You Say You Want a Revolution
Following the enormous, worldwide success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles wouldn’t have been faulted had they re-entered Abbey Road Studios and created another album of robustly melodic, lavishly orchestrated songs of whimsy and wonder. But Messrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr weren’t interested in repeating themselves. When The Beatles arrived on November 22, 1968, roughly one and one-half years after Pepper, one didn’t even have to play the record to know that it was something different. Not only was it the Fab Four’s first (and only) double album, but there was no equivalent image to Peter Blake’s lavish Pepper photo collage. There was no image at all on the album cover: only white, with the name of the band embossed, and a number in the lower right-hand corner. White (adjective): per Merriam Webster, “free from color.” How ironic that The Beatles would forever be known as the “White Album,” when it just might be the most colorful collection ever committed to vinyl by the group. It’s the sound of a band falling apart at the seams. It’s the sound of a band coming together closer than ever, to play like in the old days. It’s eerie. It’s euphoric. It’s self-indulgently sprawling. It’s tightly sequenced without a single misplaced song. It’s darkness. It’s light.
The White Album can be all of those things. Now, it’s turned 50, and Apple and UMe have marked the occasion with a grand new 6CD/1BD box set. Everything that’s fascinated about The Beatles for the past 50 years has been magnified on this persuasively-curated exploration of its history via demos, outtakes, alternates, session ephemera, and eye-opening new remixes in both stereo and 5.1 surround sound. On the road to The Beatles, the group weathered the death of their manager and friend, Brian Epstein; saw the premiere of their film Magical Mystery Tour; continued building their multi-faceted Apple empire; and traveled to Rishikesh, India for a trip that would shape their next musical endeavors. The world around them had been changing, too, including the sound of popular music. How would they respond?
Sitting Singing Songs for Everyone
The first inkling came during the last week of May 1968 when, with all four Beatles returned from India, they recorded 27 acoustic demos of their newest songs at George Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey. These would come to be known as “The Esher Demos” on countless bootlegs over the years. 21 of the 27 songs were revisited later in the studio, and 19 made the cut for the White Album. The Esher demos, captured on George’s four-track Ampex, comprise one disc (CD 3) of this set. Not only is the sound, from Harrison’s own tapes, vastly superior to anything heard before (and in stereo, whereas the previously circulated version is in mono), but there are numerous variations, large and small, from those versions. (Seven Esher demos were officially released on Anthology 3, too.)
Even some rudimentary, on-the-fly overdubbing and double-tracking can’t obliterate the live, let’s-all-sing-and-play-around-the-campfire feel of these homemade demos which have been sequenced to follow the final White Album order. There’s an arresting intimacy to the tracks not present on any other Beatles recording, revealing the kind of camaraderie that can only be described as truly genuine. Slight lyric variations are in evidence from “Back in the USSR” on, but the uninitiated might be surprised just how musically and lyrically developed most of the demos are. What McCartney’s Chuck Berry/Beach Boys-inspired tune lacks in polish, production, and harmonies, it gains with a loose, unforced joy. The Esher demos boil the songs down to their essences – and to the essence of The Beatles’ artistry. For them, it was always about the song – words and music that defined one generation, but were largely in the well-crafted tradition of the prior era.
The eclectic nature of the group’s new compositions was already evident from the demos. Songs of tremendous beauty (Lennon’s ethereal “Dear Prudence” with his deliciously dry quips at the song’s conclusion; Harrison’s haunting “While My Guitar Gently Weeps;” and movingly stark versions of McCartney’s lovely “Blackbird” and Lennon’s tender “Julia,” both of which will only be slightly embellished when re-recorded for the album) were recorded alongside the pointed commentary of Lennon’s chilling “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (with the cut refrain “Yoko Ono, oh no/Yoko Ono, oh yes”) and Harrison’s “Piggies.” In acoustic form, the latter offers a sharper contrast between the gentle musical setting and the pointed lyrics. A raucous and ragged “Yer Blues” is invigorating, while “Revolution” wears its folk-song roots proudly, with hand-claps and an inviting, sing-along bounce.
