Sunday, November 4, 2018
The Beatles: Purple Chick deluxe- White Album (1968)
I'm writing this at a great disadvantage, because at this moment -- late October of 2018 -- we're on the cusp of an influx: one of the biggest archival dumps in the entire history of the Beatles on record, which is no small event. The forthcoming White Album deluxe reissue contains not only a new remix of the album and the first official release of the complete Kinfauns demo tape (thus making the review you're reading a great deal shorter), but three full discs of studio outtakes dedicated to this specific LP, the most exhaustive such collection of material in their career to date and a major boon to fans and students of their work. The six discs of Anthology material were a slightly bigger deal, of course, but they did not have the time for such a deep-focused dive into any of their individual albums, and the incremental recording methods of Sgt. Pepper made its outtakes considerably less compelling. Throughout this discography, I've tried not to resort to any redundancy in going over bootlegged material; if something's been officially released, I talk about it when reviewing the project that saw it prepared and sold for the public. Obviously, since the new White Album discs are yet to be issued at the moment, I can't be sure I've mapped it all out perfectly, so if you're reading this in the future and I've not revised it, I apologize for any unintentional overlap. That said, close examinations of the tracklist indicate that Apple has mostly resisted plumbing the material we've already heard, choosing instead to offer performances and arrangements that never made it out to the black market; that means a whole lot of actual new Beatles are on the way, and let me tell you, I am psyched, not least because this is my favorite of their albums.
Purple Chick's release is itself a behemoth, a tantalizing twelve discs, though of course it like all of the PC releases is designed by and for completists, so there's a lot the average listener would perceive as redundant or boring. Twelve discs of White Album miscellany isn't, in other words, as amazing as it sounds... but it's still quite fucking cool, and again, it seems that most of it is poised to remain elusive to official release for the time being.
The first four discs are, as usual, the canon material, here covering twice as many discs because this is a double album. The "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" single, the first Apple release, is also included under this umbrella by the compilers. Discs one and two are stereo, three and four mono; famously, the Beatles and especially Paul had caught wind of the more obsessive contingent's tracking and pot-fueled discussion of differences and anomalies between mono and stereo mixes of their work, and on this last occasion (this was the final Beatles album with a dedicated mono mix, though Yellow Submarine saw the light of day as a fold-down and true mono mixes were made for an unissued EP; in America, the White Album only made it to stores in stereo) they evidently sought to have a bit of fun with this by making many of the tracks deliberately different, sometimes so radically so -- most notably in the case of "Helter Skelter" -- that they can barely be considered differing mixes as opposed to full-on alternate versions. The specific alterations are too numerous to lay out, but the general heavier bass and the many oddball exclusions (handclaps on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?") or additions (watery effects on the solo in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," an extra guitar in "Honey Pie") and full-on bizarre divergences like the goofing around with animal sounds on "Blackbird" and "Piggies" and the speed change on "Don't Pass Me By" make the mono version a fascinating and fun listen. It's quite difficult to prefer one over the other when they are so different. (One strange feature of the PC transfer of the mono album is that they do not replicate the one fold-down included, of "Revolution 9." Rumor has it that "Revolution 1" is also a fold, but that's faithfully reproduced.) Also, while not part of the album, "Revolution" is so clearly superior in its raucous mono single mix that even Lennon remarked on it in interviews when complaining that the Blue Album used the comparatively gutless stereo mix.
The two major outtakes from the White Album sessions, "Not Guilty" and "What's the New Mary Jane?" saw release on Anthology 3, but many fans considered those mixes -- prepared for the cancelled 1980s album Sessions -- bastardized, with modern echo effects and strange editing added. Bootlegs have preserved the original versions; in fact there are many versions and mixes of both songs on the collection, and while "Not Guilty" eventually wears out its welcome despite it being very nice to hear the complete version without Geoff Emerick's alterations, "What's the New Mary Jane?" is just bizarre and freeform enough to entertain in all its various iterations. Also presented as an "outtake" but not actually one is "Sour Milk Sea," a fine George Harrison rocker demoed during the Kinfauns gathering and eventually given to singer Jackie Lomax, whose record is a popping, crackling single that somehow went nowhere, but its major significance is that it features all four Beatles plus Eric Clapton and Nicky Hopkins. We'll talk more about that recording in another time and place but on this set, as has been popular practice on bootlegs for a while, we get faked out: Lomax's vocals have been mixed out and Harrison's from the demo awkwardly flown in. It's a bit superfluous but not entirely a bad listen.
