An Endless Fascination with the Beatles’ “White Album”
Rutherford Chang wants to buy your white albums—all of them
IN NOVEMBER 1968, the Beatles released their long-awaited new album. It had been eighteen months since the release of their landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an unheard of period of time between albums in the ’60s. Unlike the over-the-top presentation of that album, the new album did not have a clever title or an excessively busy and colorful jacket.
Instead, this new album was a triumph of minimalism with no art at all: the jacket was simply white on the front and back covers, with “THE BEATLES” in embossed white letters and a serial number in black print on the front. This album was simply and unpretentiously titled The Beatles.
Even the information and graphics on the two inner-panels of the album’s gatefold jacket were subdued, accenting the overall whiteness. Adding a touch of class to the affair, the cover slicks that wrapped around the gatefold jacket carried a glossier finish than most albums of the time.
The album was immediately and affectionately nicknamed “the White Album” by fans, a name that has stuck with it for fifty years! In fact, this album is better known by its nickname than by its proper title.
Despite or because of the simplicity of the album’s appearance and its contents, it has called out to countless people in surprising ways since its release. People have read or interpreted messages and intentions into both what is in the album and is not in the album.
The most notorious of these interpreters was Charles Manson, who believed that “Helter Skelter” — a song about a children’s slide in a playground, although arranged and sung in a harrowing manner — was a call from the Fab Four to him to jumpstart a violent revolution and overthrow of the American government.
Recently, The Beatles has called out to one person in a manner that seems unique to that person.
Different ways the covers aged
Rutherford Chang is an artist responsible for an art project called We Buy White Albums at the Recess, a storefront art space in SoHo in New York City. It ran for several weeks in February and March 2013 and attracted a lot of attention outside the usual art circles due to the Internet. Chang set up the gallery to look like a used-record shop, although with its collapsible banquet tables holding boxes of records, the Recess looked more like a record collectors convention.
The biggest difference between a real dealer at a swap meet and Chang’s wares was that all of the records in Chang’s boxes were the same album. Each was an early pressing of The Beatles (Apple SWBO-101), and each was in a condition that few real record dealers would ever consider offering for sale, let alone displaying as something special.
Each of Chang’s albums was in what collectors would describe charitably as “very good minus” (VG-) but more accurately as “poor” (P). Based on some of the photos of these albums, I would have to invent new categories of grading to describe them, such as “trashed minus” (T-) or “like a Frisbee” (LF).
But these trashed copies of The Beatles are the ones that hold the most fascination for Chang. Among other forms of damage, he appears to favor:
- Jackets that have been lovingly, if less than painstakingly, defaced by their owners, although the owners probably saw it as “artistic expression” at the time.
- Jackets that had been used as place-mats for coffee cups.
- Jackets that simply turned various shades of brown due to oxidation over the years.
These are the albums hold a deep fascination for the artist and have made him a record collector.
The accumulation of stories
At the time of his project at Recess, Rutherford stated, “Right now, I have 694 copies. The lowest-numbered copy is 13539, the highest is 3129174.” (Since the Recess exhibition, Chang has collected more than 2,000 copies of The White Album.) Again, his reasons for collecting are different from most collectors:
“I was interested in the different ways that the covers aged. Being an all-white cover, the changes are apparent. The serial numbers made collecting them seem natural, and the more I got, the more interesting it became. As you see, many of them are written on, and each has a story. The accumulation of the stories is part of it. But it’s also about how the physical object — the record — just doesn’t exist anymore.” (New York Times)
Chang’s previous work includes “Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao,” a video installation based on the pilot episode of the popular American television series of the ’80, Growing Pains:
“It was also one of the first foreign television programs aired in The People’s Republic of China. Billed as Cheng Zhang De Fan Nao, it was the first exposure to American family culture for a generation coming of age during a period of massive development in China. [My work] is a reinterpretation of the pilot episode with the dialogue dubbed into non-native English by Chinese actors who grew up watching the show.” (Rutherford Chang)
And then there is “The Class of 2008,” a display of stipple portraits (also known as hedcuts) that had originally been published in The Wall Street Journal. They were introduced in 1979 “to add character to their then text-heavy publication. The signature style of portraiture has since become an icon of newsworthiness.” (Rutherford Chang)
Collecting cultural artifacts
During the gallery event, Rutherford was interviewed by Eilon Paz for the Dust & Grooves Vinyl Music Culture website (February 15, 2103). Chang explains, “I’m most interested in the albums as objects and observing how they have aged. So for me, a Beatles album with an all-white cover is perfect.” Here is part of the rest of the conversation:
Paz: Do you care about the album’s condition?
Chang: I collect numbered copies of The White Album in any condition. In fact, I often find the poorer condition albums more interesting.
Paz: How did you come up with the idea of collecting first edition White Albums and why just first editions?
Chang: I got into collecting multiple White Albums because every copy tells a story. Each one has aged uniquely over the course of the last half-decade.
Paz: Why only numbered ones? They could be a bit pricey, don’t they?
Chang: The serial numbers make them part of a set. There are enough numbered copies that I still manage to acquire them at reasonable prices.
Paz: It seems like The White Album is a popular album for listeners’ self-interpretations. Like a clean white canvas. So many of your albums are re-imagined, written on, or abused.
Chang: The covers have certainly been well-loved/abused! The white canvases have been personalized with everything from scribbled names to elaborate paintings.
To read the complete interview, click on over to Dust & Grooves. The article is accompanied by twenty-six photographs of Rutherford Chang and his collection.
What would emerge?
