The ‘White Album’ at 50: A Beatles’ Masterpiece Just Got Even Better
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, a new (and improved) version of one of the Fab Four’s best is seeing the light of day.
A few years ago, I had the great luxury of spending an afternoon with Ringo Starr. The former Beatle was launching an exhibition of his digital artwork for his Lotus Foundation charity, and was meeting the press. I watched as he gamely answered question after question about his former band, even though it was hardly the reason he was there.
Eventually, we ended up in a small room, just the two of us, perusing a Basquiat on the wall. Starr had recently announced he would no longer sign autographs, but it was just the two of us, and so as we chatted amiably about mutual friends and the album he was working on, I started to slip my copies of Revolver and the “White Album” out of my bag.
Starr stopped me. “Don’t even ask,” he said firmly, but with a smile. “But let me see that.” He took my well-worn copy of the “White Album,” an album he recorded when he was just 28, looking at his younger self and his bandmates in the gatefold, lingering on the image of George Harrison.
“You know what I love about this album?” Starr offered, after a long, reflective moment. “We were a band again. I always say I learned to play chess while we were making Pepper, because it took ages to make and there was lots of waiting around, but on this one, it was us in a room again, playing with each other, making music.”
Somewhere over the past 50 years a legend grew up around The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album, that the sessions grew acrimonious as they dragged on, and that it was essentially a series of solo recordings that happened to have the other Beatles as the backing musicians, thus marking the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest band.
“I know that’s the story—largely because right after the band broke up, George and John were pretty negative about that period, and then it grew from there—but I honestly don’t remember a cross word between them,” said the legendary producer Chris Thomas, who was a fledgling assistant to The Beatles’ producer George Martin during the sessions. “It took a long time to make, and it was an intensely creative atmosphere, so I understand why they, and George Martin, may have felt that way, but I remember the sessions as a pure joy.”
“These old narratives usually need rewriting, because it depends how they were sewn into history in the first place and who did the sewing,” offers historian and Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn. “I was rereading Lennon Remembers, which was when John Lennon said that the ‘White Album’ was essentially ‘me backed by the others, it’s Paul backed by the others, it’s George backed by the others.’ That essentially is how that legend came into being, where they’re all just backing musicians for one or another. But you don’t hear that here. They are contributing to each other’s works substantially.”
“When you listen to the tapes, they certainly don’t sound like a band that’s breaking up,” offers Giles Martin. “I think the band getting on each other’s nerves—that exists in every single band. For some reason it seems to be more written about in the Beatles, I think because they presented themselves as four lovable guys from Liverpool to begin with. And in essence, the world lost that as their career progressed, and certainly lost that with the ‘White Album,’ and I think that’s why people wanted the Monkees.”
Martin would know. As the Beatles’ go-to producer for every archival project since 2006’s Love album and Las Vegas show, Martin, the now 49-year-old son of the band’s late producer, is the man who not only remixed the “White Album” in stereo and glorious surround for the new 50th anniversary box set, out Friday, but he and his team also dug through Abbey Road Studios’ archives in search of suitable outtakes to help tell the story of the album’s gestation.
The result is an astonishing treasure trove of audio riches that include the band’s legendary 27-song “Esher” demos—acoustic demos recorded at George Harrison’s home in the suburbs outside London in May 1968, just after they returned from their Rishikesh, India, sojourn to visit the Maharishi—as well as 50 outtakes from the sessions.
“There’s a lot of laughter when you listen to them in the studio, and their playing is simply great,” Martin says. “So I just don’t buy that they were miserable.”
“No matter what was going on in our lives, we were always great once the count-in happened,” Starr told me, recalling that once the red light went on in the studio, there was no band better than the Beatles. It’s something that’s borne out by the outtakes included on the box set.
“They were incredibly tight as musicians,” Lewisohn agrees. “And though we know the tales of disintegration that were beginning in this period, and we know that ‘68 was a tough year for them, and that it was only heading in one direction from here, when you listen to them in the studio, you don’t really get any of that. They seem always to be able to leave their problems at the door.”
If the new box set helps rewrite the longstanding narrative that the sessions were fractious, Thomas, who was actually there, says that he never bought into the myth anyway.
“Nobody understands what they went through and what they experienced,” he explains. “Being the Beatles wasn’t easy. And spending five months on an album, no wonder people became fatigued. It was really quite hard work, and it was an intensely creative atmosphere. There was bound to be a day in a studio where somebody might’ve had a row at home, and he comes in and somebody goes, ‘Why don’t you play that?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t want to play that.’ That is just ordinary stuff. It happens all the time. And I think the idea that Yoko pulled them apart I find very, very weird. I could never understand that one.”
For his part, Lewisohn agrees that the facts, again, simply don’t bare out the myths, and in fact only burnish the Fab Four’s legend.
“The sessions ran end of May to the middle of October, and there was a lot of time spent overall, because they’re doing 30 tracks and there were other things happening in their lives at the same time, but many of the songs were done in one or two sessions,” he explains. “So all that innovation was coming from scratch to—I have to use the word perfection—in mere hours. You can’t fail to come away from listening to this hugely impressed by the Beatles as a group of musicians and as composers and as melodicists.”
