❉ Time has been very kind to The White Album, fifty years on, and Giles Martin has made every effort to breathe new life into these tracks.
“Raw and earthy, it’s the band at their peak musicianship. Where it flies is in its singularity, each Beatle recognising their own property, admitted by Lennon no less: ‘That was just saying: ‘This is my song, we’ll do it this way. That’s your song, you do it that way.’ It’s pretty hard trying to fit three guys’ music onto one album – that’s why we did a double.'”
The Beatles were a punk band. Fact. We’re not talking about their 1960 Hamburg gigs with a painter who couldn’t play bass. We’re not talking how George Harrison fought off outraged fans for new drummer Ringo Starr. We’re not talking about how the group steadfastly refused to give in and sell album tracks as commodifiable singles. We’re not even talking about cutting baby doll heads to decry their American label’s ‘butchering’ of their art. We’re talking about releasing an album that didn’t have a name, didn’t have an audible or conceptual structure and sought to tear itself from the rise of progressive and psychedelic music. It didn’t matter that they’d created one of the definitive progressive and psychedelic albums one year earlier, it only added to their street cred that they wanted to move away from it, creating a songscape of ex-cogitative and eclectic nature, pre-empting Metal Box’s diverse, raw dynamics and Sandinista!’s upwardly political confrontations, much of it recorded by a young man who’d later produce a small band called The Sex Pistols. There’s a genre for that, isn’t there?
Raw and earthy, it’s the band at their peak musicianship, whether John Lennon’s fiery Birthday riff, Paul McCartney’s acerbic Sexy Sadie piano playing, Ringo Starr’s muscular Yer Blues drums or George Harrison’s mystical Dear Prudence harmony. Giles Martin has made every effort to breathe new life into these tracks, and while there’s no saving the bad tracks (namely Wild Honey Pie, Piggies and the pandering Revolution 9), the rockers are beautifully displayed, paying particular attention to McCartney’s bass playing, his lead Everybody’s Got Something To Hide and Glass Onion parts nice and fat in the mix.
“A trip to Rishikesh had re-opened the band to the joys of songwriting and it showed in their work, as the band plays through a collection that includes psych underground rock, blues rock, heavy metal, vaudeville, be-bop fifties pop, pastoral folk, spiritual folk, sound collage and reggae.”
Time has been very kind to The White Album, fifty years on, and this album presents the future paths the Beatles took, much more so than Abbey Road or Let It Be. Julia and Happiness Is A Warm Gun echo the naked relief that soaked Lennon’s debut, while the sprightly Back In The USSR and Martha My Dear paved for the stadium pop tracks that McCartney and Wings would delight audiences in the seventies. Harrison’s invitation to Eric Clapton’s searing guitar solos on While My Guitar Gently Weeps was the beginning of a musical camaraderie that lasted well into the nineties and the gentle tones Starr sings on closer Goodnight were re-introduced to a generation of fans as the Thomas The Tank Engine narrator.
A trip to Rishikesh had re-opened the band to the joys of songwriting (especially Lennon, his most excited and prolific in years), Harrison now had his own distinctive lyrical voice in place, McCartney brimming from genre to genre, Lennon (for the first time) madly in love. It showed in their work, as the band plays through a collection that includes psych underground rock, blues rock, heavy metal, vaudeville, be-bop fifties pop, pastoral folk, spiritual folk, sound collage and reggae. Even Starr caught the songwriting bug and while Don’t Pass Me By was, lyrically, anodyne, it further brought bluegrass to the band’s sound. There was a price for such diversity, as differing ideologies, drugs, technique dictation and the ever-felt presence of Yoko Ono caused a number of walk outs during the recording: George Martin took a long holiday, leaving Chris Thomas in charge; Geoff Emerick quit the sessions in July 1968, leaving the young Ken Scott engineering much of the rest; even the most sensitive Beatle, Starr, quit the band briefly, leaving the multi-skilled McCartney filling in on drums.
A musician who could delve from pianos, guitars, drums, recorders and bass parts with ease, McCartney took to recording whole tracks by himself, which upset Lennon, who, interestingly, took habit in not showing to Harrison’s recordings out of seeming disinterest to his material, despite many of the visceral guitar parts Harrison played on his songs (Harrison was the only damaged Beatle friendship Lennon lost at the time of his death).
Salacious backstage politics be damned; the songs are fantastic, chiefly championed by punk progenitor Lennon as the band’s best. There is something to the songs and they’ve been welcoming to audiences, bemusing Withnail on his return to his London flat, re-tooled by rockers Roger Daltrey and Bono for their own ends or served as a familiar friend to audience members at the 2018 All Starr Band concerts. Where it flies is in its singularity, each Beatle recognising their own property, admitted by Lennon no less: “That was just saying: ‘This is my song, we’ll do it this way. That’s your song, you do it that way.’ It’s pretty hard trying to fit three guys’ music onto one album – that’s why we did a double.”
Where it falters and Revolver and Abbey Road succeed is that communal meeting of the eyes and ideas, the untouchable four working on and bettering whatever they played. The White Album lacks that excitement, and the abundance of “comedy” songs (O-bla Di O-bla Da,The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, Savoy Truffle) takes away from, as opposed to giving to, the album’s cache. But any album that unveils Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Long Long Long, Mother Nature’s Son, Sexy Sadie, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, I Will, Helter Skelter and Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? is already onto a winner and contrasts what Paul McCartney said in 1995 “it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles. Shut up”. Sorry Sir Paul, we can’t shut up. The songs are too good!
Fifty years ago, the Beatles comprised four countercultural fighters putting their naked selves (literally so in Lennon’s case) on the line. Fifty years later, The Beatles are two knights, two widows and an extraordinary collection of unrivalled music. With the event of time comes death, the recent passing of engineer extraordinaire Geoff Emerick brings a certain poignancy to the bonus discs that might not otherwise be heard. An acoustic take of While My Guitar (McCartney plays harmonium) features an added verse contemplating himself doing nothing but aging, unfortunate that at fifty eight, he was anything but old while a startling bluesier Warm Gun take, devoid of jocular be bop backing, is retrospectively shocking given the senseless manner in which Lennon was murdered.
“Free from studio pyrotechnics, Back In The USSR and Honey Pie sound virtually unrecognisable, Blackbird and Julia almost identical and Bungalow Bill complete with hilarious animal sound effects. They further demonstrate Harrison’s wasted songwriting gift, the biting Not Guilty and brilliant Sour Milk Sea dropped for weaker Lennon songs.”
But it’s the Beatles, there’s joy to be heard and no fan could feel less joyous one year after Sgt.Pepper denied listeners their Carnival of Light, the Esher Demoes have been given the Apple seal. A collection of demoes recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow, the three guitar players sketch among themselves the makings of a holiday in Rishikesh, in other words, The White Album. Here, over twenty six songs, are the imprints of Lennon’s originality, McCartney’s versatility and Harrison’s soul played over acoustics and harmonies.
Free from studio pyrotechnics, Back In The USSR and Honey Pie sound virtually unrecognisable, Blackbird and Julia almost identical and Bungalow Bill complete with hilarious animal sound effects. They further demonstrate Harrison’s wasted songwriting gift, the biting Not Guilty and brilliant Sour Milk Sea dropped for weaker Lennon songs. Among the disused, Junk , Circles and Not Guilty were re-purposed on solo albums, Child of Nature changed to McCartney apology Jealous Guy, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam recycled on Abbey Road and Sour Milk Sea produced for Apple signee Jackie Lomax (backed by Harrison, Clapton, Starr and McCartney).
A four part Beatle rendition of Goodnight has been championed by Giles Martin as preferable to the original, but the same can be said for a slower Rocky Raccoon, a more earnest O-bla Di, an organ fused Cry Baby Cry and an excellent ten minute performance of Revolution 1. An unnumbered take of Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey, complete with jangly leads and shuffling bass, shows a band gagging for the live stage, fulfilled months later on a rooftop and the vanguard posed What’s The New Mary Jane (a three-way Lennon-Harrison-Ono track) is startling in all the ways Revolution 9 is just boring.
“The Beatles bassist comes across best in the outtakes, showing how unique a position the twenty five year old McCartney was in 1968… Can You Take Me Back? more powerful in complete form than either Lennon song it inevitably segued, hypnotic on a slower yet thumpier Helter Skelter and the first take of Hey Jude evident of the compelling masterpiece it would eventually form.”
An instrumental Revolution (eventual Beatle b-side) demonstrates the electric guitar weaving Harrison and Lennon are rarely credited and though there are too many backing tracks here (The Inner Light, Back In The USSR and Savoy Truffle all get this treatment), a piano and drums mix of Lady Madonna is a must listen to Jasper Carrott devotees to hear that The Beatles could never have worked with any drummer BUT Ringo Starr! Closing track Across The Universe shows Lennon’s majestic ballad more powerful in basic form than any Let It Be (Naked or otherwise) would perfect.
And just as he comes across best in the track order, the Beatles bassist comes across best in the outtakes, showing how unique a position the twenty five year old McCartney was in 1968. A raw acoustic Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? is as exciting as the studio arrangement, Martha My Dear more intimate without brass, Can You Take Me Back? more powerful in complete form than either Lennon song it inevitably segued, hypnotic in vocal on a slower yet thumpier Helter Skelter and the first take of Hey Jude evident of the compelling masterpiece it would eventually form.
St.Louis Blues shows a rocker tuning their metallic voice, Step Inside Love the makings of Cilla Black’s best single and a chuckled I Will shows that the man many regard as the most humourless of The Beatles knew that the Fabs were as fun a band as we all love them to be. It’s the toppermost of the poppermost of boxsets!
The BEATLES (‘White Album’) releases include:
The comprehensive, individually numbered 7-disc and digital audio collections feature:
CDs 1 & 2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix
CD3: Esher Demos – Esher Demo tracks 1 through 19 sequenced in order of the finished song’s placement on ‘The White Album.’ Tracks 20-27 were not included on the album.
CDs 4, 5 & 6: Sessions – 50 additional recordings, most previously unreleased, from ‘White Album’ studio sessions; all newly mixed from the four-track and eight-track session tapes, sequenced in order of their recording start dates.
– 2018 album mix in high resolution PCM stereo
– 2018 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 album mix
– 2018 Dolby True HD 5.1 album mix
– 2018 direct transfer of the album’s original mono mix
The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix + Esher Demos
The 3CD; 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition); and digital audio collections pair the 2018 stereo album mix with the 27 Esher Demos.
Standard 2LP Vinyl:
The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo mix
180-gram 2LP vinyl in gatefold sleeve with faithfully replicated original artwork
❉ The Beatles ‘White Album’ Anniversary Editions released November 9, 2018 by UMG/Apple Corps. Available to order now.
❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.