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.
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.
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!”
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.
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. Pepper—and 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
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)