50 years ago The Beatles released their eponymous, diverse double album. STACK‘s Paul Jones traces the tale of its creation, as EMI reissue several different bonus-heavy versions of the seminal record.
The Beatles had long outgrown the matching suits and haircuts and the spurious affability at press conferences when they flew to the US to complete 19 tour dates in August 1966. Live, the band was thoroughly disillusioned with the wild scenes of fanaticism that blanketed amp, vocal and drum sound on stage. Lennon’s innocuous comment earlier the same year – that the band was “more popular than Jesus” – had prompted unprecedented anger in the highly religious US, and the American media hounded Lennon incessantly on the tour. It finally came to a zenith on August 29, 1966, when the band announced they would tour no longer.
The four-piece then made the decision to entrench themselves at Abbey Road, under the knowledgeable guidance of producer George Martin, and work solely as a studio band. Three months later, work commenced on what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – a behemoth, released the following year.
In February 1968, encouraged by George Harrison’s adherence to Transcendental Meditation, The Beatles journeyed to Rishikesh, India, to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Here, with only acoustic guitars at their disposal, what would become known as ‘The White Album’ was largely written.
When the band reconvened in late May at Abbey Road to begin recording, the dynamic had changed and there was tension in the studio. The Beatles had always worked as a collective, suggesting ideas and writing parts to complete songs. However now they worked independently, often recording in separate studios with Paul McCartney assuming a dominant role.
During the Indian sojourn, Lennon, who had already met Yoko Ono, decided to leave his wife Cynthia. The Beatles had always kept external personnel at recording studios to a minimum, but Lennon was deeply in love with Yoko, who now attended every session – sitting on amps and forcing McCartney to ask her to move so he could adjust the volume.
George Martin’s once authoritarian control at the desk was slipping, prompting him to suddenly depart for a holiday, leaving his assistant Chris Thomas to produce. In July, engineer Geoff Emerick – who alongside Martin had influenced the sound of The Beatles – left, citing the unbearable friction in the studio. In August, Ringo Starr temporarily quit the band, escaping to the Mediterranean to collect his thoughts before returning two weeks later.
Despite the strained conditions, recording for the album concluded on October 14, 1968. George Martin felt that that the 30 tracks captured for the double release should be compacted to make one strong album, but this was rejected. Pop artist Richard Hamilton reluctantly agreed to create the cover art. A plain design was suggested, with only ‘The Beatles’ embossed on the front. The original production run was numbered – another Hamilton proposal.
Ironically, with simmering antipathy permeating the band, The White Album – and its diverse scope of eclectic compositions – signified a high tide mark of creativity for The Beatles that wouldn’t be surpassed. However, this incredibly fertile period would also signify the prelude to the band’s eventual demise two years later.