The Bea­t­les self-titled dou­ble album mas­ter­piece has been described as the most diverse record in pop history

On one hand, The Bea­t­les (aka the White Album) is the most diverse record that the Bea­t­les, or prob­a­bly any pop band in history, has ever made. On the other, as Paul McCart­ney recalled, “That was the ten­sion album. We were all in the midst of that psy­che­delic thing, or just com­ing out of it. In any case, it was weird. Never before had we recorded with beds in the stu­dio and peo­ple vis­it­ing for hours on end: busi­ness meet­ings and all that. There was a lot of fric­tion dur­ing that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself.” Lester Bangs described it per­fectly: “The first album by The Bea­t­les or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band.” In say­ing that Bangs was sim­ply fol­low­ing John Lennon’s lead.

It was the first album by The Bea­t­les or in the history of rock by four solo artist in one band…

~ Lester Bangs, on the White Album
Almost five months in the mak­ing, nearly 94 min­utes in length, it had no graph­ics or text other than the band’s name embossed on its plain white sleeve. The White Album was their ninth offi­cial British album release, and fif­teenth Amer­i­can album. It was also the first full album project the group under­took fol­low­ing the death of their man­ager, Brian Epstein, in August of the pre­vi­ous year. It went on to become their best sell­ing album ever, cer­ti­fied at over 20 mil­lion units by the RIAA.


The White Album’s orig­i­nal work­ing title was A Doll’s House, which is the name of Hen­rik Ibsen’s mas­ter­piece 19th cen­tury play. In addi­tion, accord­ing to Geof­frey Giu­liano, author of The Bea­t­les Album, an illus­tra­tion was pre­pared for the cover of A Doll’s House by the famed artist John Byrne (aka Patrick). How­ever the title was changed when the British pro­gres­sive band Fam­ily released the sim­i­larly titled Music in a Doll’s House ear­lier that year. The plain white cover was opted for instead after McCart­ney then requested that the album’s sleeve design “be as stark a con­trast to Peter Blake’s vivid cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as pos­si­ble, the com­plete oppo­site of it….” That’s exactly what he got.

Cul­tural Responses

Ian Mac­Don­ald, in his book Rev­o­lu­tion in the Head, argues that The Bea­t­les was the album in which the band’s cryp­tic mes­sages to its fan base became not merely vague but inten­tion­ally and per­haps dan­ger­ously open-ended, cit­ing oblique pas­sages in songs like “Glass Onion” (e.g., “the wal­rus was Paul”) and “Pig­gies” (“what they need’s a damn good whack­ing”). These pro­nounce­ments, and many oth­ers on the album, came to attract extra­or­di­nary pop­u­lar inter­est at a time when more of the world’s youth were using drugs recre­ation­ally and look­ing for spir­i­tual, polit­i­cal, and strate­gic advice from the Bea­t­les. Steve Turner, too, in his book A Hard Day’s Write, main­tains that, with this album, “The Bea­t­les had per­haps laid them­selves open to mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion by mix­ing up the lan­guages of poetry and non­sense.” [1]

Bob Dylan’s songs had been sim­i­larly mined for hid­den mean­ings, but the mas­sive coun­ter­cul­tural analy­sis of The Bea­t­les sur­passed any­thing that had gone before. [9] Even Lennon’s seem­ingly direct engage­ment with the tumul­tuous polit­i­cal issues of 1968 in “Rev­o­lu­tion 1” car­ried a nuanced oblique­ness, and ended up send­ing mes­sages the author may not have intended. In the album’s ver­sion of the song, Lennon advises those who “talk about destruc­tion” to “count me out.” As Mac­Don­ald notes, how­ever, Lennon then fol­lows the sung word “out” with the spo­ken word “in.” At the time of the album’s release — which fol­lowed the up-tempo sin­gle ver­sion of the song, “Rev­o­lu­tion,” in which Lennon def­i­nitely wanted to be counted “out” — that sin­gle word “in” was taken by many on the rad­i­cal left as Lennon’s acknowl­edg­ment, after con­sid­ered thought, that vio­lence in the pur­suit of polit­i­cal aims was indeed jus­ti­fied in some cases. At a time of increas­ing unrest in the streets and cam­puses of Paris and Berke­ley, the album’s lyrics seemed to many to mark a rever­sal of Lennon’s posi­tion on the ques­tion, which was hotly debated dur­ing this period. [2]

The scope and license of the White Album has per­mit­ted every­one from Out­Kast to Radio­head to Green Day to Joanna New­som to roll their pic­ture out on a broader, bolder canvas.

~ Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stone Interview

charles-manson-rolling-stone-no-61-june-1970-photographic-print-c13020374The search for hid­den mean­ings within the songs reached its low point when cult leader Charles Man­son used the record to per­suade mem­bers of his “fam­ily” that the album was in fact an apoc­a­lyp­tic mes­sage pre­dict­ing a pro­longed race war and jus­ti­fy­ing the mur­der of wealthy peo­ple. [3] The album’s asso­ci­a­tion with a high-profile mass mur­der was one of many fac­tors that helped to deepen the accel­er­at­ing divide between those who were pro­foundly skep­ti­cal of the “youth cul­ture” move­ment unfold­ing in the mid to late 60s in the U.K., the U.S., and else­where, and those who admired its open­ness and spontaneity.

greathoax_140pxPros­e­cu­tor Vin­cent Bugliosi wrote a best-selling book about the Man­son “fam­ily” that expli­cated, among other things, the cult’s fix­a­tion with iden­ti­fy­ing hid­den mes­sages within The Bea­t­les album. Bugliosi’s book was enti­tled Hel­ter Skel­ter, the term Man­son took from the album’s song title and con­strued as the impend­ing con­flict he believed was fast approaching.

Cul­tural responses to the album per­sisted for decades, and even offer a glimpse into the process of col­lec­tive myth-making. In Octo­ber 1969, a Detroit radio pro­gram began to pro­mote the­o­ries based on “clues” sup­pos­edly left on The Bea­t­les and other Bea­t­les albums sug­gest­ing that Paul McCart­ney had died and been replaced by a looka­like. The ensu­ing hunt for such clues to a sup­posed cover-up that the Bea­t­les pre­sum­ably wanted to sup­press (and simul­ta­ne­ously pub­li­cize) has become a clas­sic exam­ple of the devel­op­ment and per­sis­tence of urban legends.

The Charts

brandnew_poster_280It was their first stu­dio album in almost eigh­teen months and, com­ing as it did after the block­buster suc­cess of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, expec­ta­tions were high at time of release of The Bea­t­les. At its debut in the U.K. on Decem­ber 1, 1968, the album went straight to #1, becom­ing their third album to do so (the first two being Help! and Revolver). It spent seven weeks at the top of the U.K. charts, includ­ing the entire com­pet­i­tive Christ­mas sea­son, until it was replaced by the Seek­ers’ Best of the Seek­ers on Jan­u­ary 25, 1969, drop­ping to #2. How­ever, the album returned to the top spot the next week, spend­ing an eighth and final week at #1.

The White Album was par­tic­u­larly notable for block­ing the Bea­t­les follow-up album, Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, which debuted (and peaked at) #3 on Feb­ru­ary 8, 1969, the same week The White Album was dom­i­nat­ing the sec­ond posi­tion on the charts. It then spent another four weeks in the Top 10 before drop­ping down the charts. In all, “The Bea­t­les” spent 24 weeks on the UK charts (a far cry com­par­i­son to the over 200 weeks spent by Sgt. Pepper’s).

yellowsubmarine_200pxIn the United States, the album was received with huge com­mer­cial suc­cess. It debuted at #11, then reached #2, and finally peaked at #1 in its third week, spend­ing a total of nine weeks at the top. In all, The Bea­t­les spent 155 weeks on the Bill­board 200. Accord­ing to the Record­ing Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica, The Bea­t­les is The Bea­t­les’ best-selling album at 19-times plat­inum and the tenth-best-selling album of all time in the United States.

