In March of 1990, an English band with the excellent name of Candy Flip covered the Beatles’ classic “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I turned 12 a month later, and one evening around that time I was riding back to my dad’s apartment after a day hanging out in the back of the Ritz Camera at North Hills Mall, where Dad worked at the time, in his hand-me-down forest green beetle, and the “Strawberry Fields Forever” cover came on the radio. (Listening back now, it’s pretty weak and undeniably 1990, but it went to #3 in the UK, and was something of a radio hit on 94.5 The Edge back then.) I turned up the volume and proclaimed my 12-year-old appreciation for the song. Dad wasn’t impressed, to put it mildly, and was surprised, and very nearly derisive, that I didn’t know “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a Beatles song.
Little did he know that the tiny bit of knowledge he imparted at that time would have a long term effect…
I quickly began spending all of my allowance on Beatles CDs at the used CD store. I started with Magical Mystery Tour, then jumped back to the beginning: Please Please Me, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, maybe others in there. I paused a bit at Sgt. Pepper’s, confused by the apparent strangeness of it, then skipped ahead to Abbey Road and Let it Be. The double LP known as “The White Album” was left for later, when I could muster the will to save my allowance for a month or so to afford it.
A year or so later, in 8th grade, my interest in everything Beatles was such that I built a board game about the band and wrote a lengthy report on them, based around interviews with Red, a guy that ran a Beatles memorabilia stand at the West End Marketplace (and later, a large general rock & roll memorabilia store at Irving Mall). And when Mom, Hank and I went to the UK in 1994, I was only interested in Beatles sites: a walking tour around London, with stops at Abbey Road Studios and the gallery where John met Yoko; a ride around Liverpool on the Magical Mystery Tour bus (by then ratter tatty) to Penny Lane and Menlove Avenue and Strawberry Field, and all that.
To say that the Beatles had a formative impact on me would be an understatement. I didn’t listen to anything else for 2-3 years, and only pushed forward in High School, when some older friends put me on to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and others. But I kept a soft place in my heart for the Beatles.
So last year, when Giles Martin and the surviving members of the Beatles released a stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I jumped on an LP. I did an unboxing of it, but stupidly had the D7000 white balance set to Auto, so I never shared it. The stereo remix on LP is great, if a bit 2010s, with heavy emphasis on bass and drums, though the rest of the mix is fully present and crystal clear. It’s a great listen, really, and I thoroughly enjoyed rehearing it.
Anyway, I had high hopes for the 50th anniversary remix of The Beatles, and while I initially balked at the high price and planned to suffice myself with the LP and leave the rest of it to richer folks, after much hemming and hawing, I pulled the trigger on the Super Deluxe edition, with 6 CDs (the remixed double album, cleaned-up Esher Demos, and 3 discs of outtakes, false starts, and other ephemera), a blu-ray of 5.1 and other mixes (including a Mono one that I really want to hear: alas, I don’t have a blu ray player connected to a competent sound system), a full size replica of the original poster and portraits, all housed in an individually numbered book, featuring brief introductions from Sir Paul and Giles Martin, lyric sheets, and lengthy essays on the making of the record, the social milieu around it, the making of the mixes and the poster, and the pressing and distribution of the original record, and dozens of previously unpublished photographs. It’s quite a document, really.
The Fiftieth Anniversary mix is available in a variety of flavors. The Standard version consists of the remixed, double LP, in original packaging (with the poster and portraits). A Deluxe Edition, on three CDs or four LPs includes the Echer Demos. And then there’s this one, the Super Deluxe book-thing.
My copy came a little beat up, thanks to lousy packing from Barnes & Noble. You may hear me thank them in the video. But the dinged up corners don’t depreciate my enjoyment (as much as they may later depreciate the resale value, should I decide to divest it one day). The front and back covers open to reveal stiff pages containing the double album and blu-ray (front), Echer demos and rehearsal outtakes (back), and a stiff folder in the back contains the four portraits and the poster.
Once in the interior of the book, I was a little bit disappointed by the brevity of the introductions from Sir Paul and Giles Martin, both of which clock in at roughly half a page, but other essays are interesting and thorough.
