The Beatles’ 1968 double album — The Beatles to discographers, The White Album to its friends — represents both the most monumental achievement of their recording career, and the most controversial.
Other Beatles albums have their friends and foes, of course. Although it sometimes seems as though the entire universe adores every note they ever played (particularly if you listen to the people who write irate letters to Goldmine every time somebody suggests that Beatles For Sale was not solid gold throughout), all of their records have their opponents.
But it is The White Album that most thoroughly polarizes the pack, not only between those who love it and those who don’t, but between those who see it as a solid slab of genius, and those who would winnow it down to a single disc; between those who admire the group’s nerve for stepping so far out on an avant-garde limb, and those who think that “Revolution #9” should have been set aside for a John and Yoko solo record; between those who marvel at the stereo effects that make The White Album the first Beatles album you need to hear on headphones, and those who believe that the mono mix was as good as it got.
And, of course, between those who say it is practically perfect, and those who’ve squirreled away every outtake and offcut and are convinced that the band chose the wrong take of every song.
None of which would be anything more than an argument between buddies in the bar one night were it not for the fact that every one of those points of view is correct.
- The White Album is genius, and it could have been shorter.
- It is altogether flawless, but side four is dodgy.
- It is one of the greatest stereophonic experiences of its generation, but the mono “Helter Skelter” is one of the most powerful recordings ever made.
- It is exquisitely balanced, but they really should have added “Not Guilty” to the brew.
The fact that 40 years have passed since The White Album first appeared on the shelves has not lessened these debates in the slightest. Indeed, the ensuing years have only amplified them, as we cast our minds back in hopes of recalling a single other record that has been the subject of so much debate and disagreement as The White Album.
Praised up and down
First, the facts. The first long-playing release on The Beatles’ Apple label, The Beatles was released in the U.K. on Nov. 22, 1968, and in the U.S. three days later. The stereo version appeared in both territories; the mono in the U.K. (and elsewhere around the world) only.
The album took five months to complete; the maiden sessions took place on May 30, with the first stab at “Revolution”; the final track to be completed was Lennon’s plaintive ode to his late mother, “Julia,” on Oct. 13. Mixing was completed five days later on Oct. 18, less than seven weeks before the album’s release.
According to the “Guiness Book of Records,” The Beatles sold “nearly two million” copies in its first week of release in the U.S.; it would remain the biggest-selling double album of all time for the next 10 years.
Since that time, the accolades have simply fallen like rain: The Beatles was placed 10th in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” where it was described as “an exhilarating sprawl — some of The Beatles’ most daring and delicate work.” The British magazine Q ranked it seventh in their “100 Greatest British Albums” poll: “[Out of] boundless enthusiasm and