The Beatles’ longest, strangest work is about to get a new look. Ahead of its 50th anniversary (Nov. 22), a greatly expanded edition of 1968’s The Beatles (widely known as The White Album) — helmed by producer Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin — will see release on Nov. 9.
The set contains revealing mixes of the original double LP, refreshed versions of its acoustic demos, and unreleased recordings from George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, London, fresh from the band’s fabled Rishikesh trip.
According to Martin, The White Album sessions weren’t exactly the volatile trip that has been fossilized into Beatle lore. Sure, there were spats, including Starr leaving the group in a huff and heading to Sardinia on Peter Sellers’ yacht, or George Harrison recording over 100 takes of a song allegedly about McCartney’s controlling, repressive effect on him.
But The White Album couldn’t have existed without the brotherhood that spawned their biggest hits. Sure, the spare, shape-shifting album can seem like a prolonged duel, like four warring brothers passing around an acoustic guitar to one-up each other. But Martin sees The White Album more as an all-for-one effort than a chronicle of discord and dysfunction. On jams like “Dear Prudence,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Yer Blues,” the lads weren’t fighting their face-to-face chemistry, they were embracing it, resulting in the most naturalistic, emotionally resonant approach they ever stumbled upon.
Billboard caught up with Giles Martin after a White Album listening event at Power Station in New York to discuss the upcoming box and how Beatles fans can poke their own holes in the double album’s baggage.
This isn’t the first repackaging of The White Album, and the story of its making — drama, discord and Maharishi — has long been codified into myth. Of course, the reality of it was more complex. Did you still feel there are undiscovered corners of this album and its legend that could still beguile longtime listeners?
In all honesty, I think what beguiles listeners is the songs themselves. The story behind the record is what people write about, but at the end of it, you don’t listen to a song thinking about that. For me, what was surprising about The White Album was how cohesive it is as an album, as far as its creation. My dad was never a fan of it because he had such a tough time making it. He went on a holiday halfway through because he was just sitting in the studio listening to the band jamming for hours on end.
This wasn’t his usual way of working.
He liked to be efficient, he liked to be thorough. But I think what surprised me is that it’s only a band-driven album. The band were in control of their own destiny. It’s not as fragmented as people write about, like the four members of the band went off to record their own stuff in different rooms. It just isn’t that. You heard some of the tapes today. It just doesn’t feel like that.
I remember working in AIR Studios in 1989 as a runner. Supertramp were in there, and they were working in different rooms because they didn’t get on. And on The White Album, they recorded “Yer Blues” in a cupboard together. You don’t go in a cupboard and record together if you don’t like each other.
I kind of had to laugh at the end of the demo for “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which is so full of cheer. It’s like, “Boy, they sure hated each other back then!”
That’s the thing! It’s true. It doesn’t come across. You watch old Let It Be outtakes, and you know, I was in a band. We had much bigger falling-outs than the Beatles. It’s just so magnified because it’s Beatles. Everything Beatles becomes exaggerated. It’s funny, all these people who write about the Beatles, because Paul gets told things about what he did and when he did it. And he says, “Well, I don’t remember!”
He said to me once, “There was a time when we went to go see Elvis; the big Beatles meeting with Elvis. We had a smoke on the way in the car, so we were a little bit worse for wear. And Priscilla opened the door. The funny thing is, no one could agree on what she was wearing. I thought she was wearing a gingham dress, but Ringo thought she was wearing a tiara! Now, if we can’t remember a detail like that when we were there, then how do people write these books?”
So, all I can go on, what I say about The White Album is, “Why listen on tape?” On tape, it seems pretty cohesive, and they seem to be getting on pretty well. I mean, Ringo did walk out, there’s no question about it. But I think he walked out because Paul wanted to play drums a lot — he played on “Dear Prudence” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”.
Did Paul have drummer dreams in 1968?