In “The Way To White,” Kevin Howlett describes activities of the Beatles in the year or so before recording for The White Album commenced: from their performance of “All You Need is Love” on the BBC’s Our World broadcast, through their time with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. A John Kelly photo appears in this section: the four Beatles, Jane Asher, Patty Harrison (I think), Donovan, another unidentified woman and a couple of unknown men are in a sorta posh living room. The Maharishi sits crosslegged in a chair in front of them. All the men are laughing or grinning; all the women are smirking, looking embarrassed, or openly glaring at the yogi. I think it says something about “Sexy Sadie” and later incidents that would drive the band away from their guru.
John Harris’ “Can You Take Me Back, Where I Came From?” focuses on The White Album itself, the author’s reception of it, the rock music world of 1968, the tumult going on in the wider world, the Beatles’ personal lives at the time, the introduction of Yoko, how all these things influenced the recordings.
Following Harris’ essay, the paper changes to a rougher uncoated stock with pictures of handwritten lyric sheets and recording schedules, with a hokey spiral-bound effect printed along the spine. It’s interesting to see the handwriting and handwritten corrections on various songs, and the variety of paper they used to write on: notepad, music staff, datebook pages, envelopes, newsprint, hotel notepads, torn scraps. When you have something to write down, you take whatever is at hand.
Kevin Howlett returns with a “Track by Track” analysis of all the songs on the canonical White Album, plus additional recordings on the Echer Tapes and in the body of studio material. There are stories here of how the songs came into being, where the characters came from—”Prudence” is Prudence Farrow, Mia’s sister, who stayed in her room meditating all the time; in “Glass Onion,” “the Cast Iron Shore is a beach in Liverpool; a dovetail joint was remembered from school woodwork classes; a glass onion was a type of globe for a light. Even the ‘bent-back tulips’ were featured in a flower arrangement John came across in the upmarket Parkes restaurant in London.”; Richard Cooke did go off with his mother to hunt elephants—and how the recordings and demos were made, who played what, where, and which takes were used, etc.
Howlett then describes “The Mad Day Out,” with photographers Don McCullin and Stephen Goldblatt at multiple sites all over London for some new promotional material.
In “White on White,” Andrew Wilson talks about the Richard Hammilton’s packaging design and production of the poster, the Howlett returns to discuss the frantic printing and pressing schedule required to get the album, which the Beatles finished recording on October 16, out to record stores by November 22.
Now to the music.
As you’re probably aware, The White Album is quite a departure from Sgt. Pepper’s, as much of a departure as Sgt. Pepper’s was from Revolver, and as Revolver (and parts of Rubber Soul) were from everything that came before. In some sense, the Beatles went back to basics for the double LP. George Martin’s orchestral arrangements are minimal, and much of the album is pared down to a couple of guitars, bass, drums, and ovedubbed vocals. Additionally, The White Album was the first to be recorded and mixed with stereo in mind—previous stereo mixes were simple hard-panned afterthoughts that the Beatles themselves had virtually no part in, and I find some of the albums I have to be virtually unlistenable (I’m looking at you, Revolver) over headphones—so, while the Sgt. Pepper’s remix is incredibly different than, and far superior to, its lousy 60s afterthought of a stero mix, The White Album was already in stereo, so the new remix started at something of a disadvantage.
I ripped the remix discs to Apple Lossless with iTunes and listened to them on my 1More Triple Driver headphones (the first version on my iPhone SE, and the new lightning ones on my iPhone 5). I was initially blown away by the sound: everything seemed so open and clear, and I heard things in the mix that I didn’t remember from radio versions or previous listening. Now, to be honest, I probably hadn’t listened to the White Album in a decade or more, and I began to wonder what difference there was between the new mix and the earlier/original mix.
So I went back to my old cds. In 1998, Apple Corps. and EMI released a fancy Thirtieth Anniversary CD package, with a mini poster and mini portraits, with the discs packaged in black sleeves and housed in a tiny version of the original gatefold album packaging. The mix was the same as earlier versions, as far as I understand. (I also had an earlier CD version of The White Album, but sold or gave it away after I got the Thirtieth Anniversary edition.) At first, I was shocked at how similar the old vs. the new mixes are. They’re really very close, much closer than the early Sgt. Pepper’s vs. the Fiftieth Anniversary remix, and much closer than I expected.
That said, the new mix has its pluses, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with decent ears. If you’re listening through bad speakers or the headphones that came with your phone, or to low quality mp3s, or via a streaming service, don’t bother. The difference is likely to be lost on you, and you can pick up a used copy of The White Album for way cheaper than the new mix.
But if you have decent ears, and appreciate good sound, the new Fiftieth Anniversary mix should be on your shopping or wish list. The drums are crisper and more centered, and everything has more space in the mix. Little tinkly noises buried in the background are now crystal clear and right there. Everything is more rocking and somehow more intimate. It’s really a great mix, and one well worth having, even if you don’t go for the additional material.
The Echer demos are pretty interesting. Each track is a mix of two or three Beatles, some acoustic guitars, maybe an organ, and a four track recorder. For what they are, they’re fairly well produced, with double tracked vocals and a good mix. 19 of the 30 tracks recorded at George’s house later made it onto The White Album, mostly in a similar, if more fleshed out, form. A John track “Child of Nature” never made it into production, but the melody later became “Jealous Guy.” “Mean Mr. Mustard” originally had a sister named Shelly and bridge of “Mean Mr. Mustard, such a dirty dirty, Mean Mr. Mustard” before again putting ten buck notes up his nose, and “Polythene Pam” is similar to the version that would end up tied to Mr. Mustard on Abbey Road, but longer and a bit scattered and unfinished.
In addition to the Echer demos, the 50 rehearsal tracks are interesting. A 10 minute variant of “Revolution” includes bits heard in both “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9,” and devolves about four minutes in, turning really raucous near the end, with John shouting and hooting, and Yoko muttering prettily in the background, and other members shouting and wailing throughout. About 7 minutes in, John says “Alright. I’ve had enough,” but they go on for another good bit, with some Mellotron flute noises and various squeaks and squeals, before a fade out with Yoko’s soliloquy heard in the later #9 version, the “… if you become naked” bit.
There’s a nearly 13 minute, bluesy, plodding, halfspeed, jam band version of “Helter Skelter” with a completely different melody and some of the lyrics out of order that sounds like it wants to go somewhere but never really gets there. Sure, the guitar work is great, weaving in and out and crying a bit, but beyond that, I can hear why they left the form for the scarier and more urgent melody heard on the album. But a later take of the album version is absolutely terrifying, dripping with reverb and a pounding guitar drone in the background that should’ve been more prominent the final version.
A take of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has some wonderful guitar work from Clapton, and early rehearsals of “Let it Be,” “Hey Jude,” and “Across the Universe” are somewhat interesting, as are all the instrumentals, false starts, and random studio banter. And there are some takes of songs the Beatles would never release—”What’s the New Mary Jane,” Paul’s “Junk,” George’s “Not Guilty” and some others—that were either rightly left on the shelf (or for later solo projects).
All in all, the rehearsal tracks reveal a bunch of buddies in their mid and late 20’s, working hard and horsing around, and getting things together for what would wind up being the incredible White Album. It’s hard for me to think of them as being more than a decade younger than me, especially since I was born a decade after The White Album came out, but I can hear their youth in their studio banter, and it’s really unnerving, somehow disturbing, like when I watched Stranger Things, the only thing I could think about was that the kids in the show are older than me… I hadn’t yet started Elementary School when that show takes place. It’s weird being older.
Honestly, if you have a decent stereo system and the ability to play LPs, I’ll suggest you stick to the Standard, 2 LP version. It’s fairly cheap, and will provide hours and hours of enjoyment. If you don’t have a record player, I’d suggest you go for a download from iTunes or somewhere, and if you’re something of a Beatles fan, then get the Deluxe. The Echer demos are interesting and worth a listen—it’s striking how close the demos are to the finished versions, even when it’s just two or three of the Beatles with some acoustic guitars at George’s house—but probably not really worth the extra cost, unless you really want them. As for the Super Deluxe here, well, if you were born between 1940 and 1960, and you were a Beatles fan from the Ed Sullivan show (or if you were turned on by a combination of Candy Flip and a flippant remark from your dad) the Super Deluxe is probably for you. The texts, photos, and inclusion of the rehearsal tracks are surely worth it, or they were for me, anyway, though, to be honest, I’d probably be just as happy with either the two LP or four LP version.