Forty-seven years ago, Beatle fans spent Thanksgiving weekend listening to The Beatles, the new Beatles album which fans quickly renamed The White Album, making it easier to talk about and refer to. They were “thrilled that it was a double album,” but of course that meant it was more expensive. Several mentioned not being able to buy it right away, and a few remember paying for it “with lots of coins.”
Bringing home a new Beatle album continued to be a memorable moment, “sort of like a ritual, with great suspense.” Gazing at the album cover was always an important part of the experience, and even though this album didn’t offer much to gaze at, fans didn’t mind. “It was the Beatles,” and as one female fan (b. ’51) put it, “Who else would have the nerve to do this?”
Not only were fans getting two records of new Beatle music at the same time—a first—but the package also included a color portrait of each Beatle “with eyes that followed you,” and a poster. Some hung the pictures and the poster; others wanted to “keep it in pristine condition.”
Some fans, young and old, found the album “scary” and “totally weird.” One female fan (b. ’61) recalled, “I didn’t get it and I wasn’t drawn to it; some of the lyrics were disturbing.” Another female fan, ten years older, recalled, “The music and the lyrics changed from happy-go-lucky to ‘out there.’ I didn’t care for their look or the lyrics. I preferred the earlier, more happy stuff.” For some, it was just a matter of getting used to it: “My older brother bought the White Album when he came back from Vietnam. I was sort of afraid of side three and four. I thought it was a bit weird and didn’t like it. But then I heard it coming from my brother’s room and I liked it” (Male b. ’57).
Many fans have vivid memories of the White Album as both off-putting and appealing. The Beatles were once again luring young people out of their comfort zone with the promise of an intriguing experience:
I listened to it a lot on a portable record player in the corner of the living room, with all the other records spread out across the floor. I skipped “Revolution 9” because it scared me. And I didn’t like the raucous ones like “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter.” I didn’t like screaming. I studied the pictures and the poster. I wanted to get the whole experience; I studied the whole package. Male, b. ’61
I was babysitting and brought it with me. I listened to it alone. It’s a very vivid memory. I was confused by it and loved it. It was unsettling. There was lots of different stuff on it. I didn’t understand “Piggies” or “Bungalow Bill.” Each time I listened, I tried to figure it out. Female, b. ’56
Despite being unsettling for some, the White Album marked the end of the “Beatle break” for many who sat out the psychedelic period. As one male fan (b. ’57) who’d been spending a lot of time with the Monkees put it, “It’s like we had a quarrel and made up.” A female fan (b. ’56) recalls, “I didn’t like the Walrus stuff; it wasn’t friendly. But they won me back with ‘Hey Jude’ and then the White Album. I loved every song.” Another recalled: “This was a different Beatles again. They’re still a little scary to me, with Paul naked behind a pole and some of the lyrics, but I think I was at an age when I was ready for something with an edge” (Male, b. ’56).
Fans remember the album as “a lot to take in,” “a smorgasbord,” or a “hodgepodge of totally different songs to explore.” A male fan, also getting reacquainted with the Beatles after a fling with the Monkees, remembers, “It was the Beatles challenging us with their weirdness. Those thirty songs sparked a lot of conversation among us twelve-year old kids.” A female fan, age thirteen at the time, recalled, “The album played a huge emotional role in my life, and the variety of it blew my mind. I remember internalizing the album. I thought a lot about them and their music.”
As Beatle records required closer listening and ventured away from 4/4 rock, some fans, male and female, who joyfully danced at age seven, eight, and nine suddenly thought dancing was “uncool.” The new self-consciousness of puberty also kept many off the dance floor.
Danceability aside, it’s not surprising that the Beatles “won back” young fans with this expansive collection. The record is rife with amusing characters both human and animal, silly, singable choruses, nature imagery, and numerous direct appeals to the child in every listener. At the same time, the album seemed to reflect the chaos and bad energy of the world outside the studio. There was more violence on this record than on any other Beatle album.