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volume 21
december 2018

The embarrassment of abundance


  Unity and fragmentation on the Beatles' White Album
by Francesco Brusco
  In 1968, now fifty years ago, the Beatles released their most fragmented album: an exceedingly diverse collection of songs packed on two disks that because of its blank cover became known as the White Album. While transcending the specifics of its context the album, Francesco Brusco argues, reflects the seismic cultural and political events of its year of birth — and that's what gives it its unity. Through parody, hyperbole and bitter irony, it takes the musical minutes of the socio-cultural trials and tribulations of that social tipping point in our recent history.

The musical minutes of '68. Released on November 22, 1968, the awaited heir of Sgt. Pepper pulls down the curtains of that restless and overwhelming year, whose echo is just outwardly absent. In fact, when first glancing at the lyrics, only Revolution 1 and Revolution 9 (this one merely because of its title) are perceived as legitimate daughters of '68, pertinent musical comments to those months.

But the meaning of a song is not confined to its literary side; it is the music of the White Album, its connotations, its expressive modalities — which are of course influenced by those lyrics — that fit into the tale of 1968, with their peculiar voice and observation point.

Through parody, hyperbole and bitter irony, the White Album, "in a dissonant and highly metaphorical way," [1] took the musical minutes of the socio-cultural calamity the world underwent in those crucial twelve months.


A rock'n'roll history on four sides. At the beginning of the new recording project, Paul McCartney had announced that the Beatles would have probably recorded all the thirty songs available; after which they would have decided whether to opt for a skim — to get a 14 track LP — or a double album "Or even a triple. We will not know until we have finished." [2]

While the first triple LP in rock history will be George Harrison's All Things Must Pass (1970), double albums had overwhelmingly come into fashion two years earlier, with Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, released in July of '66. Another double LP appeared on the shelves just a month later: Freak Out!, the shocking debut record by Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention. Its effect on rock music compares that of Dadaism on art. In the milieu which was closest to the Beatles, Donovan's Gift from a Flower to a Garden was hot off the press right before the trip to Rishikesh, while in the summer of '68 Cream came out with Wheels of Fire. Announced for the end of the year, the double LPs by Jimi Hendrix and the Incredible String Band. [3]

  As we know, the selection of tracks so heartily recommended by George Martin will not take place, and The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, will collect thirty very different songs. Thirty short stories, thirty musical watercolors deployed on four sides well recognizable in their respective traits, moods and directions, just like their creators.
  For some critics, the main reason for this great amount of content was the Beatles' desire to extinguish their musical with EMI as soon as possible. Others have emphasized the will of the four authors to include in the album all their respective creations. More likely, it was a pure aesthetic choice.
  In the ineluctability of history and art, the White Album just had to be like this, and it is precisely its internal conflict between unity and fragmentation, this tension among thirty atoms being as many drives towards multiple trajectories, that represents its true value.
  Also considering the exceptionality of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, initially devised as a real concept album, the unit of measure of the Beatles' oeuvre is always the song, enjoyable in itself and self-sufficient. That is the form to which their ideas aim to since the very beginning, and it is indeed interesting to note how often the tracks in their catalogue are made up of fragments representing articulations even smaller than that unit.
  In any case, each album which is not a mere compilation of the material available at a given moment for a given artist, is bound to acquire its own peculiar tone. There is a colour, a general sense, a different atmosphere in every Beatles' LP; unique and unrepeatable features, never to be replicated on the following record. The songs are obviously the main ingredients, with their significant chromatic properties. When we perceive and appreciate them per sé, isolated from their context, we admire their identity and uniqueness, as in a Rothko's canvas. Nevertheless, they are not primary colours, indifferent to the external environment, and when we glance at the big picture, we see them bathed in the light and shade of the other chromatic hues.
  But colour, in order to be perceived, requires a beam of light hitting the object. In fifty years of life, each listening casts a different light; rays emitted by the countless fruitions — all equally unique — which bring the artwork to life. In a masterpiece like this, the sum of the thirty different colours that compose it, could only create white.
  Following the kaleidoscopic visions of Pepperland, its effervescence, its thousand clues, this album denies any hint. There is no title to guide us in the search for a common denominator to the tale. A simple, lapidary The Beatles, barely readable as an engraving on a sleeve which is a completely white canvas. It is up to us, time after time, to choose a colour.
  In spite of the strong micro-narrative given by the single tracks, the White Album achieves a long, variegated song-cycle. This is undoubtedly due to the authors' versatility and renovated inspiration, but also to a skilled craftsmanship.
In his last interview for Rolling Stone, John Lennon will recall the marathon he faced — together with Paul McCartney and George Martin — to put those thirty tracks in a row. [4] A twenty-four hour session, the longest in the Beatles' career, between 16 and 17 October 1968. [5] Not much differently from what had happened on Sgt. Pepper, the tracklist for the new album recomposes unity through fragmentation. The songs, once again, are fused together without the canonical three-seconds separation; each side starts and ends with a hit, and none of the composers has more than two consecutive songs along the tracklist. As a pure joke, the animals of this weird farm — Blackbird, Piggies, Rocky Raccoon — are fenced next to each other on Side B.
  On Sgt. Pepper, all the songs were anchored to the fiction of an alter-ego band and amalgamated by George Martin's detailed arrangement. On this record, they can freely turn into separate musical novels.
Their diversity is enhanced by the stereo mix: this is the first Beatles' album mainly conceived in stereophony. The band oversee the operations in the studio, while up to Sgt. Pepper they were interested only in mono mix. The stereo mode, on the White Album, helps them to play like a different band on every track: the disparity between the songs is linked only "by the musical currents that flow between them." [6]

