How the Beatles fell into avant garde hell with 1968’s unreleased Wide Album.
Editor’s note: Each time an important date in Beatle history rolls around, stories pour forth about the successes of the Fab Four. This isn’t one of them. Instead, this article chronicles the subterfuge behind the group’s 1968 release The Beatles. Known colloquially as the White Album, this article looks at its origins as the Wide Album. No one was willing to go on record and confirm details about this murky chapter of the band’s history -- a chapter so seemingly implausible that virtually all esteemed Beatle scholars believe it to be fictional. Yes, this is satire, just to clear up any confusion.
“Unplayable by Listeners! Unstockable by Stores!” This was the tag line on promotional materials drawn up by advertising executives at Apple Records for the upcoming Beatles album in the autumn of 1968.
In today’s anything-goes world of pop music, such an announcement might be considered shrewd marketing. But when the Beatles decided to use it to promote their impending double LP, all hell broke loose at EMI Records. Though unbeknownst to the public at the time (and unreported since), the world’s biggest selling group was nearly dropped from its record label and hauled into court for breaking the terms stated in their 1962 recording contract.
And all they really wanted to do, say sources, was break new ground.
The idea came about after the group returned from India with a massive cache of over 30 songs and realized they had too much material for even a double LP. That’s when Beatle John Lennon hit on the idea of enlarging the size of the record’s discs from 12 to 14 inches, in order to fit more music. Beatle scholars agree that Lennon first brought the idea to his buddy, Apple staff “inventor” Magic Alex Madras, who confirmed that bigger discs could be manufactured. Unfortunately, no one would be able to play such discs since they wouldn’t be able to fit on regular phonographs. Undaunted, Lennon pressed on with the idea, saying the band “already did too much” for its fans and that he was “going to make sure Paul didn’t get more songs than me on the album even if it means no one hears the bloody tunes".
(Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars believe the old Close-n-Play record players could have accommodated the larger discs. They also note that Lennon in 1968 would only listen to records on the kiddie record players, calling them more “honest” and “authentic", than the “bourgeois stereo” owned by Paul McCartney.)
Other Beatle-ologists claim Lennon and then-girlfriend Yoko Ono were just trying to stay one step ahead of the avant-garde. It’s also been claimed that Lennon was being spiteful over the other Beatles’ rejection of his song “Revolution” as the a-side of their “Hey Jude” single and was deliberately attempting to sabotage the group’s career.
“The group’s true, conservative nature was exposed when they chose to relegate John’s ‘Revolution’ to the flip side of that record,” explains a former Apple Boutique employee. “These days, Paul McCartney tries to take credit for every innovation the band ever did, but back then he made June Cleaver look like Eldridge Cleaver.” (Editor’s note: Many Beatle scholars dispute the validity of this quote, claiming instead the staffer referred to Wally Cleaver, not June Cleaver.)
Whatever the case, it came to pass that Lennon goaded executives at Apple Records into mastering previously-unheard-of 14-inch test pressings of the LP late in 1968, while fellow Fab Paul McCartney was away in America. Upon returning to Britain, the baby-faced Beatle was purportedly livid, but agreed to stand behind Lennon’s idea -- at least at first.
“The group was so big at the time they figured people would buy the record anyway,” explains a friend of the group.
The disc would be called the Wide Album, because of its unique width, Lennon said. At an Apple Records board meeting, the Beatle explained to a group of employees and Hell’s Angels that the disc would herald a “bold new era". (Editor’s note: Several Beatle scholars argue there were no Hell’s Angels in the meeting. They claim that Ringo’s wife had brought along an angel food cake and the details got confused in the ensuing years.)
By mid-autumn, thousands of copies of the 14-inch LP were rolling off the presses. Sure, the concept of a record that could not be played was odd, reasoned many close to the Beatles. But didn’t so many of the group’s previous ideas seem strange at first? You know, like long hair and actually having to listen to the Maharishi? And then one day a pressing of the LP found its way into the hands of Sir Joseph Lockwood, president of EMI Records, which distributed Apple.
Lockwood couldn’t play the disc on his office turntable. Thinking his record machine was broken, he asked his secretary to try and play the record. But the needle kept popping up off the disc and Lockwood could barely make out the words to a song that sounded like it was called “Dear Pruneface".
The elderly EMI president was not amused. Perceiving the “pruneface” song as a personal jab (Lockwood was nearly 80 at the time), he flew into a rage and hurled the group’s soon-to-be-released masterpiece against a wall. The next day, a more composed Lockwood summoned Beatles producer George Martin to his office. Martin had taken a leisurely vacation that fall and had missed many of the album’s sessions, but was about to be re-immersed back into the weird lair of the Liverpool Lads.
Lockwood demanded the producer bring the rapidly-fragmenting band together for a high-level meeting. A terrified Martin heeded Lockwood’s orders.
At the time, Lennon was dealing with the ramifications of his recent drug arrest, McCartney was in the studio with English thrush Mary Hopkin, Harrison was working with guitarist Eric Clapton, and Starr was in Greece. (Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars claim Ringo was not in Greece but that he was covering his prematurely-gray hair with Grecian formula.)
When each of the four band members heard Martin erupt on the telephone, they sped to EMI for the impromptu get-together. Even the usually bold Ono made like a shrinking violet and begged off. The arguments came fast and furious, with Lockwood accusing Lennon of being “crazy” and “arrogant". Lennon kept his cool, explaining that the unwieldy album would “make fans think” and “cause them to question who and what we are.”
Guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr sat slumped in corners. Neither had known about Lennon’s scheme in the first place. As the always-articulate Lennon pressed on with his arguments, Lockwood held up a copy of the band’s recording contract, noting the clause which detailed the specific physical dimensions of albums. (Editor’s note: Some Beatle scholars maintain Lockwood did not hold up the contract, but merely pointed at it.)
New concepts were all well and good, explained Lockwood, but a record that could not be listened to did not -- in his mind -- qualify as any type of “innovation".
“It’s not important to us that fans be able to actually play our albums,” snapped an impatient Lennon. “That’s a triviality to us at this point.”
“But if they CAN manage to somehow play the LP, they’ll get extra music and better sound,” offered a helpful McCartney. (Due to its larger size, the Wide Album, contained two extra songs, “What’s the New Mary Jane” and “Not Guilty".)
According to newly uncovered EMI documents, Lockwood “threw a hissy fit". He also threw the band and its crimson-faced producer out of his office. “Stop acting like spoiled little prats!” he barked. “Come back when you’ve made a proper record. And I’ve never said it before but that ‘Lady Madonna’ record was a load of bollocks!”