­i­nessence”), and what ap­peared to be a few simple sin­ga­longs and de­mented ditties.

In De­cember 1967, the Beach Boys is­sued Wild Honey, an even more min­i­mal­istic, back-to-the-roots, rhythm & blues-based album. Both of these al­bums were re­leased be­fore John Wesley Harding but not only were they not rec­og­nized as leaders (be­cause few were too busy watching parking me­ters), they had the op­po­site ef­fect, all but killing the Beach Boys’ rep­u­ta­tion as in­dustry innovators!

In June 1968, an all but un­known band calling them­selves simply The Band en­tered the fray with Music from Big Pink, per­haps the most fully re­al­ized of all the roots-oriented al­bums of that year. But like the Beach Boys, The Band were not leaders.

In Au­gust 1968, the Byrds re­leased Sweet­heart of the Rodeo, the Rosetta Stone of the nascent country-rock scene.

Be­fore the back-to-the-roots of The White Album, there was Wild Honey, John Wesley Harding, Music from Big Pink, and Sweet­heart of the Rodeo.

And then there were those Rolling Stones and their Beg­gars Ban­quet album, which should have been re­leased months be­fore the Bea­tles. But in­stead, Mick and Keith were in­volved in a pissing con­test with Decca Records that de­layed the re­lease of their album until weeks after the Bea­tles’ new album!

So what should have been the album rec­og­nized as the leader of the roots move­ment and per­haps ac­knowl­edged as the Best Album of the Year, the Stones were yet again per­ceived as doing a quick knock-off of what the Bea­tles had done first and to most people, done better. But that’s an­other story.


BeachBoys WildHoney st FREE 600

Wild Honey, the last Beach Boys album is­sued in both mono and stereo. This copy was used for pro­mo­tional pur­poses: the jacket has “FREE” stamped in per­fo­rated let­ters in the upper right corner.

A bunch of kids wrote that stuff!

By the end of 1968, I was 17 and a de­vout Elvis fan who had spent the past two years em­bar­rassing my­self by pur­chasing Presley’s un­be­liev­ably lame sound­track al­bums. The em­bar­rass­ment had reached a point to where I made sure that when I left a store with a new Presley platter, it was in a brown paper bag. That was so that no one could see that I was bringing home al­bums like Double Trouble and Clam­bake and Speedway.

On the other hand, if I bought the new Byrds or Cream album, I would have de­clined a bag at the store. I would have wanted my friends to see me car­rying those al­bums home.

All that changed on De­cember 3, 1968, when Presley re­claimed his artistic dig­nity with his highly ac­claimed NBC-TV spe­cial, Singer Presents Elvis (or simply Elvis). Sin­gle­hand­edly, he seemed to have res­ur­rected the very best of the spirit of ’50s rock & roll while re­defining him­self as an artist in the mo­ment of the ’60s!

I al­ready owned the sound­track album, which had been avail­able for weeks. Peter Gu­ral­nick and Ernst Jorgensen’s book Elvis Day by Day lists it as having shipped on No­vember 22, 1968, co­in­ci­den­tally the same date given for the re­lease of The Bea­tles.

On this ram­bling two-record album—generally re­ferred to as The White Album—the Fab Four also com­mitted them­selves to a back-to-basics ap­proach to recording after the fan­tastic trips that they had taken us on with Re­volver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper and Mag­ical Mys­tery Tour (1967).


The White Album was a bit too so­phis­ti­cated for me at that age. I listen to it now and wonder how a bunch of kids wrote that stuff!


My memory is that my younger brother Charles bought the album shortly after its re­lease in No­vember or re­ceived it as a gift for Christmas. After all, he was the Bea­tles fan among the three of us (our even younger sister was a fan of Peter Noone and Gary Puckett, a weird com­bi­na­tion indeed).

But who with any ex­pe­ri­ence with their memory places a whole lot of trust in that memory? So I emailed Charles and the fol­lowing very brief ex­change took place:

I asked if he re­mem­bered when he got The White Album—when it first came out in No­vember 1968? For Christmas? Early ’69? So I asked him:

I re­member going to some party when I was in 10th or 11th grade on one of the streets that cross over the end of Warren Ave—the street that when you take a right you would go to the Kingston pool. That is the first party that I re­member The White Album being played.

To be honest, it was a bit too so­phis­ti­cated for me at that age; it was too strange for the phys­ical and mental vibes that drove me. Same for Abbey Road. I listen to them now and wonder how a bunch of kids wrote that stuff!”


Medium TILIW Donovan GeorgeHarrison India 800 bw

Al­though his­tory tends to treat it oth­er­wise, the Bea­tles weren’t the only tal­ented people under the thrall of the Ma­har­ishi, nor were they al­ways the center of at­ten­tion. Here Donovan en­ter­tains what ap­pears to be a group of Western TM students.