I think lots of bands’ members have drummer dreams. Steven Tyler joined Aerosmith because Joe Perry liked his drumming. The drummer on “Walk This Way” was Steven Tyler, originally. So, that really annoys drummers. Ringo left, not because the Beatles were breaking up, but because he was pretty pissed off. But then when he went, they realized they weren’t the Beatles. There were four of them, and then he was gone. And when he came back, they filled the studio with flowers.
So much is written about things. I mean, even when I hear Yoko on the recordings, she sounds sweet, and they’re having a laugh; it’s not just her with John. I know it became difficult; it became difficult at Abbey Road as well. There was a bust-up because she ate George’s biscuits — just a stupid thing. But it gets written about, and written about, and it becomes this big thing.
It’s wild how fans connect with art so much that it becomes “theirs,” and they develop a proprietary relationship with it. But, at the core, it comes from a place of love.
Absolutely. It’s a reflection on how good the music is and how much passion it gives you. It’s less anodyne and saccharine than the world we live in today, when you write about an artist in the modern world. Now, everything is curated and meticulously PR-presented when it’s delivered. That didn’t exist in those days. It was all about the music. It didn’t really matter how The White Album was made. It’s, “This is The White Album.” I think that’s more how it should be. As you say, it’s way more complex.
The White Album emphasizes the acoustic guitar and the solo voice, which, in my mind, would be a continuation of the set and setting in which it was written. What do you think possessed them to not flesh the arrangements out in typically Beatlesque ways? Just one year prior, their recordings would be decorated with baroque flourishes and dense harmonies.
I think that was a reaction to Pepper as well — “Mother Nature’s Son” has a brass band on it, “Across the Universe,” which you could put as a White Album bastion, had tamburas and stuff as well. But I think, in essence, Pepper was painting colors in sound, and creating this world that was otherworldly. The White Album was “This is us.”
With “Julia”, “I Will” or “Blackbird,” there is that kind of “We’ve been to India, we’ve written these songs and now, we’re going to record them. It’s as simple as that. We don’t have a particular journey here.” It’s so bonkers. It’s so brave as a record. They wanted things raw. They’d done Pepper, which wasn’t raw.
How do you think The White Album flows so well, perhaps better than any Beatles album this side of Pepper, despite being constructed from a mess of songs? In your father’s case, what do you think was key to sequencing it so well? Was he paying attention to maintaining a certain beats-per-minute, or creating jarring transitions?
When you’re compiling an album, you want to be extreme. This is the thing we’ve lost in playlists, in a way. “Long, Long, Long” following “Helter Skelter” is a bit like “When I’m Sixty-Four” following “Within You, Without You.” It’s like a tasting menu: “Oh, here comes the sorbet.” It’s that mentality. I’ve been heavily involved in how it should and what should work, and my dad, to a certain extent, would have been a referee on that. That’s quite often our job as a producer, when you work with people like the Beatles, to referee decisions.
And your father felt pushed out from his studio role at the time. It seems like the four guys had become this great, big glowing ball of energy that made him just go, “I can’t do what I’ve typically done anymore.”
I think that’s exactly right. The four became so big, and they worked separately as well, and they were in different rooms. It’s like how the famous producer Ken Scott, who was in the studio with George, was doing “Savoy Truffle.” He said, “It sounds a bit bright, George.” And George said, “I know, I like it.” At the end of it, he had to take hold of it and make sense of it.
I’d like to touch on the four portraits of them packaged with The White Album. They look distinct, finally. In every shoot between Please Please Me and Revolver, they’ve got at least the same hair, the same blazers. In the Pepper outfits and facial hair, they’re this four-headed hydra. But for White, they’re kind of stubbled and unsmiling and they don’t look of a piece.
It’s a really good point. But also, you’ve got to remember that because of touring, they’d stopped living out of each other’s pockets all the time. If you think about their schedule, if you look up the Beatles’ calendar in 1964, it’s unbelievable. It’s almost inhuman. They did these tours around the UK, then they’d go to the studios, and then you realize they’d made an album in two weeks. It could be Meet the Beatles, or whatever it was, in 10 days or a week, and then they’d go on tour again.
And that was their entire life for three or four years. And then suddenly, with Pepper, they were released from touring. That suddenly gave them this time where they could be freed from being a pop band by design. Eric Clapton once said that he never thought they were any good because they were this boy band, and you could never hear them play unless you bought their record. If you were cool, you bought the Stones, or whatever. And then suddenly, he saw them playing, and he said they were amazingly good at playing their instruments. He had no idea.
And there was that view in ‘65 and ‘66, and the Beatles were aware of that, that no one really saw that they were this pop band that had taken over the world, and they’d deliberately become this powerhouse, these four guys. They’d created these characters for themselves that they couldn’t live up to. The Help! movie is that; we all live in a house and we’re all from Liverpool!
But that’s sort of reflective of reality, right? We’ve heard these stories about how they’d share an entire hotel floor, yet end up in the bathroom just to be with each other…
The world lost that, because the Beatles weren’t that. They weren’t even that when they were being that. There’s a famous shot where the Beatles are waving and they were in their suits, you see that shot? That’s them taking the piss out of being a boy band. And these stories about John in Hamburg, a guy chatting up Cynthia and he kicked him in the face. They weren’t exactly an easygoing band. They created this caricature they couldn’t live up to. And when it was successful for them, they knew they had to reject it. They knew that wasn’t them. They had to stop being this four-headed monster and start growing up.
They were a postmodern band from the beginning. Even in those early interviews, they were cheeky about their public perception and assumed roles. But then The White Album is where the chickens finally come home to roost with their dissatisfaction.
You can look at The White Album as people around a campfire. “Oh, what song have you got? Which song have you got?” And then they would go and record the songs. But they didn’t record the songs despite each other. That’s what people think. “You go and record your song, then I’m going to record my song!” It didn’t work like that.
I’ll give you an example. When Paul came in to listen to The White Album box, he wanted to listen to the mix of “Julia.” Paul was very instrumental in recording “Julia” with John, I think. They supported each other. There’s the story of when he played him “Hey Jude,” which they knew was going to be a hit, I think. I get a sense that there was a belief in their own abilities as songwriters. I’m sure John really liked “Helter Skelter,” and I’m sure Paul really liked “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
Rather than “dueling” with songs, I hear John and Paul trying to almost be each other.
You don’t do 107 takes on someone else’s song if you don’t like the song. If anything, on the outtakes, you hear John saying, “It’s getting better, but it’s not getting easier or more fun.” Then George says, “It’s getting better and more fun!” I don’t get the sense that people think, “Yes, they were recording their own songs, but they had the others with them, doing it.”
The White Album is now a template or archetype just as much as anything. From then on, you could make an album, or you could make a White Album — a messy outpouring that breaks the fourth wall. Do you think the Beatles could have possibly grasped how they were shifting what an album could be, or more plausibly, did they just see themselves as trying something new?
They had a progressive nature, which meant they never wanted to do the same thing twice. You know, the concise efficiency born of the psychedelic journey of Sgt. Pepper. How do you react in the most extreme way to that? You make The White Album, which is a colorless sleeve and 30 songs. Knowing Paul and Ringo, and I’d met George — that appeals to them. That slightly “f— you” nature. “You want us to do this? Okay, well, we’ll do that. We’re the Beatles, so we’ll do it.”
I think, by happenstance, they made history. If you think about them playing on the rooftop, it’s “How are we going to do things? Are we going to play on Mount Everest, or are we going to play on the Great Pyramid?” Pink Floyd went on and did that, played in Pompeii. But with the Beatles, it was like, “We’ve done that. Let’s do something different.” I think, in adolescence, from growing up, there was that thing where everyone still thought they were still doing that, almost. It was like a progression. My dad thought he would record another Beatles, and Paul has never thought that he’s peaked. John, as well. And the rest of the band.
I think now, and I noticed it with my dad, partly when he got to his mid-seventies and eighties, he realized that the Beatles would probably be what he was known for. But it took that long. Because you always think you’re going to go and do other things. And he did do lots of other things, by the way. But it’s only from retrospect that you’ve done something historical. They thought it was fun and a good idea.