In the 1997 movie Men in Black, Agent K (aka Tommy Lee Jones) spoke truer than he knew:
This is a fascinating little gadget. It’s gonna replace CDs soon. Guess I’ll have to buy ‘The White Album’ again.
Fast forward to the 50th anniversary Super Deluxe edition of The Beatles — my copy is #0112672, if you’re interested — my fifth purchase of the 1968 album. Following the first CD release in 1987, Agent K’s prophecy was swiftly fulfilled, with 1998’s “30th anniversary limited edition” (CD #0438243), then 2009’s mono and stereo remasters each promising better sound and a more complete listening experience. So does this new box provide anything previous versions haven’t? And does it shed any new light on the “White Album’s” ultimate stature, both in the Fabs’ catalog and in rock history ?
Without question, the months following their epoch-defining Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had been wrenching for John, Paul, George and Ringo. Events followed on relentlessly: the worldwide broadcast of “All You Need Is Love;” the kick-off of their Apple boutique; the death of manager Brian Epstein; the negative backlash from their Magical Mystery Tour TV special. A February 1968 escape to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation retreat center in India proved short-lived, with mixed reviews afterwards — but it also provided the impetus for the White Album, once Lennon, McCartney and Harrison returned to England with a bumper crop of fresh songs.
As the 27 “Esher demos” (included with the new deluxe and super-deluxe editions) reveal, the scope of the Beatles’ new music provided a big canvas to work with and stoked their ambition. But this time, the goal didn’t seem to be changing the world or others’ consciousness (although the songs definitely reflect changes already wrought). These rough drafts feel like a return to basics, with the influence of Bob Dylan’s folky John Wesley Harding and The Band’s homespun Music from Big Pink clearly evident — but the demos are already fuller and less austere than those two classic albums, with greater stylistic range and a broader sense of the absurd in play.
For me, the biggest revelation of this set is the journey from demos to masters. Three discs of sessions unveil a well-rounded portrait of how the ‘White Album’ came together — not the “everybody was one Fab family” storyline of current publicity, (only 14 of the 30 tracks feature all four Beatles) but not the “everybody in their own camp” myth of the 1970s, promulgated largely in Lennon’s bitter post-breakup interviews. The band’s Sgt Pepper approach was to get a solid basic track, then subject it to sonic experimentation; without Epstein keeping a tight rein on the schedule, The Beatles’ approach was to go for the perfect take, no matter how long it took. Which drove producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick bananas, but eventually worked. And yielded some stunning detours along the way — check out the apocalyptic 45-second rave-up on Elvis Presley’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” then pick up your jaw off the floor. (It was when the Beatles got the bright idea to film their new process instead of returning to live performance that the rot really set in. As well as when John decided not just to divorce Cynthia, but also to collaborate with Yoko Ono to the exclusion of Paul. Plus Apple going bust. Plus Allen Klein, etc., ad nauseam.)
What about the actual album? I hear you cry. Well, the ‘White Album’ has never been my favorite Beatles record (except when I’m listening to it), but all the above context makes more sense of it — and as a whole, it really is breathtaking. From its release until today, many Beatle fans have treated McCartney’s whimsical pastiches, parodies, and unabashed love songs as unworthy distractions, insufferably delaying the next installment of the gospel from St. John of Liverpool (as well as Harrison’s diffuse devotional hymns and dry sarcasm). But to my ears, the sweep of musical history and genres that The Beatles covers is impressive in and of itself — an effervescent historical overview of British pop and more, the full-blown, eclectic experience that Sgt. Pepper was aiming at.
And Giles Martin’s remix makes the whole span of the album sparkle like it never has. There’s added sonic oomph right from the jet engine kickoff of McCartney’s “Back in the USSR”, but it’s at “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that the remix really snaps into focus — clearer, brighter and richer, with more detailed layers of instrumentation and more precise stereo imaging. (It should be noted that George Harrison’s songwriting takes a quantum leap forward here, along with his musical imagination — for which, see “Piggies”.)
Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is just as fresh-sounding — crunchier, fuller, higher impact, with rhythm guitar and doo-wop vocals more present. McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” has more swagger to its chewy piano and wind arrangement. The added edge to Lennon “I’m So Tired” spotlights its inescapable path from exhaustion to desperation to menace. Which is quickly conjured away by two of the Beatles’ loveliest ballads — Paul’s “I Will” and John’s “Julia” — right next to each other at the end of Disc 1.
But the front half of Disc 2 (side three on vinyl) turns out to be my new favorite stretch of the White Album. McCartney’s “Birthday” (covered by Transatlantic for Mike Portnoy’s birthday on the Chicago stop of The Whirlwind tour), Lennon’s “Yer Blues” (a subtler and grungier mix, with one of John’s sharpest vocals and a spindly solo break), the ferocious one-two punch of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” and “Helter Skelter” — these guys could rock! Which makes George’s “Long Long Long” such a fascinating contrast — a wispy ballad that could be sung either to his wife or to God, with the surprise punctuation of Ringo’s rampaging toms newly forward in the mix.
And if side three rocks, side four gets soulful: Lennon’s “Revolution 1” and Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” crackle with delicious backing vocals, horns, and lead guitar; Lennon’s brooding “Cry Baby Cry” envelops the listener with atmospheric keyboards, glowering strings and stinging guitar fills. Then there’s “Revolution 9” — not one I’ll ever listen to on repeat, but a remarkably effective soundscape of what 1968 (starting with upheaval, ending in a painful state of siege) probably felt like for John and Yoko. After that, there could be no better palette-cleanser than “Good Night,” as Lennon’s lullaby out-Pauls Paul and Ringo shines, his homely voice gently wafting over George Martin’s Most Sentimental Orchestra And Chorus Arrangement Ever.
In short, The Beatles — as it rambles from the opening Chuck Berry/Beach Boys tribute to the way-out play-out mash-up of John Cage and Mantovani — spans the entire spectrum of Western music to that point, a collage of eclectic songs and glimmering fragments that cohere due to the creativity and imagination of the four men who made it (along with their adept assistants). Mirroring the packaging’s progression from stark white, imprinted cover to grey-tinted interior gatefold to full-color portrait inserts and poster, this 2018 edition is a deeper shade of White Album. The new remix and demos are well worth purchasing on their own for anyone who loves rock music; but for full-fledged Beatlemaniacs, the bonus tracks and detailed, erudite notes of the super-deluxe box will be indispensable.— Rick Krueger