Although it car­ried a list price of $11.79 (a sin­gle album was sell­ing for $3.98), their dou­ble album “The Bea­t­les” sold 4 mil­lion units dur­ing its first four weeks alone; a record for any dou­ble album up to that time.

The Mono Version

The Bea­t­les was the last Bea­t­les album to be released with a unique, alter­nate mono mix, albeit one issued only in the UK. Twenty-eight of the album’s 30 tracks (“Rev­o­lu­tion 1″ and “Rev­o­lu­tion 9″ being the only excep­tions) exist in offi­cial alter­nate mono mixes. Bea­t­les’ albums after The White Album (except Yel­low Sub­ma­rine in the UK) occa­sion­ally had mono press­ings in cer­tain coun­tries (such as Brazil), but these edi­tions—Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, Abbey Road and Let It Be—were in each case mono fold-downs from the reg­u­lar stereo mixes.

By 1968 in the U.S., mono records were already being phased out; the U.S. release of The Bea­t­les was the first Bea­t­les LP to be issued in the U.S. in stereo only.

What the White Album influ­enced, and some of its tributes

  • The album’s cover, though stark and min­i­mal­is­tic, has been highly influ­en­tial. Goth band The Damned released The Black Album in 1980, and is con­sid­ered the first album to draw influ­ence from the cover, as well as the first band to use the term “Black Album”.
  • The 1984 Rob Reiner “rock­u­men­tary” This Is Spinal Tap also pays homage with their own “Black Album”, which is jux­ta­posed to the orig­i­nal by A&R staff Bobbi Fleck­man, who notes in a debate about appro­pri­ate pack­ag­ing mate­r­ial: “What about the White album? There was noth­ing on that God­damned cover.” The band are gen­er­ally less enthu­si­as­tic, refer­ring to it var­i­ously as “a black mir­ror”, “none more black” and “death”.
  • The self-titled debut album of They Might Be Giants is com­monly referred to as “The Pink Album” due to the amount of the color pink on the cover.
  • Come­dian Den­nis Miller released a stand-up com­edy record­ing in Octo­ber 1988 titled “The Off-White Album” which mim­ic­ked the design of The Beatles.
  • In the 1990s, both Prince and Metal­lica released self-titled albums with their names printed against mostly plain black cov­ers, and are both infor­mally referred to as “The Black Album”.
  • In 2003, rap­per Jay-Z released an album offi­cially called The Black Album. DJ Dan­ger Mouse pro­duced the mashup The Grey Album by com­bin­ing vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with sam­ples from The Beatles.
  • Two com­pi­la­tions of Bea­t­les’ mate­r­ial, released in 1973 as 1962–1966 and 1967–1970, are often referred to as “The Red Album” and “The Blue Album” respec­tively, in ref­er­ence to their colour scheme.
  • The Bob and Tom Show named their first col­lec­tion of mate­r­ial as The White Cas­sette (later renamed The White Album when released on CD).
  • All three of Weezer’s self-titled albums bor­row from this idea as well and fans refer to them respec­tively as “The Blue Album” (1994), “The Green Album” (2001), and “The Red Album” (2008).
  • The 311’s self-titled release from 1995 is often referred to as “The Blue Album”, and The Dells’ 1973 self-titled album is often known as “The Brown Album”, as is The Band’s 1969 self-titled album.
  • Aus­tralian com­edy duo Martin/Molloy also released a CD called The Brown Album in 1995, while Amer­i­can rock band Primus did like­wise in 1997.
  • The ani­mated tele­vi­sion series The Simp­sons and Sponge­Bob Squarepants both used the title The Yel­low Album for their spin-off CDs, with the lat­ter also par­o­dy­ing the plain cover.
  • The British elec­tron­ica duo Orbital released their first two albums with­out def­i­nite names, which in time became known as The Green Album and The Brown Album, while their final release is known as The Blue Album.
  • The satir­i­cal Aus­tralian alter­na­tive rock band TISM released The White Albun [sic] in 2004.
  • The band Phish cov­ered the album in its entirety for their sec­ond set of their three set Hal­loween show in ‘94.