rutherford chang wants to buy your white album (and yours and yours)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 12 minutes.

IN NOVEMBER 1968, the Bea­tles re­leased their long-awaited new album. It had been eigh­teen months since the re­lease of their land­mark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an un­heard of pe­riod of time be­tween al­bums in the ’60s. Un­like the over-the-top pre­sen­ta­tion of the ear­lier album, the new album did not have a clever title or an ex­ces­sively busy and col­orful jacket.

In­stead, this new album was a tri­umph of min­i­malism with no art at all: the jacket was simply white on the front and back covers, with “THE BEATLES” in em­bossed white let­ters and a se­rial number in black print on the front. This album was simply and un­pre­ten­tiously ti­tled The Bea­tles.


Ruther­ford Chang col­lects num­bered copies of The White Album in any con­di­tion. In fact, he often finds the poorer con­di­tion al­bums more interesting.


Even the in­for­ma­tion and graphics on the two inner-panels of the album’s gate­fold jacket were sub­dued, ac­centing the overall white­ness. Adding a touch of class to the af­fair, the cover slicks that wrapped around the gate­fold jacket car­ried a glossier finish than most al­bums of the time.

The album was im­me­di­ately and af­fec­tion­ately nick­named “the White Album” by fans, a name that has stuck with it for fifty years! In fact, this album is better known by its nick­name than by its proper title.

De­spite or be­cause of the sim­plicity of the album’s ap­pear­ance and its con­tents, it has called out to count­less people in sur­prising ways since its re­lease. People have read or in­ter­preted mes­sages and in­ten­tions into both what is in the album and is not in the album.

The most no­to­rious of these in­ter­preters was Charles Manson, who be­lieved that “Helter Skelter”—a song about a children’s slide in a play­ground, al­though arranged and sung in a har­rowing manner—was a call from the Fab Four to him to jump­start a vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion and over­throw of the Amer­ican government.

In the past few years, The Bea­tles has called out to one person in a manner that seems unique to that person.


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 1 900

This copy of The Bea­tles (Apple SWBO-101) is open and there­fore tech­ni­cally a used record, even if it’s never been played. This jacket is in re­mark­ably clean con­di­tion; few used copies any­where ap­proach this con­di­tion. Note that this copy has a very low se­rial number: A0000023.

Different ways the covers aged

Ruther­ford Chang is an artist re­spon­sible for an art project called We Buy White Al­bums at the Re­cess, a store­front art space in SoHo in New York City. It ran for sev­eral weeks in Feb­ruary and March 2013 and at­tracted a lot of at­ten­tion out­side the usual art cir­cles due to the Internet.

Chang set up the gallery to look like a used-record shop, al­though with its col­lapsible ban­quet ta­bles holding boxes of records, the Re­cess looked more like a record col­lec­tors convention.

The biggest dif­fer­ence be­tween a real dealer at a swap meet and Chang’s wares was that all of the records in Chang’s boxes were the same album. Each was an early pressing of The Bea­tles (Apple SWBO-101), and each was in a con­di­tion that few real record dealers would ever con­sider of­fering for sale, let alone dis­playing as some­thing special.


Al­bums that have been lov­ingly de­faced by their owners hold a deep fas­ci­na­tion for Ruther­ford Chang and have made him a rather unique record collector.


Many of Chang’s al­bums were in what col­lec­tors would de­scribe char­i­tably as “very good minus” (VG-) while others are more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as being in poor condition. 

But these trashed copies of The Bea­tles are the ones that hold the most fas­ci­na­tion for Chang. Among other forms of damage, he ap­pears to favor:

•  Jackets that have been lov­ingly if less than painstak­ingly de­faced by their owners, al­though the owners prob­ably saw it as “artistic ex­pres­sion” at the time.

•  Jackets that had been used as place-mats for coffee cups.

•  Jackets that simply turned various shades of brown due to ox­i­da­tion over the years.

These are the al­bums hold a deep fas­ci­na­tion for the artist and have made him a record collector.


