The Beatles’ White Album: the stories behind all the songs

22 November 2020, 06:00

The Beatles in 1968: John Lennon, Paul McCartney George Harrison, Ringo Starr
The Beatles in 1968: John Lennon, Paul McCartney George Harrison, Ringo Starr. Picture: Stroud/Express/Blandford/Mirrorpix/Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Bettman/Getty Images

The Fab Four’s 1968 double album is one of the band's most controversial and eclectic records. But what was the inspiration behind these 30 wildly different songs?

On 22 November 1968, The Beatles released their ninth studio LP. Titled simply “The Beatles”, it came in a plain sleeve with the title embossed into the card, heralding a reaction to the extravagant Sgt Pepper cover the year before. It quickly became known as “The White Album” and was one of their biggest selling records - shifting over 3 million copies in the US in its first four days.

The Beatles - aka The "White Album", released on 22 November 1968
The Beatles - aka The "White Album", released on 22 November 1968. Picture: Press

For The Beatles, it was the start of a new era: the record was released on their own Apple label and featured 30 songs, all showcasing the different personalities within the band. Even Ringo got his own song. Some of the tracks featured only one Beatle performing and the majority of songs had been written when the group had spent a couple of months in India, studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi early in ’68 with nothing but their acoustic guitars for inspiration.

With such a variety of songs and influences, what does it all mean? Let’s try and get to the bottom of the White Album…

  1. Back In The USSR

    Written by Paul McCartney in India, this song was influenced by the presence of Beach Boy Mike Love at the meditation camp. Paul’s spoof Beach Boys song went on to become a genuine hit in the USSR, but the song masked some of the discontent within The Beatles - the track doesn’t feature Ringo Starr, who had temporarily quit the band when it was recorded.

  2. Dear Prudence

    Written by John Lennon in India, this gentle song is about Prudence Farrow, sister of actress Mia of Rosemary’s Baby fame. Prudence took meditation so seriously, the rest of the residents of the Maharishi’s camp started to worry about her mental health as she spent so much time in her room.

  3. Glass Onion

    Lennon’s response to the critics and fans that over-analysed Beatles lyrics, this song includes references to previous Fabs hits, including Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus and Lady Madonna.

  4. Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da

    Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott was a friend of The Beatles and used this phrase to mean “whatever will be, will be”. Not surprisingly, Scott was surprised to hear it appear in a Paul McCartney song. This track was unusual as it was recorded and finished, complete with session musicians, before Macca decided to scrap the recording and start all over again.

  5. Wild Honey Pie

    Paul McCartney solo production: he plays all instruments on this short track and his 1970 debut solo album would be full of similar recordings. Later impressively covered by the Pixies, of all people.

  6. The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill

    A daft John Lennon song about a resident of the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation camp who would practise peace and love and then go off on safari, killing wild animals. In another big change for the group, the song features a brief vocal from Lennon’s new girlfriend, Yoko Ono. Her influence on The Beatles would become greater and greater…

    The Beatles and friends at the retreat of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi in India, March 1968
    The Beatles and friends at the retreat of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi in India, March 1968. Picture: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
  7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

    George Harrison’s first song on the “White Album”, inspired by a random phrase he found in a book. It was originally demoed as a solo acoustic song, then recorded in full before Harrison ditched the first version. He eventually was satisfied with the song after enlisting his friend Eric Clapton to perform a memorable guitar solo.

  8. Happiness Is A Warm Gun

    A John Lennon song based on a phrase he saw on the cover of an American gun magazine: “I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something.”

  9. Martha My Dear

    A cheery McCartney piano piece inspired by his Old English Sheepdog, Martha.

    Paul McCartney and Martha in the summer of 1967
    Paul McCartney and Martha in the summer of 1967. Picture: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns/Getty Images
  10. I’m So Tired

    Written by Lennon in India, when he found that the clean living and meditation had given him insomnia. It’s also inspired by the postcards he was receiving from Yoko Ono. If you play the mumbling at the end, it’s supposed to say “Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him.” It doesn’t.

  11. Blackbird

    Written by McCartney in India when he heard a blackbird singing before dawn, the Beatle later claimed it was about the struggles over race relations in the US. A perfect solo performance.

  12. Piggies

    George Harrison takes a pot shot at the press and their sniping at The Beatles. Later this phrase was unfortunately taken up by the crazy Charles Manson and his murderous gang, who scrawled the phrase “PIGS” at the scene of their crimes.

