Today's an important anniversary. Most Americans, of course, will think of 1963. Though technically I am considered a "boomer" based on my December 1963 birth, I've always believed you aren't a Real boomer unless you remember where you were for JFK.
But that's not the anniversary I'm talking about.
Nor am I talking about the OTHER event of November 22, 1963 - the British release of With The Beatles, which was more or less turned into the American MEET The Beatles.
No, I'm here for the other Beatle release, five years later: Today is the 50th anniversary of the White Album.
That anniversary was celebrated with a deluxe reissue full of demos and alternate takes, AND by a return to the top ten for the first time since it's original release. I had hoped it would re-enter the charts at number nine, number nine, number nine. But it did just a little better at number six.
I first came to know the White Album as I turned 17, in the terrible weeks after John Lennon's murder. Sure made "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" more disturbing. It had other sinister associations at the time thanks to a certain cult leader, which led U2 to lead off their 1988 cover of "Helter Skelter" with "this is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, we're stealin' it back." But there's no true Evil in the grooves, and the White Album has triumphantly outlived that and come down to us as a portrait of a band at the peak of its powers.
The conventional wisdom has long been that the White Album is "the sound of the Beatles breaking up" (they are wrong; that would be "Let It Be") and the very deliberate rhetoric of this reissue is to revise this history and present a portrait of the group working together. It's loaded up with friendly and playful interaction highlighted in the famous "Esher demos." Often bootlegged but heard here in near-studio quality, are basically Beatles Unplugged, hanging out at George's house and just
playing for each other, and oh yeah the material is the Freakin' White
But my favorite so far is an actual studio track, a ten minute version of "Revolution 1," the slow, non-single version that starts side four of the original release. It's the main take, without the horns and the shooby-doo-wops that were overdubbed later - and it goes on longer. And the part after the original record fades out is, as you recognize in fragments, what eventually turns into the core of "Revolution 9," the sound collage that many people rate as the Beatles worst track. (They are wrong; that would be "Run For Your Life.") Number 9 makes a whole lot more sense after you hear the whole take of Number One.
At 107 tracks and 5 hours and 46 minutes, the full version of the
expanded White Album is a real time commitment - I still haven't
finished, and I've been known to go through all 2 1/2 hours the Clash's entire Sandinista triple album in one sitting. Yes, even Side Six.
In an era where even downloads are old fashioned and streaming is the
main tool of music distribution, time constraints seem quaint, especially the roughly 20 minute programme of a vinyl album side. But that's how the White Album was originally heard, that's how I formed my music listening experience in the 1970s and 80s, and that sense of the appropriate length of a musical selection still colors my brain. And those constraints - the 40 minute LP, the 80 minute CD, the 90 minute homegrown cassette mix tape - shape the art too. Decisions on what to keep and what to shelve got made based on those formats, and Stevie Nicks is STILL mad that time constraints kept "Silver Springs" off Rumours and made it a B-side instead.
Even by the standards of a vinyl era double album, the original White Album is long, long, long (see what I did there) at 93 minutes and 43 seconds. I can't find another "classic" major artist vinyl era studio double LP that's within ten minutes of the White Album. In fact, it's only ten minutes shorter than the TRIPLE All Things Must Pass and the double plus EP Songs In The Key Of Life - and the Beatles put out a seven minute single at the same time.
You may know it.
Blonde On Blonde, Electric Ladyland, Tommy, Layla (sorry George but that's a better Patti Boyd record than "Something"), Exile On Main Street, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tusk, London Calling, 1999, Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime, Daydream Nation - all those albums fit on a single 80 minute CD, not that I would ever burn them onto CDs. That would mean 20 minutes or less per side of vinyl.
There was some criticism when Prince's Sign 'O' The Times came out in `87, just as vinyl was fading and CDs were growing, that it was just barely too long for one CD and was sold and priced as a double. It's RIGHT on the line at 79:58 and could have been trimmed to fit with nobody but Prince noticing.
Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti is 82:39 but a half hour of that is outtakes from their previous three LPs. Drop one song and you fit, and you make the very short 1982 odds and sods release Coda one song less skimpy.
Others of note: Quadrophenia (81:33), The Wall (80:54 that could have been fit under 80 through edits to sound effects alone), Elton John's 1976 Blue Moves at 84:47 with a LONG instrumental intro to the first track, and The River at 83:38 with a couple filler tracks. That's still just 21 minutes per LP side.
Even the one song per side Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes is only 81:14, and the interminable early Chicago albums clock in under 80.
After spending way too much time looking, the only studio double I can find longer than the White Album is Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? at 96:57, nearly 24:30 per side.
How much is too much? That question has surrounded the White Album for half a century now. It's long been a parlour game among Beatle fans to list a single LP White Album, as producer George Martin begged them to do.
There is NO too much. I wouldn't trade away a moment. Not a single "hold that line! block that kick!" in minute eight of Number Nine, not the syrupy strings of "Good Night" (but the unplugged version on this set with John, Paul and George on harmonies is gorgeous), not "Piggies" (why do people hate "Piggies"?), not Ringo's first goofy attempt at songwriting, not "Why Don't We Do It In The Road," none of it.
Except MAYBE "Honey Pie."
And this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for a six hour White Album - and a few days off to hear it.