What would happen if you recorded one hundred (100) copies of your favorite record album — for me, that would be Pet Sounds — one on top of the other on a professional machine? Each record would be synched to begin playing the first sound of the first track on the first side at exactly the same moment. What would emerge from the tape?
First, the likelihood that the 100 records were mastered and manufactured exactly the same (same size grooves, same size bands, etc.) is slim. Therefore, the likelihood that the 100 records would play exactly the same is slim.
Would the 100 records mesh well and form a unified, cohesive, rational listening experience, or would it produce something else entirely?
Rutherford did exactly that as part of the We Buy White Albums project: he recorded 100 different copies of all four sides of The Beatles, one atop the other. In an article published on Browbeat titled “What It Sounds Like if You Play 100 Vinyl Copies of The White Album at Once” (November 21, 2103), David Haglund addressed the results:
“Chang has overlaid just 100 copies, instead of several hundred; even so, the unique ways in which each copy has aged, plus variations in the pressings and natural fluctuations in the speed of Mr. Chang’s analog turntable result in a bizarre composition that builds from the familiar to the cacophonous.
“‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’ sounds about how you remember at first if a bit muddy. But the storm of variation builds quickly, and by the end of ‘Dear Prudence’ it’s as though you’re swirling around with a record player in the middle of a tornado.”
Among the seagulls
At the time that Haglund’s article appeared, it included a video in which tracks from Chang’s “mashed” version of The Beatles could be heard. So of course, I listened. What follows is my response to the eight tracks from Side 1 of the album:
- Back In The U.S.S.R.: Scratchy vinyl leads into the first track that sounds drenched in Capitol’s Duophonic Stereo of the ’60s — a patented term and process for transforming a clean, great-sounding mono signal into a horrendous, echo-laden two-channel signal. The effect on Paul’s vocal is similar to the effect that RCA Victor’s Electronically Reprocessed Stereo process had on the young Elvis Presley’s early ’50s recordings: it added years to his voice while distorting the original music.
- Dear Prudence: The sound wavers a bit, giving it a nice psychedelic in feel.
- Glass Onion: This barely qualifies as music: a cacophony of drum-like sounds and a mess of distortion bury John’s lead vocal, which sounds as if he is fighting to claw his way up from beneath.
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: The sense of synchronization of the various records’ tracking is all but lost by now: this track sounds like a poorly recorded high school marching band at a local football game’s half-time. When the chorus kicks in with the “la-la-las” it is, well, weird. By the second half of the track, it is starting to sound and feel like a companion piece to “Revolution №9”!
- Wild Honey Pie: This is only recognizable as a song due to my familiarity with the album and its song sequence.
- The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill: The marching band’s percussive effects dominate this track and the vocals are, again, so deep beneath the maelström of noise as to be unrecognizable. Certainly, you would never be able to make out any part of the lyrics except the refrain, “Hey, Bungalow Bill” unless you knew the song beforehand. Towards the end, some sounds come in fleetingly that would not have been out of place among the seagulls in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps: If there is anything in this barrage of noise that is recognizable as George’s lovely song, I can’t hear it. Clapton’s guitar can be heard if one strains. The final portion of the track is white noise, period.
- Happiness Is A Warm Gun: The white noise dominates, but the ethereal voice of John manifests itself in spots. Early onset dementia. The song’s coda finally clears up and I can hear John’s final wailing and then warbling “Don’t you know that happiness is a warm gun, mama.”
And in the end, the only track that sounded remotely similar to the original was “Dear Prudence.” This listening “experience” is not for everyone, but I found it fascinating. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hear all of Side 1 on SoundCloud.
And in the end
Aside from visiting two other places in the United States, the We Buy White Albums project has been busy as a traveling exhibition. And each place it goes attracts all sorts of people, from Beatles fans to record collectors to the just plain curious. Here is where the display has been:
Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool, England
Tokyo Wonder Site Hongo, Tokyo, Japan
Verge Center for the Arts, Sacramento, California
Finally, here is a link to Steve Hoffman’s Music Forums featuring fourteen pages of back-and-forth comments on Rutherford Chang’s project. There are some great remarks by Hoffman’s readers, most of whom are serious record listeners. And I’m going to end this piece with a few of my two favorites:
“Man, those are some of the crustiest copies of The White Album I have seen. But they have character, don’t they? Each one tells a story.”
“I’m going to do the same for Herb Alpert’s Going Places.”
FEATURED IMAGE: This photo of three tables filled with used copies of The Beatles was taken at Rutherford Chang’s installation We Buy White Albums at the Tokyo Wonder Site Hongo in Tokyo, Japan (January-February 2015). The wall display features one hundred albums in various conditions, few of which would excite a “normal” record collector.
Rutherford’s collection of White Albums continues to grow, currently consisting of 2,255 copies. His goal? “Well, the serial numbers run up to about three million — I’d like them all.”
The artist allowed me to choose any photos that I wanted from his collection. If you are interested in seeing them all, he maintains them on an Instagram account.
To keep up with Rutherford’s projects or contact the artist, check out his website.
Thanks for reading! Below are links to three articles that are essential to knowing what Tell It Like It Was is all about. “Blogging with Tell It Like It Was” is my attempt to keep readers abreast of any changes happening here while “Introduction to Tell It Like It Was” is our mission statement for this publication.
And “Introduction to The Toppermost of the Poppermost” explains the project that John, Lew, and I embarked upon months before launching this publication: a series of articles that review every record to make it all the way to #1 on the Cash Box Top 100 charts from 1960 through 1969.
Thinking Out Loud about Writing and Publishing on Mediummedium.com
Excitations and Good Vibrations about the Music of the ’60smedium.com