The songs that didn’t make the cut for The Beatles are no less fascinating in demo form. Naturally, as they led their own songs in Esher, the artists’ individual voices shone through, pointing the way toward their solo efforts. Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea,” imbued with spirituality and positivity as the singer instructs the listener to seek his best self through meditation and self-improvement, found a home with Apple artist Jackie Lomax (and George as producer) in late June ’68. Paul’s ruminative “Junk” was included on his first solo LP in 1970. The melody of the Rishikesh reflection “Child of Nature” is instantly recognizable as Lennon later used it for “Jealous Guy.” The Beatles didn’t attempt it for the White Album but did return to it on the first day of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions on January 2, 1969. It took nearly a decade and a half for the brooding “Circles” to end up on an official release; the Harrisong about reincarnation was further developed for his 1982 Gone Troppo album. A pair of Lennon songs, “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” famously ended up on Abbey Road, but the lightweight and by its conclusion, cacophonic “What’s the New Mary Jane” would remain unheard until 1996’s Anthology 3.
The Deeper You Go, The Higher You Fly
Sessions for the album commenced at Abbey Road on May 30, lasting through October 30. (Some sessions were held at Trident Studios, too.) Honoring the back-to-basics approach of the Esher demos, it was decided to keep George Martin’s trademark lush orchestrations to a relative minimum on The Beatles, a decision which maximized their power in the process. Only 16 of the final 30 tracks featured all four Beatles, leading to the prevailing myths about the group’s internal strife during recording. Personal tensions and altercations involving the Beatles and the album personnel during the sessions have been well-documented, to say the least. But the selections curated by box set producers Jonathan Clyde and Guy Hayden more often than not showcase John, Paul, George and Ringo working in close harmony, with plenty of droll and goofy Beatle humor peppered throughout the proceedings. The sessions are documented on three discs and 50 tracks. While some might have preferred a warts-and-all complete set in the style of Bob Dylan’s recent, acclaimed The Cutting Edge or More Blood, More Tracks, the curated approach paints a remarkable, focused portrait of this creatively exhilarating period that’s also an enjoyable listen.
Session takes are present over the course of three discs for every White Album track save “Wild Honey Pie” and, of course, the audio collage “Revolution 9.” These tracks are in various stages of completion, and all have been newly mixed by Giles Martin. The first Sessions disc chronicles the period between May 30 and July 18. The lengthy Take 18 of “Revolution” (by which point John has added the ambivalent “in” to “count me out”), has mellotron and electronic sounds plus John’s (pre-Primal) screams, some of which would make their way into “Revolution 9.” The freewheeling take found Paul adding “Love Me Do” into the background vocals, while tape recordings from Yoko were also incorporated. A subsequent rehearsal finds the song moving in the heavier rock direction of the eventual electrified single release, the early, pre-overdubbed backing track of which we also get here. The crisp, energetic rehearsal of another Lennon-penned track, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” proves to be the link between the relatively staid Esher demo and the frenetic final version.
George Martin’s striking orchestral introduction to Ringo’s country-and-western homage “Don’t Pass Me By” was later used to open Anthology 3; here, it opens Take 7 of the amiable tune. Ringo gets another moment in the sun on this disc. Few would have imagined that John’s warm lullaby “Goodnight” would have yielded some of the most fascinating takes here. On the rehearsal take, lead singer Ringo tries out various spoken passages. On Take 10, the boys add tight harmonies to support his sweet, unassuming lead. It’s a moment of true, hair-raising magic. Finally, there’s a take of Ringo accompanied by George Martin on piano that’s beautiful in its simplicity and austerity.
McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is heard in its spirited Take 3, before John switched to piano and transformed the song’s groove. (A different take was included on Anthology 3.) The complete, nearly 13-minute first version of Macca’s raucous, proto-metal “Helter Skelter” likewise appeared on that Anthology volume edited down to under five minutes. Slow, dark, intense and brooding, this early version is steeped in the blues. (Later that night on July 18, the group recorded the 27-minute jam version which will, alas, likely never see the light of day.) It’s one of the most dramatically different takes here. Take 17, though, is a furiously clattering alternate of the familiar, mightily thunderous version. Take 21 ended up as the master, but on Take 17, Paul is heard requesting, “Keep that one! Mark it Fab!”
