By Jeff Burger
The Beatles—the November 1968 double LP that has been known from Day One as the White Album—occupies a place on many if not most fans’ lists of the group’s greatest recordings. That it is, but its new six-CD-plus-Blu-ray 50th Anniversary Special Edition is greater still.
The first Beatles record to find the band rather than producer George Martin fully occupying the driver’s seat, the original White Album was ostensibly supposed to represent a return to basics—hence the picture-free, monochromatic cover and eponymous title. Largely albeit not entirely eschewing orchestration and studio embellishments, the record does indeed mark a major departure from its immediate predecessors, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. It presents what often sounds like a live band playing together in the studio.
It has been said that it also sounds like the collected contents of four solo records. That’s not really any more true of the White Album than of many other Beatles LPs, however. Sure, there are instantly identifiable “Paul songs” and “John songs” here, as well as some “George songs” and a “Ringo song.” But you could make a similar statement about many of the group’s earlier albums. Lennon and McCartney’s shared songwriting credits notwithstanding, the fact is that the majority of Beatles tunes were primarily the brainchild of one member; the other three would then jump in to help the songs reach their full potential.
Another common statement about the White Album is that it resulted during a period of discord among the quartet. There’s certainly truth to that—a fed-up Ringo Starr, for example, stormed out of the sessions at one point, leaving McCartney to play drums, and there were various other tensions, some reportedly triggered by the presence in the studio of Yoko Ono. Whatever troubles were brewing, however, they sure didn’t hurt the music. Moreover, as the session material in this box clearly demonstrates, the Fab Four were often having an absolutely fab time making this LP. There was abundant laughter and lots of teamwork involved in turning what often started out as one member’s idea into a bona-fide Beatles record.
And what a record it is. I can’t think of many other rock albums that have managed to offer such consistent quality and also such dazzlingly varied music—everything from hard rock, doo-wop, blues, and sweet ballads to vaudeville excursions, Baroque touches, and avant-garde electronics. And the lyrics are as diverse as the sounds: political one minute, silly the next, moving and introspective the next.
The album opens with McCartney’s hard-rocking Chuck Berry/Beach Boys parody, “Back in the USSR,” and offers such other Paul highlights as the silly and infectious “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Rocky Raccoon”; the lilting “I Will”; “Blackbird,” a subtle nod to the civil rights movement; and the music hall–influenced “Honey Pie.” Lennon standouts include “Julia,” his touching song for his mother; “Dear Prudence,” about Mia Farrow’s sister; “Glass Onion,” which teases fans with references to multiple other Beatles songs; the multifaceted “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”; the politically ambivalent “Revolution 1”; and “Sexy Sadie,” which was influenced by Lennon’s disillusionment with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. George Harrison contributes such gems as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Savoy Truffle” while Ringo Starr offers “Don’t Pass Me By,” his first solo songwriting credit on a Beatles LP.
Those 15 songs would themselves add up to quite an album—but they constitute only half the program. And many of the other 15 tracks are just as noteworthy.
The first two discs on this vastly expanded reissue—which comes with a 164-page hardcover book and a poster—deliver a remixed and remastered version of the original album’s 30 tracks by producer Giles Martin, son of original producer George Martin, and engineer Sam Okell. (Giles also produced last year’s terrific 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s.) The differences between this and the 1968 original LP are rather subtle—no one is likely to argue that the new mix does damage, and you might not even notice any changes without a side-by-side comparison. But if you do directly compare the two versions of these songs, you’ll likely detect a brighter, punchier sound in the 2018 edition as well as more effective placement of instruments and voices in the left and right stereo channels.
If you think the original album seems more like the work of a live band than its recent predecessors, wait till you hear the recordings on the four bonus CDs here, many of which strip away studio enhancements completely.
The first of the bonus discs features the 27 four-track demos that the Beatles recorded at Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey. These recordings include 21 compositions that ultimately made it onto the White Album, plus six that didn’t, among them Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea,” which was later well performed on a Harrison-produced LP by Apple artist Jackie Lomax; and Lennon’s “Child of Nature,” whose melody would wind up attached to completely different lyrics to create his Imagine album’s “Jealous Guy.”
In most cases, these demos feature just vocals and acoustic guitars. They’re often rudimentary, though never less than engrossing and often quite different from the familiar recordings. Consider, for example, “Back in the USSR”: the 1968 album version begins with the sound of a jet engine, followed by music that puts as much emphasis on rock guitar and percussion as on McCartney’s lead vocal; by contrast, the Esher demo spotlights the vocal, which is backed by acoustic guitar, handclaps, and zero aircraft sound effects.
The 50 tracks on the other three bonus discs take listeners into the White Album sessions, with early takes of its songs plus a wide assortment of other material, only some of which surfaced on later LPs: you’ll find songs like “Hey Jude,” “The Inner Light,” “Across the Universe,” and “Lady Madonna” as well as covers of Buddy Holly’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “Blue Moon,” the Rodgers and Hart standard that provided a No. 1 hit for the Marcels in 1961. False starts and lots of studio dialogue help make you feel as if you’re right there in the room as the Beatles play around with all this material. And you’ll get a sense that there was at least as much work as play going on when you note that the box includes, for example, take number 27 of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and take number 44 of “Long Long Long”—not to mention take number 102 of “Not Guilty,” a number that didn’t even make it onto the album.
All together, these six discs deliver more than 100 tracks. Most of them have never previously been released and nearly every one of them offers material that any serious Beatles fan will want to hear. But wait, as they used to say on late-night TV commercials, there’s more: this box also includes a Blu-ray that features the White Album’s original mono mix, the new PCM stereo mix, and, most notably, Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 versions of the 1968 LP’s 30 tracks. If you’re a Beatles fan and don’t own a surround-sound music system, you might want to consider buying one just to experience these versions, which render each voice and instrument far more distinctly and powerfully than ever before.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.