Dismissing claims by critics that the Beatles’ sole LP from 1968 would have worked better had the songs been curated into a tighter, single-disc release, Paul McCartney commented: “It was great. It sold. It’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album. Shut up!”
Amen to that. I’m a “late Beatles” guy, and, for me anyway, The White Album is utterly central to the Beatles’ allure. Artist Rutherford Chang appears to be a “late Beatles” guy too, and he’s making a decent bid to be regarded as the world’s number-one fan of The White Album and its decidedly minimalist cover by Richard Hamilton. He’s been buying up as many first pressings of the album as he can (the first pressing numbered more than three million). He now owns more than 1,000 first pressings of it, which he exhibits in spaces that are set up to resemble record shops: you can flip through the “inventory” just like at any record shop, and you are permitted to play any of the albums there on the provided record player. Unlike a record shop, however, the relation of consumer to establishment is reversed: You cannot buy anything there, but you can sell a first pressing of The White Album if you have one. The show is called “We Buy White Albums.”
Chang has exhibited the always-growing collection of albums for the last couple of years. “We Buy White Albums” has appeared in several locations in the United States as well as Shanghai, Denmark, and Ireland.
Last year, from January to March, “We Buy White Albums” was exhibited at Recess, 41 Grand Street, New York. I was a resident of New York City during that time, but unfortunately I was out of town the entire period this show was on. I wish I’d been able to see it. Eilon Paz of Dust and Grooves interviewed Chang during that show, and it richly merits its status as the essential Rutherford Chang/White Album interview. Here are a few excerpts:
Q: Are you a vinyl collector?
A: Yes, I collect White Albums.
Q: Do you collect anything other than that?
A: I own some vinyl and occasionally buy other albums, but nothing in multiples like the White Album.
Q: Why just White Album? why not Abbey road? or Rubber Soul?
A: The White Album has the best cover. I have a few copies of Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, but I keep those in my “junk bin”.
Q: Why do you find it so great? It’s a white, blank cover. Are you a minimalist?
A: I’m most interested in the albums as objects and observing how they have aged. So for me, a Beatles album with an all white cover is perfect.
Q: Do you care about the album’s condition?
A: I collect numbered copies of the White Album in any condition. In fact I often find the “poorer” condition albums more interesting.
Q: Are you collecting as an artist or as a music fan?
A: I’m collecting them as cultural artifacts.
Q: Do you listen to vinyl records on regular basis?
A: I listen to the White Album every day.
Q: I’m trying to figure out if you’re a vinyl collector, or a music aficionado or an artist making an art piece with an object that happens to be a Beatles White album? Can you expand on that?
A: I’m making an art piece using White Albums as material. But the process also very much involves collecting vinyl and listening to music.
Q: Do you buy records other than the White Album for your art project?
A: I occasionally buy other records, but I don’t consider these part of my collection. I “collect” only White Albums.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of collecting first edition white albums? and why just first editions?
A: I got into collecting multiple White Albums because every copy tells a story. Each one has aged uniquely over the course of the last half-decade. The pressings from 1968 were numbered, implying that it is a limited edition, although one running in excess of 3 million.
Today, August 15, 2014, the show opens in England for the first time. Fittingly, the location is the birthplace of all four Beatles, Liverpool: “Presented by FACT and Liverpool International Music Festival, We Buy White Albums will take over FACT’s loading bay space on Wood Street from 15 August – 16 September.” On August 28, at 6pm, Chang will be on hand for a Q&A with FACT director Mike Stubbs.
The true subject of “We Buy White Albums,” it seems to me, is entropy, albeit entropy in the highly pressurized environment of the mass music marketplace. Issue more than three million albums with an almost completely white cover by the world’s favorite rock and roll band and see what happens. Things will happen to them, they will inevitably diverge from one another. The records will get scratched and warp, the covers will get water-damaged, the creamy, inviting white cover will become the home for doodles and graffiti. Chang revels in the strange forms the White Album can take, more than 45 years after its release. Anyone who’s spent any time plundering LP bargain bins can surely relate.
In that vein, Chang has also released a track in which 100 of his White Albums are played simultaneously (side 1 only, alas). The music starts off pretty much in sync; you can hear “Back in the USSR” just fine but the divergence soon sets in with a vengeance. As Allan Kozinn writes:
The albums, as it turns out, have also aged with some variety. Some played cleanly, others had scratches, noise from embedded dirt, or vinyl wear. And though the recordings are identical, variations in the pressings, and natural fluctuations in the speed of Mr. Chang’s analogue turntable, meant that the 100 recordings slowly moved out of sync, in the manner of an early Steve Reich piece: the opening of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is entirely unified, but at the start of “Dear Prudence,” you hear the first line echoing several times, and by “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the track is a nearly unrecognizeable roar.
For me, the high point—by far—is “Wild Honey Pie.” Enjoy.