Lest we forget, they were also breaking new ground, doing things that no other popular artist had ever attempted. In the rock world, the only other artist of the Beatles’ stature who had released a double album was Bob Dylan.
“If you look at the sequencing, the order and flow of the songs across all four sides, it tells a wonderful story,” says Martin.
“Nobody had done that before,” Thomas says, seemingly still a bit in awe. “Nobody really knew the secret of how to make a double album. Dealing with that amount of music is very, very difficult.”
For Thomas, the sessions were thrilling. As an ambitious young man, to be thrust into the sessions for the follow-up to 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the world’s preeminent group as part of his new job working for George Martin’s production company was a dream come true. It also became on-the-job training
“I’d never been to a Beatles session before the first day of the ‘White Album,’ so it was a completely extraordinary experience for me,” recalls Thomas. “I didn’t know how they worked, and I didn’t know anything about them as people, particularly. So I made sure I was always first one there, last one out, along with the engineers. Then when I came back from my holiday in August, and George Martin went on holiday, and I stood in for him and played on some of the tracks, we did something like seven tracks in three weeks. And from there on, we really started motoring.”
Still, Thomas says, he tried to take the time to enjoy the experience, and that the Beatles didn’t make it hard.
“More importantly, they were hilarious,” Thomas recalls. “There was a fantastic chemistry between them as friends. It was a lot of fun. And they were amazing to be around. There was a good vibe, and it became more and more industrious as we got towards the end of the record.”
He’s also quick to underscore his sense that the Beatles were nothing if not a unified creative band, working toward a collective goal.
“The fact that they were working on individual things in separate studios wasn’t because they were splitting apart, it was because they had to get stuff finished,” he says of the impending holiday-market deadline that loomed as the sessions wore on. “Basically, they were architects to their own particular songs, so whosever song it was would take the lead in deciding how it was going to go. So, for instance, there was one particular night where I was working with George Harrison in Number 2, and George Martin went with John into Number 3, to work on ‘Revolution #9,’ and Paul had nothing to do. And at one point we were all back in Number 2, and he said, ‘Want to listen to what I’ve got?’ Because he’d gone into Studio 1 and he’d done ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?’ all on his own. I thought, ‘Blimey, that’s incredible.’ It was just a very, very, very busy time, but it wasn’t that someone had gone to another studio in a huff, or away from the others.”
“It was us in a room together, playing,” said Starr of his memories of the sessions.
For Martin, upending the long-held narrative by both remixing one of the Beatles’ most beloved works and giving listeners a peak into its creation via the outtakes included in the deluxe set, was both a beginning and end point.
“We had to ask ourselves, everyday, ‘How do we tell the story, and how does it appear in your living room?’” he explains. “We needed to figure out the right way to give people access to what I have access to.”
Ultimately, Martin says, the choices were easy.
“There’s a poignancy to when you have a take with a voice on it,” he explains. “They’re such a great vocal band, as we all know. With the early take of ‘Glass Onion,’ we tried to push up the acoustic guitar as much as possible, because John’s singing along with his acoustic guitar, but he has no vocal. But it sounds cool. ‘Yer Blues’ has no vocal on it, but you can hear in the background what’s sung in the tiny room they were recording in. There’s a version of ‘Cry, Baby, Cry’ that sounds a bit like a Pink Floyd, which is really interesting, I think. But the most poignant versions you get are the ones where it’s just simple, with someone pairing themselves with the acoustic guitar, like ‘Julia’ or ‘Blackbird,’ because you hear Paul play around with the song itself.”
But perhaps the biggest draw of the new, expanded and spiffed-up version of the Beatles’ “White Album” is Martin’s 5.1 surround mix.
“The 5.1 is amazing,” says Lewisohn of Martin’s work, singling out John Lennon’s much derided musique concrete experiment for special mention. “All of it is amazing, but the 5.1 mix of ‘Revolution #9’ is worth the entire price of the box set to me. The sounds go over your head, and around you, between you. And they whizz around your legs, and they fly over your head, and it’s just breathtaking. I so wish that John Lennon was alive to hear it, because I can’t imagine that he’d be anything other than overjoyed to hear how ‘Revolution #9’ is still such a substantial piece of work and will now hopefully be rightly appreciated.”
“It’s really disturbing,” Martin says of the song, with a wicked smile.
And to those who look at the endless line of box sets—even those by the Beatles—as a cash grab by the powers that be, Lewisohn is quick to set the world’s most famous foursome apart from the pack.
“If we’re listening to an alternate version, then it won’t be better than the released version, but nonetheless the interest level is immense,” he explains. “One of the many unique things about the Beatles is that no matter how deeply you dig into the things that they did, and how they did it, and who they were when they were doing it, it stays interesting. And actually it just gets more and more revelatory. To know them more is to love them more, and the levels of appreciation are, it would seem, infinite, and releases like this are greatly adding to our knowledge and therefore to our appreciation, and to our understanding of them as artists.”