The Beatles’ White Album is many things to many people. Released on December 14, 1968, in the U.S., the double LP had a stark white cover with the words “The Beatles” in curious, small gray type.
To Ocean Grove-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Glen Burtnik, the album for many months became a big part of his life as a 13-year-old. He grew up the youngest of three brothers in a happy suburban home in Franklin Township. His father was a postal carrier and his mother worked for McGraw-Hill Company in East Windsor.
On the other end of the spectrum, to Charles Manson, who grew up in a string of orphanages before settling on a southern California ranch, the album was sending messages to him to go out and commit murders, which he and his “family,” Squeaky Fromme and others, carried out in southern California in August, 1969, when they committed the now-infamous murders of actress Sharon Tate and the LaBianca family. Manson also interpreted other parts of “The White Album” to mean there was a looming black and white race war.
To be sure, for Burtnik and Manson, “The White Album” represented two very different points of view. Since those infamous Manson murders in the late 1960s, countless other heavy metal and gangsta rap albums have been blamed for murders and acts of violence.
So what does Burtnik think about Charles Manson’s interpretation of “The White Album?” “There will always be a certain percentage of the audience who are affected by a work of art who are unbalanced to begin with,” Burtnik says.
Burtnik and a team of his musical friends will perform what’s commonly referred to as “The White Album,” in its entirety, note for note, song by song, in sequence, on Friday, July 25, at the State Theater, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the year of the album’s release.
“The thing I liked about the Beatles’ White Album was that they pushed the envelope as far as they ever did as a band,” says Burtnik in a phone interview while driving to a gig in Syracuse, NY. Burtnik, who played Paul McCartney in the original cast of “Beatlemania” in New York City for a number of months, has spent years studying and performing the epic rock group’s material. When it comes to the Beatles’ music, he’s an expert.
Last July, Burtnik and a crew of about 40 musicians performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” note for note, song for song, at the State Theater. No small feat, when you consider that that album makes use of an array of Indian instruments, aside from the sitar.
“There was a mystique to the release of the White Album,” Burtnik says, because it was this mysterious double album with just a plain white cover, and no photographs of the band members (although a poster of photographs and four glossies, one of each Beatle, was enclosed). “The first thing I heard about it was a list of song titles; the song titles were things I could not fathom, songs like ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-Da,’ ‘Rocky Raccoon,’ ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.,’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.’ At that age, I couldn’t wait for each new Beatles release, so the day it came out, I distinctly remember going out and buying the album.”
For some reason, the figure $3.97 sticks out in his mind, he says. It was, after all, 40 years ago. “Albums then were about $2, so a double album might have been $4.”
Burtnik says: “It’s the most extreme Beatles album: they go as far out on musical tangents as possible on songs like ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Revolution No. 9.’” He notes that the group was extremely experimental in their approach to what was then state-of-the-art four-track analog recording. The two vinyl platters encompass a wide array of styles, everything from folk and folk-rock with songs like “Blackbird” to the electric blues of “Yer Blues” to a racing, whirlwind of a song like “Helter Skelter,” which could be considered a precursor of heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll.
“I grew up primarily in the ’60s, and because one brother is nine years older and one brother is six years older, from my earliest memories I was always paying attention to things that were a generation ahead of mine. So in my teenage-hood the hippie culture was very important to me, and I was a lot younger than most people paying attention to it at the time.”
Burtnik also clearly remembers seeing the Beatles and Dylan performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other late ’60s programming, including “Shindig,” “Hullaballoo,” “Where The Action Is,” and “American Bandstand.” “All of these programs were so important to me then,” he says.
Nowadays, by contrast, Burnik says, “I’m aware of who (musicians) are and what they look like before I’ve even heard a note of music. It seems as if you see ads for the artists and perhaps read about them before you even have a chance to hear their music. It’s the opposite of what it was — there was a mystique to the music back then. It became something you clamored to learn more about. The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ was this mysterious new release that I just knew I had to have.”
The back story on how Burtnik came to perform last July’s Beatles show and how it led to a follow-up for this July starts with the Jersey Shore and New Jersey rock scenes, dating back to Burtnik’s early 1980s involvement with a procession of bands at the Stone Pony. He released two albums for a major label, A&M Records, also in the early ’80s. Back then he was asked to join Bon Jovi but he declined. In the early 1990s, he joined the multi-platinum-selling rock group Styx, singing, writing, and playing lead guitar with them.
Through the ’90s, Burtnik became famous for his shows at the Club Bene in Sayreville, the Melody Bar in New Brunswick as co-leader of the Slaves of New Brunswick, and for his annual Christmas Extravaganza concerts, involving many up-and-coming and established musicians. Although he seems like a local musician to many of us who follow the Garden State rock ‘n’ roll scene, the reality is his success has extended far beyond Bergen County or Cape May.
Burtnik’s songs have been recorded by Cyndi Lauper, John Waite, Phoebe Snow, Marshall Crenshaw, Katey Sagal, Don Henley, and perhaps most notably, Patty Smyth, who had a No. 1 hit with “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.”
“Last year I approached the State Theater and told them about this idea I had for a series of classic rock albums,” Burtnik says, noting they were most interested in seeing him do Beatles albums. In the summer of 2007, the obvious choice was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” because it was the 40th anniversary of that album’s release on June 24, 1967.
“Earlier this year they called me, and I said the obvious choice would be the White Album,’ this being the 40th anniversary of the release of that album.”
There were about 40 musicians involved in last year’s production of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and it will be about the same number this year on the State Theater stage.
“Luckily, it’s not as instrumentally exotic as ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ For that concert we had to bring in a group of people who could play sitar and tabla and other Indian instruments,” he says. “For this album, there’s the orchestral stuff and horn arrangements. There are about nine pieces that have a lot of instruments outside the usual rock ‘n’ roll instruments,” referring to guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards.
“In order to do the White Album justice, we have as many as four guitarists at a time,” he says. Guitarists for the July 18 show include Mark Muller, who tours with Shania Twain’s band and lives in Neptune; Marshall Crenshaw, a former Hoboken resident who now lives near Woodstock, NY; Bob Burger of Middletown; and John Merjave, who is part of a group called Liverpool, which specializes in Beatles music.
“Liverpool played at the very first BeatleFest, and they’ve been playing it since then,” Burtnik says, referring to an annual celebration of Beatles music held at the Meadowlands.
“In some ways the White Album is the most avant-garde piece of music that was ever released to such a large audience,” he says. “Thelonious Monk and John Cage don’t sell these kinds of quantities of albums that the Beatles sold.”
What can an audience familiar with the Beatles expect at Burtnik’s concert? Or even an audience only vaguely familiar with the group? “I’m working closely with a multi-media production company, so there will be animation and video footage on screen behind us as we play the music,” he says. “It’s going to be much more of a theatrical presentation than Sgt. Pepper’s was last year.
“I think if you’re a Beatles fan you’ll really appreciate the effort and the accuracy we go for. If you’re not a Beatles fan, you’re going to hear songs you don’t often hear on the radio, because the White Album is such a diverse and plentiful, broad-ranging album.”
Summer Beatles Bash #2: The White Album,” Friday July 25, 8 p.m., State Theater, Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, $35 to $45. 732-246-SHOW.