The Arts

The Beatles' 'White Album' Revisited, 50 Years Later

The 50th anniversary release of the album establishes that the Beatles’ music still appears as relevant as ever. The freshness of the bonus material measures up to their “original” catalogue

How do you follow up ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, released in 1967, arguably considered as the world’s greatest album? Quite simply, you cannot. But, depending on your perspective, the Beatles came close with their follow up in 1968, with an album eventually known as the ‘White Album’.

This year is the double-album’s 50th anniversary, and the celebration was preceded by the band’s surviving members releasing a deluxe reissue of the album on November 9, through their Apple Corps, in conjunction with Capitol/Universal Music [UMe].

Also Read: Tastes May Change, but the Classics Remain: the Best Albums of 1968

With the backdrop of the demise of manager Brian Epstein in the previous year, followed in 1968 by the chaotic launch of the band’s Apple Corps, the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon eventually occupying the White House, To put it mildly, the bad’s disappointment of having travelled to India to join a training course at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Academy Of Transcendental Meditation, between February and April that year, Beatles members George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr created their own piece of history during their stay.

Joined by a coterie of some 60 people, including musicians Donovan and Beach Boys’ Mike Love, and actress Mia Farrow, the duo of Lennon-McCartney expectedly wrote the bulk of the 30 tracks that appeared on the original album, but it was also notable for drummer Starr writing his first, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’.

The re-launched double-album contains the very same 30 tracks now remixed in stereo and 5.1 surround sound by producer Giles Martin, the original producer George Martin’s son. The senior Martin passed away in 2016. Some of the instrumentation certainly sounds a lot sharper than the “original” version; for instance, ‘Sexy Sadie’, a John Lennon composition that spilled vitriol on the Maharishi for allegedly having made sexual advances to one or more female members of the troupe that had travelled to India.

Trivia-hunters will notice that the lyrics of the song, ‘What Have You Done?/You Made a Fool of Everyone’, are similar to the Miracles’ 1961 hit, ‘I’ve Been Good To You’, which contains the following lyrics: “Look what you’ve done/You’ve made a fool of everyone”. In fact, the piano interlude on Radiohead’s 1997 song, ‘Karma Police’, appears to be strongly influenced by ‘Sexy Sadie’.

A group photo of The Beatles and their partners with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh in 1968. Credit and Copyright Paul Saltzman

Fragmented and fractious

The recording of the songs on the originally released ‘White Album’ had been identified as being fragmented and fractious, with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison recording their inputs at separate times in different studios. It did sound that the songs were independent entities with their respective, distinctive styles, crammed into a product branded as a band effort either under pressure of the Beatles management and/or the record label. In fact, Lennon famously described the recording sessions as the work of four solo artistes using the others as backing musicians.

A few weeks before the new deluxe album was relaunched, I came across what was known as the Esher demos, so identified as the songs were recorded on a four-track machine by the Beatles’ three key composers – Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison – at Harrison’s bungalow, Kinfauns, in Esher, Surrey.

Hence, what really is a revelation for me are not the 50-odd outtakes of the songs [although the 12-minute ‘Helter Skelter’ is the standout among them], but the addition of 27 acoustic demos.

The deluxe edition released now contains the first official release of the “Esher demos” – which have been bootlegged since their existence – that begs to convince the listener that the key songwriters of the band were not only united, but effectively utilised the sessions to demo their song-writing capabilities to the others.

While it could have been best described as “Beatles: Unplugged”, the demos clearly show that the songs which appeared innocuous on the completed double-album had already reached maturity prior to that, including songs like the very obviously Lennon-composed ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey’.

Waves from the smiling Beatles as they board an airliner at London Airport./PA Archive, The Converstion

The true gems

But the true gems are three songs that eventually would never be recorded in the studio by the Beatles: ‘Child Of Nature’, later released by Lennon with different lyrics as ‘Jealous Guy’ on his ‘Imagine’ album; ‘Circles’, released by Harrison on his 1982 album, ‘Gone Troppo’; and ‘Sour Milk Sea’, a Harrison song later recorded by Jackie Lomax and produced by Harrison as one of the earliest Apple Records singles in August 1968.

Eventually recorded in a hard rock genre, ‘Sour Milk Sea’ also includes musical contributions from Eric Clapton and session pianist Nicky Hopkins. It was the first of many Harrison productions for artistes signed to the Beatles’ Apple record label.

Also Read: When the Beatles Came to Rishikesh to Relax, Meditate and Write Some Classic Songs

The deeper one gets into the Esher sessions, though, you begun to find that each song is revelation of sorts, such as Lennon’s guitar playing on ‘Dear Prudence’ and the future guitar solo of the extremely Chuck Berry-influenced ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’, which is hummed by McCartney.

Far from sounding disconnected, the Esher sessions firmly establish how the Beatles’ camaraderie helped fine tune songs, often sung in harmonies. In a crux, the 50th anniversary release of the ‘White Album’ clearly establishes that the Beatles’ music still appears as relevant as ever. The freshness of the bonus material measures up to the Beatles “original” catalogue, proving beyond doubt that their content is something worth listening to, forever, whatever the take.

Parag Kamani is a rock music aficionado.

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