Rutherford Chang’s White Album
Written by Trent Jones
A Look at the aesthetics of one of the Beatles most famous records
Truth be told, I wasn’t much of a music guy growing up. Sure, I liked music and I liked plenty of songs and bands, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t really someone who bonded with an album. I would pick and choose songs from a group’s catalog as a lot of tech-savvy people did in the early 00’s *cough Napster cough* and listen to those songs. Sometimes I would get so attached to a particular song, I wouldn’t even think of listening to anything else, steadfast in my belief that nothing that band could do could match the power of this song.
It wasn’t until much later that I started buying vinyl records and really gave the artform of the album its due shake. Digital music has such an immediacy to it that you can easily skip songs, sections of songs, or even go to a whole different group. You don’t have such a luxury with physical media. The ritual of browsing the available records, picking one out, pulling it from its sleeve, sitting it on the turntable, (if you’re a nerd like me, using an antistatic brush on the record to clean off any dust), and finally playing it harbors a certain devotion to what you are putting on. I rarely put on a record without sitting down to give my attention to it, unlike mp3s that I can put on idly while doing chores.
It's no wonder that I was drawn to vinyl. As a kid, I treasured buying and trading various Marvel trading cards. The collecting process was something I loved, and there’s definitely that aspect to vinyl. Not only are some albums hard to find, but records like the Beatles' White Album have even more collectability built in. On the first several pressings, the plain cover was accompanied with only the name of the band (in the earliest versions, they are embossed on the cover rather than printed) and a pressing number.
It’s fitting, when you look at the contents of the album that something unified by a white cover can have so much variance-- much like how the music contained within explored each individual member’s musical writing styles while still being a unified band. UK original copies actually opened from the top and the serial numbers change depending on the pressing. The lower the number, the more collectable. This album represents a turning point for the Beatles, not only the band as a whole, but in their production style. The White Album makes the shift from mono to stereo; prior to this record, the Beatles oversaw the mono mix while leaving the stereo up to George Martin and whoever was around in the studio. Their reluctance to change to the new technology lead differences among the two mixes: some songs are longer, some have omitted parts; notably, the mono version does not have the "I GOT BLISTERS ON ME FINGERS" outburst from Helter Skelter. You can read about those differences here.
On top of all this, you have US presses, UK presses, Japanese presses, German presses, and presses on white vinyl, not to mention bootlegs with unreleased demos.
All this is to say, I have a lot of copies of the White Album.
From top to bottom:
Original US stereo; white vinyl pressing; 50th Anniversary 4xLP edition; Another original US Stereo; bootleg of acoustic demos;
the full version of Revolution with 1+9 combined 2014 Mono Mix; ANOTHER original US Stereo; Mobile Fidelity Stereo pressing;
Rutherford Chang’s White Album
Yeah, I have a problem.
It was for the 50th Anniversary that I finally opened and listened to the last album on here, Rutherford Chang’s White Album. Rutherford Chang is an artist who has a touring display of over 2,000 White Albums, set up like a record store. In addition to this, he did an unofficial release of the White Album where he layered 100 copies of the album (the cover, the back, the inside, the labels) and played all 100 copies at the same time and then, had that pressed. What happens is the albums, due to the wear and tear of years of listening to them, not to mention dirt and dust and other things, causes the music to slowly fall out of sync with itself, until the end of the sides become a chaotic whirlwind of familiar sounds.
Listening to this was quite the adventure. I will say that I am someone who does listen to discordant music all on my lonesome so your mileage might vary if you decide to give this a listen, but it is very interesting to hear familiar songs become new, and even lose track of what you are hearing.
Just some of my notes from listening to the album-- I’m refraining from formatting these thoughts too much, as I want to get my experience with the album down, even as raw as it is:
Dear Prudence has so much reverb it becomes a haunting love song. Glass Onion, on the other hand, starts to become the nightmare sounds from the end of Day in the Life. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da sounds like a haunted fairground. Honey Pie is the only thing audible in a big static-y noise fest. Martha My Dear sounds like it’s being processed through a guitar delay pedal. I’m So Tired drags and drags, simulating the feeling of being tired. Blackbird is a moment of peace, almost quiet compared to the rest of the album. Piggies feels like a literal carnival ride while you have the flu.
Helter Skelter becomes even more frenetic than it normally is, coming at you like a swarm of bees until you hear Ringo call out and the sounds start to stretch into a long, blended note going on for infinity, lie a Brian Eno song or the B-Sides of one of the Berlin Trilogy albums by Bowie.
With something familiar like While My Guitar Gently Weeps, you struggle to hear anything like the song you know until that beautiful guitar solo cuts through like a beacon.
Finally, Good Night sounds like turning into a radio station on Christmas Eve for the final transmission of the night.
While I may not grab this album whenever I want a nice evening to kick back and listen to the Beatles, this was a great experience in hearing something familiar again for the first time. Plus, the actual album itself is a testament to how much this album has meant to people. Seeing how each album is almost customized by the individual, through writing, scribbling, drawings, vandalism, wear, tear, stains. Each copy becomes so particular to the individual.
So much so, that my favorite copy that I own is the first one I bought.
I love the fact that this person loved this album to the point of printing out their name with a label gun, just to make sure no one got ahold of their copy. The fact that an album so darkened with age was still being cleaned as of 1987, 2 years after I was born. That this copy was being held together with tape shows how much love was in this album. It’s a prized possession for me, and one that shows how much the Beatles have meant to so many for so long.
Growing up in Atlanta, GA, Trent was never much for music. Until suddenly, he was and oh boy, did he dive in hard. He has over 1400 vinyl albums and is afraid he’ll run out of space to keep them at some point. He likes music that evokes feelings and emotions, even if those feelings are sadness or anxiety. It wasn’t until he was thirty that he realized that Loveless by My Bloody Valentine had actual instruments and vocals done by people and not just music created by the Gods.