“The White Album”—its official title is the decidedly simple The Beatles—was released on November 22, 1968 to an eager audience. Released almost 18 months after the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the 30-song collection captured John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr indulging in a variety of musical styles. While the songwriting was evolving, and most of the songs were composed while attending a Transcendental Meditation course, the relationships between the four continued to dissolve during the recording; The Beatles officially broke up in April 1970. Here are some facts about one of the most polarizing, enigmatic records ever made.
1. A BEACH BOY HELPED WITH THE BEACH BOY PARODY "BACK IN THE USSR."
Mike Love was a fellow attendee of the Maharishi’s course in Rishikesh, India. He recalled McCartney and his acoustic guitar at breakfast one morning playing what would become the first song on the 'White Album." Love suggested putting something in the song about “all the girls around Russia.” McCartney listened.
2. RINGO STARR QUIT THE BAND FOR TWO WEEKS.
Starr never felt like more of an outsider within the band than during the recording of the album, and told his bandmates so. He borrowed actor Peter Sellers’ yacht and went to Sardinia. Because he wasn’t around, McCartney played the drums on "Back In The USSR” and “Dear Prudence.” Eventually the group sent him a telegram that said he was the best rock 'n' roll drummer in the world, that they all loved him, and asked if he would please return. When he came back, he was greeted with the words “Welcome Back, Ringo” spelled out in flowers on his drum kit.
3. THE PRUDENCE IN "DEAR PRUDENCE" WAS MIA FARROW’S SISTER.
Another student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in early 1968 was then-20-year-old Prudence Farrow. She locked herself in her hut for three weeks because, as Lennon put it, she “was trying to find God quicker than anyone else.” The song is Lennon imploring her to come out of the hut.
4. THE MARTHA IN "MARTHA MY DEAR" WAS PAUL MCCARTNEY’S DOG.
The bass player’s pet was an Old English sheepdog. She passed away in 1981. When McCartney revealed the real subject of the song in 1997, he said his relationship with Martha was “platonic.”
5. THE "JULIA" WAS JOHN LENNON’S MOTHER.
Julia Lennon left five-year-old John behind and had him live with her sister, Mimi. Mother and son got to know each other better by the time he was 17, but soon after she was fatally hit by a car. The song is for both her and Yoko Ono—the “ocean child” in “Julia” is in reference to Ono’s name, Japanese for “child of the ocean.” “Julia” is the only Beatles song that featured just Lennon on guitar and vocals.
6. HARRISON’S MOTHER HELPED HIM WRITE "PIGGIES."
Harrison had trouble coming up with a lyric in the middle section of his song. Mrs. Harrison was the one who came up with, "What they need is a damn good whacking." After Charles Manson’s interpretation of the song, George claimed the line was not talking about the police, and the lyric was kept in because it rhymed with what he already had.
7. MCCARTNEY GOT THE PHRASE "OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA" FROM A NIGERIAN CONGA PLAYER.
Jimmy Scott moved to England in the 1950s and became a working musician; at one point in his career he backed Stevie Wonder on a tour of Great Britain. One of his expressions was “Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra,” which McCartney loved. The Beatle claimed he sent Scott a check as acknowledgement for using his expression as the basis of his song. Scott played congas on the track. According to a 2004 online poll conducted by the BBC, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is the worst song in history.
8. THE INSPIRATION FOR "THE CONTINUING STORY OF BUNGALOW BILL" SAID HE WOULD NEVER KILL AN ANIMAL AGAIN.
Richard A. Cooke III was visiting his mother Nancy in Rishikesh, when he shot a tiger while hidden in a tree on a wooden platform. Richard told his mother he felt bad and didn’t think he would ever kill again. He became a photographer. Lennon got the name "Bungalow Bill" by combining "Buffalo Bill" with the bungalows in the camp.
9. ERIC CLAPTON PLAYS GUITAR ON "WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS."
George Harrison wrote the song, and found that Lennon and McCartney weren’t taking the recording of it seriously enough. The next day Harrison convinced his friend Eric Clapton to come in and play on the track. Clapton was hesitant because no outside musicians had played on a Beatles song before, but Harrison insisted. His presence made Lennon and McCartney give it the proper amount of thought and practice. Clapton’s work isn’t officially credited on the album.
10. "SAVOY TRUFFLE" WAS HARRISON MAKING FUN OF CLAPTON’S LOVE OF CHOCOLATE.
Clapton ate a lot of chocolates at the time, so much so that after he received the dental work needed from his many resulting cavities, his dentist told him to stop eating candy entirely. Harrison wrote the song to “tease” him.
11. "HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN" IS A PLAY ON A PEANUTS BOOK.
The 1962 Charles Schulz collection was titled Happiness Is a Warm Puppy. A headline in a gun magazine was a variation of that. When producer George Martin showed the headline “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” to Lennon, Lennon’s wheels started turning.
12. "BLACKBIRD" WAS ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS.
“I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird,” McCartney said. “Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: 'Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” The music was inspired by “Bourrée in E Minor” from Bach's Suite in E Minor for Lute.
13. "SEXY SADIE" WAS ABOUT LENNON’S FRUSTRATIONS WITH THE MAHARISHI.
According to John Lennon, he and George—the last two Beatles that were in India—left the TM course in disgust after Mia Farrow claimed the Maharishi made sexual advances toward her. According to Deepak Chopra, the Maharishi told him that he kicked the band out for using drugs. Either way, Lennon rechristened the Maharishi "Sexy Sadie," admonishing him for making a fool of everyone.
14. "HELTER SKELTER" WAS MEANT TO OUTROCK THE WHO.
McCartney read that The Who had made a song that was loud, raucous, and dirty (“I Can See For Miles”), and then decided he wanted to top them. A "Helter Skelter" is a British amusement park slide, and the song was about the rise and fall of the Roman empire.
15. "REVOLUTION 9" FEATURED THE ORCHESTRAL MUSIC FROM "A DAY IN THE LIFE."
Among the various audio snippets heard on the penultimate track was the final chord from Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, and Lennon and Harrison whispering “There ain’t no rule for the company freaks” six times. The voice saying "Number nine" came from an examination tape made for the Royal Academy of Music.
16. THERE WAS A 24-HOUR RUSH TO GET THE ALBUM FINISHED.
With Harrison set to fly out to Los Angeles with the master tapes, which he planned to hand over to Capitol Records, the group suddenly found themselves needing to work 24 hours straight to put the final mixes on songs and figure out a track listing. At 4 a.m., McCartney fell asleep on the mixing board while trying to get “Helter Skelter” just right.
17. THE COVER WAS DESIGNED BY POP ARTIST RICHARD HAMILTON.
McCartney instructed him to make a design that was as different as the busy, bright Sgt. Pepper cover as possible. Hamilton came up with the stark white cover with the band’s name embossed in small, black lettering. Originally he wanted the white record sleeve to include a coffee cup stain, and a light green smudge of an apple (the Beatles had just created their own company, Apple Corps).