Recreating The Beatles

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

The Beatles’ eponymous double album, popularly referred to as “The White Album” because of its plain white cover, is still one of rock’s most talked about recordings 35 years after its release in 1968.  At the time, critics and fans alike were divided; some marveled at the album’s innovation while others disliked the new, bleaker direction that the band’s music seemed to be taking.  Bill Flanagan, vice president of VH1, commented in a recent interview that “There’s a lot of spooky stuff on there,” and said that when as a 13 year-old boy he listened to the album, he had the distinct feeling that it was a very serious album, about much more than just pop music.

This seems to have been a popular opinion, and controversy gathered around the album when Charles Manson took his interpretation of the album’s songs too far.  Believing that the lyrics of the songs contained secret messages predicting a race war, Manson instructed the members of his gang to murder the inhabitants of two houses in Los Angeles with the aim of starting the war.  The words “Helter Skelter,” a song title from the album, were found daubed in blood on the wall of one of the houses.

Just as the Manson Family murders seemed to mark the end of the 1960s age of idealism and innocence, the White Album is thought by many to mark the end of the Beatles as a real band.  Tensions ran high between the band members during the recording sessions, and almost led to Ringo Starr leaving the band.  Several critics remarked that the White Album sounds like four solo albums put together, yet the recording still maintains a fascination and appeal when taken as a whole.

The White Album was never performed live by the Beatles themselves (they stopped touring in 1966), but a group of local musicians, the White Album Ensemble, has put together a show consisting of a complete beginning-to-end performance of the album, and will be performing the piece this Saturday at the Sunset Center in Carmel.

The idea for the White Album Ensemble came when Rick McKee was driving from San Francisco to Santa Cruz listening to the White Album on his car stereo.  He thought “how great it would be to hear this album in this exact order of songs performed live.”  Through his work as a luthier, McKee had made friends with some of the Bay Area’s top musicians, and it wasn’t long before he had assembled a band and begun rehearsals.  Two performance dates were booked for May 2003 at the 700-seat Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz; both sold out on word of mouth alone.  Two more dates in Watsonville sold out the following September, and likewise two New Year shows at the Rio.  Reviewers described the shows as not just a concert but a whole experience.

Visitors to the Sunset Center on Saturday can expect to see the White Album performed as two sets, representing the original two vinyl discs of the album.   The first set will open with “Back in the USSR” and close with “Julia,” the second will open with “Birthday” and close with “Good Night.”  The musicians in the White Album ensemble are all seasoned professionals and have played with the Doobie Brothers, the Little River Band and many others.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, June 3, 2004

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