    George Harrison and wife Patti at the premiere of Yellow Submarine in July 1968
    George Harrison and wife Patti at the premiere of Yellow Submarine in July 1968. Picture: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
  13. Rocky Raccoon

    A McCartney throwback to the old time movie Westerns, written in India.

  14. Don’t Pass Me By

    Ringo Starr’s first song! Although he’d apparently been working on it for five years. Contains the terrible couplet: “I’m sorry that I doubted you / I was so unfair / You were in a car crash / And you lost your hair.”

  15. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?

    Inspired by Macca seeing two monkeys going at it in the street while The Beatles were in India, this risqué rocker features just Paul and Ringo. Lennon was a bit disappointed he wasn’t involved.

  16. I Will

    Another gentle acoustic McCartney ballad from the days spent in India.

  17. Julia

    Lennon also wrote some acoustic ballads in India, this one being about his mother, who was killed in a road accident when John was 17. "Ocean child" is the meaning of Yoko's name in Japanese.

    John Lennon playing the guitar in Rishikesh, India in the Spring of 1968
    John Lennon playing the guitar in Rishikesh, India in the Spring of 1968. Picture: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
  18. Birthday

    One of The Beatles’ best rock songs, knocked off in one session after Paul had arrived at Abbey Road early. Backing vocals are by Yoko Ono and Patti Harrison.

  19. Yer Blues

    A spoof on the British blues scene that spawned Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, this song came from the heart nevertheless, as Lennon admitted he was feeling depressed about his life and marriage when meditating in India. John later performed this with Clapton and Keith Richards in December 1968 as part of The Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus, an unscreened TV special.

  20. Mother Nature’s Son

    A beautiful acoustic ballad written by Paul McCartney in India, with a lyric inspired by one of the Maharishi’s lectures.

  21. Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey

    A storming Lennon rocker, also inspired by a Maharishi lecture and some of the phrases that the guru would use. We’re not sure how the monkey comes into it (but see Why Don’t We Do It In The Road).

  22. Sexy Sadie

    The meditation retreat recharged The Beatles’ batteries, but Lennon and Harrison were dismayed to find that the Maharishi had less than wholesome intentions towards some of the women in the camp. This disillusion made its way into a John Lennon song, which was slightly rewritten to avoid a libel case.

  23. Helter Skelter

    The new White Album reissue offers up a glimpse of the original take of this classic: almost half an hour of heavy, heavy blues riffing, completely unlike the version we’re all familiar with. The album version is a later recording and McCartney’s attempt to become the world’s “heaviest band”. Charles Manson thought this song was about the apocalypse, but it’s actually about a funfair.

  24. Long Long Long

    George may have been rather cynical on the song Piggies, but this track is a beautiful tribute to God and the album’s most emotional moment. The sound at the end is a bottle of wine vibrating on a speaker cabinet when Paul hit a certain note on the organ.

    George Harrison with a Blue Meanie at the press screening of the film 'Yellow Submarine'
    George Harrison with a Blue Meanie at the press screening of the film 'Yellow Submarine'. Picture: RB/Redferns/Getty Images
  25. Revolution 1

    The first track recorded for the album and written in India about the tumultuous events taking place in Paris in May 1968. Originally 10 minutes long, the final 6 minutes featured John and Yoko going crazy in the studio, which were later chopped off to form the basis of Revolution 9. Later re-recorded in a more uptempo version as the B-side to Hey Jude.

  26. Honey Pie

    A sweet McCartney song evoking the 1920s dancehall music that his dad had played back in the day.

    Beatles singer Paul McCartney relaxing in the grounds of his father's home in Gayton in the Wirral, Cheshire, July 1968
    Beatles singer Paul McCartney relaxing in the grounds of his father's home in Gayton in the Wirral, Cheshire, July 1968. Picture: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
  27. Savoy Truffle

    George wrote this song about a box of chocolates and the fact that his mate Eric Clapton loved to chow down on the treats, to the detriment of his teeth. The names of the sweets are all genuine and from a box of Good News chocolates.

  28. Cry Baby Cry

    Written by John after a TV ad that he half-heard while tinkering around at the piano.

  29. Revolution 9

    The final 6 minutes of the original Revolution 1, chopped up, mixed with tape loops from the Abbey Road archive and some vocal improvisations by John, Yoko and George. A lengthy avant garde sound collage that most Beatles fans only ever listened to once.

  30. Good Night

    Ringo rounds off the double album with this sweet lullaby written for John’s son Julian.