The White Album: Our Less-Than-Positive 1968 Review of the Beatles’ Masterpiece

Sometimes Newsweek gets it wrong. This was one of those times. Fifty years ago, when The Beatles released their self-titled, double-LP masterpiece (more commonly known as The White Album), our longtime critic Hubert Saal bashed it as impudent and "dull."

Though Saal had some complimentary things to say—particularly when it came to George Harrison's contributions—his assessment of the now-classic album was primarily negative. Published in the December 9, 1968, issue, the lukewarm assessment particularly contrasted with Newsweek's gushing review of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was "marvelous" and "brilliant" and referred to the Fab Four as "Britain's new Poet Laureate[s]." What follows is the original White Album review on the occasion of the album's 50th anniversary. It has never been available online before now. 

America could hardly wait for the new two-record Beatles album. Capitol Records sold 1.1 million copies in the first five days at $11.58, the highest price ever asked for two pop disks. At that price the buyer doesn't even get a handsome colorful jacket like those enclosing the two previous Beatles records, Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The new jacket is plain white, like a printing error, and its title, The Beatles, is faintly embossed somewhere on it.

Caveat emptor. Sad to say, but the blankness extends into the records within. With 30 arrows of song, it's hard to see how the brilliant quartet could have missed their marks so often. Unlike previous alums, the bull's-eye of variety in lyrics, wit, ease of style that made changing keys or tempi natural, lovely love songs, and adventures in electronics is rarely hit in The Beatles.

Targets

What they've done for the most part is put their tongue in their cheek—and apparently got it stuck in the bubble gum. Sixteen of the 25 songs credited to Lennon and McCartney are in one way or another parodies. "Back in the U.S.S.R.," which is pretty good, takes off on the Beach Boys. "Glass Onion" is a mindless collection of allusions to their own songs. Bob Dylan is the target of "Yer Blues," Elvis Presley of "Rocky Raccoon," Donovan of "Mother Nature's Son," the Rolling Stones of "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" "Martha My Dear," "Honey Pie" and "Good Night" are all Tiny-Timorous copies of the past, from English music halls to postwar singalongs. They're good copies, as are the songs which ape gospel, blues, folk ballads, calypso and African primitivism. But irreverence becomes impudence and imitation dull.

CUL_Beatles_01 The Beatles, in London, on July 28, 1968. The band was in the middle of tense, grueling recording sessions for its double-LP masterpiece. Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd.

In this album the Beatles are not a lot better off on their own as social commentators, as when they discover in "Piggies" that people can be greedy, or in "Revolution 1" that Chinese Communism may not be the best of all possible worlds. This after rolling the universe into a ball in the immortal "A Day in the Life"? In fact in most of the 30 songs the Beatles sound either uptight or, what's worse, so loose as to be coming apart, as if no center holds them fast, apt targets for a line from one of their new songs, "I'm so tired, my mind is on the blink."

Hero

When they stop being Alexander Pope or Max Beerbohm the Beatles turn out the fine hard rock "Helter Skelter," a bluesy "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" with an orgasmic ending that Mick Jagger would admire, and two fine melodic songs to solo guitar—"Julia," with effective seaside images, and "Blackbird," which has all the whit and wonder of poetry: "Blackbird fly / Into the light of the dark black night...You were only waiting for this moment to arise."

Still the album has a hero. George Harrison has his Oriental kick under control and the two best songs are his. "Long, Long, Long" is deceptively simple, beautifully melodic and explosively punctuated; "Savoy Truffle" appears to sing the praises of food and in fact is all about suffering. With his help and some judicious editing the Beatles could have turned out a real fine album of one long-playing record—and maybe even put a picture on the jacket.

This piece originally appeared in the December 9, 1968, issue of Newsweek, with the headline "Double Beatle."

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