The White Album was kind of a spooky album. It’s the 3rd album I ever bought, age 12, 1968. And I remember being taken by the starkness of the album itself, the black-and-white photos on the lyric sheet fold-out insert, and this new, “witchy” character (Yoko Ono) who had been added to the mix. After the bright, day-glo colors of Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles had taken a sudden sharp left turn into something completely different. “We were all coming out of the acid period,” said Paul. And it was as if the psychedelic drugs had expanded their consciousness, yes, but it was like, after aspiring towards these nice creamy highs, it had shifted them into this world of unfettered mental weirdness. Their flirtation with the Maharishi and eastern spirituality could be seen as an attempt to “come back down to earth” after all the drug highs. But when that didn’t take hold, it was if — especially with John Lennon — they had become mentally unmoored. Like the psychedelic experience had left them stranded at sea, with no direction home, with the only alternative being: “Ship ahoy! Full weirdness ahead!”
For years I couldn’t listen to the White Album without picturing in my mind the Manson Family tripping on acid as they danced along to the songs. The album seemed irretrievably connected to that period of time in my mind. When the Beatles — as main leaders and spokesmen for the Youth Generation culture of that period (whether they asked for that role or not) (and on a lot of levels they DID ask for that role and gloried in the role) — led their generation in a direction that nobody — and probably including the Beatles themselves — had any idea where it might actually be leading to.
The Beatles themselves described the recording process of the White Album as the “tension album.” And people who were there at the time describe Lennon as seeming to be royally pissed off about virtually everything. The first song they recorded for the White Album was Lennon’s song “Revolution,” and on one take Lennon ended the song by screaming “ALL RIGHT!!! ALL RIGHT!!!” over and over for ten minutes straight until he was hoarse.
Then there was “Revolution #9” which alternately creeped out and/or bored millions of listeners. Generally considered to be a track one listened to, and was only fully able to be appreciated and understood, while high on drugs. And that was certainly the state with which Lennon created the track. And — as with the title (“revolution”) — it was apparently intended as a means to subvert and overturn the present society, leading to some kind of new and revolutionary state (whether that be state of government or state of consciousness was never made clear).
The White Album could be seen as the Beatles last forward-looking albums. After pushing their experiments (mental as well as sonic) pretty much to the limit with the White Album, they decided to “get back” to the basic rocknroll music that they had started out playing in the beginning with the “Let It Be” album. And then ended their career with their swan song, “Abbey Road” — a collection of slick, polished songs that employed all the studio artistry they had mastered over the years — a collection of great songs, yes, but nothing more nothing less.
The While the White Album could be seen as standing out in the Beatles catalog by virtue of being their last album that really pushed the envelope way out there into the unknown.