The second disc of Sessions picks up on July 19, featuring recordings through September 16. Most exciting are two revelatory versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” first with Beatle George accompanying himself on guitar while Paul adds spare, eerie harmonium. Then there’s the take labeled Third Version – Take 27 with guest Eric Clapton thrillingly trying out different tones and styles on his axe; portions of the lyric also vary from the finished recording. George didn’t finish the take, however, as he was unhappy with his attempt at channeling Smokey Robinson in his vocal! (Kevin Howlett’s definitive liner notes inform us that Clapton played on almost every take of the song between 17 and 45.)
The loose studio environment allowed for great exploration of each tune; witness the drawling Paul’s improvised finale to Take 9 of his western-themed “Rocky Raccoon” or his varied inflections as he experiments with “Mother Nature’s Son.” John’s “Dear Prudence,” written for Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence – the Fabs’ fellow traveler to India – is heard in a lean mix. Take 10 of his “Glass Onion” finds him still revising the surreal, self-referencing words.
The third and final disc of Sessions not only brings the exploration of the White Album alternates to a close but also features a handful of bonus cuts. It’s revealed in Howlett’s notes that Paul’s understated, unpretentious “I Will,” perhaps the single loveliest melody on The Beatles, took some 67 takes during its first session. The lengthy session with Paul, John, and Ringo led McCartney to improvise on numerous other songs for fun such as his groovy Cilla Black hit “Step Inside Love,” Rodgers and Hart’s standard “Blue Moon,” and the improvised “Los Paranoias” and “Can You Take Me Back.” A snippet of the latter was used on the final album mix to bridge “Cry Baby Cry” and “Revolution 9.” It’s heard in full here, naturally.
If any evidence was needed of the Beatles’ natural gifts, their on-the-fly composition “Birthday” could certainly prove a compelling exhibit. Crafted by John and Paul over a simple, 12-bar blues-inspired backing track, it was both written and recorded in one night (September 18). Its rocking, unadorned Take 2 backing track is heard here prior to overdubs including tambourine from Mal Evans and background vocals from Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono.
George Martin’s contributions come into sharp focus, too, on a clutch of tracks found on this Sessions disc. The baroque orchestration for “Piggies” shines on its own, as does the spot-on 1920s pastiche devised for “Honey Pie” featuring not only Martin’s saxophones and clarinets but John’s atypical jazz guitar solo. The producer-arranger adopted a groovy, driving style with his saxophone section for “Savoy Truffle,” also heard sans vocals. “Martha My Dear,” in contrast, is presented without Martin’s brass and strings which added a dramatic undercurrent to the rollicking and deceptively simple McCartney composition.
Take 15 of John’s “I’m So Tired” has additional elements not in the final mix such as prominent harmonies, Paul doubling John on the chorus, and extra instrumentation, all of which works surprisingly well. The mix here of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” emphasizes Yoko as Lennon’s co-lead. She was one of the inspirations, with John’s mother, for “Julia.” A moving rehearsal of that yearning track not previously thought to exist has been unearthed here.
A number of bonus tracks populate this disc. Although the final release of the track isn’t here, the sparse, energetic Take 1 of “Hey Jude” is (Take 2 was on Anthology 3), as it was recorded during the White Album sessions. It’s a delight to hear Paul breaking out into W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” from the same session. George’s “Not Guilty” sat on the shelf until his 1979 self-titled album. The Beatles’ down-and-dirty, brisk take with John on harpsichord (and Paul on bass and Ringo on drums, natch) was edited for the unreleased LP entitled Sessions and then included on Anthology 3; it makes its first appearance here in complete form. Alternatively, the first studio take of “What’s the New Mary Jane” is much shorter than its Anthology 3 version. Only four takes were made of the tossed-off song.
