The White Album was highly anticipated, being The Beatles’ first full-length collection of new songs since Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, and it quickly topped the album charts in the UK and US.
Reviews were mostly positive, though some critics were bewildered or vexed by the eclecticism of the songs. In subsequent years, however, it has been regarded as one of the most significant albums of all time.
Sgt Pepper did its thing – it was the album of the decade, of the century maybe. It was very innovative with great songs, it was a real pleasure and I’m glad I was on it, but the White Album ended up a better album for me.
Contemporary reviews included Tony Palmer in the UK Sunday newspaper The Observer. He wrote: “If there is still any doubt that Lennon and McCartney are the greatest song writers since Schubert, then next Friday – with the publication of the new Beatles double LP – should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making, which only the ignorant will not hear and only the deaf will not acknowledge.” The full article was used weeks later for the sleeve notes on the UK release of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.
In the New York Times, Richard Goldstein described the White Album as a “major success”, but his enthusiasm was countered by Nik Cohn, who considered it to be “boring beyond belief” and full of “profound mediocrities”.
Writing in the NME, Alan Smith described Revolution 9 as “pretentious” and an example of “idiotic immaturity”, although he wrote enthusiastically about “most of the rest” of the album.
The White Album was released on 22 November in the United Kingdom, five years to the day after the group’s second album With The Beatles.
It was the last Beatles album to be released with different mono and stereo mixes. The mono mix was issued only in the UK, with 28 of the songs – the exceptions being Revolution 1 and Revolution 9 – having alternative mono versions. Subsequent Beatles releases in certain countries were released in mono, but these were fold-down versions of the regular stereo mixes.
On 1 December 1968 the album had its UK chart debut at number one, becoming their third album to do so after Help! and Revolver. In total, the album spent 24 weeks on the UK charts before dropping out.
It spent seven weeks at the top of the UK charts, including the entire Christmas period, and was eventually displaced by The Best Of The Seekers on 25 January 1969. The following week it returned to number one for an eighth and final week.
Thereafter it spent a further four weeks in the top 10. The White Album also forced The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine soundtrack into the number three position, when it debuted and peaked on the charts on 8 February.
In the United States the White Album debuted at number 11, then reached number two, before finally topping the charts on its third week of release. It spent nine weeks in the top spot, with a total of 155 weeks on the Billboard 200.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles is The Beatles’ best-selling album at 19-times platinum, and is the 10th bestselling album of all time in the United States.
No singles were taken from the White Album at the time in the UK or US, although the standalone single Hey Jude/Revolution was recorded during the same sessions. In some countries Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was issued as a single, although this was a decision made by foreign record companies rather than The Beatles themselves.
When we started, I don’t think we thought about whether the White Album would do as well as Sgt Pepper – I don’t think we ever really concerned ourselves with the previous record and how many it had sold. In the early Sixties, whoever had a hit single would try to make the next record sound as close to it as possible – but we always tried to make things different. Things were always different, anyway – in just a matter of months we’d changed in so many ways there was no chance of a new record ever being like the previous one.
After Sgt Pepper, the new album felt more like a band recording together. There were a lot of tracks where we just played live, and then there were a lot of tracks that we’d recorded and that would need finishing together. There was also a lot more individual stuff and, for the first time, people were accepting that it was individual.
Charles Manson and the White Album
In the months after its release, The Beatles were horrified to learn that Charles Manson had interpreted several of the White Album’s songs as an incitement to commit murder and a prophecy of armageddon.
Look at the songs: songs sung all over the world by the young love. It ain’t nothin’ new… It’s written in… Revelation, all about the four angels programming the holocaust… the four angels looking for the fifth angel to lead the people into the pit of fire… right out to Death Valley. It’s all in black and white, in the White Album – white, so there ain’t no mistakin’ the color.
Manson took particular notice of Paul McCartney‘s Helter Skelter, a song about a fairground ride which was nonetheless interpreted as a prophecy of chaos, which he tied in with the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.
Like, Helter Skelter is a nightclub. Helter Skelter means confusion. Literally. It doesn’t mean any war with anyone. It doesn’t mean that those people are going to kill other people. It only means what it means. Helter Skelter is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don’t see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It’s not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says ‘Rise!’ It says ‘Kill!’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.
Read our feature on Charles Manson and Helter Skelter.
Five songs by The Beatles were particularly significant for Charles Manson, all from the White Album: Helter Skelter, Revolution 1, Revolution 9, Blackbird and Piggies. He also found hidden meanings in I Will, Honey Pie, Glass Onion, Don’t Pass Me By, Sexy Sadie, Rocky Raccoon and Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
All that Manson stuff was built around George‘s song about pigs and this one, Paul’s song about an English fairground. It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Needless to say, Manson’s interpretations were wholly unintended by The Beatles, who later expressed anger and disgust at his actions.
Charles Manson interpreted that Helter Skelter was something to do with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. I still don’t know what all that stuff is; it’s from the Bible, Revelations – I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know. But he interpreted the whole thing – that we were the four horsemen, Helter Skelter the song – and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone.
It was terrible. You can’t associate yourself with a thing like that. Some guy in the States had done it – but I’ve no idea why. It was frightening, because you don’t write songs for those reasons. Maybe some heavy metal groups do nowadays, but we certainly never did.