On May 30, 1968, the Beatles, their producer George Martin, and the usual engineers gathered together at EMI studios to begin recording the Beatles 10th studio album.
Perhaps no album in rock history would bear a title so little known or little used. Titled simply The Beatles, the album would be known and referred to by all, from the day of its release and forevermore, as The White Album. The album's stark blank white cover, bearing the simplistic “The Beatles" at a slightly askew angle, was deliberately blank, in direct contrast to the band's previous flowery, showy, lush Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover. (The first few thousand albums sold also each bore an individual, consecutive serial number.)
The boys had written a vast majority of The White Album's huge batch of songs while studying in India with the Maharishi in the previous few months.
Hopes ran high, as always with a new Beatle album, as the Fab Four trooped into Studio 2 at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio to begin recording. But as Paul, George, and Ringo assumed their usual positions in the recording room, they noticed something new had been added. Beside John sat an unknown figure- a small Japanese woman with barely combed, frizzy hair and an inscrutable expression on her face. She was never to leave John's side throughout the album's recording, even accompanying him into the men's room. (Yes, you read that right. She actually would go inside the men's restroom with John.)
But the strangest, and most upsetting, was yet to come. After various takes, John no longer turned to his writing partner Paul or producer Martin, for advice or approval. His head would instead turn and he would ask the diminutive woman if it was okay.
As the others would soon discover, much to their collective chagrin, the woman was named Yoko Ono, and she would be henceforth be John's new partner, not just romantically, but musically, and in every other possible way.
Before this day, the Beatles had always obeyed the ironclad but unwritten rule of "no women allowed at their recording sessions.” But now this "gentleman's agreement" was being broken, in a flagrant fashion, almost seemingly deliberately, to get the other's goats.
Because of Yoko's constant presence, the usual air of fun and happiness at Beatles sessions all but vanished. And instead of recording as a group- there would now be "a John song,” a “Paul song,” and a “George song.” (Only 16 of the 30 songs on The White Album involved all four Beatles together.)
Recording the album took five months, almost as long as Sgt. Pepper, but in completely different circumstances. There were the strained and often-broken nerves and some open bickering, but more often than not, it was more just a chilly, frosty atmosphere. Carping, sniping, whispers, and dirty looks abounded.
Beatles longtime studio engineer Geoff Emerick was the first to snap. Unable to tolerate the newfound iciness and bitter feelings, he walked out and quit. Symbolically, Emerick had been the Beatles engineer since their first record “Love Me Do” in 1962.
But even more amazingly, Ringo, always the most easygoing Beatle, also left the group, in mid-August. Ringo was to be away for two weeks, taking a much-needed holiday in Sardinia. When Ringo finally returned, he found the studio and his drums covered in flowers, courtesy of George.
Throughout the recording proceedings, producer George Martin vehemently argued to put out only the cream of the songs and have one truly great album. But the Beatles stood firm in their desire to make The Beatles a double album. Thirty new Beatle songs would be there, a total wildly exceeding the dreams of even the most fervent of Beatles fans.
Drama aside, The White Album was finally completed and, as always when it came to the music, the Beatles never disappointed. The Beatles was perhaps the most eclectic mixture of musical genres in the history of recording, covering rock 'n' roll, vaudeville, country western, avant-garde, and even songs meant for the kiddies.
John contributed “Glass Onion,” a slightly snarky "message" to all those Beatle fans always looking for clues and hidden meanings in Beatle songs; “Sexy Sadie,” a thinly disguised refutation of their recently dismissed guru, the Maharishi; “Revolution #1,” a slowed-down version of their single “Revolution;” and the album's strangest aberration, “Revolution #9, an avant-garde pastiche of voices, sound effects and tape loops.
But perhaps John's most interesting contribution was to The White Album was made when he sat down, all alone in the recording studio (for the first and only time as a Beatle) and sang the touching and heartfelt “Julia,” a lovely homage to his beloved mother, who had tragically been killed in a car accident in 1958, when John was just a teen. John also contributed “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” originally a satirical tune, which would become a much more ironic and tragic number in view of John's ultimate fate 12 years later.
Anyone who ever questioned Paul's abilities as a true rock 'n' roller would have his doubts dashed as The White Album was the album where Paul's rocker credentials were fully validated with the songs “Birthday,” “Why Don't We Do it in the Road?,” “Helter Skelter,” and “Back in the USSR.” In Ringo's absence, Paul took over the role of drummer on “Dear Prudence" and reputedly all three Beatles drummed on “Back in the USSR.” But Paul's trademark "softer side" was present too, with his lovely “Martha My Dear,” a tribute not to a woman as commonly assumed, but to his beloved sheepdog.
While recording Paul's childish “Ob-la-di, Ob-la da,” a song which John loathed and refused to take part in recording, Paul was stumped for a start to the puerile tune. As he, George and Ringo mulled over possible song starts, John suddenly came bouncing down the stairs. John plunked himself in front of the studio piano and banged out the later-legendary opening notes he had thought of.
“There's the start to your $#*&#&% song,” he said. In spite of all The White Album acrimony, Paul was never to forget the magic of this moment, revealing the depth of John's friendship to his old songwriting partner.
George was awarded four songs on The Beatles, a quantity never before or since, granted by the legendary Lennon-McCartney team. George came through like a champion with “Piggies,” “Long Long Long,” and “Savoy Truffle,” a tribute to the sweet tooth of his pal Eric Clapton. Probably nudged by John's bringing in of Yoko, George bravely bought Clapton in to play guitar on his moody “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Even Ringo, for the first time, got into the songwriting act, with his country-western flavored “Don't Pass Me By.”
The White Album was finally released on November 22, 1968. Reviews were, in the main, quite positive, with a few holdouts criticizing the album's lack of coherent theme or message, in contrast to the revolutionary Sgt. Pepper. Sales were brisk.
In the US alone, 3.3 million copies of The Beatles were sold in it's first four days of release. In the UK, The White Album shot to the top of the charts, remaining there for seven weeks. Besides the US. and UK, the <>White Album was #1 in Norway, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada. The recording industrial association of america had declared The White Album to be the Beatles most certified album, 19 times platinum.
Trying to choose "the best" Beatles song, let alone album, is much like trying to choose the greatest movie ever made or the most beautiful woman one has ever seen. But no debate regarding superiority is necessary.
The White Album remains beloved the world over and holds up as well today as one the day of its original release, lo those many decades ago.