The 30 dizzyingly diverse components of The Beatles’ ninth studio collection were finally released on November 22, 1968. Housed in a plain white sleeve (embossed with the band’s name and a unique serial number) designed by pop-artist Richard Hamilton in collaboration with McCartney, the apparently eponymous set (a working title of A Doll’s House had been abandoned when Family released Music In A Doll’s House in July) was greeted by an unprecedented chorus of critical disapproval. Writing in the New York Times, Nik Cohn dismissed the album as “boring beyond belief”, while The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called it “their most consistent and probably their worst”.
The truth of the matter was that the critics had, as usual, missed the revolution unfolding before their very ears. They focused largely on the ‘idiotic mediocrity’ of the ‘pretentious’ Revolution 9 and its counteracting anodyne ‘pastiches’. Interpreting The Beatles’ paradigm shift from overworked, ornate mini-symphonies to unfussy production values as sheer artistic indolence, they missed the crucial point that hindsight makes so plain: the White Album’s enduring influence on rock’s future lay in its embrace of the easy over the difficult; of visceral feel over cerebral contrivance; groove over gimmickry.
The Beatles found their way to the clear-headed simplicity of the White Album by pioneering methods that are now so familiar in the rock arena that they’ve become clichés. First in Wales, then in India, they were ‘getting their heads together in the country’; from acoustic demos at George’s to informal studio jams at Abbey Road they were ‘stripping back to basics’.
And not before time. Since Sgt. Pepper, pop musicians had seemed compelled to produce dense, psych-laced production numbers. The charts were clogged with countless kaftan-trussed quartets all desperately over-stretching themselves in the general direction of the cod-classical. This overwrought whiter-shade-of-pompous landscape, where proto-prog pretentiousness and lyrical gobbledygook prevailed, needed saving from itself.
The White Album arrived into 1968 like a breath of fresh air. It was just as influential and game-changing as punk would be less than a decade later. As The Beatles’ sound palette and cardinal frame of reference refocused away from the European orchestral tradition and back on to American roots music (country and blues, rock’s fundamental foundations), so vast sections of the contemporary musical community were almost bound to follow.
The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet often gets the kudos for leading the way in this regard, but not only did The Beatles boast a far broader cultural influence in ’68, The White Album – though recorded later – also hit stores two weeks earlier. While The Beatles’ influence may have been diminished by a combination of the Paul-directed Magical Mystery Tour movie (the band’s inaugural artistic own goal, televised the previous Boxing Day – to almost universal bafflement) and a marked dip in John’s popularity since he’d fallen under the influence of ‘that woman’, they continued to outrank the Stones in the public mind. The Stones, only just recovering from the disastrous, sub-Pepper catastrophe that was Their Satanic Majesties Request, were still widely considered to be slavishly following The Beatles’ lead in all things artistic, whether they’d already moved on or not. And while The Band’s Americana-birthing Music From Big Pink album had been released two months into the White Album sessions, and could therefore be considered as a potential influence on its roots-ward direction, the majority of its core material had been composed in Rishikesh four months earlier. (Even without benefit of the ornate curlicues of quasi-classical multi-tracking, Bach trumpets and reverse tape-loops, the stripped Beatles continued to be progressive with Lennon’s resolutely linear Happiness Is A Warm Gun casually challenging the very nature of song structure.)