Today, a massive reissue package of the now remastered – by Giles “son of George” Martin – version of The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album, with 77 extra tracks, becomes available. Yes, you read that correctly, 77 extra tracks. Across five discs and more than five hours of music.
For one album? It’s no ordinary album. It’s one with almost as much mythology, interpretation and misunderstandings as its predecessor, the cultural behemoth that was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is also at least as important a record musically, culturally and for the band itself, as that landmark.
What did the record which quickly came to be known as the White Album say about us and The Beatles then? And what does it say about us and them now? Here’s a deep dive into those and other questions.
You’ll be here a while, so top up that drink and settle back.
Empty space doesn’t just invite speculation, it also invites impressions. And reflections. You see, or project, what you want to see; you are what you make it to be.
Fifty years on from its first appearance, the slightly off-white white cover for The Beatles’ self-titled ninth (at least in the UK and Australia) album, which virtually no one calls by its official name - and often don’t even see that that name is embossed, white-on-white, on the cover - is perhaps pop’s prime example of that. The most famous blank slate in music.
On to that cover, on to the original album’s 30 songs, and on to the individuals who six years earlier were just another band, and who in two years would exist as a band no more, it is possible to project your theories on the way music should and shouldn’t be made, the successes and failures of the 1960s experiment, all the things right and wrong with The Beatles, and quite possibly the existence or otherwise of a god.
Take the cover for a start. After the Pop Art-infused gallery of the great and gaudy which was the Peter Blake-designed cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the plain cover of the White Album is still a shockingly bare statement. Not least because it was the first Beatles album not to have their faces on it, but now seemingly had nothing on it.
(And it could have been more bare as the designer, Richard Hamilton, wanted nothing on it bar a seven digit code in the bottom right hand corner, and reputedly went to his grave bitter about someone’s last minute decision to emboss the title on that cover.)
What did the cover tell us? Some had it that this emptiness was The Beatles retreating from the flash and excess of the summer of love and psychedelia, a sign of their escape from exposure that had ruled their lives since 1962. Maybe even The Beatles unsure where to go as the pomp of 1967 pop was already looking out of step with Bob Dylan’s rootsier The Ballad Of John Wesley Harding predicting the future, the “Basement Tapes” of Dylan and The Band leaking out to the music community and enthralling musicians everywhere, and The Band’s defiantly retro-tooled Music From Big Pink soon to appear.
But wait, inside were up close, sombre but personal photos of each member, and a collage of very real, casual, revealing photographs and drawings that was Pop Art itself. Also could you be more arty, and more secure in your place in the public consciousness than to not need to advertise that this was your album?
And the confident swing amid the rehearsal shapeshifting of Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey on disc 4, the already defined Glass Onion on disc three’s Esher Demos, not to mention the wilful silliness of Paul McCartney’s Wild Honey Pie and the provocative mix of children’s song and pointed commentary of John Lennon’s The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill, on the finished album’s disc 1, show anything but lack of certainty within the band.
That sounds a fair argument, but then that collage and cover said something else didn’t it? No theme, no connections, no control, and tellingly, no shot of the four together.
Here in images was the argument that the White Album, four sides of songs that were musically, lyrically, tonally and practically all over the shop, represented the band falling apart, the idea of four minds and talents fused like never before or again, thrown aside on feuding and indifference.
After all, didn’t Ringo Starr quit at one stage? Wasn’t George Martin effectively absent for its duration? Wasn’t it during the next few year when working on what would become their last released, though second-last recorded album, Let It Be, that George Harrison quit, and the record was abandoned amid acrimony? Didn’t Lennon say years later that The Beatles was the sound of a band breaking up?
This is where the additional material – a phrase which is an underselling of things as the original 30 songs are augmented by a boggling extra 77 tracks – really comes into play. Especially the Esher Demos, so called because they were laid down at Esher, George Harrison’s Surrey home, in a break from tradition for The Beatles who had almost always unveiled – and worked out – songs in the studio or the rehearsal room.
On the Esher tracks you can hear not just the ease with which they fit together still, but the pleasure they still found in each other’s musical and social company. There’s laughter and silliness alongside the sympatico voice and instrumental combinations, and there’s a clear sense of the joy in hearing new songs and wondering where to fit in. There’s also the relaxed mood – breaking into “Chicago, Chicago, a wonderful town” at the end of Glass Onion; the enjoyment in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da that even someone like me who loathes that song more than Lennon reportedly did is affected by - that only comes from being somewhere nothing has to be hidden.
And that nothing hidden includes a few lines (later excised) about Yoko Ono in the demo version of Happiness Is A Warm Gun. Speaking of whom, there’s another projection on this album, particularly by those who can’t quite their heads around a woman (or two) in a boys’ club, that this is where the presence of Ono and McCartney’s soon to be settled new partner, Linda Eastman, began to split Lennon and McCartney, alienate Harrison and Starr, and send everyone off to their own sessions for “solo” songs.