A few modern mixes from Love and Anthology follow the first presentation of the album, the most intriguing being the 2007 orchestral version of George's gorgeous acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" performance, which was already superior in every way to the canonical White Album version and is made even better by a new tasteful, enveloping string arrangement from George Martin -- his last official work before retirement, captured movingly on the documentary film All Together Now. That solo George version of the track is also offered in unedited mono, with his count-in and charmingly jarring coda "let's hear that back!". The only other major extra on the mono discs is a corrective to my only big criticism of the mono LP, the mono mix of "Don't Pass Me By" restored to its correct speed, and it sounds great.
In this spot you would originally have read a few paragraphs about the wonderful Esher demos that compose the totality of disc five, recorded at George's house after the India trip, a rough acoustic gathering of the songs that would later comprise this album plus a few from Abbey Road and even some future solo records, and a fascinating set of "unplugged" alternate versions that are often ridiculously lovely. It's the best lengthy collection of booted, unreleased Beatles music in existence, but as of a few weeks from when I'm writing this, that's poised to change with the entire tape about to find its way to record stores and streaming services the world over; as a result, I'll be talking about the Esher tape in its entirety as part of my review of the deluxe White Album collection when I get to that release. Just one comment, though, is that the demos are so good and engrossing they would've been a major release all on their own, and easily rate "highly recommended" status if taken in separately. (It does seem that the bootlegged demo tape, which was originally sourced from John Lennon's personal copy of the sessions, has a few unique items in comparison to the forthcoming official release, but most are of fairly marginal consequence, and in all cases the official versions appear to be superior and more significant.)
That said, discs six through eight offer an interesting alternative to the officially released session tapes, mostly consisting of material that won't be on Apple's new boxed set, and are both a more haphazard (because of the erratic song selection) and scholarly (because of the volume and extensiveness) lot of music. We start with an inferior version of perhaps the last "new" Beatles bootleg item to date -- manufactured "multitracks" excluded -- and one of the most intriguing, take 20 of "Revolution 1" -- which made it out into the world in much better quality around the time Beatles Rock Band was released, and at a point when even unofficial new material from the Beatles was major news of the world, particularly when it was of this caliber. Take 20 is lifted from the same source performance as the released version of the song but finally explains completely how the chaotic jam and breakdown of the song led directly to the creation of "Revolution 9," and suggests strongly that splitting the two tracks apart wasn't necessarily the best possible decision. (Note: this is the only time you will ever catch me saying even a slight word against "Revolution 9.")
It involves a great number of strange, disturbing overdubs that have a kitchen-sink surrealism but also reflect a level of seriousness, menace and depressive worldliness that reflect how much the Beatles had changed since their last big crop of material, Magical Mystery Tour -- though some of that project's cynicism certainly does continue here. As the music breaks down, chaos ensues and the noise and violence of revolution itself seem to overtake, a drama played out by the sounds and vocals of the Beatles and especially Lennon, to eventually be joined by the tape loops that would comprise the remainder of "9." The version that's currently on Youtube is at the wrong speed, but a little searching should turn the correct one up and you can patch it in to the PC disc, which still has the old bootleg hybrid of the take accidentally captured via playback by Yoko Ono ranting in her Dictaphone in the control room, so her voice overshadows the whole thing -- a specter that itself influenced the final recording. (Take 18, on the new box, is apparently quite similar to this but is missing several overdubs.) It's a remarkable recording, and among the most engrossing, singular and delightfully unhinged Beatles performances ever captured, somehow defining so much about their infinite ambition and capacity for surprise.