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW RC damagedalbum 600 crop

We record col­lec­tors look at a water-damaged White Album and we see . . . a water-damaged White Album, Ruther­ford Chang looks at a water-damaged White Album and sees a found ob­ject that works as part of an aes­thetic statement.

The accumulation of stories

At the time of his project at Re­cess, Ruther­ford stated, “Right now, I have 694 copies. The lowest-numbered copy is 13539, the highest is 3129174.” (Since the Re­cess ex­hi­bi­tion, Chang has col­lected more than 2,000 copies of The White Album.) Again, his rea­sons for col­lecting are dif­ferent from most collectors:

“I was in­ter­ested in the dif­ferent ways that the cover aged. Being an all-white cover, the changes are ap­parent. The se­rial num­bers made col­lecting them seem nat­ural, and the more I got, the more in­ter­esting it be­came. As you see, many of them are written on, and each has a story. The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the sto­ries is part of it. But it’s also about how the phys­ical object—the record—just doesn’t exist any­more.” (New York Times)

Chang’s pre­vious work in­cludes “Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao,” a video in­stal­la­tion based on the pilot episode of the pop­ular Amer­ican tele­vi­sion se­ries of the ’80, Growing Pains:

“It was also one of the first for­eign tele­vi­sion pro­grams aired in The People’s Re­public of China. Billed as Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao, it was the first ex­po­sure to Amer­ican family cul­ture for a gen­er­a­tion coming of age during a pe­riod of mas­sive de­vel­op­ment in China. [My work] is a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the pilot episode with the di­a­logue dubbed into non-native Eng­lish by Chi­nese ac­tors who grew up watching the show.” (Ruther­ford Chang)

And then there is “The Class of 2008,” a dis­play of stipple por­traits (also known as hed­cuts) that had orig­i­nally been pub­lished in The Wall Street Journal. They were in­tro­duced in 1979 “to add char­acter to their then text-heavy pub­li­ca­tion. The sig­na­ture style of por­trai­ture has since be­come an icon of news­wor­thi­ness.” (Ruther­ford Chang)


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW customers 1000

Chang’s “We Buy White Al­bums” project was ob­vi­ously a suc­cess with at­ten­dees, who look like they cover a rather broad range of ages in this photo. And ex­cept for that range, this looks like any old used and col­lec­tors record store any­where in the world.

A Gallery of White Albums

This is a gallery of a dozen al­bums from Ruther­ford’s col­lec­tion that I se­lected out of the hun­dreds of im­ages he made avail­able to me. There’s no par­tic­ular rhyme or reason to my selection—I just tried to get a va­riety of “art­work” by tal­ented and not-so-talented Bea­tles fans and former White Album owners.


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 2 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 3 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 4 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 6 600 1

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 10 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 7 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 5 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 9 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 11 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 12 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 13 600

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 8 600

Collecting cultural artifacts

During the gallery event, Ruther­ford was in­ter­viewed by Eilon Paz for the Dust & Grooves Vinyl Music Cul­ture web­site (Feb­ruary 15, 2103). Chang ex­plains, “I’m most in­ter­ested in the al­bums as ob­jects and ob­serving how they have aged. So for me, a Bea­tles album with an all-white cover is per­fect.” Here is part of the rest of the conversation:

Paz: Do you care about the album’s condition?

Chang: I col­lect num­bered copies of The White Album in any con­di­tion. In fact, I often find the poorer con­di­tion al­bums more interesting.

Paz: How did you come up with the idea of col­lecting first edi­tion White Al­bums and why just first editions?

Chang: I got into col­lecting mul­tiple White Al­bums be­cause every copy tells a story. Each one has aged uniquely over the course of the last half-decade.

Paz: Why only num­bered ones? They could be a bit pricey, don’t they?

Chang: The se­rial num­bers make them part of a set. There are enough num­bered copies that I still manage to ac­quire them at rea­son­able prices.