Apart from the fact there’s almost no sign of the ridiculously maligned women on the tapes (Ono adds some feedback at one point and is heard on tape asking if it’s too much), the songwriting duo still work and play together consistently. Listen to the expanding, discursive version of Revolution at the beginning of disc 4, or the four-together sweetness of the rehearsal version of Good Night).
Then there’s the fact Harrison’s frustration with not getting enough songs on albums now that he was pumping them out with almost as much frequency as the dominant pair, while feeling that he was seen as the “little brother”, had more influence on his eventual escape from the asylum than whatever he thought of Ono.
But in any case, can we just recognise the silliness but also very of-its-time nature of the idea that contact with oestrogen will kill the creative urge and whisper evil nothings in the ear of a compliant listener.
But hey, if you get off on evil woman theories go for it at your next Incel meeting.
A little more value can be found in the splintering into subsets line of argument, including the way the loose approach to recording contributed to Martin throwing his hands up in frustration a couple of months in and going off on holidays. And later his insistence that if they wanted him to come back to work on what would become their last time in the studio together, Abbey Road, they all had to agree to work the way they had, as a five-headed beast, in their heyday.
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the sonic qualities of this new master, as I had access only to an online stream of the material I didn’t think I was in a position to make proper comparisons of the sound against my several vinyl or various CD versions. The history of the remasters to date – especially the vinyl versions released a few years ago in stereo and mono mixes - suggest we will be impressed.)
If you’re a believer that bands record together all the time or they don’t count as a band, you can use the White Album for your own devices. Solo, duo and trio recording episodes are scattered through these sessions, A number of tracks laid down here in early forms would surface properly on the post-split solo albums, that burst dam of creativity which allows for much fanciful thinking by some of us tragics on what a 1971 or 1972 Beatles album might have sounded like.
And if you think bands who can’t keep their styles within reasonable – as in the styles you like - bounds will make unfocused records, this is an album which will prove your argument time and time again. Heavy leanings and almost throwaway pop, intense introspection and nonsense songs, social commentary and genre pastiches, sound collages and barebones solo moments – they’re all here. And no one seems able to corral it into a “coherent” direction.
But then, if you want to see what happens when a band has the time, the studio access and the creative fecundity to generate more than 30 songs in the one year, as well as the appetite and ability to assay multiple genres, you will find in the White Album an actual pressing need to split songs and bodies across different studios and times.
Engineers and producers were the beneficiaries (a couple of later famous names got their breaks stepping into the breach here) and victims (Sleep? What’s that?) of this approach. So are we though, as anyone who has tried the popular music nerd activity of selecting the songs for a single album version of this record and realised not only that their 14 songs are markedly different in choices and order to everyone else who has tried, but these other people have got pretty good arguments, well knows. Sometimes the incoherence is the point because the moment does not lend itself to a simple theory.
Finally, and in no way an afterthought, the pleasures of this admittedly ridiculously big collection, are manifold for even casual listeners for whom the original album – or at least large chunks of it given most people would not play all four sides of the vinyl/two discs of the CD after their initial foray – might seem very familiar.
There’s the way it shows us the working methods of the four: the pre and post-Eric Clapton versions of While My Guitar Gently Weeps; and the early looks at Hey Jude (where Mother Mary is replaced by “Brother Malcolm comes to me” – Martin Luther King presumably), Across The Universe and Let It Be, which wouldn’t be finalised for another year (and even then taken elsewhere by borrowed producer Phil Spector eventually).
There are studio jams like Step Inside Love that have flash forwards to the solo McCartney albums to come and McCartney working his way through Blackbird and telling Martin “It just needs forgetting about it. It’s a decision which voice to use.”
And then we get glimpses of other routes. For example, there’s the slow, sinuous first version of Helter Skelter on disc 5, its famous discomforting subtext replaced by another type of fear in the grind and predatory threat. That song is later heard in a second version, rocking hard at the new speed and now redolent of the manic edge we’ve come to know. At its end McCartney says to the men at the console, “Keep that one. Mark it fab.”, which is pretty right.
But also take note of the way Child Of Nature would be reworked in a few years, its lyrics now reflecting an even more personal failing than this demo offers, as Jealous Guy, a song both more tender but also harsher than Child Of Nature. And George’s unreleased charmingly snaking Not Guilty, which went through more than 100 takes and still didn’t satisfy them, and Harrison and Starr on a stronger version of Long, Long, Long than was later released.
Or Lennon’s subtle shadings of Julia, which didn’t change much but deepened - maybe as he grew emboldened by the variety and freedom of these months; maybe because Ono (who names this song as her favourite from the album) reinforced his choices; maybe because it just meant more.
It’s a truism, and still no less true for that, that The Beatles were so all pervasive then, and remain so more than 50 years on, because they offered something for everyone. Whether it be personalities, range of influences, musical expansion and contractions, lyrical growth and regression, child-like and utterly adult, you can approach the band any point in your life or interests and find something to grasp and something to excite and something to say to and about you.
As this mammoth release show, it is equally true that the White Album is pretty much, and says pretty much, whatever you want to put on its imperfect, anything but blank really, slate.
The Beatles is out now through Apple/EMI