As usual we're at the mercy here of what seemingly random extracts have leaked out over the years, keeping in mind that -- judging from the official commentary about the new deluxe box -- even EMI didn't fully know or understand what existed in their vault. So a lot of songs are disproportionately represented, like "Blackbird"; it seems we have almost the entirety of that session, comprised of Paul busking with Ringo and John in close quarters, and an absolute heap of takes, false starts, rehearsals and dialogue, plus an otherwise nonexistent but seemingly sketched-out song called "Gone Tomorrow, Here Today"; for a glimpse inside Paul McCartney's head while hard at work, it's fascinating if repetitive, and at times charming and funny... but as with the later Get Back sessions, it needs to be stressed: these are people working hard at an actual job, and like most actual jobs when it gets down to their nuts and bolts, it's not built to entertain outsiders.
The sixth disc is rounded out with the non-Sessions mix of the alternate take 5 of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," cutting out a lot of the reverb added in the 1980s by Emerick; "Revolution" appears without its lead guitar overdub; and we get the famous-ish "Peter Sellers tape," a bunch of fragments given to the actor by Ringo and featuring various rough mixes of eventual White Album touchstones, with most of them missing certain elements or offering a subtly different experience, never in especially strong quality; "Blackbird," "Don't Pass Me By" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" offer some intriguing moments but not enough to reward extremely close or repeated listening.
The next few discs delve further into marginalia, which in the case of this particular album is not exactly inappropriate. We've heard some of these bits and pieces officially, like Lennon cracking up at some of the "What's the New Mary Jane?" lyrics, and Harrison calling out George Martin for being "very negative" during the "Sexy Sadie" sessions -- this slipped out during the obligatory bit of the Anthology documentary about the tension during this period. Such tensions, by the way, are present here and there in certain moments, but by and large the band still seems to work rather well together apart from some understandable miscommunications and annoyances, most of which aren't easily audible; my thinking remains that the band took out their confusion and exhaustion in musical terms rather than blowing up at each other in the studio -- not to mention the fact that Paul and George both seem a bit too passive-aggressive, Ringo too passive period, to give vent casually to any problems rather than letting them fester and blow up, as evidently happened outside the confines of the studio, or slightly later in the band's history.
"Sexy Sadie" occasions a few weird, jammed-out sidelines, like something called "Fuck a Duckie" that sounds like a murderer flipping out, or like the Beach Boys' "Ding Dang," take your pick. Lennon sings the hell out of an improvisation labeled "Brian Epstein's Blues," which carries a note of tasteless bitterness since it comes so soon after the title figure's sudden death. We don't get to hear the original "Sadie" lyrics, when it was still "Maharishi, you fucking cunt," but John does interpolate the next line, "who the fuck do you think you are?", at one point. Obsessives might end up wanting to crank the dial way up to hear some of the conversations playing out over various monitor mixes. For the rest of us, there's a very dry mix of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" that's missing a lot of vocal overdubs and tracking, and boasts some extra screams at the end that sound extra "Revolution 9"-ish, suggesting that the Beatles -- or at least Lennon -- wanted very much to preserve that particular burst of dreadful energy for the very end of the record. There's a discarded organ or harmonium fragment for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (take 1, the acoustic version) and lots and lots of goofing off during the "Hey Jude" sessions, captured as well on monitor mixes, including a short take on "St. Louis Blues" that apparently made it to the new box.
Some other intrigue abounds related to "Hey Jude." Many years ago, when I was about eight years old, my dad was friends with a bona fide Beatles collector who let me copy all of his BETAMAX tapes of various Beatles-related visual materials, which is how I saw the last three of their feature films, all of which were then (and one of which remains) out of circulation. Also in the mass were an episode of the godawful Beatles Saturday morning cartoon (the one with "Slow Down," which Ringo (!) sings to a runaway donkey) and, oddly, the then-unreleased Rolling Stones film Charlie Is My Darling, and then a washed-out, tantalizingly inexplicable fragment of what appeared to be the recording session for "Hey Jude." As it turned out, this was a bootleg of a BBC documentary whose cameras in fact captured much of a full day of Abbey Road rehearsals -- on July 30, 1968 -- of the song (which was ultimately recorded at Trident Studios), and all I really had was a small extract. Twenty full minutes eventually made their way to Youtube. But for years I thought I had something really special and unique; you can hear all the musical parts of the video here.
There's a short burlesque of the song labeled "Las Vegas Tune"; a take that has some vocal mugging from John and George's infamous answering guitar line, subject of a huge rift between him and Paul that may have led to him sitting around chatting during the film clips instead of actually participating in the rehearsals. John and Paul try to break the tension in their usual fashion with facetious arguing and joking; for all their problems down through the years, John seems to be the only person who really knows how to "handle" Paul in his most coldhearted asshole mode, and in turn is the one person who seems able to snap Paul out of it. Across all the session material we have, we rarely come across a situation when John is ornery or unreasonable, his attitude always is to dissipate or break tension with silliness or joking. This probably just means he too had a passive-aggressive streak, as inclined as he often was to speak his mind unfiltered; because in later years he'd always complain that Paul got what he wanted in the studio more often than he did, which baffled George Martin -- undoubtedly because John never fought for the records the way his partner did.
The rest of the actual outtakes are more scattered across the expanse of the eventual two-record set, and even outside of it. We get to hear how George's "Not Guilty," which probably belonged on the album more than "Piggies" and would eventually be rerecorded on one of his own records, the Beatles' version released in truncated form on Anthology 3, dissolves into an impressively hard jam. As if to prove it wasn't just Lennon who could stare into the void with his increasingly unmoored singing, there's a truly hellish vocal fragment of Paul working up his fury for "Helter Skelter," followed by an unedited master of that song missing a few overdubs. Remember the non-song "Can You Take Me Back" buried between "Cry, Baby, Cry" and "Revolution 9"? You can hear the whole thing here, in apparently longer form than on the official deluxe set that's coming, along with some attendant diversions: the kissoff joke "Down in Havana," the released jam "Los Paranoias" that here goes on forever, and "The Way You Look Tonight" refashioned with "I Will" lyrics. We get a fragment of "I'm So Tired," take 14, that's much harder than the released performance, or at least seems so; and while I'm usually not much for monitor mixes, this one is kind of cool, with a crazy guitar-organ opening that sounds amazing and an extra guitar toward the end. The six-disc set out in November includes two takes of "I'm So Tired"; hopefully we'll be getting some of these elements in more audible form.
Such substantial morsels are the exception, but the smaller treasures aren't without appeal. For those of us to whom "Dear Prudence" is -- along with "Long, Long, Long" -- the most sublime moment of the Beatles' finest album, even such tiny revelations as a backing vocal fragment, and a bit of chatter after the fade, or extra vocals on alternate mix (and a lot more processing on John's lead on another early mix) are a joy to hear even if not as much as real outtakes. Other behind the scenes tidbits are a little more superficial but still fun: some weird organ rehearsals, George flubbing his "Piggies" lines ("in the sties with all their baking... fuck") and an unused creepy-laugh overdub for that song, an even creepier organ overdub for "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" with some other additional instruments that render it a bit too busy; and Paul's charming coda to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?": "Do you think I could do it better?" There are a few rough mixes preserved, including an early "Mother Nature's Son" on which we can hear some Paul laughter and more of the horns. Finally, there's an early stereo mix of "Hey Jude" with a soulful, bluesy McCartney vocal all in the left channel, and a much cleaner, more tinkly-sounding piano; because of the awkward separation of instruments, the sound is overall less robust.
This portion of the set ends with something called the "Postcard Sessions"; what is this? This is the 1968 Beatles, on their very best behavior, chilling with Donovan and playing acoustically for a while, that's what. It's charming but its appeal is probably limited to whatever overlap still exists between big fans of both artists. I like Donovan okay but everybody sounds a little tired and phony here.