Through the haze

So, I did not be­come fa­miliar with the album by playing my brother’s copy in 1969. A second source for an early ex­po­sure could have been my best friend Don Corby. So, of course, I emailed Don and asked him:

Well, I re­ally don’t re­call if I ever owned the vinyl ver­sion in the ’60s. It seems prac­ti­cally everyone else did, how­ever, so I had some­what easy ac­cess to the au­dible plea­sures without forking over my own meager cash. Through the haze—purple or otherwise—I be­lieve that ei­ther you or John owned a copy when we roomed to­gether at 260 South Main.”

Per­haps I didn’t hear The White Album with any fre­quency until I went to col­lege in Sep­tember 1969. I shared a dorm room with Joe Abate, who loved to de­bate just about any issue (a man after my own heart) and a de­vout Bea­tles fan who did own the album.

My in­ti­mate fa­mil­iarity with the album began in 1970 when I moved into my own apart­ment at 260 South Main, the grooviest pad in Wilkes-Barre for get­ting high. (But that is an­other story—actually, a lot of sto­ries, but they will all have to wait.) Ei­ther my room­mate, John Roach, or I did own the album by that time and it was well played by us and our guests.


Elvis DoubleTrouble m 600

Double Trouble was is­sued in June 1967, con­cur­rently with Sgt. Pepper. Can you see why I pre­ferred this in a brown paper bag?

It took a long long long time

The pas­sage of time has been very kind to The White Album: its 90-minute pot­pourri of me­an­dering, un­re­lated tracks that George Martin re­put­edly of­fered to winnow down to one man­age­able great record is now seen as a plus. The stark­ness of the record­ings and the back-to-basics ap­proach helped lead the way out of the mael­ström of often silly ef­fects that seemed to dom­i­nate the al­bums by major and minor groups alike at the time.

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it #10 of the 500 Greatest Al­bums Of All Time. This seems out­ra­geously gen­erous, but I find lists like this that rank “greatest records” by some baf­fling, sub­jec­tive sense of artistic quality baf­fling. Better to rank them chrono­log­i­cally so that the list can be read as a de­vel­oping and un­folding story. (But that’s an­other story for an­other time.)

My own on­going re­la­tion­ship to The Bea­tles has been mer­cu­rial, often am­biguous. At times, I find the album frus­trating, even ag­gra­vating, mostly be­cause of Paul’s ma­te­rial, some of which I find puerile and insipid.

Ini­tially, I liked John’s harder-rocking ma­te­rial. While these seemed brave at the time, now they sound too much like a man in pain ranting about the world around him. (Lennon’s first steps into heroin ad­dic­tion began in mid-1968 and the anger that fu­eled that ad­dic­tion and the anger that was the re­sult of that ad­dic­tion seem to color his recordings.)

I have al­ways liked George’s four con­tri­bu­tions, es­pe­cially Long, Long, Long(ex­cept for the unin­spired title).

As of Feb­ruary 12, 2019 (at which time I am 67 years old and sound in mind and body) my cur­rent take on The White Album is that it is the de­fin­i­tive gestalt in rock’s history—more so even that Sgt. Pepperand the Bea­tles were right not to allow George Martin to edit the thing down to one record (if, in fact, Martin ever sug­gested such a thing).

The Beach Boys is­sued WILD HONEY and Dy­lan’s JOHN WESLEY HARDING al­bums led the back-to-the-roots move­ment, not the Bea­tles’ WHITE ALBUM. Click To Tweet

Beatles Rishikesh Ashram Sajish 7 1000 1

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken from the ar­ticle “The Bea­tles – Their Ashram and Their Cathe­dral” on the Tra­vails and Travel blog (March 23, 2015). The cor­re­spon­dent Sajish GP re­marked, “I had four days to kill in Rishikesh be­fore the start of a trek up in the snowy hills. On that par­tic­ular day, I de­cided to roam around a bit on foot and ex­plore Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi’s aban­doned ashram more pop­u­larly known as the Bea­tles’ Ashram be­cause of its one-time res­i­dents who were here in the late ’60s.”

The units that the Bea­tles, their en­tourage, and other celebri­ties oc­cu­pied in 1968 have been left to the rav­ages of time and tourists, who have cov­ered the ex­te­rior and in­te­rior walls in mes­sages and art. Sajish posted more than 80 photos of the ashram and the graf­fiti within and without. To see these photos, click on over to “The Bea­tles – Their Ashram and Their Cathe­dral.

The Beatles ’68 (Tetralogy)

Here are the four parts of this not-particularly-deep look at the Bea­tles and The White Album:

•  Sgt. Pepper on Blue Jay Way (Bea­tles ’68, Part 1)
•  In Search of the Lost Mentor (Bea­tles ’68, Part 2)
•  Un­plug­ging the White Album (Bea­tles ’68, Part 3)
•  We’re All Get­ting Back to Our Roots (Bea­tles ’68, Part 4)


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