The Beatles' postmodernism. Fragmentation and blending of genres, characterizing ingredients of the album, have been regarded by recent critics as postmodernist aesthetic techniques. Although unconsciously implemented, they open the semantic field to the involvement of the addressee, the listener.

Postmodernism is part of an intellectual and artistic zeitgeist of the late Sixties including the Beatles, and Lennon in particular, especially because of his strong bond with Yoko Ono.


Under the aegis of postmodernism we can gather ideas, theories and attitudes sharing the tendency to reevaluate, or rather to devalue, the modern myths of unity, objectivity, enlightenment, progress: all that modernists had judged as the only path for the liberation of the human race. On the contrary, postmodern theories organize their world according to plural perspectives, based on multiple narratives, often contradictory and paradoxical. [7]

It is an aesthetic which cannot be affirmative, condemned to subvert the tradition, thus decentralizing and recombining art, politics and theory. Its primary concern is to delegitimize norms and values of the prevailing order, showing they are not the objective truths professed by modernists, but rather the emanation of a specific group's ideology. [8]
The goal of postmodern art is not to solve questions, but to release a space for the discourse between reader and text; this is exactly what the White Album does for the discussions on the nature and positioning of popular music. [9] And it does so, to a large extent, regardless of its authors' intentions.
3.1 Musical bricolage. On the first home demos for Cry Baby Cry Lennon sings the words "Jai Guru Deva", eventually flown into Across The Universe. Similarly, on the early tapes for I'm So Tired, the author adds a few lines — "When I hold you in your [sic] arms / When you show me one of your charms" — which will soon prove to be extremely useful for Happiness Is A Warm Gun, [10] to which they fit much better.
  Listening to the Beatles' outtakes — now open heritage both in their official edition, from Anthology (1995-'96) onwards, and on bootlegs — holds many of these surprises. The craftsmanship that in various percentages is always part of the artistic creation is revealed in this way too, through editing, repêchage and re-employment. For the White Album, the critics will adopt a label borrowed from the DIY field: bricolage.
Jean-François Lyotard, the post-structuralist French philosopher who is responsible for the theoretical elaboration of postmodernism, defines bricolage as "the multiple quotation of elements taken from previous styles or periods, either classical or modern." [11] The juxtaposition of high and low art makes every style a comment on the other, and on art in general. Postmodernism is absolutely indifferent to the concepts of consistency and continuity. Feelings and commitment are dissolved into irony and the search for depth is derided as nostalgia. [12]
Bricolage is one of the salient features of the White Album, which is often compared to a small pop encyclopedia, [13] or even a musical equivalent of Monty Python's Flying Circus. [14] For many critics, its lack of consistency — quintessential modernist value — is mostly a matter of quantity. In my opinion, even satisfying George Martin's advise for a single album, the result would not have changed: incoherence stands as an inner quality — not necessarily negative — for this work.
  Especially since, in those days, the rock audience expects an album to contain both rock songs and ballads; in the case of a Beatles' album, after Sgt. Pepper, we can also expect a lot more:
"The effect of making an album with so many different musical styles, especially styles found outside pop music, is to make readers stop to reconsider the question of what does, and does not, constitute rock and roll. Mixing styles in the manner of the White Album obliges readers to move from the passive consumption of music to an active discussion of the function and role of art." [15]
  Despite being far away from the critics' conjectures — mostly successive — which will associate their works to one or the other prevailing aesthetic, depending on the trend of the moment, the Beatles have full awareness and intentionality for at least one crucial element in this discourse: irony.
  For a listener being unaware of this feature, Hollywood pastiches like Honey Pie or Good Night would instantly summon the ghost of kitsch; especially in the light of the songs that precede them — respectively, Revolution 1 and Revolution 9.
  But the difference between kitsch and the Beatles' approach lies in their intentional use of irony in stylistic imitation:
"Kitsch takes these shapes seriously and imitates them without irony. Postmodernism is nothing if not ironic: its endeavor is to deconstruct the solemnity of cultured modernism [...] It challenges the idea of a single art and presents its politics as molecular, alliance of otherwise disparate groups for specific and perhaps temporary goals." [16]