Purple Chick gives the last four discs, or two groups of discs each, their own subtitles. Nine and ten are assigned the irresistible label The Beatles Go Too Far, and is primarily concerned with audio evidence of the more avant garde portions of the White Album sessions. While very little of the finished record qualifies as any more avant garde than, say, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the moments that do reflect those impulses on the part of three of the four Beatles certainly color most widespread memories of the album, and obviously played a huge role in its cultural legacy, in both good and (live shot of Spahn Ranch) bad ways. Nearly the entirety of the ninth disc is taken up with the sessions for take 20 of "Revolution 1" -- the first full track undertaken for the record -- the performances and playbacks of which are captured, it seems incidentally, by Yoko Ono's tape recorder as she dictates her personal diary or various random private thoughts, some of which ("you become naked," etc.) would find their way to the album. While the ethics of hearing this are somewhat questionable, and while most fans will bow out very quickly because there's so much Ono and you have to strain a bit to hear what's interesting about it -- largely a glorified, very very long series of monitor mixes -- to Beatle-heads, for me personally the cumulative effect is unforgettable. Somehow, this random act of rambling while a band plays in the background manages to become nearly as strange, remarkable and oddly admirable a piece of avant garde rock & roll as "Revolution 9" or Two Virgins. It's a completely unintentional (probably) piece of "found art," really, but for this listener it's perhaps the most enjoyable disc in the entire set, next to the now-redundant Esher demos, and of course this is hardly something that's ever likely to see the light of day in an official sense (if Apple even still has access to the raw materials).
What it also offers is a stunningly intimate look at a certain moment in the personal histories of the Beatles, specifically John, and Yoko Ono; she's rather bracing in her frankness, discussing the couple's habits during ejaculation at considerable length and rather condescendingly labeling Paul her "little brother" (I love Yoko to death, in fact I'm a massive fan of her music and think she's seemingly a very cool person, and she and John obviously brought a lot of good out of each other, but you do sort of get why her presence often annoyed the piss out of the other Beatles, right?), and sometimes coming off as refreshingly observant in the way only an outsider can be: "There's definitely something very strong," she says with admiration, "between John and Paul." There's a lot of anxiety about getting the other Beatles' approval, a ship that probably sailed before she ever had much of a chance thanks to John's bullish insistence on her occupation at Abbey Road, but most fascinatingly -- and a bit chillingly -- a lot of fear about the other shoe that had yet to drop in the matter of John's marriage. "I'm nervous right now because I'm always trying to find out when Cyn is coming back," she all but whispers. She spends lots of the time talking directly to John as if he's in the room with her rather than on the studio floor, and occasionally she does interact with him when he drops in the room for a playback -- at one point he takes over the recording for a moment for a slightly patronizing, annoyed-sounding reassurance that he misses her too and can't wait to be done for the day. We have plenty of evidence that John never figured out how to be in a relationship while he was a Beatle, and as amusing as this is, it just furthers that impression. Not that it's all any of our business.
What is our business is "Revolution 9," which filtered and compressed all this into a finished recording that remains one of the most audience-friendly pieces of musique concrete ever released, and one of the most impressively audacious things a mainstream rock band has ever put on an album. And for those of us who love the track -- and if you don't like it, no offense but why are you so boring? -- Go Too Far offers something truly special, an actual "alternate mix" that will really fascinate you if you've wasted as much mental space inadvertently committing the thing to memory as I have, for the many differences in the fidelity, placement and length of the various loops is quite absorbing, and suggests that multiple passes were taken at a good number of elements within the piece.
