For an LP with a plain white cover, the Beatles eponymous ninth studio album – more commonly referred to as the “White Album” – has generated a mass of symbolism since its release 50 years ago in November 1968.
With its glossy all-white gatefold cover, black inner sleeves and portraits of the Fab Four hidden inside the sleeve, the influence of the White Album can be traced across a huge range of cultural artefacts. For example, the author of New Journalism, Joan Didion, named her study of the end of the 1960s dream, The White Album. The starkness of the LP’s presentation seemed aligned to the collapse of post-war idealism documented by Didion’s book.
For cult leader Charles Manson, the record contained a litany of hidden messages that only he and The Beatles understood. George Harrison’s Piggies and Paul McCartney’s (admittedly crazed) Helter Skelter foretold the chaos of a bloody race war, a new apocalypse that Manson was to instigate and alone survive.
And, as if the cultural and commercial importance of the White Album could be doubted, a re-issue of the record to coincide with its 50th anniversary went into the Billboard top 200 with a bullet at number six. Interestingly, of the 63,000 units sold in the week from November 9 to 16, 52,000 were in traditional album sales.