Something to contemplate: The Beatles, aka The White Album, is now 50 years old and remains a fresh and unlikely masterpiece five decades after its release on November 22, 1968. In celebration of that milestone, The White Album has been given the white glove treatment with special 50th-anniversary editions that include new mixes by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, 50 outtakes from the studio sessions, and perhaps most engaging of all, the bootlegged but never commercially released Esher Demos—27 tracks recorded at George Harrison’s Esher, Surrey home from songs written while the Fabs were studying with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India earlier that year.
The set comes in three versions and should appeal to listeners across a spectrum of interests and budgets. There’s the album-only version (CD or 180-gram vinyl), but I’m guessing that many fans will opt for the deluxe set, which includes the album plus Esher Demos in either a three-CD set or four 180-gram vinyl LP box set. Unabashed enthusiasts will likely consider nothing less than the heroic Super Deluxe collection—a whopping six compact discs (album, Esher Demos, and Studio Session outtakes) plus a Blu-ray containing a 96/24 stereo mix, the original mono mix, plus 5.1-channel in DTS-HD, Dolby TrueHD. The discs are housed in white board inserts within the beautifully art-directed, minimalist 164-page hardbound book with introductions by Paul McCartney, Giles Martin, Kevin Howlett, and John Harris. It’s filled with dozens of photographs, images of handwritten lyrics and tape boxes, plus the original’s glossy portraits and photo collage poster. In a tribute to the original LP, the books are individually numbered—collectors take note.
Prior to receiving the set for review, I attended a press conference “listening party” at Capitol Records in Hollywood replete with a banquet table laden with tea service, scones, clotted cream, and jam. In his introductory remarks Martin pointed out that while his father George Martin was the unchallenged architect of Sgt. Pepper, The White Album was created with no defined blueprint. It was a more visceral, unstructured, enigmatic, mood-shifting effort, a kind of rejection of Pepper. As Giles colorfully put it, his father, ever-in-charge, had “lost the classroom” to the band. The wealth of material, much of it written on acoustic guitars, had been created outside the confines of a studio, inspiring a freedom and purity that’s reflected throughout the album. Martin also rejects the idea that TWA was a contentious break-up album. Indeed the demos and sessions not only reflect individual artistic growth but also illustrate that the comradery and general bonhomie within the band was alive and well.
Like the anniversary release of Pepper, the Martin/Okell mixes have modernized the sound, drawing the listener closer. Compared with my British vinyl the sonics of the CDs were more forward, images more discrete, bass punchier. Dimensionality, however, is pretty flat but improves considerably on the LP. One reason could be that Miles Showell cut the vinyl using the unlimited (or non-digitally peak-limited) 96/24-mastered audio (same as the Blu-ray stereo). As a result the vinyl and the Blu-ray best the CD effort with greater dynamic energy, textures and density, and tonal color. And surround fans, you haven’t ever heard “Revolution 9” until you listen to the multichannel mix, a sonic and disorienting funhouse of imagery.
Staunch Beatles originalists may scoff at the presumptive liberties taken with this recording, but Giles Martin has remained true to the artistic intent and vibe of the original. According to Martin, when he initially expressed apprehension to McCartney, Sir Paul’s response was, “Your job is to push boundaries, not to be safe. We’ll tell you if you go too far.” Most striking are the Esher Demos (19 made the album), which are lively and insightful and sound as if they were recorded yesterday. Like an unplugged session around a campfire, there’s Lennon at his most Dylanesque singing “Sexy Sadie,” Paul trying out “Junk” (which eventually found a home on McCartney), or adding a double-track vocal to “Mother Nature’s Son,” or his vocal filling in for a not yet devised guitar solo for “Back in the USSR.” Also uncovered are work-in-progress lyrics for George’s “Piggies,” John switching from strumming to fingerpicking on “Julia,” harmonies taking shape during “Good Night,” and George on high-pitched guitar in a remarkable “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Finally, at one point during the presser, an attendee—embodying the enthusiasm in the room—blurted out, “What about Abbey Road? To which Giles Martin dryly replied, “So we’ve already moved on, have we?” Not quite, but Martin knows that when it comes to the Beatles, you’re only as good as your last mix. A package that’s truly a feast for fans.