The Continuing Story of the Beatles' White Album
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
Written by Ida V. Eskamani
November marks fifty years of the Beatles' White Album. We asked some of our writers what the record means to them.
Before I listened to the White Album, I read it. The year was 2007 and I was half-way through my junior year of high school. Winter break was upon us and my friend and I had pre-determined what to gift each other for the holidays. I forgot what I got him, though I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as meaningful or life-altering as what he got me.
With great intention, I was curating my love affair with the Beatles. It had been a lifelong relationship, rooted in my mother’s affection for the band and my own childhood obsession with the Fab Four. When my mom lost her battle with cancer in 2004, I drifted away from the band that raised me. It felt too close to the immeasurable pain her loss brought, and it took me a at least a year to listen to the Beatles again. When I found the strength to do so, I realized this band was exactly what I needed to feel closer to the mom I had lost, and to know myself better.
With our love rekindled, I decided to structure my Beatles immersion with great intention by listening to one full album at a time. I embraced these records in full— striving to understand the moment in the band’s history they represented and the meaning behind every song. I clearly remember the first time I heard Rubber Soul, and the dramatic shift it made from the bands previous record, Help!. I recall when I finally heard Revolver in its entirety, when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blew my mind and my inaugural ride on the Magical Mystery Tour.
In the winter of 2007, it was time for the White Album, and my friend delivered on their gift with the $29.95 two-disc set I had been eyeing at Best Buy for years. However we had officially entered the brave new world of the iPod; at seventeen years old I was sitting in class with CD's I couldn’t listen to. Considering the circumstance, I did the next best thing— I read the lyric book.
The White Album is the Beatles’ most expansive, with thirty tracks totaling more than ninety minutes. Some tracks I have known my entire life, heard first from my mom's hodgepodge collection of Beatles cassettes, many of which were recorded directly from the radio. Reading the words of songs such as “Revolution 1,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, and “Julia” felt like I was in the company of old friends.
But more than that were tracks completely unknown to me, with lyrics that were the most wonderfully bizarre verses I had set my eyes on. Who on earth is Bungalow Bill, and what DID he kill? WHY would a man eat a soap impression of his wife, and donate it to the National Trust? “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” seemed straightforward enough, but a different universe apart from “Love Me Do.” "Revolution 9" remained an enigma, with zero lyrics listed. Confirming that the walrus was indeed Paul brought some comfort; but ultimately reading through this little lyric book sandwiched between two discs left me with more questions than answers. There was a big scary perplexing world in the White Album, and I couldn’t wait to hear it.
As with every Beatles record, I did my research before punching the play button. The White Album represents the Beatles at a crossroads. In 1968 John, Paul, George and Ringo were musicians in their late twenties who had already conquered the world. They had nothing else to prove, but so much more to say. The band was no longer touring and for the first time, took control of the studio, to the chagrin of their long-time (and brilliant) producer George Martin. They were writing and recording on their own terms, sometimes together, and sometimes apart. The four had returned from a retreat in India with varied experiences, yet producing iconic singles: “Hey Jude” and “Lady Madonna” were born of the White Album era. The band members' individual talents shined on this record, as well as the magic of their collaboration. Yoko Ono was in the studio, Paul McCartney was playing the drums, and Eric Clapton was making a guest appearance. Each track was placed where it was with the greatest intention, yet in stark contrast to the band's previous albums, the band forewent album art, instead opting for a white cover and a self-titled record that has come to be known as the White Album.
I knew all of this and so much more before reading the lyric book that sits beside me now. But nothing could have prepared me for the White Album. Stylistically, the album holds the entire universe. It’s arguably the album that invented metal with the cathartic ruckus that is “Helter Skelter.” Tracks like “Honey Pie” and “I Will” are classic McCartney tracks honoring his father’s music hall roots; while “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Rocky Raccoon” embrace the same country twang found in Help’s “Act Naturally” and in much of the Beatles’ rockabilly roots. There are delicate acoustic tracks with tremendous purpose such a “Mother Nature's Son” and "Long, Long, Long," and the band’s take on surf-rock with “Back in the USSR.” George Harrison thrives on the White Album, with several indelible contributions including the seminal “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The Beatles were also discovering their own politics on the White Album, taking on the bourgeoise with “Piggies,” the civil rights movement with “Blackbird,” and providing much-needed reassurance during tumultuous times with “Revolution 1” (Don’t ya know, it’s gonna be alright?). There were also unconditional love songs, bitter break-up songs, and nonsensical wonders. The White Album spoke to issues you were not supposed to talk about— sex and drugs; addiction and depression. Yet on this album, the Beatles addressed these topics whole heartedly, with brutal honesty and shocking vulnerability.
I am so grateful I first met the White Album when I was seventeen. At a critical crossroad in my life, this record taught me so much about myself. Its eclectic nature affirmed to me that it’s okay to be weird and a little different. You don’t have to blend in, fit in a box, be orderly or prove yourself to anyone — express yourself as you want and your authenticity will resonate. The evolution of the Beatles from “She Love You” to “Happiness is a Warm Gun” provided a startling reminder of the loss of innocence adulthood brings; while simultaneously the pure joy exuded in “Dear Prudence” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” brought me immense solace when I needed it most. The White Album ingrained in me mantras I carry every single day: to take it easy, that everything's gonna be alright, and that life goes on, bra.
As I flip through the well-read pages of my little lyric book over a decade later, I realize what a brilliant mess this record is. It’s wacky and vulnerable. It’s dark and it's fun. It's confusing and assuring. The White Album is so goddamn human, and I love it.
Ida is an Iranian-American from Florida who grew up with the Beatles, and came of age in the pit. She will talk to you about music for as long as you will pretend to listen. She is founder of Bandifesto, a little blog with a big heart.