Back with the real Beatles: the White Album reviewed – archive, 1968

Fifty years ago, the Guardian printed two reviews of The Beatles and recommended listening to ‘what is likely to be the biggest event of the pop music year’ in stereo

Back with the real Beatles
19 November 1968

The Beatles have accustomed us to look for clues to the meaning of their work. Everyone can look at the cover design of Sergeant Pepper and play “spot the reference.” There’s Stan Laurel and Max Miller; Marlon Brando and Dylan Thomas; but who’s that peering over the top of Paul McCartney’s head?

o, we are encouraged to think, the Beatles are influenced by all these figures. Then: perhaps the reverse. Do we see a gallery of heroes or villains? Or, worse still, a mixture? Or perhaps Peter Blake the designer made his own choice? Since there is no way of deciding between these questions this, interpretative, approach to the Beatles’ work is clear victim of a put-on. Nevertheless the questions go on and on.

Now, look at the cover of The Beatles. Outside, it’s blank white gloss card, with The Beatles blind embossed, plus a serial number (mine’s 0010192, what’s yours?). Inside, a list of the tracks, and black and white photographs of each member of the band, looking quite unlike each other. Tucked in with the discs, the same photographs, loose, in colour. For your bedroom wall. Also a big foldout: one side the lyrics; the other side, a soft-core Richard Hamilton collage of the Fab Four’s history.

The panorama of Sergeant Pepper’s cover design is on the acetate of The Beatles. Most of the tracks on the new album are packed with sounds in the style of other musicians. Back Home in the USSR [sic], to take the first track, contains Chuck Berry (Back Home in the USA), the Beach Boys (409 and California Girls – the last a direct quote), and early Beatles. A full list for all 30 tracks on the album would be of around 60 names.

What is the meaning of this? There are several interpretations. Perhaps the Beatles are quoting musicians they admire. Or, on the other hand, perhaps those they fear – “we can do their thing, better.” Perhaps they have turned their backs on the world (this will be a popular view) and can now only play games. Or perhaps the album is a self-conscious tour de force, parallel to the Holles Street Hospital chapter in Ulysses.

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