In many ways, it marked the beginning of the end. In 1968, the Fab Four released their ninth studio album, self-titled The Beatles. While it contained many now-iconic songs, including “Dear Prudence” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, The White Album—as it came to be known because of its plain cover—also revealed divisions within the group.
“You’re not necessarily listening to The Beatles, you’re listening to individual members with their own songs,” says Dr. Michael Brocken, who grew up in Liverpool, England, as the band was growing in popularity. “This is the first evidence of The Beatles starting to fall apart.”
Brocken knows more about The Beatles than most. The author of various books about music—including The Twenty-First-Century Legacy of the Beatles and Other Voices: Hidden Histories of Liverpool’s Popular Music Scenes, 1930s-1970s—he created the world’s first Beatles master’s program, The Beatles, Popular Music and Society, at Liverpool Hope University.
He shares his insight into the band and why their album is still important half a century later.
Q: Why are people still talking about The Beatles?
They are one of the landmarks of the 20th century. When I was a kid, one of the most important reasons why people liked The Beatles was because they were just like you and me.
Q: Why is it worth studying them?
You can look at a variety of topics across the gamut of popular music, and they’ve been involved somehow. You can talk about the British music industry, lyric analysis [or] popular music at the movies with Beatles’ films. You can look at how The Beatles became very collectible later on and how Liverpool became a tourist area.
Q: What was happening with the members of the band when they recorded The White Album?
The Beatles had started to fall apart around the summer of 1967, partly because [their manager] Brian Epstein had recently died. The pressures on each Beatle becomes very strong and there are issues with their relationships as band members.
Q: How did that affect the record?
It’s like listening to a party line: in the old days when you picked up the phone, sometimes somebody else would be using the line so you would be listening to their personal telephone conversation. For me, The White Album is a bit like that. It’s like listening to somebody’s confessional. It’s very much a representation of The Beatles starting to go their different ways. They’ve created some really interesting music, but it’s not what you might call an overarching, complete thing … it’s many desperate entities stuck together.
Q: What are your favourite Beatles songs?
“For No One” from Revolver is really cinematic; you can almost see the images unfolding before your eyes. “A Day In The Life,” from Sgt. Pepper, is an interesting observational song about daily life. On The White Album, I love McCartney’s guitar picking on “Blackbird” and I like Harrison’s song development [on the album].
Q: What is a little-known fact?
Pete Best was the mainstay drummer for The Beatles before Ringo Starr. In 1961, his mom, Mona Best, effectively managed the band. She had a social club in the cellar of the family home, in the suburbs of Liverpool, called the Casbah Coffee Club and The Beatles started out playing there.
Brocken’s Favourite Beatles Spots in Liverpool
“[This] isn’t a museum. It’s an experience and one that’s worthwhile,” says Brocken. Check out its Beatles in India exhibit, which explores the band’s 1968 trip to Rishikesh where they wrote parts of The White Album.
2. Liverpool Streets
“The city has an interesting history. Take a walk around the city centre and allow the mythology of The Beatles to [unfold] in your mind.”
“The Casbah in Haymans Green was where The Beatles started out. It’s still there, in the cellar of a private house, and looks pretty much the same as it did in 1962.” Tours of the club are available seven days a week and start at £15.
[This story appears in the November 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]