  The discourse on irony leads us straight to another central element of the White Album.
3.2 Parody. The allegations made by the most radical wing of critics and public against this double LP are not limited to Revolution, accused of showing evidence of the Beatles' refusal to take explicit political positions. It is the stylistic variety itself to be considered excessive, this leading to the imputation of attempted escape from reality. Jon Landau, on The London Daily Times, argues that:
"The Beatles have used parody on this album precisely because they were afraid of confronting reality. It becomes a mask behind which they can hide from the urgencies of the moment." [17]
Equating parody with evasion is a rather widespread line, within Marxist critique against postmodern culture. In his essay Postmodernism and the Consumer Society (1984), Frederic Jameson distinguishes parody and "pastiche". Both involve the imitation of a unique or peculiar style, and both wear a stylistic mask; however, pastiche is considered a neutral practice of such mimicry, without the additional motive of parody and "without that still latent feeling that there is something normal with respect to what is imitated." [18] Pastiche is the postmodern failed attempt to parody, a failure due to the loss of norms or standards of judgment, which the american author links to the "death of the subject" in postmodern society. Dazzled by pyrotechnic yet superficial style exhibits, the subject is unable to reach a point of observation from where he can make crucial political judgments or resist the forces of consumerist capitalism.
That of Landau and Jameson is a sharp refusal of eclecticism in all contemporary art, which does not consider adequately either the context of artistic creation, or its reception, elements capable of giving political value to particular uses of eclecticism itself. [19]
  In The Beatles, parody comes into action from the very first track, on board the BOAC flight that is taking the protagonist from Miami Beach to the Soviet motherland.
Integrating a paradoxical cocktail between "I'm Backing Britain" — the slogan of the supporting campaign for British industry — and Chuck Berry's Back In The USA, the vocal harmonies à la Beach Boys in the middle-eight close another circle: a quotation — elevated to the square — of Sweet Little Sixteen by Berry himself recalled in Surfin' USA by the Californian band. [20]
Crowned by the icing on the cake — the line "Georgia's on my mind" relocating Ray Charles from the American State to the homonymous republic of the USSR — McCartney's inspired cold war parody "plays on stereotypical Western visions of both the United States and Soviet Union, and satirizes the absurdities in each." [21]
  John is likewise acute on Happiness Is A Warm Gun. He sings the sinister slogan of the title on a musical base that winks once again to the Fifties, with the cliché progression I-VI-IV-V. The backing vocals in doo-wop style reply with an onomatopoeic "bang bang shoot shoot".
Throughout the four sides of the album, musical references to the Fifties are juxtaposed with eminently Sixties' lyrics; this mocks and erodes at once the innocence of one decade and the pretentiousness of the other. [22]
  But the Beatles' parody touches its summits picking up even older styles, as had already happened with McCartney's digressions When I'm 64 and Your Mother Should Know, of which Honey Pie is the worthy heir. Style and instrumentation are typically 1920s, and the charm of the pre-swing era is confessed by Paul's voice: "I like this kinda hot kinda music". Needless to say, the 78 rpm sound is carefully recreated, compressing the voice, speeding it up and filtering it.
"All of this distances McCartney from his public, in an even more defensive way than with Sgt. Pepper, as if to say, 'It's not my recording — I just found it in the attic; isn't it camp?'" [23]
  If Honey Pie is camp, so is Good Night, which proposes the same Hollywood setting — quite surprisingly — by Lennon's hand. The lush orchestra, reminiscent of Cole Porter and Ravel, accompanies the lead voice provided by Ringo — for whom the piece is expressly conceived — for the final greetings. After the eight minute avant-garde of Revolution 9, this song has the same unsettling and sinister effect as the Fifties-style tunes played on the Roadhouse stage in David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
  It is not only on the side of nostalgia that the parodic verve of Lennon-McCartney is lavished. Rocky Raccoon, a caricature of wild west ballads, has certainly in mind Dylan's just released John Wesley Harding. As well as Yer Blues, mentioning Mr. Jones from the future Nobel's Ballad Of A Thin Man (on Highway 61 Revisited). The song is also a parodic reference to the English Blues Boom of '68; nonetheless, the pain expressed by Lennon's lyrics is absolutely sincere.
Inspired by the monkeys freely fornicating in the Maharishi's ashram, Why Don't We Do It In The Road replies to Let's Spend The Night Together by The Stones and Down Along The Cove, by Bob Dylan again. [24] With its explicit references to "street theatre", McCartney's song belongs to that kind of Conceptual Art so admired by Lennon; twelve years later he was still resentful for not being asked to record it. [25]
  Without wanting to draw up a complete tracklist, we can just recall the tribute to early Jamaican ska in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da counterbalanced, at the antipodes of Paul's expressive range, by Helter Skelter, written to compete with The Who.
Parody is an integral part of postmodernist aesthetics. Its greatest ability is to criticize a system from the outside; and the only way to do it is by using its own language. Parody subverts the pretentiousness of a system bringing it to the extreme consequences: it reveals its limits by using its same methods and techniques. [26]
3.3 Looking through a glass onion. In a scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965), the cabriolet on which the protagonists are traveling is shot from behind. Jean-Paul Belmondo turns around, looking into the camera: "See? She always wants to joke". "Who are you talking to?", Anna Karina asks. "To the audience".
In the age of postmodern art, not only has the fourth wall fallen, but also its rubble have completely disappeared. Art is aware of its conventions and codes and enjoys making fun of them with the audience. By denuding itself, the postmodern work reveals its means of production to the addressee and invites him to offer his commentary. Postmodern art "shows the sutures in its wounds," [27] thus revealing its nature of built artifice.
  One of the traditional conventions challenged by the White Album, for instance, is the ending; both for the album as a whole and for the individual tracks. Helter Skelter fades out and then fades in again. Ringo's scream "I've got blisters on my fingers!" exposes the device, showing that the ending itself is nothing more than a code, a convention. Transgressing the rule is often more effective than respecting it.
In the same way, Good Night comments on the ending conventions and presents itself as the grand finale of the entire album. The orchestra brings to mind the triumphant conclusion of a musical, and the "goodnight everybody" whispered at the end is an ironic cliché, halfway between crooners and fairy tales records. [28]
  In Glass Onion, it is John — with a little help from Paul — who talks to the audience, in particular to the investigators who scrutinize music and lyrics on the Beatles' records to find any kind of answer. As if wanting to spread clues, mostly false ones, Lennon amuses himself — and the rest of us — in a series of quotes from their recent repertoire: Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus, Lady Madonna, Fixing A Hole, The Fool On The Hill, the latter also evoked by Paul's flute which mimics the original. A satire against the excesses of exegesis, but also a demonstration of how the Beatles' catalogue can immediately represent — Lady Madonna had just been released the previous February — such a powerful reference term for a series of self-quotations perfectly recognizable to the audience.
  With Savoy Truffle, Harrison goes even further, making reference to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da that "we all know" despite having heard it just a few tracks before.
Ian MacDonald argues that the contrast between "normal" society and counterculture is based on a precise dualism: logical/practical versus intuitive/lateral thinking. Central to the hippie's idea is the intention to undermine the "normal" security by means of "mind games" reproducing the effects of disorientation induced by psychedelic drugs. Many of the Beatles' records of the period 1966-70 express this kind of concepts, and the rest of them are nevertheless influenced by the same idea. [29]
Metapoetic — even meta-Beatles — works, this kind of songs operate as parables "about the act of storytelling itself, about the difficulty of plying a writerly trade" [30] — parables on the very act of being Beatles. By mocking the urgency of finding a meaning, a stable sense, the four emphasize what critics fail to notice in the claimed disorganization of this record: the White Album does not offer conclusions, and any coherence depends on the interplay of highly eclectic materials.
  Writing about his The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco provides a famous definition of postmodernism:
"The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her 'I love you madly', because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say 'As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly'. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love." [31]
  By inserting references and self-quotations in inverted commas, the White Album speaks without false innocence, addressing to an interlocutor who is by then familiar with its code. Like Umberto Eco's lovers, in an era of lost innocence, the band and their audience accept the challenge of the past and its inevitable "already said". They accept it with both conscience and irony, once again succeeding in speaking out their feelings, and ours.

Conclusions. Nothing could be farther from Sgt. Pepper's cover than the totally white sleeve designed by Richard Hamilton. The artist, avoiding the competition with the sumptuous design of contemporary covers, suggests a white packaging, so pure and immaculate that it almost seems esoteric. For Hamilton, the irony on The Beatles cover depends on the fact that its avant-garde appearance, in spite of Walter Benjamin, [32] is mechanically reproduced, simulating the uniqueness by means of the serial numbers that identify the first two million copies.

The highly vituperated fragmentation of the album is reflected in the disintegration of the band, irreversible by the end of 1968. A dissolution witnessed by the images inside the cover:

"There is no group picture on the outside or inside of the White Album; in its place on the inside are four, now iconic small black and white photos of each individual, unsmiling Beatle. The album package included the same four pictures as larger, 8 x 10 color photographs, along with a poster of a fragmented collage of photos taken over the years, comprised almost entirely of individual pictures of the various Beatles." [33]

For a long time, the album was meant to be entitled A Doll's House, a tribute to Ibsen hinted by John Lennon. In July, however, the Family released Music in a Doll's House, forcing the Beatles to re-baptize their creature. An unfortunate coincidence, since that would have been a suitable title for what MacDonald calls a musical loft of unpaired objects, some fascinating, others menacing; many shaded in the colors of childhood memories, all absorbed in the inner worlds of their authors. [34]
  It was Hamilton again, remaining adherent to the essentiality of the cover, to suggest a simple The Beatles.
  However, very few will refer to this record using its title: for everyone, from the very beginning, it will just be The White Album. It will become the best-selling album by the Liverpool band as well as the absolute best seller of the decade. Its fortune will continue after the Sixties' sunset: in the moment of this writing, there are about twenty million copies scattered on Earth.
  The critics will divide on this LP more than on any other Beatles' album. The vast majority will have positive opinions, as easily foreseeable, but with more varying nuances of appreciation, compared to the plebiscite for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Many reviewers will emphasize its status of eclectic mix of musical genres. For Riley the album challenges the sense of structure, renouncing to have a clear beginning and ending like Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. [35] Other voices will speak of unsurpassable wonder, "a brilliant tapestry of different musical styles" that no one else apart from the Beatles could have made, let alone try. [36] According to McKinney, this is the most fragmented album by the Beatles and the ugliest; their most disturbing and most moving one. Like 1968 — he writes — "it screams, laughs wickedly, attacks, kills, cries, sighs and dies ... [but] is their best album, and nothing else in rock and roll has ever got close to it." [37]
  Even in such a critical moment in their careers and private lives, the Beatles were simply unable to descend below the levels of masterpiece.
