Well here we are again, celebrating another 50th anniversary of a ground-breaking Beatles LP with a deluxe, remastered reissue. This time it is the double LP The Beatles, otherwise known as The White Album, the first proper album the Beatles put out in the wake of the smashing success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the relative disappointments of Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, and the death of longtime manager Brian Epstein. Oh, and the founding of their own conglomerate, Apple Corps, Ltd.
So 1967 was a turbulent year for the Fab Four. In early ’68, after a stay at an ashram in India with a bunch of other celebrities, they returned to London with a passel of songs in various states of completion. And they set about recording so many of them that they needed a two-LP set to release them on — a format that they didn’t exactly pioneer but was much less common then.
The White Album has always been seen as something of a white elephant. The critics didn’t like it very much, but it became the group’s biggest selling album ever. Fairly quickly the accepted narrative became that it was a near-breakup album, a fractured thing that resulted from each Beatle working on his own songs separately while the other three bickered in the next room. In some ways it’s easy to see how this story took hold, because the damn thing is just so sprawling that it’s hard to make sense of it. Its songs range in style from sunny folk and country, all the way to avant-garde sound collage, with a little bit of every style of 20th century pop in between. And for perhaps the first time on a Beatles record, it was abundantly clear which of the “Lennon-McCartney” songs were by whom. There’s just no mistaking the music-hall ditty “Honey Pie,” the rollicking faux-ska of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or the bouncy pop song about a dog called “Martha My Dear” as by anyone but Paul. Nor could any of them but John have been behind the hilariously bitter “Yer Blues,” the drugged-out “I’m So Tired” or the love song to a lost mother that is “Julia.”
But Giles Martin, the son of the record’s original producer George Martin and producer of this reissue, brings with him some revisionist history. Nothing could be further from the truth than that the Beatles were falling apart as a band while making The Beatles, he says. Sure, they had their tiffs, and Ringo left the sessions and went to Spain at one point, but nobody quit the band. Martin the Younger has a bit of evidence on hand, too, in the form of the Esher Demos which form one of the three discs of this edition. Esher was the name of George Harrison’s estate where they were recorded, by all of the Beatles together, all apparently having a grand time. And the official recordings, done at Abbey Road as well as Trident Studios, were for the most part done with the group all present, playing their instruments and facing each other, much more “live” than they’d done since probably the Rubber Soul sessions.
Those Esher Demos are fabulous fun, like sitting in on a Beatles guitar pull, and the version of “Dear Prudence” that John demoed is stunning, to name just one. But the real power of this reissue is in the 30 tracks from those four original vinyl sides, from “Back In The U.S.S.R.” to “Good Night.” As Giles Martin did with the Sgt. Pepper reissue from 2017, he took all of the original recordings for this album and aired them out. With modern digital technology he was able to undo some of the compression and other technical choices that were made in 1968, and in consultation with the surviving Beatles and their estates, put the tracks back together in a way he thinks they would have if they could have back then.
The big differences are in the foundation. Paul’s bass guitar lines and Ringo’s drumming have much more power and clarity to them, and that’s always a good thing. McCartney was one of the most innovative bassists in rock and some of his phrases are just startlingly wonderful, including on such disparate tunes as “Sexy Sady” and “Helter Skelter.” And Ringo was always a singer’s drummer, his phrasing serving the song, such as in “Dear Prudence”; but he could demonstrate tremendous power and precision, too. Just listen to “Glass Onion” and “Yer Blues,” for example. It’s great that the bass and drums are no longer so often lost in the mix.
Just before I wrote this I listened for the millionth time to Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle.” It’s a lightweight and amusing song, inspired by the names of confections in a box of chocolates and by his friend Eric Clapton’s insatiable sweet tooth. But its arrangement is sublime, with a powerful horn section that provided me with the first ever bass saxophone I’d heard. Listening to this one with the headphones on just now, the startling clarity of those horns literally gave me chills up my spine.
I was a big Beatles fan but in 1967 and ’68 I seem to have taken a bit of a break from them. There was a ton of other great music to be had, for one thing, and at age 12 and 13 I was a bit young to really get into Sgt. Pepper and the White Album back then. I didn’t pick The Beatles up until late 1971, actually, at the same time as I got Lennon’s Imagine. I’d heard a lot of the songs by then, of course, but never the whole album. I listened to little else for a few weeks, as I recall. And although it’s a little bit too overwhelming to be my favorite Beatles album, many of its deep cuts are among my absolute favorite Beatles songs. Like the aforementioned “Savoy Truffle” as well as “I’m So Tired,” “I Will” (with Paul singing rather than playing the bass line), and Harrison’s spooky “Long, Long, Long.” If you’re any but the most casual of Beatles fan, you probably have more than one favorite on the White Album, too.
(Apple Corps/Capitol, 2018)