Everyone loves to mark an anniversary, and these don’t come much bigger than next weekend’s centenary of the Last Post for World War One, the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, which ended one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
Later in the month, though, another significant 20th century event will be celebrated, although I totally accept that it’s downright sacrilegious and absurd to mention this one in the same paragraph as the Great War. But the fact remains that a fair old head of steam has also been building up around the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ White Album on 22 November.
People won’t be solemnly marking the event in the streets, of course. Well, maybe die-hard Beatles anoraks who heard in the album clear evidence of the group’s disintegration and eventual break-up might be moved to mourn in public. But for many people who recall the almost palpable excitement with which they awaited every new record by John, Paul, George and Ringo, the release of a double LP of 30 new Beatles songs was among the great events of popular culture.
It certainly didn’t disappoint. Reassessing it half a century later, what stands out for me is the eclectic mix of musical genres they explored in songs like the bar-room Rocky Racoon, the cod reggae Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, the proto-punk of Helter Skelter, Lennon’s parody of groups like early Fleetwood Mac in Yer Blues, and Ringo’s supper club crooning in Good Night. To this day, any band attempting such a wide range of styles at the height of its fame would probably commit commercial suicide. Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps anything goes and the breaking down of barriers were among the trails blazed by The White Album.
Needless to say the anniversary is being marked with enough box sets to fill many an aircraft hangar. These include the final official release of what the record company has titled The Esher Demos but Beatles fans like me have always known as the Kinfauns tapes. That’s the name of the bootleg, recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow called Kinfauns in Esher, Surrey, in the spring of 1968 when they strummed out The White Album Unplugged – many of the songs they would later record in the studio.
Despite its indisputable place in rock history, though, sales of the album have always been eclipsed by the earlier Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In fact, to mark National Album Day last month BBC Radio 2 commissioned a list of the top 40 best-selling albums ever and Sgt Pepper topped the chart.
It made interesting reading. Although the 1960s and 1970s are considered the golden age of rock, only Sgt Pepper represented the 1960s while just six albums made it from the 1970s. The greatest number of best-selling albums were released in the noughties, like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Dido’s Life For Rent, and Coldplay’s Parachutes.
More recent multi platinum-sellers have come from Adele and Ed Sheeran, and it’s clear to me that despite rock pundits sniffing that record sales aren’t what they used to be, there’s still plenty of life left in the album market. It’s safe to predict there will be a 50th anniversary box set of Adele’s 21 in 2061.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe