Ringo Starr auctions off the first copy of The Beatles' White Album: The story of a revolutionary record

The mythology surrounding the White Album takes in warring Beatles, Charles Manson and installation art. What's even weirder is that Starr ended up with the very first copy, which he's selling off tomorrow.

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The Independent Culture

When you and I, finally and reluctantly, face the truth that we simply have too much stuff, we take all those bits in our attics and skip them, or eBay them, or even call in an expert declutterer. If you are Ringo Starr, however, you auction them online, for your personal charitable foundation, via Julien's Hollywood-based “Auction House to the Stars”. 

The sale kicks off at 10am PST, tomorrow. There are 1,300 items in all, including John Lennon's refectory table, a “Yellow Submarine” jukebox and a number of (mostly not very good) paintings. The real treasure is Ringo's own copy of The Beatles, the band's ninth studio album. A double, issued in November 1968, its (almost) perfectly white cover meant it (almost) immediately became known as the White Album. 

Ringo's copy, which had been in a bank vault for 35 years, isn't just any old white album. Original copies were stamped with serial numbers on the bottom right of the front cover. The four Beatles were given the first four off the production line. And Ringo's is the first of the first, No 0000001. That it was Ringo who had the Ur White Album is a surprise. It had always been thought that Lennon got the first one. That's what Paul McCartney said, telling writer (and old friend) Barry Miles, “John got 0000001 because he shouted loudest. He said, 'Bagsy No 1!' He knew the game, you've gotta bagsy it.”

Others close to the band were also given low numbers. Producer George Martin got No 0000007 and press officer Derek Taylor No 0000009. No 0000005 – which Lennon gave to a close but as yet unnamed friend – came up for sale in 2008. It fetched almost $30,000. Ringo's has a guide price of $40,000–$60,000.

Of all the group's albums, it was the most complex and varied, and the richest. To Anthony Wall, the executive producer of the BBC's Arena, it is “the greatest and truest most popular work of art in the history of the world, with the greatest cover – both avant-garde and incredibly popular at the same time”.

On the inside sleeve, there is no group shot, just separate photographs of each Beatle. Which is fitting. The Beatles were all but finished as a band. Irony of ironies, there aren't really any Beatles songs on The Beatles. It is an agglomeration of solo songs on which one or more members played. Its complexity and richness were formed and shaped in pain, discord and dithering. The recording sessions were fractured, ill-tempered and almost endless. There were 102 takes of George Harrison's “Not Guilty”, which was then dropped from the album.

The four men were rarely in the studio together. At times, three worked simultaneously in three different studios at Abbey Road. Ringo got so fed up, he quit the group. So it's McCartney playing drums on the opening track, “Back in the USSR”, with Lennon on bass – on top of which McCartney and Harrison later overdubbed their own bass parts. McCartney also drums on the second track, “Dear Prudence”, one of the album's many songs written in Rishikesh, India, where they had gone on retreat, with the giggling Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With them were the folk singer Donovan – who taught them the finger-picking folk-guitar style that is all over the White Album – and Mia Farrow's sister Prudence, who hid away in her bungalow, intent on meditating her way to perfection. Lennon wrote a song about it, “Dear Prudence”, in which he asked her: “Won't you come out to play?” On “I Will”, McCartney doesn't play the bass part; he hums it.

It's an album full of little surprises, some of which were surprises to The Beatles themselves and some of which were not at all pleasant. It was one of the founding documents in the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory. The evidence? If you play “Revolution 9”, the avant-garde collage put together by Lennon and Yoko Ono, backwards, you hear the strange command: “Turn me on, dead man.” Sharon Tate's killer Charles Manson, who believed The Beatles spoke to him through their lyrics, misapprehended “Helter Skelter”. Not knowing that a helter skelter is a fairground ride, he found the word “hell” in there and took it as inspiration for his cult murder spree. 

The album was originally titled A Doll's House, after Ibsen's emotionally fractured and fracturing play. That was dropped when proto prog-rockers Family put out Music in a Doll's House. Two covers were commissioned and rejected. One was of The Beatles as cliff-carvings on the English Channel. The other was a Pop Art painting of them by Patrick, the nom de peinture of John Byrne, carpet designer, writer of the award-winning 1980s television series Tutti Frutti and father of Tilda Swinton's twins.

The final high-Minimalist white sleeve was the work of Richard Hamilton, and a clean rejection of the high-hippiedom of the previous year's Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When approached, Hamilton said: “I would be inclined to do a very prissy thing… I also suggested that they might number each copy, to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.”

Anthony Wall said: “There is also the irony that with all that turmoil going on, they couldn't have chosen a more serene cover. Both record and cover are fabulous works of art that exist a priori. Ringo's copy is no better than yours. There is nothing his has that yours doesn't. Andy Warhol would be envious.”

That numbering system inspired the New York artist Rutherford Chang to make an installation piece out of the more than 1,000 (used and worn) copies of the White Album, collected over eight years. His work has shown in various US locations and in Liverpool. “I'm interested in the White Album as a cultural phenomenon,” he told the BBC.

The seven digits would seemingly have let it run up to an edition of 10 million. In fact, it possibly ran even higher. Each country numbered its own pressing, starting at No 0000001. So that's several tens of millions more variants, at least. Maybe more. It has long been rumoured that while the first 100 were spread around friends, family and associates, there were actually multiple copies of each number. Some say four, some say 12. Which could mean even Ringo's isn't the only No 1.

One unique White Album did turn up for sale online earlier this year, though: the Manson Family's own self-signed copy, with a price of $49,005. There is no indication it has yet sold.

Alas for Peter Silverton, owner of No 0031300, with early-edition top-opening and black inner sleeves, cover a little worn and discoloured, poster missing, there's no indication that anyone will want to buy it.