These fifty-year anniversary albums really make a person feel old. Modern technology can take those old master tapes and work wonders with improving sound quality. These releases often feature demos and working versions of songs found in the vault or attic. In the case of the White Album, the songs have been remixed to separate the instruments and vocals creating a wider spectrum of sound and greater punch. The listener hears things previously buried in the original mix. Using Blu-ray technology allows even a deeper listening experience (if you have the equipment). Of course, now that vinyl has made a resurgence, the White Album reappears on 180 grain vinyl for the true audiophiles.
The Beatles’ White Album is perhaps the group’s most curious long-player. It serves to capture the Beatles at their best, and worst, and represents their last, most prolific period.
I would refer you to a previous blog of mine about the White Album for my views on each song.
This blog will focus on the event of the 50th Anniversary release of the album.
The White Album’s songs were mostly drawn from their fruitful trip to India, where, besides spiritual pursuits, about the only thing to do was write. And they did. Upon returning from India, the Beatles met at George Harrison’s Esher home to record a series of demos, that served as the starting point for the White Album. On the 50th Anniversary release, those Esher demos are offered as one disc in the collection.
There are some great resources on the dynamics behind the Beatles and the White Album, including the recent book by Kenneth Womack on producer George Martin called Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, covering 1965-2016. This book is great read on the Beatles and George Martin, and covers the White Album period in much greater detail.
It was during the recording of this album that Ringo Starr quit the group, with Paul taking over on drums on several tracks. Curiously, it was because of Paul’s domineering actions that caused Ringo, and later George Harrison, to each briefly quit the group. Ringo would also say that it was this period that he enjoyed because the group recorded the White Album as a band, like in the old days. Go figure.
Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, who remixed the White Album for this release, disputes that the Beatles were not getting on with each other. In interviews, he maintains that the Beatles wouldn’t have produced the scale of music for this album if they didn’t want to play with each other. He listened to all of the tapes from the recording sessions, looking for demos and alternate versions for the 50th Anniversary release. His view is different than what is reported in other sources, and the fact that Ringo walked away during the sessions and George Harrison would soon follow, leaves it open to interpretation.
Why is this important? The chemistry of the Beatles was very important to their creativity as writers and their ability to get it onto tape. John and Paul were very competitive, and each had stockpile of songs from India, as well as new ideas. George Harrison was evolving as a writer and had trouble getting his songs recorded, although his song “Not Guilty” had more than 100 studio takes, and wouldn’t be released as a Beatles song. In the studio, the Beatles took more control over their recording sessions, with George Martin acting more as an executive producer and writing string and horn arrangements rather than deciding how something got recorded. Each songwriter took more control over the session and this often increased the creative friction between Beatles.
This friction impacted more than just the Beatles themselves. Their primary recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, also quit them during the album sessions. He was tired of the bickering and negativity, and requested a new assignment. Imagine someone asking to NOT work with the greatest band of all time. Emerick detailed the experience in his book Here, There and Everywhere. Sadly, Emerick passed away suddenly this year.
The White Album, with it’s simple cover and official title (The Beatles), represented the group shedding most of the complex recording and experimentation of the Sgt Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour projects. Recording engineers, including a young Chris Thomas, would focus great attention on altering lead vocals on many tracks to thicken, speed-up or add effects as each Beatle wanted. Amazing how Lennon and McCartney in particular took great pain to transform their voices; both had two of purest and most versatile voices in music.
The remixed album is superb. Listen on a good stereo or with headphones so you can get the full effect. The Blu-ray disc is top notch of course, but requires s sound system that fully utilizes that technology. Most of us will settle for the 50th Anniversary remixed album, or the 2009 remastered version, and we will be happy with what we hear. The Beatles have always sounded good, but each remaster takes the sound up a notch.
The three discs of alternate and working versions range from some sounding almost like the album versions, to very different tempos and instrumental tracks. You also get in-progress and early song concepts. To hear the evolution of these songs is of great interest to many fans. You also hear versions of songs that would not appears on this album but surface later. Some of this material has been available on bootleg discs but these versions are clear and have bite.
The best part of the bonus material is the disc from the Esher sessions. After the Beatles returned from India, they assembled at Harrison’s Esher home to put there new songs on his four track recording system. You don’t get drums or piano but you get acoustic guitars and double tracked vocals. Many of these songs came fully visualized and sound close the finished versions but without the studio polish. This disc is awesome and next to the remix of the original album, worth the price of admission.
The book that the discs come in contains photos and recording information that fans will greatly enjoy.
The White Album will always occupy a unique place in the recording legacy. A double album of original material was a huge risk at the time but the Beatles, prolific writers and voracious in putting music on tape, rose to the challenge.
There are a few throwaways on the original album, but everything the Beatles recorded was worthy. Dive into this collection and enjoy. It’s a keeper.