45 Years Ago: The Beatles Begin Recording ‘The White Album’
In May of 1968 – nearly a year after the release of the triumphant ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and a few months after the major movie blunder ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ – the Beatles began working on their next album. They had been writing songs (including ‘Dear Prudence,’ ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and ‘Sexy Sadie’) during their trip to India earlier in the year. In May, they began to lay down demo versions at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, England.
Astounded by the amount of material they already had (23 tunes were finished at Harrison’s place), the Beatles decided that a single LP wouldn’t be enough to contain the sheer volume of music they had written. So the band prepared to make its first double album.
Recording for ‘The Beatles’ (which would come to be known as ‘The White Album’) began at 2:30 p.m. on May 30, 1968, at EMI Studios on Abbey Road in London. All members were present for the first day, as was John Lennon’s new girlfriend Yoko Ono, who would become a fixture at Beatles sessions for the rest of the band’s run.
Within a few months, the band would become more fractured, with members working in separate studios on their own songs, culminating in Ringo Starr quitting the band — although he returned after a couple of weeks and after much begging from his bandmates. But at the first session, all four Beatles worked together on Lennon’s ‘Revolution 1’ (simply called ‘Revolution’ at the time). He had started writing the song — a response to the antiwar protests that raged on in America and the recent assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — in India and continued working on it after returning,
The quartet laid down 16 takes of the song, although the last one was markedly different, stretched out to more than 10 minutes and ending with six minutes of feedback, screaming and moaning, some of it from Ono. ‘The White Album’’s infamous ‘Revolution 9’ sound collage came from the improvisational coda.
The first part of the song would undergo its own changes. In order to get Harrison and Paul McCartney’s approval to release ‘Revolution’ as a single, Lennon had the band record a faster version of ‘Revolution,’ which was released as the B side to ‘Hey Jude’ more than four months before ‘The White Album’ came out.
The original, more deliberate version was renamed ‘Revolution 1’ and kicked off side four of ‘The Beatles’ (which also included ‘Revolution 9’ but not the single version of the song). The band’s most varied collection of music was released as a double LP on Nov. 22, 1968, in the U.K. and three days later in the U.S.