A few thoughts about the 50th anniversary edition of the Beatles’ White Album:
- The Good: The Beatles’ 1968 self titled double LP (more commonly referred to as the White Album) is the most dense in the Beatles’ discography. With the majority of the 30 tracks being written in India after the sudden death of their manager Brian Epstein, the sessions for the album would go on to heavily impact the last three years of the band’s career. By design, White Album was starkly different from what The Beatles had released only months earlier, going from the lush, psychedelic sounds of Sgt Pepper to more of a rootsy, bluesy sound. It also represents the point where the Beatles went from being a cohesive group working together to a group of individual songwriters with radically different ideas. All that said, the music on White Album is endlessly interesting despite its well-known flaws, featuring a number of highlights that cover a wide range of genres, including “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Blackbird,” “Helter Skelter,” “Sexy Sadie,” and “Rocky Raccoon” among numerous others.
- The Bad: It’s hard for anyone (even a die-hard Beatles fan like myself) to say that the White Album is anything close to perfect from front to back. After all, this is a double album; its runs the length of a short feature length film at ninety-three minutes long, and it touches pretty much everything – from pop and rock to heavy metal to reggae to folk to experimental and avant-garde. Most would agree that you can skip the off-putting and off-kilter filler track “Wild Honey Pie,” the two blues excursions of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” and “Yer Blues,” and pretty much all of the second half of the second disc (Lennon’s 8 and a half minute head scratcher “Revolution 9” very much included). Of course, all of these tracks help paint the full picture of the Beatles circa 1968, but for the most part, they were songs that never should have been released on a high profile studio album.
- Esher Demos: Perhaps the most exciting part of this 50th anniversary reissue is the release of 27 demos recorded by the Beatles prior to going into the recording studio in May 1968. These demos (officially known as the Esher demos because they were recorded at George Harrison’s house in Esher) are sparse, acoustic guitar takes, only supplemented by double tracked vocals, and the occasional tambourine or shaker. They are beautiful, high quality demos, and go a long way in showing how fully formed many of the songs that would eventually go onto White Album already were even before they went into Abbey Road.
- Like A Kid in A Candy Store: In addition to the 27 Esher tracks, there are another 50 tracks that consist of early and discarded takes of many songs, including many that would end some end up appearing on future releases. I’m still digging my way through all of these goodies as of writing this, but, check out the early take of “Hey Jude,” an 11 minute version of “Revolution” that outdoes the final album version, the acoustic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the studio jam of “Blue Moon” and the various “Helter Skelter” takes which show how the song evolved from a bluesy dirge into the precursor of heavy metal that it’s known to be today.
- Oh no: John Lennon first met Yoko Ono at an art gallery in London in late 1966, but it wasn’t until May 1968 that Lennon and Ono officially became an item after his wife Cynthia caught the “two virgins” together in Lennon’s residence. Ono’s presence in the studio during the sessions for the White Album famously contributed to some deal of strain between Lennon and the rest of the Beatles, who had never allowed girlfriends or wives in the studio during recording. Ono played a major role in Lennon’s songwriting, however, contributing backing vocals to “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Birthday,” and is directly alluded to in “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and “Julia.”
- I Said “No No No No”: The recording sessions are often seen as the beginning of the end for the prolific Beatles, with a number of different factors all converging together in mid to late 1968 that had profound effects on how the band worked and functioned. Financial issues stemming from the band’s new Apple Records label, alongside changing dynamics between the band members led to tension, distrust and hostility. Things got so bad at one point that drummer Ringo Starr temporarily left the band for a few weeks, so Paul McCartney provided the drum tracks to “Back in the USSR” and “Dear Prudence.” Longtime producer George Martin took a leave of absence during the recording, and sound engineer Geoff Emerick (who had worked with the band on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper) straight up left the project in the middle of recording, only to return on Abbey Road.
- Sound: Like the Sgt. Pepper 50th anniversary release that came out last year, George Martin’s son, Giles handled the remixing of the original studio album. The remix/remaster is wonderfully done (better than the Sgt. Pepper remix, in my opinion), shining up the production of the album in the right places and allowing the vocal tracks and instrumentation to breathe and have their moment in the sun. Careful listening will have its rewards here, especially if you’re already familiar with the album – if not, this remix is a great place to start.
Listen to the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ White Album below!