Music to Last a Lifetime: The Reissue of The White Album

By Markus Ziener

It was East­er Sun­day 1969 and I was a boy. My par­ents had staged an East­er egg hunt in our gar­den, and I was search­ing beneath a cher­ry tree, inside the dog’s ken­nel, and even­tu­al­ly also in our tiny grove of lilacs. And that’s where I found it, cov­ered with branch­es and leaves: a sin­gle record in a black sleeve. The cen­ter of the sleeve read “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” by The Bea­t­les. I rushed into the house, turned the record play­er to 45 rpm, and put it on. I must have lis­tened to the song a dozen times. Then, final­ly, I turned the record over and tried the B‑side. That was the moment they had me. I fell in love with The Beatles.

“While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” was play­ing and, although still a boy, the music instant­ly hit me in the stom­ach. The tune was deep, long­ing, des­per­ate, moan­ing. The voice frag­ile and demand­ing, the gui­tar sooth­ing and elec­tri­fy­ing. This was not a children’s song as on the A‑side – this was music for adults. “While My Gui­tar” was play­ing all East­er long until my par­ents had enough. But I was the proud­est kid in town. I not only owned my first record by The Bea­t­les, it was also I who dis­cov­ered the real gem of the record, hid­den away on side B.

I became addict­ed and need­ed the album fea­tur­ing that song. In short: I need­ed the The White Album. I went to the neighbor’s kids who were a few years old­er. One of them, Anna, knew almost every­thing about pop and rock music. And she not only knew about The Bea­t­les’ lat­est record, she even knew some­body who actu­al­ly owned the album. When I vis­it­ed her a few days lat­er, she put on The White Album and set the record play­er at 33 rpm. Then she cranked up the speak­ers as loud as pos­si­ble. The first thing I heard was the sound of a whis­tle, get­ting more stri­dent by the sec­ond, then a gui­tar set­ting in with a pro­tract­ed tone. The begin­ning of “Back in the USSR.” I was blown away.

And here again I am, rough­ly 50 years lat­er, in 2018. Unbox­ing The White Album, plac­ing CD 1 onto the tray of the CD play­er and wait­ing for the whis­tle sound. Clos­ing my eyes and blank­ing out my brain, I make room for pure emo­tion. No, I don’t want to be one of those Bea­t­les mani­acs who can imme­di­ate­ly deci­pher what tone, what riff, what drum beat is dif­fer­ent from the orig­i­nal release. Yes, I want to repli­cate as best I can the feel­ing of ‘69 when I heard the record for the first time. And, of course, I know that all this is a lit­tle crazy.

Crazy, that The Bea­t­les unknow­ing­ly escort­ed me through life, in bright days as well as in dark hours. They lift­ed me up with their music when need­ed, they expressed what I felt with their tunes – or so I thought. I even learned Eng­lish when, still a boy and only equipped with my father’s dic­tio­nary, I trans­lat­ed “Rev­o­lu­tion” into Ger­man. I went into shock when John Lennon got killed on Decem­ber 8, 1980, and fell silent when George Har­ri­son passed away on Novem­ber 29, 2001. To this day, I always have to vis­it Abbey Road, Sav­ile Road, or the Dako­ta adja­cent Cen­tral Park, when in Lon­don or New York. These places make me hap­py and sad as life itself.

The new White Album sounds as if The Bea­t­les are play­ing in the next room with the door left open. The atmos­phere radi­at­ing from that imag­i­nary room is both relaxed and con­cen­trat­ed. After their pre­vi­ous record, the mas­ter­piece Sergeant Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band, noth­ing was going to be the same any­more. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had entered the Olym­pus of immor­tal­i­ty at ages 27, 26, 25, and 28.

Already two years ear­li­er, The Bea­t­les had stopped play­ing live audi­ences. After com­plet­ing a tour of the Unit­ed States with a grand finale in Can­dle­stick Park, San Fran­cis­co, the band called it quits. No more sta­di­ums, no more deaf­en­ing screams, no more chas­es by crazy fans. The Bea­t­les tran­si­tioned into a stu­dio band. Now, more than ever, their man­ag­er Bri­an Epstein had to hold the group togeth­er. But in August 1967, Epstein passed away, leav­ing behind a dev­as­tat­ed band. What do you do in such a sit­u­a­tion? What would I have done at that age? Hope­ful­ly, I would have turned to what I could do best: mak­ing music. And that’s exact­ly what they did. This is the sto­ry of The White Album. Bloody young genius­es thrown off course now try­ing to pull them­selves together.

The new release is about this sto­ry and as such very dif­fer­ent from 50 years ago. That time The White Album came across pol­ished, clean, miss­ing con­text. The new record, how­ev­er, is raw, unfet­tered, and imper­fect. It’s a record not just about four indi­vid­u­als who each had put songs togeth­er and record­ed them – more or less like a part­ner­ship of con­ve­nience. (Thus went the nar­ra­tive of review­ers back then). Now we know: Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. The Bea­t­les in 1968 were still a band. A band that had changed. As life changes. And in their suc­cess, they were still unmatched. In the U.S., the new White Album topped the charts again – for an incred­i­ble nine weeks.

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Markus Ziener is an author and pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­si­ty for Media, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Eco­nom­ics (HMKW) in Berlin. Pri­or to that he was the head of the op-ed sec­tion of Han­dels­blatt, Germany’s lead­ing busi­ness dai­ly. From 2006 to 2012, he served as head of the Wash­ing­ton bureau of Handelsblatt.