Review: The Beatles — White Album, 50th Anniversary Edition

Category:  The Arts
Wednesday, November 14th, 2018 at 6:06 PM
Review: The Beatles — White Album, 50th Anniversary Edition by Livia Homerski

★★★★★

Resident Beatles fanatics Ben McCullough and Livia Homerski sat down to listen to the 5 hour and 27 minute, 107 song remastered edition of the Beatles masterpiece (in Homerski’s opinion). First debuting on Nov. 22, 1968, the self-titled release, famously known as “The White Album,” was The Beatles’ ninth studio record and a follow-up to “Magical Mystery Tour.” Despite being the most prolific Beatles record, the majority of the White Album was written, recorded and remastered in less than a year. 

“The White Album”— Remastered

The 2018 mixes have a much more full and crisp sound than the original recordings. For example, McCartney’s bass on “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” provides a new warmth and fullness to the tracks. On “Wild Honey Pie,” the twanginess is accentuated by arrangement of all the chaotic voices and some spicy guitar licks, all of which can be heard more clearly. 

Group vocals also received a wonderful makeover. The “Dear Prudence” harmonies, for example, swell into a more balanced choir where you can more easily discern each individual Beatles’ voice. On “Helter Skelter,” when the background vocals do the “Da da da” during the chorus, McCullough stated, “I never really noticed that part before, they (the vocals) really stand out and help create more space.” 

The Esher Demos

The Esher demos, according to Beatlesbible.com, were recorded on a four track reel-to-reel tape recorder in Esher, Surrey at George Harrison’s bungalow. Much of the material was written while the Beatles were in India and then worked out to a fuller extent in Esher. These demos showcase the excitement and passion that fresh inspiration can bring to a songwriter. 

There’s an incredible stretch beginning with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and ending with “Piggies.”

One of the most excellent demos is for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which sounds like a more folk-oriented ballad and has an “airy” quality, according to McCullough. The studio version definitely got more of a rock star treatment, but this demo lets Harrison’s intricate guitar work shine. The acoustic guitar isn’t the only instrument on this version however, there’s an organ synth that has a much brighter and more noticeable presence than in the final version. 

Following that is the equally compelling “Happiness is a Warm Gun” demo, in all of its warped time-measurement glory. This demo lacks the first verses of the final studio version and instead includes a bridge where John sings, “Yoko Ono-o-o, Yoko Ono-o-yes.” 

Then, the “I’m So Tired” Esher demo sounds pretty close to the final studio version, until a part of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in-the-works surfaces at one point in the track. You can also hear female vocals in the background, belonging to Ono. You can hear her sing one extra, “I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little piece of mind,” before Lennon quickly jumps in with her and they wrap up the recording. It stood out as a telling moment of their relationship and her actual involvement in the practices.

The run of strong demos continues with “Piggies.” This demo holds the same feeling as the actual song, and sounds very similar. McCartney whistles over the chords, adding to the carefree, dance-like tone. “It’s such a cool instrumental, being able to create the atmosphere of the careless English bourgeoisie with just a guitar is so extraordinary,” stated McCullough. 

Discs 4-6

“Helter Skelter - First Version / Take 2” is the last song on the fourth disc and is a striking 12 minutes long. The song is led mostly by a steady bass drum and bass guitar with a good bit of guitar improv. It is nearly more than halfway through the track before we hear some of the more familiar aspects, such as the signature riff that follows the chorus on the original version. McCartney does not even start singing until roughly 2 minutes into the track, and even then, he just has bits of the pre-chorus trickling in. Even the lyrics are noticeably different, with McCartney singing, “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the hill, where I stop and I turn and I give you a feel,” instead of the slide/ride rhyme. 

By “Helter Skelter - Version 2 / Take 17,” the song is still in a rather raw form, but by then had went through quite a bit of arrangement and tempo changes. “Take 17,” although kind of silly during the parts where McCartney is screaming and making slippery bubble noises, you can tell the song was going in the raucous direction it was finalized in.  

The compelling and groovy instrumental for “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey - Unnumbered Rehearsal” is also notable track  that demonstrates the Beatles jamming out an idea, pre-vocals. 

“This release goes to show how good the music is when they’re just sitting around jamming,” said McCullough.

Also included on the demos are songs from subsequent albums, such as “Across the Universe,” from “Let it Be,” “Polythene Pam,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard from “Abbey Road,” and the single “Hey Jude.” However, the time that passed and the subsequent drama following this time frame allowed these songs to mature into the fully-composed pieces they would eventually become. 

“Cry Baby Cry - Unnumbered Rehearsal” features a slinking bass line, light keyboard-organ accompaniment, experimental guitar riffs, a standard drum beat and Lennon on vocals. During this track, McCullough commented: “You get to hear the band just going for it — it seems they are just playing through the songs and experimenting rather than the numbered takes where they are trying to achieve that final product.”

McCullough noted that there many moments on takes that didn’t make the cut where McCartney’s vocals are as beautiful and powerful on the rehearsals and takes as the mastered, studio tracks. Such songs include “Blackbird - Take 28” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - Take 3” both from disc 4.

“We get to hear so many sides of Paul on these tracks, all of which display a powerful energy, even his often goofy side” said McCullough.

There are a few tracks that didn’t end up making the cut but were very interesting, such as “The Inner Light” from Disc 6 and “Circles” from the Esher Demos. 

“The Inner Light - Take 6 / Instrumental Backing Track” is heavily inspired by Indian culture, which is shown through the use of djembe drums, flute and sarod. If this song had been conceived earlier, it have could easily been heard on “Magical Mystery Tour.”

“Circles” is rather dark sounding and backed by dramatic organ and harpsichord accompaniment. It immediately caught our attention and it’s a shame the Beatles couldn’t find a place for it.  

This has to be one of the most interesting Beatles releases because not only has “The White Album” aged well, it contains many different energies with something to offer for everyone who’s open to it. It’s an album with a huge collection of songs to begin with, which spans and explores different styles of songwriting and experimentation. 

Some of the most beloved and classic tunes graced the White Album, such as “Dear Prudence,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird” and “Revolution 1” and now fans will get the chance to hear the development of these songs and directly compare the demos to the final versions with an updated mix. 

If you’re a person who wants to check out the Beatles, start with this album. It features some of the strongest and most nuanced songwriting of all their albums. This was The Beatles in their prime.

For more seasoned listeners, McCullough vouches for some of the rehearsal tracks. “The unnumbered rehearsals are some of my favorites from this release.” He continued: “Being able to hear the band’s natural banter and their in-the-moment opinions is what The Beatles fans long to hear. I think releases like this are so important because of how personal they are; it almost literally puts you in the studio alongside the band members.”

You can listen to this album on Spotify, iTunes, and for those looking at a hard copy to invest in, the CD box set or 4-disc LP box set ranges between $80 to $150 on thebeatlesstore.com. For the more die-hard Beatlemaniacs, you could also purchase your copies as bundles with exclusive T-shirts, pins, and even an authentic Beatles customized Levi’s denim jacket, which is a mere $415. Many of the bundles offered also include a 164-page book encompassing all things White Album — the history, the recording progress, and cultural impact. 

Livia Homerski and Ben McCullough can be reached at ae.spectator@gmail.com.

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