I ‘invested’ in the box-set of The Beatles Christmas fan club singles last year. I couldn’t resist - it was so shiny... and - well - it was the bloody Beatles. But how many times have I played it all through? Once, and that was an effort. Will I play it again? Probably... one day. It’s not really for the purposes of listening pleasure, though - it’s a historical document; a completist’s wet dream. Also, it has coloured vinyl and it’s pretty.
I can’t help myself - I sleep suspended over boxes of the stuff - HMV box sets of the 1987 CD releases; coloured vinyl; Sgt Pepper remastered with a holographic cover... and the White Album. Oh - the White Album. I’m the proud/ shame-faced owner of the HMV boxset, the 30th Anniversary edition, the normal CD, the 2009 remaster, and currently in search of a first edition Australian white vinyl version which was ‘lost in the move’.
You might think that all of this might be enough - that I’ve probably heard everything there is to hear of The Beatles’ eponymous album. But Apple disagree, and that means that I must too. They’ve released a seven-disc boxset (six CDs and one Blue-Ray... yep – they’re still pushing that format) for the White Album’s 50th Anniversary, and a beautiful, tactile thing it is too, all encased in a classy, engrossing, glossy hardback book with lithographs and posters – it will certainly look pretty on a shelf.
It’s hefty; comprehensive. But can I down it in one, lads? Can I stare deep into the belly of an on-the-verge-of-a- breakup Beatles, and venture into the inner-wilderness of their 1968 mindsets… toilet breaks allowing of course (I’m not an animal)? Will I ever listen to the extra stuff again, or, do as I did with last year’s Sgt. Pepper box, and just keep the remastered main album on my phone
? Most concerning of all – after five and a half hours – where will my mind be by ‘Across the Universe (Take 4’) – Track 22 on Disc 6? Only one way to find out…
Right. Cup of tea; lights off; curtains closed; phone on airplane mode. It’s time for...
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DISC 1 - ‘The Beatles’ remastered
Listening time: 00:00
Ah - right - the old familiar... this is easing me in. Except... blimey. The first indication is the plane landing at the start of ‘Back in the USSR’. It’s louder, more enveloping, as if you might actually have to acquire some ear defenders for the circling BOAC flight and wave it in yourself.
From clear as a bell drumming right through to the fade up on ‘Dear Prudence’ - I’m in the studio with them. This is all just delightful and quite emotional. I mean – we know these songs - I’m not going to pick them apart in that way – but the clarity and crispness of the remaster is genuinely immersive – John’s delicate tone on ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, the guitar picking and the intimacy of Paul’s voice on ‘Blackbird’… even the harpsichord on ‘Piggies’… and also, someone is really singing out of tune on ‘Wild Honey Pie’, FYI.
Yeah – I can do this… by the time I get to ‘Julia’, I don’t even need another cup of tea – I’m happy to press on. Who said this was going to be hard?
Listening time – 46:23
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DISC 2 – ‘The Beatles’ remastered
I always get the feeling that with ‘Birthday’, Macca was trying to muscle in on the birthday song publishing market… weirdly, it never quite took. But it’s not their best effort, is it? It’s adequate, and it’s the new rendering highlights one of my favorite ‘Ringo is losing the will to live’ moments – the drum break where he runs out of steam half way through. You’ll never unhear it.
The gospel quality of ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide…’ is somehow elevated on here, making me unconsciously raise my hands up in the air and clap along (I’m lying on the floor now, by the way – it’s the best way to consume the White Album), and ‘Helter Skelter’ cements its reputation (in my head at least) as the song that kicked open the door for Led Zeppelin.
I’m getting towards the really weird bit now – that keyboard at the end of ‘Long, Long, Long’ signaling that we’re in for a strange ride from this point on, with ‘Revolution 9’ doubling down on the feeling of holding the listener’s head underwater… in a good way.
And Giles Martin is just showing off with the strings on ‘Goodnight’, as Ringo manages to banish the memory of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. The tail end of ‘The Beatles’ has always and will always make me feel weird, unsettled. But it wouldn’t be the White Album without it. It has made me need a glass of wine, though. Right… to Esher!
Listening time – 1:33:09
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DISC 3: Esher Demos
Esher was George Harrison’s home at the time, and it was there that they recorded most of the White Album demos. There - there’s a fact for you. Now let’s get to the conjecture. I’m looking forward to this part of the box set, because, as a Beatles purest, I only listen to stuff which they have officially released. The ‘legendary’ Esher demos have evaded me (or I them) for a good long time. I think this is what the Beatles would have sounded like if they’d ever done an ‘MTV Unplugged.
‘Back In The USSR’ sounds great in a lower key with a bit of a bluesy groove, and it goes on it that fashion. It’s like reading Shakespeare and seeing some of the crossed-out dialogue, with scrawled notes in red pen (quill), notes like ‘put something interesting here’. The intimacy of the recordings is at its most striking here, as John in particular often disguised his voice on the final recordings. Here, you are in the room with him.
With a few omissions, it pretty much follows the track listing of the main album, right up to ‘Sour Milk Sea’, a Harrison composition which I wish they’d used instead of giving it away. In fact, the rest of this disc is a ‘what if’ – what if they’d made one final album - we would have had Beatles versions of ‘Junk’, ‘Not Guilty’, ‘Circles’ and a proto-version of ‘Jealous Guy’ under the guise of ‘Child Of Nature’. It sort of makes me sad that they couldn’t get it together one last time. I’m getting emotional… maybe it’s the wine.
Right. That was enjoyable. I think I’d actually go and buy that as an album on its own. Now it’s time for the deep dive, where The Beatles show their workings for the teacher. I’d have another glass of wine, but I know that there’s a twelve-minute version of ‘Helter Skelter’ coming up – oh actually, that’s not for a while – one more glass then. Deep breath.
Listening time – 2:51:18
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DISC 4: Sessions
Oh. No-one told me that it opened with a ten-minute version of ‘Revolution’. Let’s just say, it works amazingly as a three-minute pop record. Ringo sneaks in again with the summation of a composition which apparently took him three years ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ – but I do. It sort of belongs on the main album, but twice in one day is too much – ‘You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair’ - I’ll just leave it there, I think.
A lot of these recordings make you realise that it was the little touches which made them – the opening burst of piano on ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’; the realization that ‘Revolution’ may sound better sped up, as would ‘Helter Skelter’… because then it wouldn’t last TWELVE MINUTES.
Against my better judgment, I do a swap over of discs, in case any thinking time would allow my self-preservation to kick in. It’s getting dark outside… and in.
Listening time – 3:43:20
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DISC 5: Sessions
I shouldn’t have had that wine. My head is swimming slightly. The appearance once again (it’s been on many albums now) of an acoustic version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ makes me wish they’d left it that way. Clapton ruined it. Don’t @ me. I’m in a smoky recording studio, with the heating too high, the smell of stale weed sinking into the beige carpets – it’s all a bit… foggy.
And then, like a beacon, comes ‘Hey Jude’. There was a logic in not including singles on albums back then, but oh boy… again… what if. It’s a song which always catches me in the back of the throat when I least expect it – and at Take 1 it’s already doing it. Damn you, McCartney.
They really seem to have included everything on here, including some ‘jam sessions’. I love them, but the Beatles were not jammers – I wait for the sweet embrace of wine-based oblivion to engulf me, but somehow, I stay conscious. I stay that way through take One hundred and two - ONE HUNDRED AND TWO, mind, of ‘Not Guilty’… and still they still never used it. I now feel as I’m listening to all of this through John Lennon’s heroin-addled brain.
By the time ‘Helter Skelter (Second Version, Take 17)’ comes along, I’ve gone fetal. I can see why Lennon went into primal scream therapy now. Always nice to hear Paul say “Keep that one, mark it ‘fab’”, though.
And to be honest, you can hear it all coming together (pun intended). You’re almost urging them past the finishing line. I’m certainly urging myself to take a break. But I just make a cup of tea. One more push, lads – one more push. Berlin by Christmas.
Listening time – 4:34:08
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DISC 6: Sessions
There can’t be much left, can there? What? FIFTY-SIX MINUTES. Bloody hell – that Indian mountain air sure made them prolific… but good prolific? Well – I appreciate ‘I Will’ – I’ll always appreciate ‘I Will’. It’s Paul saying ‘you know all those complicated songs we’re writing? Well I can still sneeze out sublimely simple ones too.’
As nervously as I now approach any of the tracks on here with the words ‘Studio Jam’ after the title, I have to say the ‘Blue Moon’ cover is rather lovely, and I’m starting to forget the twelve-minute version of ‘Helter Skelter’ ever existed… almost. Then a song they wrote for Cilla Black… no, seriously - ‘Step Inside Love’. I have to say that I’m enjoying these little curiosities, but I get my hopes up too soon, as we launch into a long sequence of tracks without vocals/ strings/ brass/ hope.
Two versions of ‘I’m So Tired’ next… as if I need reminding. I wonder, should I get up, and fix myself a drink? Yes. Yes I should. More Merlot for the home straight. I’ve heard all the songs too much in too many iterations now, but then we do reach two of the great ‘should have been on an album’ tracks – ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘The Inner Light’. If, when we’ve done all the 50th Anniversaries, Giles Martin could mix a new fantasy follow up to ‘Let It Be’ using this raw material, well, that would be nice.
And so, to ‘Across The Universe’ – a song which was inexplicably vetoed for the album, losing out to… y’know… ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. And there he is again – John in his vulnerable, un-masked simplicity. It’s a shiver-down-the-spine ending. Tipsy and slightly punch-drunk, I still have a smile on my face.
TOTAL LISTENING TIME – 5:29:39
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My advice? Treat it like medication – very musically accomplished medication. Take two a day, and please be sure to mix with intoxicating substances.
I’ll definitely come back to the first three discs on a regular basis – they are the sound of the best band ever at their weird, creepy, creative peak. The other three? Well, they will be played again – as a reference, as a curiosity, or to try and pinpoint the exact moment when the other three managed to break Ringo.
As I previously mentioned… at least, I think I did – I was much younger back then - there’s a Blu-Ray included too – but I don’t have a Blu-Ray player, and frankly at this point I am grateful for that.
I go to bed, the twelve-minute version of ‘Glass Onion’ looping in my poor head. I got blisters on m’ brain cells. Looks nice on my shelf, though.
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'The White Album - 50th Anniversary Edition' is out now.
Words: Matt Charlton
Photo Credit: John Kelly
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