The Beatles (aka White Album)

There has been lots of rumours around this famous sleeve design since its release in November 1968, and most of them are simply wrong. Besides, while most of us do own a copy of this (whether vinyl, CD or, since 2010, as digital), there is still some surprising and enlightening things to learn about this groundbreaking album from the most famous band ever.

The record is a double album, with a gatefold cover. The front cover was originally entirely white, with the name "The Beatles" embossed in Helvetica. All the copies were numbered with a stamp, the 4 first copies having been given to the quatuor (it is unclear if the first one was given to John or Ringo). This idea was a difficult one for the EMI staff : numbering a limited edition is one thing, but numbering millions of records was either a brilliant conceptual idea, and a technical challenge! But Paul McCartney insisted, and it finally happened, at least for the first pressings.
The inner pages of the gatefold were featuring a minimalist design, with 4 black and white separated portraits of John Paul Ringo and Georges : some people suggests it was a symbol of the fact that the 4 weren't really a group anymore, but 4 individuals. This opinion is certainly biased by what was to happen afterward, but indeed, it is to be noticed how much each portrait was completely different from the others (framing, pose or look). This is particularily striking as, under the influence of George Martin, the Beatles was the group that invented the idea of a trademark band look (same haircut, same shoes, same jacket, etc). At this point, the "Help" period was obviously merely a souvenir...
 The records had the famous Apple label (full on A, Cut on B) and inserted were a set of color versions of the portraits of the fab four, taken by John Kelly in fall 1968, plus a large folded poster, with a complex collage on one side, and the lyrics on the other side.

Poster (Front) 
Poster (Back)
Another specific thing : in the first pressings, the records were inserted from the top, not from the sides.

And now for the story behind.

First, the genesis : during their time with the Maharishi at Rishikesh (India), the band members got highly inspired, and came back with a good 30 new songs (Even Ringo Starr ended up composing his first song!) But now, everyone was doing it on his own, and there was a competition to get as much as possible songs between John and Paul. It soon became evident that one album wouldn't be enough, and so the band decided to go for a Double Album release, thus the gatefold. 
Some said it was too much, and that such a diverse collection of works would have most fans overwhelmed. They were, obviously, but in a good sense : the record became a huge success. But, years later, Ringo still thinks that it would have been wiser to have released it in two separate albums, a "White, and a "Whiter album" as he ironically suggests in an interview...

The first persitent legend is about the reason why the record got this white cover. Many rumours points out that John Lennon wanted to have a specific photo, and said "This or nothing!", and that the second option was chosen! Another variant - the most famous - explains that the sleeve was to feature a picture of the band members naked, and that it was censored, either by the label or by the authorities.
Truth is, all this is wrong.
Yes, the band was having a very bad time, and the antagonism between Paul & John especially growed strong during the recording of this album. But no, there was no nude cover : in fact it's an obvious confusion with the "Unfinished Music : Two Virgins" LP released by Ono And Lennon on Apple Records in 1968, on which the couple exposed its nudity in a very naive and provocative way (see below). This record did shocked lots of people including Ringo, and ended up being sold in a brown paper bag, with a hole that showed only the face of John and Yoko. But this was a completely different story than the White album's artwork adventure.
In fact, the design was mostly driven by Paul McCartney. He explains that having lots of connections with the artistic milieu (he was deeply found of it), he had met the gallery owner Robert Fraser while working on the "Sgt Pepper" cover, and that the guy introduced him to Richard Hamilton. 
Richard was a pop artist, influenced by conceptual art as much as by Duchamp, who had done a few expositions. Paul liked them enough to propose him to design the cover. Having a minimal and very conceptual artist to do the cover was also, according to Paul, a way to provide a stark constrast with the previous Beatles cover,  "Sergent Pepper".
Paul spent a lot of time with Hamilton at his Highgate house, in his atelier, watching him working. The first idea was to do a great collage of pictures and souvenirs of the band members. An interesting point is that Hamilton made it slowly, by hand, and as Paul recalls, he spent a wonderfull time, not only providing him images and stuff, but seeing him assembling the poster piece by piece. As he specifically recalls, Paul discovered then the concept of negative space as Hamilton was using pieces of white paper to make the collage "breathe" better.
Once they had finished the poster, Richard asked Paul for the title of the album, and, still on his minimal tip, asked if one of their album had been already simply titled "The Beatles". The answer was no, so there it was! Hamilton also suggested that the cover should includes a piece of paper stained with apple juice, but it was too complicated to produce. So everyone agreed on the title and the white embossed cover, and the rest is History.

Last point of interest about this White album cover,  it could have looked like this : 
In fact, this cover artwork for the 1980 compilation of the Beatles was painted by the artist "Patrick" (aka Scottish artist John Byrne), and was commissioned by the band in 1968 as a possible cover for the album, which working title was then " A Doll's House". As the title was already used, it was dropped, and the painting had to wait 12 years to end on a record by the Beatles.

There it is. Quite a lot of things to say about a blank artwork, isn't it? And there is so many stories about this album... The internet is full of websites, sometime even entirely devoted to this specific record, and libraries are packed with so many books about the Fab Four that we could go on for days. And if you want to have fun, have a look at the funny hoax story about the "Wide album" and its 14 inch project!

But, as a final word, let's point out an interesting point about this sleeve design :  it has taken a lot of meanings AFTER being conceived. People saw in it lots of different things : for example that the no-cover was a negation of the ubiquitous celebrity the band members was enjoying. Or that  it was the expression of the absence of feeling between members that were now increasingly more separated from each others, as much artistically than as persons...
In fact, like most great work of art, this sleeve is a great source of inspiration, deliberately or not. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and this cover artwork, whatever its true intentions, has become a striking expression of the band's status at that time, for the worse, and the better.

Note : Richard Hamilton just passed away on September 14th, at the age of 89.

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