Perhaps the greatest discovery of this box brimming with treasures is the unnumbered rehearsal of “Let It Be.” The song’s structure and most of its lyrics were already developed by this point – though it was Brother Malcolm coming to Paul, not Mother Mary – but the feel is wholly different, with a rhythmic, blues-rock underpinning rather than the familiar hymn-like atmosphere. It’s brief, barely over a minute long, but adds another wrinkle into the story of one of pop’s most famous anthems. (Kevin Howlett tells us that the take was marked “Ad Lib” on the tape box for the final session to record “While My Guitar…”)
The Sessions component of the box concludes with a handful of tracks recorded prior to The Beatles. These takes offer windows into the creation of “Lady Madonna” and its instrumental B-side “The Inner Light” (an earlier take of which was a bonus track on the 2014 reissue of Wonderwall Music) as well as “Across the Universe” in an affecting, raw live take.
When I Get to the Bottom I Go Back to the Top of the Slide
For all these riches, the centerpieces of the set are the new mixes in 2.0 stereo and 5.0 surround by producer Giles Martin and mix engineer Sam Okell. (Miles Showell has mastered in stereo, and Tim Young in surround.) Fans of their work on last year’s Sgt. Pepper’s set won’t be disappointed by their sonic reinvention of the White Album. For that project, Martin and Okell used the original mono mix approved by the group and Martin’s father George as their template. Here, they’ve approached the multitrack album masters as they would a collection of new songs, and that sonic freedom has proven liberating. Their work on these thrillingly diverse tracks is organic and always in the spirit of George Martin’s original production, but is sufficiently different from it as to make listeners sit up and pay close attention in anticipation of what new sounds are coming next. Cliché though it may be, it’s as if a veil has been lifted off this masterwork.
Individual elements previously buried come to the fore, and there’s powerful emphasis on the vocals as well as on Ringo’s oft-underrated drums. The stereo version, presented on two CDs or the Blu-ray, sounds tremendous in high-resolution (play it loud!) but the Blu-ray’s 5.1 surround mix, for those listeners so equipped, is even more deliciously enthralling. It’s a full-tilt immersive experience as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” kicks into high gear, or as John exclaims “All the children sing!” from the rear right channel during “Bungalow Bill.” Rather than solely for ambiance, these channels are used cleverly on numerous tracks, including for the cushion of strings on “Martha My Dear” and the animal sounds of “Piggies.” Martin and Okell, not unsurprisingly, pulled out all the stops on the unsettling “Revolution 9,” making a better case for the collage than ever. Quite simply, the surround mix places the listener at the center of the musical maelstrom.
Looking Through a Glass Onion
The Beatles: Anniversary Edition is housed within a slipcased, hardbound, impeccably-designed, and altogether definitive coffee table-style tome of 164 pages. Every disc is housed in its own handsomely embossed white sleeve placed in slots in the endpapers. The book is required reading. Paul McCartney and Giles Martin provide introductions, while Kevin Howlett does the heavy lifting with his scrupulously-annotated song-by-song chapters which deftly serve as a listening guide. Howlett has also penned “The Way to White,” surveying the band’s history between June 1967 and May 1968. John Harris’ “Can You Take Me Back, Where I Came From?” fills in more of the behind-the-scenes details, and Andrew Wilson’s “White on White” considers the album’s artwork and design. Howlett’s “It’s Here!” revisits the original reception accorded the LP. Everything is copiously illustrated, with photographs, tape boxes, and assorted memorabilia, and the book even includes a replica spiral notebook section (published on different, equally deluxe paper stock) of John, Paul, and George’s handwritten lyrics plus a folder with a replica of the original foldout poster and four headshots of the Fabs.
This stunning package is not only a worthy successor to the anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s but a successful archival excavation in its own right. More so than any other album in The Beatles’ catalogue, the White Album is open to interpretation as it balances light and dark in a variety of styles. For any other band, the expansive mélange of pop, hard rock, country-and-western, jazz, rock-and-roll, music hall, R&B, reggae, and musique concrete would likely prove schizophrenic. For The Beatles, it was an unexpected, powerful, and by all means successful statement of independence. The individual strains on the White Album would go on to inform their music in the decades to come, not to mention influencing everybody else’s. Happiness is this lavish, first-class Anniversary Edition.
The Beatles: Anniversary Edition is available in a variety of formats:
6CD/1BD super deluxe box: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
3CD deluxe: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
4LP deluxe: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
2LP new stereo mix: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada