Listening to the Beatles’ White Album, 50 years later
There’s something to be said for having your ears scrubbed clean every so often and experiencing a beloved classic for the first time — again. The 50th-anniversary reissue of “The Beatles,” a.k.a. the White Album, does exactly that. It’s more than just nostalgia at work here. This is reappraisal, reinvigoration — a wholesale reintroduction. It’s as though someone had blown the dust off your youth and handed it back to you it in high-definition Sensurround.
The new/old White Album was released Nov. 9 in four different editions, two on vinyl, two on CD, all featuring new stereo remixes of the original 1968 album’s 30 cuts overseen by Giles Martin (son of the late Beatles producer George Martin) and Sam Okell. The 4-LP and 3-CD versions add in the “Esher demos,” acoustic test versions of 21 cuts recorded by the group at George Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey. The 6-disc coffee-table version — a monolith that hard-core Beatlemaniacs will probably dance around “2001”-style — tacks on three discs of revelatory outtakes, rehearsals, and alternate versions, a book that reprints the original handwritten lyrics and breaks down the genesis and recording of every cut, and a Blu-ray audio disc for serious soundaholics.
Of course I had to have the monolith; the White Album was the first Beatles record I bought on my own instead of having to wrest it away from my older sisters, and it made a huge impact on my 11-year-old self. Back then, I immediately cut up the accompanying poster and Beatles mug shots and pasted them to the album’s plain white cover, thereby destroying its value as a collectible. Who cares? I still have it. But if you subscribe to Spotify or Amazon Prime, you can listen to all six CDs in streaming versions, or download the tracks on iTunes. You won’t get the full audiophile one-two punch, obviously, but what you get still sounds amazing.
Purists may carp, but the new remixes make the old songs sound brighter, more spacious, more present. The exuberant background harmonies in “Ob-Bla-Di Oh-Bla-Da” and the horn charts in “Mother Nature’s Son” are spread out and individuated; the bass-line pumping beneath “Birthday” has a crisper swagger and wit. I just about had a panic attack listening to the fresh assault of “Helter Skelter.”
Some of the songs on the second disc creeped me out as a kid — George’s eerie “Long, Long, Long” and “Savoy Truffle,” John Lennon’s “Cry, Baby, Cry,” — but their revealed filigree renders them new versions of old friends. And the musique concrete maelstrom of “Revolution 9” is more than ever an art-house horror movie for the ears.
The rap on the White Album has always been that it was made while the Beatles were coming apart — that instead of a group effort, the record was the product of four solo artists. The Esher demos and especially the three discs of extra tracks decisively prove otherwise. On the former, the acoustic “Yer Blues” more clearly reveals Lennon’s debt to bluesmen like Skip James and Robert Johnson (the latter’s “Stones in My Passway” springs to mind), and McCartney’s trial run of “Blackbird” may actually be superior to the official version.
The recording sessions are even more telling. True, Ringo Starr up and quit the band at one point, fed up with studio squabbling, but he was happily wooed back with flowers on his drum kit a few weeks later. On cuts with titles like “Sexy Sadie Take 3” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Third Version, Take 27,” we hear familiar tunes on the way to becoming beloved, with chitchat between studio floor and control room and a lot of inter-Beatles banter. It’s the sound of talented musicians and technicians working together on something they know is good.
There’s a delightful version of “Rocky Raccoon” in which Paul McCartney talk-sings, muffs lyrics, and scats; a run-through of “I Will” — one of the group’s loveliest and most underrated songs — that ends with Paul singing “I won’t!” and John cheekily returning the serve: “Yes, you will!”
There are more than White Album tracks here, too. We hear early versions of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” a test drive of “Across the Universe” for which two fans, Lizzie Bravo and Gayleen Pease, were dragged in off the street to sing backing vocals. There are songs that got held for “Abbey Road” (“Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”), songs that never made it to vinyl at all (George’s “Not Guilty” and “Sour Milk Sea”), and a lovely melody called “Child of Nature” that John recycled as “Jealous Guy” three years later.
Unlike the previous year’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which was meticulously multitracked in the studio, instrument by instrument, the “Beatles” sessions were recorded in group settings with “live” vocals. John, Paul, George, and Ringo discovered the songs over the course of lengthy, improvisatory sessions; it wasn’t George Martin’s way of doing business, and the producer and engineers bristled at the retakes that stretched into the wee hours. But manager Brian Epstein had died the previous year, and the Beatles by now were fully in charge.
What they fashioned may not be a perfect record (I’d kick “Wild Honey Pie” off, but you might make a different choice) and it may not be your favorite — although I’ve found to my surprise that my daughters’ generation puts it at or near the top on account of its passion, professionalism, and sheer variety. But the White Album is possibly the one record that testifies to the breadth and depth of everything the Beatles could do.
For the first time in a while, too, the group was rocking out, and that felt right in 1968 and still does. Coming after the patchouli-scented pretensions of the Summer of Love, this was a year of cutting the crap. One of the many reasons the Beatles resonated so strongly with their era is that they embodied the eternal tension between Edenic idealism and the gritty, messy real, both as a group and in the songs of their two key creators and personalities.
Which is to say that it’s purposeless to call Paul the pretty songbird addicted to ricky-tick piano and string quartets when he was capable of such hellfire chaos as “Helter Skelter.” It makes no sense to call John the ballsy, stripped-down rocker when he could create phantasmagoric sound-worlds like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” or wistful daydreams like “Dear Prudence” and “Julia.” What we hear in this essential re-issue is four men using all the art and skill at their disposal to make sense of a world spinning at increasing speed — and in the process helping us to make sense of it as well.