The true story of the White Album by the Beatles is emerging for the first time today. New outtakes mean the history of the most successful band of all time needs a revision after 50 years.
Giles Martin, presented dozens of unheard tracks which will be included on the anniversary Super Deluxe edition of the album, released on November 9. Martin, who remastered the songs this year with the full approval of the Beatles and their families, says they give a clearer picture of the dynamic between the quartet’s members.
During the 1968 recording of the double LP, Martin’s father briefly stepped away from the project; engineer Geoff Emerick quit; Ringo Starr walked out after criticism of his drumming, leaving Britain for a vacation in Sardinia; and there was tension when John Lennon brought Yoko Ono to sessions.
Many of the songs on the album, which is actually eponymously titled although widely referred to for its plain cover designed by artist Richard Hamilton, were written between February and April 1968 at the Maharishi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh, India. In May, the foursome gathered at George’s Harrison’s psychedelically decorated suburban bungalow in Esher, near London, and committed 27 demos to four-track tape in happy-go-lucky sessions.
Giles Martin had already discovered the Esher demos when he was at Olivia Harrison’s home working on the movie All Things Must Pass: “To me, it is like the Beatles unplugged. These are demos but they are good: they double-tracked themselves.”
Tempers frayed in Abbey Road studios later as the Beatles tried recording group performances with a live lead vocal, often requiring many takes to get it right. The Beatles also worked at night, leaving George Martin exhausted because he had other business commitments during the day. But they still wanted him and when Starr returned after walking out, he found his drum kit covered in flowers by his bandmates.
They happily spent 13 minutes jamming on Helter Skelter, seven minutes on the stand-alone single Hey Jude and 11 minutes on Revolution 1, with Paul McCartney praising Ono’s contributions. All four of them cheerily harmonize on Good Night, in a simple lullaby version different from the orchestrated closing track most people know. Even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, a song Lennon hated, is presented in an early take where the band sound totally in harmony and joking with each other.
The commonly accepted view was that George Harrison struggled to get songs on the albums with Lennon and McCartney downplaying his role. While Not Guilty (which went through more than 100 takes) Sour Milk Sea and Circles did not make the cut, Piggies, Long, Long, Long (here with a new louder take) and Savoy Truffle did. An outtake of Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps has spellbinding guitar by Eric Clapton and only fails when Harrison tries a high note and stumbles in the closing seconds.
Among the surprise of the good-humored nature of the sessions, the recordings reveal more secrets: McCartney’s “Blackbird,” shorn of its birdsong, reveals itself as a civil rights anthem, while “Let It Be,” saved for a later album, was originally inspired by “Brother Malcolm” not “Mother Mary.”
“We found this huge Pandora’s Box of material that they had recorded,” says Martin. “We went through and came up with some really interesting things. The conversation between the label, Beatles and everyone was ‘how many tracks do you want to put on this?’ and I said, ‘how many CDs do you want to make? The voice at the back of my head (apart from ‘what right do you have to do this’) was ‘we don’t want to be scraping the bottom of the barrel’ but in the Beatles’ case, the quality is always there.”
The album will come in a numbered Super Deluxe form containing six CDs and a Blu-ray, along with a book, poster, art cards and more. There will be a Deluxe Edition with 3 CDS or 4LPs, containing the original album and Esher demos, and a standard LP vinyl form. The original 30 tracks are newly mixed by Martin and engineer Sam Okell in stereo and 5.1 surround audio, using the original four-track and eight-track session tapes. In the U.S., the album is already 19-times platinum-certified by the RIAA. It will be re-released by Apple Corps Ltd./ Capitol/ Ume.
It follows 2017’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Edition releases. Martin did not comment on the prospect of a future remastering of the Get Back and Let It Be Sessions, long rumored to be a possibility. McCartney has spoken of a remake of the Let It Be movie, while Starr has mentioned that more may emerge from the Abbey Road period.
The only question left from this reporter is: of the dozens of tracks uncovered, which was the biggest surprise? Martin has no hesitation in nominating Happiness Is a Warm Gun. On one outtake, George and John can be heard debating the difficulty of the song, but both are determined to press ahead anyway and help their friend.
“There is a bit where John says something like ‘It is getting better but it’s no fun,’” Martin says. “George replies, ‘It is getting better and it IS more fun.’ It is a song that varies so much like a Frank Zappa track.” Not only does it reveal hidden depths but it still sounds contemporary, Martin says: “That fuzz guitar can never be too loud.”