Paz: It seems like The White Album is a pop­ular album for lis­teners’ self-interpretations. Like a clean white canvas. So many of your al­bums are re-imagined, written on, or abused.

Chang: The covers have cer­tainly been well-loved/abused! The white can­vases have been per­son­al­ized with every­thing from scrib­bled names to elab­o­rate paintings.

To read the com­plete in­ter­view, click over to Dust & Grooves. The ar­ticle is ac­com­pa­nied by twenty-six pho­tographs of Ruther­ford Chang and his collection.


Chang RC store 1000

Ruther­ford Chang in­specting his in­ven­tory of white al­bums at his “We Buy White Al­bums” project in New York in 2013. Rutherford’s col­lec­tion of White Al­bums con­tinues to grow, cur­rently con­sisting of 2,255 copies. His goal? “Well, the se­rial num­bers run up to about three million—I’d like them all.”

What would emerge?

What would happen if you recorded one hun­dred (100) copies of your fa­vorite record album—for me, that would be Pet Sounds—one on top of the other on a pro­fes­sional ma­chine? Each record would be synched to begin playing the first sound of the first track on the first side at ex­actly the same mo­ment. What would emerge from the tape?

First, the like­li­hood that the 100 records were mas­tered and man­u­fac­tured ex­actly the same (same size grooves, same size bands, etc.) is slim. There­fore, the like­li­hood that the 100 records would play ex­actly the same is slim.

Would the 100 records mesh well and form a uni­fied, co­he­sive, ra­tional lis­tening ex­pe­ri­ence, or would it pro­duce some­thing else entirely?


I was in­ter­ested in the dif­ferent ways that the cover aged. Many of them are written on, and each has a story. The ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the sto­ries is part of it.


Ruther­ford did ex­actly that as part of the We Buy White Al­bums project: he recorded 100 dif­ferent copies of all four sides of The Bea­tles, one atop the other. In an ar­ticle pub­lished on Brow­beat ti­tled “What It Sounds Like if You Play 100 Vinyl Copies of The White Album at Once” (No­vember 21, 2103), David Haglund ad­dressed the results:

“Chang has over­laid just 100 copies, in­stead of sev­eral hun­dred; even so, the unique ways in which each copy has aged, plus vari­a­tions in the press­ings and nat­ural fluc­tu­a­tions in the speed of Mr. Chang’s analog turntable re­sult in a bizarre com­po­si­tion that builds from the fa­miliar to the cacophonous.

“‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ sounds about how you re­member at first if a bit muddy. But the storm of vari­a­tion builds quickly, and by the end of ‘Dear Pru­dence’ it’s as though you’re swirling around with a record player in the middle of a tornado.”


Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW art 500

I saved the worst for last: Ruther­ford took photos of the art­work from the covers of the first one hun­dred White Al­bums he bought, trans­ferred them to a com­puter, and then had this mash of all hun­dred covers dig­i­tally as­sem­bled by the com­puter. My ini­tial re­sponse was that it looked like the long-lost map that will ap­pear in the next Nicolas Cage Na­tional Trea­sure movie.

Among the seagulls

At the time that Haglund’s ar­ticle ap­peared, it in­cluded a video in which tracks from Chang’s “mashed” ver­sion of The Bea­tles could be heard. So of course, I lis­tened. What fol­lows is my re­sponse to the eight tracks from Side 1 of the album:

•  Back in the U.S.S.R.”: Scratchy vinyl leads into the first track that sounds drenched in Capitol’s Duo­phonic Stereo of the ’60s—a patented term and process for trans­forming a clean, great-sounding mono signal into a hor­ren­dous, echo-laden two-channel signal. The ef­fect on Paul’s vocal is sim­ilar to the ef­fect that RCA Victor’s Elec­tron­i­cally Re­processed Stereo process had on the young Elvis Presley’s early ’50s record­ings: it added years to his voice while dis­torting the orig­inal music.

•  “Dear Pru­dence”: The sound wa­vers a bit, giving it a nice psy­che­delic in feel.

