The Beatles' White Album 50th Anniversary Set: 5 Things to Pay Attention To

The Beatles
© Apple Corps Ltd./Courtesy of UMe

The Beatles

In 2017, the Beatles paid voluminous tribute to their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for its 50th anniversary with a multi-disc box set that featured a new remix of the album and multiple discs of outtakes. The set was a huge success and put the album back on the Billboard charts. 

On Nov. 9, the Beatles are doing that same sort of tribute to the album originally released as The Beatles but commonly called The White Album. As Pepper was, the new set is being released in several configurations, the biggest being a seven-disc set with 6 CDs and a Blu-ray audio disc. The main feature of the new release is a 2018 mix of the album. On the big “Super Deluxe” set, that mix is on two CDs and the set also includes four CDs of outtakes and alternate versions and a Blu-ray with three versions of the 2018 mix in album mix in 5.1 sound in high resolution PCM stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD. 

Music journalist Brian Southall, the author of a just-published book in the U.K., The White Album: Revolution, Politics & Recording: The Beatles and the World in 1968 (Carlton Publishing Group), told Billboard the year was a time of change for the Beatles. “The Beatles at this time are now fully grown up adults. They're not The Fab Four anymore. And they went off to India with that sort of love and peace in the Maharishi to find something over there and as it turned out, found themselves fairly bored without any substances, legal or illegal, alcohol or tobacco or anything else. And ended up sort of writing a whole album.” 

Writers have long called the White Album the beginnings of the Beatles as solo artists. Says Southall, “The idea that everything was worked as a Lennon-McCartney song we know to be completely untrue and many of them were individual songs which other people contributed to or in some cases contributed nothing to. So I think there was undoubtedly some group involvement in this stuff in various tracks. But from talking to people who were in the studio and working on this stuff, you know, it was unquestionable, no doubt that these some of these people went off and did what they wanted to do on their own.”

Producer Giles Martin told Billboard, however, the group was very unified. He noted Ringo Starr actually first suggested publicly when the Sgt. Pepper box set was being put together last year that they should do The Beatles (White Album) in the same way. “Because that's the band album,” Martin said. “That's the band album. And this is the person that walked out of those sessions.” 

Here are some signposts for things to listen to on the new White Album release.

1. Differences In the 2018 Mix
While the 2018 mix may not have as many obvious changes as the 2017 Pepper mix, there are a few things to look for. Overall, the instruments stand out better in this new mix than previously. A great example of this is “Dear Prudence,” where the guitar and bass work pops out of the speakers. The listener can also appreciate the intricacies of the musicianship as they now stand out in the new mix more. And the rockin' tracks, such as “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Birthday” really show, if nothing else, these guys could rock 'n' roll. 

2. The Esher Demos
The correct pronunciation is ee-sher, supervising producer Giles Martin told a group made up of media, music and entertainment folks at the Capitol Records tower in Los Angeles in late September. The 27 tracks, taken from a tape provided by George Harrison's widow Olivia, were recorded at George Harrison's Esher cottage before the album itself was recorded and show several differences from the released versions. The Esher Demos have circulated among collectors for years, but not in this true stereo and brilliant quality. But Giles Martin told Billboard in an interview that he left some of the roughness of the original tapes in. “I can't take away the hiss because it takes away the sound slightly. We cleaned them to certain degree, but it's because of mix and EQ. It's just what we do, really.” 

On the songs, the group is often loose. George Harrison's “Piggies” strums and whistles casually and has fun by emphasizing the words “damn good whacking.” Paul McCartney takes the casualness further on “Honey Pie” by la-la-la'ing through several lines of the lyrics. The tracks also have several songs that never made the album, including Harrison's “Not Guilty” (a comment on the then-splintering state of the group), Lennon's esoteric “What's the New Mary Jane,” McCartney's “Junk,” which later was included on his McCartney album, and another Lennon song, “Child of Nature,” which later, with different lyrics, became “Jealous Guy” on his Imagine album.

3. Notable Outtakes on the Super Deluxe Version
A few of the outtake tracks on the Super Deluxe version of the set give excellent looks at the evolution of some of the album's songs. The ten-minute “Revolution 1” outtake that opens Disc 4, the first disc of the “Sessions” section, shows first-hand the song's direct relationship between “Revolution #1” and “Revolution #9.” The song starts out like the “Revolution #1” released version but turns into a “#9” type sound collage. This was first evident a few years ago when a different pre-release take of the song emerged among bootleg collectors, but this one features Lennon yelling into the microphone and includes Yoko's plaintive “They become naked” line.

4. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
Anyone who has heard the version in the Beatles' LOVE show in Las Vegas (minus the orchestral arrangement added for the show) has already heard a gorgeous version that didn't make the album. The outtake at the end of Disc 5 shows an unfinished version with a different and burning Eric Clapton guitar solo. It's followed by a short Paul McCartney riff on Elvis Presley's “You're So Square (Baby I Don't Care)” with McCartney in full-blown Elvis mode, complete with echo. 

5. “Helter Skelter”

Before the track lists for the sets were announced, Beatles fans held out hope that the legendary 27-minute version of this song would be released. It wasn't, but there are two outtakes on the set. The first, Take 2, is 13 minutes long and was recorded just before the famed long take. It resembles that fabled longer version Giles Martin told those at the Capitol Tower listening session and is slower than the released version. Take 17, actually the more listenable of the two, is closer to the released version and is a wild take with McCartney screaming his way through it. If the originally released version seems raucous, Take 17 outdoes that.

Martin told Billboard with projects like the Pepper and White Album sets the emotions of the fans are being heard. “The passion that people have for the Beatles, you know, it's something, you know. When my dad was on his deathbed, which he spent a long time on them, and my dad was such a nice man. And I said to him, 'I really want to say this.' I said, 'You know dad, it's amazing what you did?' And he goes, 'What do you mean?' 'Above anything else if you think about it,' … and as a son you don't want to say this because it's a bit fan-y. But I'm not a fan, I'm his son. 

"I said, 'You signed and recorded the Beatles. Had you not made that decision there'd be no Beatles in the world.' Then he closed his eyes and he went, 'I did the best I could.' 

“But the reverberations of that, of him and the band came together and performing and creating this world of this universe of sound there's made so much difference to everyone else. And that love that comes back towards the Beatles and us that work on the Beatles projects we can't take that for granted. We have to listen to the fans. And so we try to.”