NEW YORK, NY – “We live in a perfect world of [these] anodyne, Instagrammed, perfect photographs, in-tune music, and everything in time, and The Beatles weren’t that. The Beatles had a heartbeat to them, and the story of ‘The White Album’ is the story of that heartbeat, if you’d like.” Last Wednesday morning, September 26, Giles Martin was holding court for an audience of about 70 at New York’s famed Record Plant. The subject was, of course, the legendary 1968 double-LP formally named The Beatles but known to all as The White Album. The Second Disc was privileged to be part of the audience sharing a preview with Martin and Apple Corps chief executive Jeff Jones of the upcoming 50th anniversary box set due on November 9 from Apple Records and UMe.
The 6-CD/1-BD box set will prove to be the most comprehensive, official deep-dive into a Beatles album yet. That box will offer Martin and Sam Okell’s new stereo remix of the original album plus one CD of the complete Esher Demos, three CDs of session material, and a Blu-ray with the stereo remix, the remastered original mono mix, and a new 5.1 surround mix. 3-CD and 4-LP versions will offer the stereo remix and the Esher Demos only, while a 2-LP version of just the stereo remix will also be available. (You’ll find all of the specs here!) In excavating the bonus material for The White Album, Martin described his discovery of “the beauty in creation” – and the 15 tracks which he debuted certainly told that beautiful, remarkable story of what happened when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr decided to make a “band album” after the multi-layered musical carnival of Sgt. Pepper’s.
Following Jones’ introduction in which he asked the audience to consider The Beatles’ extraordinary growth in the five-year period between “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Helter Skelter,” the relaxed, dapper, and convivial Martin took the mic as host. He first sampled five of the 27 tracks from The Esher Demos (the equivalent of MTV Unplugged, he quipped), recorded in May 1968 at Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey. The tracks including “Back in the USSR,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Not Guilty,” and “Child of Nature,” sourced directly from Harrison’s own tapes, boast a sonic clarity far exceeding even the best bootleg release. A round of applause followed “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” reflecting the palpable joy the reggae-flecked demo brought the room. Giles Martin considers these demos the foundation of the record, and “a revelation.” Indeed, it’s not mere hyperbole.
In introducing five outtakes, Martin eloquently set forth his belief that the tension present during the original album sessions was not quite the all-encompassing cloud painted by some Fab scholars. “You can’t make an album like that if you’re not getting on,” he asserted before backing up the statement with five stunning and, indeed, revelatory examples of a band truly in perfect sync: a potent “Cry Baby Cry;” a raw “I Will” bookended by laughter; a work-in-progress “Julia” in which John notes how difficult it is to sing, and adjusts the tempo accordingly. Collective chills came from the embryonic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” featuring Eric Clapton trying out different tones and styles on the searing track as George does his best Smokey Robinson vocal (“I tried to do a Smokey…and I just aren’t Smokey!”). There could have been no better conclusion to this five-song “suite” than “Good Night,” with the boys bolstering Ringo’s lead with tight harmony and quiet but evident camaraderie.
Giles Martin offered insight into his father George’s frustration with the White Album sessions, citing the band’s increasingly-favored late hours and the fact that he “lost the classroom” when the newly-emboldened students took over after their trip to India. But the elder Martin’s production prowess has been brought into sharp focus by his son and Okell’s remix, if the five tracks previewed are any indication. There’s increased detail in every part as “Dear Prudence” kicks into high gear. (And there was plenty of air drumming in the room!) The brass gains extra crispness, as if a veil has been peeled off, on “Mother Nature’s Son.” In the tradition of Martin and Okell’s work on Pepper’s, Ringo’s drums take on added dimension on “Long, Long, Long.” A favorite of the younger Martin’s, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” may be even more forceful in its new mix. “Helter Skelter” preserves the original’s fury, heaviness, and motion with a new layer of immediacy.
A Q&A session followed the playback, in which Giles Martin further shed light on his process in approaching a new version of this beloved, and universally familiar, album. “Go with your gut” is how he tackled remixing The White Album. Based on the tracks previewed, it’s clear that he and Okell have preserved its organic sound while still treating it like a new, fresh work of art. (Whereas the Sgt. Pepper’s remix followed the template of the mono album when opening it up to stereo, Martin and Okell were without a playbook for The Beatles.) Martin even revealed during the Q&A that he discarded his first pass at the remix, finding it “too compressed.” He instead sought a sound that’s “open but aggressive,” and honored the work of the band members who used the studio as “their playground,” relying less upon George Martin and the engineers at Abbey Road. Speaking of which…
Inevitably, the question was raised of what might be store for 1969’s Abbey Road. Martin made it clear that no plans have been made to mark that album’s 50th anniversary, which is just as it should be. For now, anticipation should remain high for The White Album in all its eclectic, sprawling, happily messy, and altogether Fab grandeur. Look for The Second Disc’s review of The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album, on or around Friday, November 9!