•  “Glass Onion”: This barely qual­i­fies as music: a ca­cophony of drum-like sounds and a mess of dis­tor­tion bury John’s lead vocal, which sounds as if he is fighting to claw his way up from beneath.

•  “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”: The sense of syn­chro­niza­tion of the var­ious records’ tracking is all but lost by now: this track sounds like a poorly recorded high school marching band at a local foot­ball game’s half-time. When the chorus kicks in with the “la-la-las” it is, well, weird. By the second half of the track, it is starting to sound and feel like a com­panion piece to “Rev­o­lu­tion №9”!

•  “Wild Honey Pie”: This is only rec­og­niz­able as a song due to my fa­mil­iarity with the album and its song sequence.

•  “The Con­tin­uing Story of Bun­galow Bill”: The marching band’s per­cus­sive ef­fects dom­i­nate this track and the vo­cals are, again, so deep be­neath the mael­ström of noise as to be un­rec­og­niz­able. Cer­tainly, you would never be able to make out any part of the lyrics ex­cept the re­frain, “Hey, Bun­galow Bill” un­less you knew the song be­fore­hand. To­wards the end, some sounds come in fleet­ingly that would not have been out of place among the seag­ulls in “To­morrow Never Knows.”

•  “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”: If there is any­thing in this bar­rage of noise that is rec­og­niz­able as George’s lovely song, I can’t hear it. Clapton’s guitar can be heard if one strains. The final por­tion of the track is white noise, period.

•  “Hap­pi­ness Is a Warm Gun”: The white noise dom­i­nates, but the ethe­real voice of John man­i­fests it­self in spots. Early onset of de­mentia. The song’s coda fi­nally clears up and I can hear John’s final wailing and then war­bling “Don’t you know that hap­pi­ness is a warm gun, mama.”

And in the end, the only track that sounded re­motely sim­ilar to the orig­inal was “Dear Pru­dence.” This lis­tening “ex­pe­ri­ence” is not for everyone, but I found it fas­ci­nating. If you’re feeling ad­ven­turous, you can hear all of Side 1 on Sound­Cloud.


Beatles WhiteAlbum record 1000

This copy of The Bea­tles (Apple SWBO-101) is also open and looks like count­less other copies of this album that record col­lec­tors have looked at and even though the poor album might have been saying “Don’t pass me by,” we col­lec­tors tend to skip right by over-used copies. Note that this copy has a very high se­rial number: A2226098.

And in the end

Aside from vis­iting two other places in the United States, the We Buy White Al­bums project has been busy as a trav­eling ex­hi­bi­tion. And each place it goes at­tracts all sorts of people, from Bea­tles fans to record col­lec­tors to the just plain cu­rious. Here is where the dis­play has been:

In­di­anapolis Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, In­di­anapolis, Indiana

FACT (Foun­da­tion for Art and Cre­ative Tech­nology), Liv­er­pool, England

Tokyo Wonder Site Hongo, Tokyo, Japan

Verge Center for the Arts, Sacra­mento, California

Artist Ruther­ford Chang col­lects num­bered copies of the Bea­tles’ WHITE ALBUM in any con­di­tion and he often finds the poorer al­bums more in­ter­esting. Click To Tweet

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW spines 1000

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is simply a stack of White Al­bums, spines to the fore. If you’re in­ter­ested in seeing all of Ruther­ford’s White Al­bums, he main­tains them on an In­sta­gram ac­count. To keep up with Rutherford’s projects or con­tact the artist, check out his web­site.

Fi­nally, here is a link to Steve Hoffman’s Music Fo­rums fea­turing four­teen pages of back-and-forth com­ments on Ruther­ford Chang’s project. There are some great re­marks by Hoffman’s readers, most of whom are se­rious record lis­teners. And I’m going to end this piece with a few of my two favorites:

“Man, those are some of the crustiest copies of The White Album I have seen. But they have char­acter, don’t they? Each one tells a story.”

“I’m going to do the same for Herb Alpert’s Going Places.”



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