Fifty years after its initial release, The Beatles’ self-titled album remains their most sprawling work — an album that saw John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr working to follow their most acclaimed album with something that went in an entirely different direction.
The year 1968 was raging, with the ongoing Vietnam War, assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, and a music scene that was breaking new ground as hard rock and freewheeling funk began taking over the airwaves. Bob Dylan re-embraced rustics, Otis Redding had passed away, Motown got psychedelic as the Rolling Stones got back to the blues; Hendrix turned rock music on its ear as Aretha Franklin became the voice of a generation.
But what of The Beatles?
The Fab Four spent early 1968 studying transcendental meditation in India with the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, a period that was intended to be cathartic, but eventually led to conflict within the band when McCartney and Starr returned to the U.K. early and exacerbated after Lennon became publicly disillusioned with the Mahareshi. But when it came time to record their follow-up to the mythic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the innovative 1967 blockbuster that quickly became the group’s most successful and praised LP — The Beatles broke ground a project that was wholly removed from that album’s art-pop pretenses and ornate production.
The Beatles — familiarly dubbed “The White Album” after its mostly blank cover — represented the Fabs returning to band-centric recording, though there’s still some orchestrated moments on the album. It also presented the most individualistic musical approach among the increasingly isolated members of the quartet; it was famously described by Lennon as the work of four solo artists using the others as backing musicians.
It has always been a gargantuan work, a 30-track double LP representative of both the creative scope of The Beatles and their penchant for indulgence late in their career together. It’s a study in contrasts; the set boasts many of their most indelible acoustic tunes (“Blackbird,” “Dear Prudence”) and also several of their hardest rockers (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Helter Skelter.”) The former was born of the songs gestating in Rishikesh, where the Beatles had only brought acoustic guitars; the latter evidence that the hard rock revolution born of Hendrix and Cream had an affect on the Fabs’ own sound when they returned to London in the late spring of 1968.
The White Album has traditionally been regarded as the album that reflects the band at its most fractious and fragmented; Ringo Starr famously quit during the sessions, and Lennon, McCartney and Harrison often recorded tracks on their own in separate studios. But the actual history of the project is a little more complex: as relations within the band surely became more strained, there was still a deliberate effort to return to playing as an actual band following the lush arrangements and endless overdubbing of Sgt. Pepper. That particular aspect of The White Album and its history amplifies what turns out to be the most intriguing element of the new deluxe anniversary reissue — out Friday (Nov. 9) — which are the fabled Esher demos, and the “Sessions” disc that give fans a glimpse of what the recording process was like.
The remixed album isn’t quite the revelation that the deluxe version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was last year — but that’s to be expected. Pepper was a heavily orchestrated album that producer Martin admitted suffered from mediocre conversion to stereo; by the time they got to The White Album, The Beatles were much more adept at studio recording.
That’s not to say there aren’t sonic high points — the bass and drums are much more powerful and warm on tracks like “Glass Onion” and “…Gently Weeps,” and the vocal mix is stronger on the lilting harmonies of “Dear Prudence.” Lennon’s abrasive “Yer Blues” vocal is laden with more reverb here but loses none of its immediacy; and Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle’ has a more prominent low end, amplifying the overall heaviness of the record. It’s noticeable, non-intrusive work, and Giles Martin deserves praise for how beautifully rendered the remixes are.
The “Sessions” disc also offers some eye-opening takes on well-worn Beatles standards from the album. Ringo’s saccharine Lennon-penned closer “Good Night” boasts flawed-but-sweet backing harmonies that serve the song better than the original’s Disney-esque strings. A “First Version” of the roaring “Helter Skelter” feels more ominous than its official counterpart, with a thumping intro and 12 minutes of the Beatles lurching through a dark blues groove. There are early takes of unused Harrison songs that would turn up in different places later: “Sour Milk Sea” would find release as a Jackie Lomax single produced by Harrison, “Not Guilty” and “Circles” became solo Harrison songs in the 70s and 80s, respectively.
And then there’s Lennon’s fabled “Child of Nature,” the early version of what would become his classic ballad “Jealous Guy.” Initially an ode to the group’s sojourn to India, the version here highlights how fully formed the song was melodically at this early stage — despite completely different lyrics from what the world would ultimately hear upon its official release in 1971. There’s also the full version of McCartney’s simple acoustic “Can You Take Me Back?,” the snippet that appears on The White Album as a coda for Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry.”
An intimate run-through of “Julia” conveys the emotion Lennon felt while struggling to record the plaintive ode to his late mother (and new love, Yoko Ono), as John mutters, “It’s very hard to sing this, y’know?” — to which producer George Martin can be heard responding: “It’s a very hard song, John.” There are also loose takes of songs like “Blue Moon,” “St. Louis Blues” and “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care).”
But the biggest highlight is arguably the Esher demos. Fans have only heard these performances via poorly-recorded bootlegs that have made the rounds for decades, but here, Giles Martin delivers full recordings from George Harrison’s vault. The sound is very much “Beatles: Unplugged,” with Harrison, McCartney and Lennon demoing the songs they’d penned in India for each other. It’s a fascinating look at just how creatively fertile the three songwriters were following that episode, and it’s intriguing to hear the songs in their earliest incarnations without full band backing.
McCartney’s “Back In the U.S.S.R.” demo evokes the song’s Chuck Berry soul in a more obvious fashion than the official recording. The acoustic Esher demo of “Yer Blues” is a more traditional blues excursion than the abrasive parody that wound up on the album; the demo of eventual Abbey Road medley pit stop “Polythene Pam” maintains the song’s inherent energy, but also makes it apparent how much the full band arrangement elevated Lennon’s ditty. Elsewhere, “What’s The New Mary Jane?” has lurked on bootlegs and the Anthology project, but still sounds like a tossed-off nonsense song here.
The remixed White Album is well worth experiencing — for Beatles fans, it’s a chance to hear the band’s most sprawling work in the varying stages before it became fully formed. It’s an important document of where they were just before things fell completely apart, and reveals just how musically in-sync they somehow remained even after the splinters began to show. For casual fans, it may not be as revelatory, but it’s nonetheless musically rich. The refurbished sonics maybe won’t get your attention if you’re not intimately familiar with the album already, but they may help one “hear” The Beatles circa 1968 in a visceral, immediate way. The Esher demos and Sessions recordings offer a broad palette of sounds that show how, even without studio wizardry and the creative indulgences of the times, The Beatles were both accomplished songwriters and a very tight little foursome.