The other main attraction of Go Too Far is "What's the New Mary Jane?", a delightfully weird creation of John and Yoko's that John at one point wanted to release as a single, one of his more batshit ideas that nevertheless has a certain twisted logic to it if you consider that "Strawberry Fields Forever," in its fashion, was just as weird and was a worldwide smash. The alternate mixes of "Jane" here offer plenty of good times if you're on the song's peculiar, tossed-off wavelength -- another Beatles song it somewhat resembles is "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," but it's much more threatening -- and are able to hear it more as a Plastic Ono Band experiment. There's a lot of messing about with it in the alternate mixes, including free-jazz overdubs, some bloodcurdling screaming, a great bit of Yoko vocalizing, and some other eccentric behavior justifying John's Anthology 3-preserved chide "Let's hear it, before we get taken away!" It's all great but the one problem is John laughs too damn much throughout the entire recording and mixing process; it's harder to get caught up in the thing's menacing or totally beyond-the-pale qualities when he thinks it's so innocently hilarious, though conversely one thing many people miss about Ono's art and music is the consierable humor in it, so maybe it's a good thing.
Disc ten closes out with fragments and repeats -- including even more monitor mixes of "I'm So Tired," with another rough vocal track and lots of wavering, seemingly a tape or transfer flaw. "Not Guilty" appears again somewhere around here too. For a song that was trashed after 102 takes, there sure was a lot of business around "Not Guilty."
The last two discs, subtitled Whitecasts, are the most disappointing offered by Purple Chick, probably, and you get the feeling there was some sort of reason they wanted to stretch the thing to a whopping twelve CDs, because none of this stuff really belongs. We get the versions of "Hey Jude" and "Revolution" from the songs' music videos (or, in the parlance of the time, "promo films") which were done in conjunction with a mimed performance on The David Frost Show; they're not really live takes, apart from parts of the vocals (it's very cool, however, to hear the "shoo-be-doo-wop" backing from "Revolution 1" on the fast single version), so they don't honestly need to be here, especially with every single slight variance in their transmissions preserved. You get to hear the Beatles play Frost's theme song, but you can hear and see that on the fine Beatles 1+ DVD and Blu-ray, or hell, on Youtube. Of all the boring and repetitive stuff completists foist upon us in these bootlegs, I might find all this the most mystifying. Five barely different versions of "Hey Jude" and it's not even really a live performance in the first place? I love the song, but that's 35 pointless minutes. (The video is wonderful, but even the two versions of it on the DVD set are kind of a stretch.)
Less repetitive but equally ponderous is the full audio, it seems, of Ringo Starr's 1968 appearance on Cilla Black's variety show; Cilla was a Beatles-associated discovery. She used to be the hat check girl at the Cavern in Liverpool, the band's onetime home base. She was taken under Brian Epstein's wing and became a big star in England, not so much overseas, and her intricate associations with the Beatles continued pretty much permanently. Ringo mugs, chats, reads viewer mail, and sings, and no matter how much you love the old dork, it's all insufferable. Purple Chick doesn't preserve other TV appearances like this in these deluxe sets (there's a second set of semi-associated bootlegs, called "Lazy Tortoise," that's supposed to gather all that loose ephemera), so why this one?
I'm somewhat more understanding of the other big inclusion here, the raw materials from the long-unreleased concert film Rock 'n' Roll Circus commissioned by the Rolling Stones. This has a fine performance of "Yer Blues" by John with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell (from the Jimi Hendrix Experience); it's not really Beatles content, but hey, it's a Beatles song, and it is a good rendition, with John obviously thrilled to sing on an actual stage again, though being the aforementioned Yoko diehard I prefer the throwaway "Her Blues" which features her jamming on typically confrontational vocals with the same supergroup to a pretty enthusiastic reception. Ahead of their time, it seems. The problem is all this repeats multiple times with slight mix variations, and I -- and most of you, I can promise -- simply don't care.
Again without much context or explanation, we also get an interview with John by British broadcaster Kenny Everett, practically a baby at the time, and this is actually fun, though it too is repeated for incomprehensible reasons. John torments Kenny to great comedic effect and drops almost no worthwhile information at all -- probably intentionally -- except that "Don't Pass Me By" is currently being recorded. Lennon is as hilarious as ever, strumming a fretless and singing aimless "theme songs" for Everett. It's maddening and weird and funny and slightly mean, like this bootleg... and hey, like the White Album itself.