  The White Album, in conclusion, leaves an equally white space to the listener; a space that the latter can fill with meanings which do not only concern this memorable double LP, or just the Beatles' music. They rather deal with a language, that of "rock", which despite being a newborn genre, is already old enough to reveal its structures, codes, and tools. It is in the mind of the listener, the recipient, that the multiplicity of the message reaches its unity.
This record has no need to explicitly mention the facts of that year to encompass the whole contemporary mood. In fact it reflects the events of 1968 yet transcending its context, as Guernica had done with respect to the Spanish Civil War. Like Picasso's masterpiece, like all the best masterpieces of all time, the total is greater than the sum of the single parts. [38] The same concept has been so often proposed for the Beatles as a group.
  Ringo considers the album as an artistic rebirth for the Beatles, recalling it — in spite of their inner tensions and divisions — as a real "group" album:
"As a band member, I've always felt The White Album was better than Sgt. Pepper because by the end it was more like a real group again. There weren't so many overdubs like on Pepper. With all those orchestras and whatnot, we were virtually a session group on our own album." [39]
For Paul, more prosaically: "It's great. It sold. It's the bloody Beatles' White Album. Shut up!" [40]
The Beatles' White Album reminds us that we can take our broken wings and fly, say "goodnight" after the Revolution, it reminds us that we will always find a way to resist. "Is there any greater narrative than this?" [41]
  In his urge for deconstruction, this record dissolves the boundaries of popular music in general. Most significantly for the band itself, this fragmentary work of different authors' blending styles also dissolves the musical paths of those four boys.
  Their unity, unlike that of their music, will never be recomposed.
1. Womack, 2007: 220. Return to text
2. Walsh, 1968. Return to text
3. Everett, 1999: 163. Return to text
4. Sheff, 1981: 55. Return to text
5. Lewisohn, 1990: 162. Return to text
6. Riley, 1988: 288. Return to text
7. Whitley, 2000: 105-106. Return to text
8. Aronowitz, 1994: 42-43. Return to text
9. Whitley, 2000: 106. Return to text
10. Everett, 1999: 169. Return to text
11. Lyotard, 1992: 76. Return to text
12. Whitley, 2000: 109. Return to text
13. Schaffner, 1977: 113. Return to text
14. Okun, 1986: 143. Return to text
15. Whitley, 2000: 110. Return to text
16. Aronowitz, 1994: 40. Return to text
17. Quoted in Wiener, 1984: 65. Return to text
18. Jameson, 1984: 114. Return to text
19. Roessner, 2006: 150. Return to text
20. Everett, 1999: 187. Return to text
21. Roessner, 2006: 157. Return to text
22. Whitley, 2000: 114. Return to text
23. Everett, 1999: 189. Return to text
24. Everett, 1999: 197 Return to text
25. MacDonald, 1994: 311. Return to text
26. Whitley, 2000: 113. Return to text
27. Aronowitz, 1994: 40. Return to text
28. Whitley, 2000: 121-122. Return to text
29. MacDonald, 1994: 300. Return to text
30. Womack, 2007: 222. Return to text
31. Eco, 1994: 67-68. Return to text
32. See: Benjamin, 1935; 1939. Return to text
33. Keating, 2010. Return to text
34. MacDonald, 1994: 314. Return to text
35. Riley, 1988: 287. Return to text
36. Quantick, 2002: 225. Return to text
37. McKinney, 2003: 225. Return to text
38. Keating, 2010. Return to text
39. Ryan and Kehew, 2006: 476. Return to text
40. From The Beatles Anthology. Return to text
41. Womack, 2007: 245. Return to text
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