by David Chiu
Promo photo: © Apple Corps Ltd.
Most would say that the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from 1967 was the group’s most adventurous-sounding record in their discography. But the follow-up, 1968’s The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), is undoubtedly the most ambitious. A sprawling double-record set of 30 songs, The Beatles covers a wide range of styles, including rock (“Back in the USSR,” “Birthday,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”); doo wop (“Revolution 1”); pop (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Martha My Dear,” “Piggies”); country (“Don’t Pass Me Buy,” “Rocky Raccoon”), folk (“Blackbird,” “Julia”), blues (“Yer Blues”) experimental music (“Revolution 9”); and proto-punk (“Helter Skelter”). Now this new 50th anniversary commemoration of The Beatles follows the same template of last year’s wonderful deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper by offering new stereo mixes of the original album; plus four more discs of demos and session tracks; a Blu-ray audio of the album in 5.1 surround sound and a direct transfer from mono version; and a lavish detailed hardcover book chronicling the album’s history and the story behind the famous package design by pop artist Richard Hamilton.
The natural assumption based on the White Album was that the Beatles by this juncture were pretty divided. But Giles Martin, the remix producer on the project, said at a recent press preview event that it didn’t sound like a band breaking apart. That’s certainly the case when you hear the multiple takes from the session recordings, proving that the band was still striving for perfection; one can hear from those sessions how tracks such as “I’m So Tired,” “Good Night” (one version doesn’t have the lush orchestral backing, while the harmony vocals sound more prominent), “Revolution,” and “Helter Skelter” evolved over time. In most cases, these newly-unearthed sessions cast a new light on the songs we are so accustomed to listening over the last five decades. For instance, the alternate takes for “Everybody Got Something to Hide” and “Birthday” highlight some of the electrifying guitar work; an acoustic outtake of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” presents the track as an haunting spiritual version with mostly guitar and organ; “Cry Baby Cry” has a slow blues feel, while an early incarnation of “Let It Be” carries a dominant soulful funk-rock influence. Other highlights from the session an alternate version of “Hey Jude”; off-the-cuff covers of “Blue Moon,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Baby I Don’t Care”; alternate versions of “Across the Universe,” “The Inner Light,” and “Lady Madonna”; and james that were never officially released on a Beatles album until now, like “Step Inside Love” and “Los Paranoias.” At times, even the studio chatter reveals a humorous side of the group as the members were working on the songs.
Even before the Beatles went into the recording sessions for the White Album, the four members recorded acoustic versions of the songs (which date back to the band’s trip to India in the early part of 1968) at George Harrison’s home, known as the Esher demos, which are also featured on the set. In addition to the songs that would make it onto the record, the Esher demos reveal songs that didn’t make the final cut: among them were George Harrison’s “Circles,” “Sour Milk Sea” (which Apple artist Jackie Lomax later recorded) and “Not Guilty” (the latter ended up on his self-titled 1979 album; and John Lennon’s “Child of Nature” (reworked later as “Jealous Guy” on Imagine); demo versions of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” would later appear on Abbey Road.
Like the work done on the Sgt. Pepper reissue last year, the new stereo mixes of the orignal by Giles Martin and his team are a revelation: the remixes really pop with unheard clarity. Certain details and musical parts like the guitar and drums sound more prominent than before, as well as certain sonic effects such as the revving airplane engine on “Back on the USSR” and the dizzying collage of “Revolution 9.” These new mixes make an already-ambitious record sound even more vibrant.
This deluxe set demonstrates that as the individual Beatles’ interests diverged at that time, the Beatles’ creativity and energy was still at their peak; outside of personal distractions, they were single-mindedly focused in the studio. One could argue that there’s not really a weak or throwaway song(s) in the bunch on the White Album—if you even subtract one or two lesser tracks, it wouldn’t be the same. With the exceptions of such works as Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, most rock double albums seem self-indulgent compared to The Beatles. This 50th anniversary set isn’t overkill, but an in-depth and lovingly-assembled celebration of a towering and iconic work.