Tuesday, July 23, 2019
The Beatles: The Beatles [White Album] 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe (1968)
Unless you count a few extra acoustic strums on "A Day in the Life" and various video tidbits, no "new" Beatles music of any significance appeared legally between 1970 and 1994, at which point there was an outpouring in the form of Live at the BBC and the three Anthology albums plus their attendant CD singles. We had bootlegs, of course, with all the caveats of quality, inconsequentiality and dubious origin thereby implied. But according to those who would know, Anthology was meant to be the cap on the story; the barrel had been scraped, the lid was back on and never to be removed again. Afterward we received bits and pieces; Let It Be Naked boasted about one and a half performances new to disc and Beatles Rock Band a few fragments mostly of dialogue, while in the meantime, discarding the sudden appearance of a strange version of "Yellow Submarine" in the early 2000s, several Sgt. Pepper multitracks in 2007, and various bits and pieces of horribly recorded but rare live shows, even the unofficial well had dried up sufficiently that the 2009 discovery and leak of a clean recording of take 20 of "Revolution" -- previously audible in the background of Yoko's tape-recorded rants and musings -- was not merely the stuff of hardcore fan discussion but made actual headlines.
That sea change in the way the Beatles' music has been processed and appreciated probably plays a role in how their catalog has been treated since 2013. For all the scattered and mostly absurd talk about whether their "legacy" will survive the dying off of their original fanbase (as a millennial silent film buff who knows people ten years younger than me with crushes on Buster Keaton, I have to admit rolling my eyes a lot at this nearly psychotic overprotection of cultural totems), Beatles ephemera is now hallowed ground as their work has come to be seen as major art of the twentieth century if not the legendary soundtrack, with built-in criticism, to a stymied but full-hearted revolution. You could argue on one hand that transferring Beatles appreciation to college classes robs the whole enterprise of much of its point, and much of its freshness, but you can't really blame people: sometimes you're faced with something truly undeniable, and the Beatles have been that thing now for half a century, and their constant presence in Our World is unlikely to fade even as we lose the men themselves. (We've already lost, in the past twelve years alone, so many in their periphery: Neil Aspinall, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, Cilla Black, Allan Williams; hell, Alex Mardas!)
At some point in the mid-2010s, with the help of George Martin's son Giles and Apple's new president Jeff Jones among others, Apple Records finally caught up with this perception and began to venture out with the kind of archival releases they once claimed would never happen. Bootleg Recordings 1963, while a modest and barely publicized release, presented a fascinating and surprisingly complete portrait of the early Beatles in sparkling quality. On Air brought the raw rock & roll of their BBC sessions back to the foreground. Sgt. Pepper got its lavish boxed set at last and treated diehards to the meticulous deconstruction they'd yearned for ever since the Beach Boys' records started getting such scholarly dedication in the '90s.
But none of this quite stood up to the Super Deluxe edition of the White Album, issued to mark that watershed record's fiftieth anniversary in 2018. The Beatles' label had thus far mostly been doing more or less what had long been expected and demanded of them: everything on streaming services, check. Mono records finally on CD and (maddeningly briefly) vinyl, check. Hollywood Bowl back in the marketplace, check. The Christmas records commercially released for the first time, albeit in appropriately small quantities, check. And Pepper with a remix and a modicum of interesting session material, check. But in the case of this White Album release, suddenly the crew got generous. This is a six-disc collection, and if you don't count the audio Blu-ray that includes the uncompressed mono mix, it's devoted almost exclusively to material that has never been released before: a full remix of the original album itself, the beloved Esher demo tape in its entirety, and then three full discs of outtakes, almost none of which has ever been heard even by hardcore bootleg collectors. And unlike Pepper, this record wasn't recorded piecemeal, so these are real and complete performances. In other words, this is easily the largest collection of "new" Beatles music we've ever gotten at one time. Having lived through the Anthology releases and waited for each of them excitedly, I can verify that there quite simply was never a more exciting time to be a fan than the White Album reissue campaign, short of being there for Beatlemania itself.
Like his Pepper remix, Giles Martin's revised take on the stereo White Album caught lots of flack among some fans, especially the sort of older grouches who are very uptight about the fact that the U.S. Albums box didn't incorporate all the old "fake stereo" mixes. I know the White Album like the back of my hand and to my mind, the remix is excellent and stunningly immersive (listen to "Dear Prudence"): it's respectful and detailed and underlines the record's brilliance as an eclectic cycle of ideas, a documentary about a band that can perform and enrich any kind of music it dreams up. The only gaffe is "Long, Long, Long," which is made too loud and upfront here; and it's slightly disappointing that we didn't get a truly batshit new take on "Revolution 9," obviously a very difficult track to remix, though I understand it's quite a trip in 5.1. (I'm sadly not equipped to check.) I don't understand the protests to the new mix, especially because on the many occasions in which I pulled up this version to consult while working on this review, I don't think I successfully accessed it on Spotify a single time without first accidentally reaching the standard version. If you're seriously worried about this, please go to bed.
Following this subtle reimagining of the Beatles' best album, the third disc offers what was formerly more than likely the best Beatles bootleg, and certainly the most historically significant aside from Get Back. Sampled heavily on Anthology 3, the May 1968 Esher demos long served as a whole lost Beatles album of sorts, recorded at George's house and comprised of acoustic performances of the songs (mostly written in India) that would eventually comprise the White Album as well as a few that would appear on Abbey Road and some eventual solo albums. These are more than simple runthroughs thanks to the presence of subtle overdubbing, stereophonic sound and multiple takes. To us as listeners, they provide spare beauty as a listening experience as well as a fascinating alternative interpretation of now-intimately familiar classic songs. In the same way that George's solo acoustic versions of "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" completely twist around our emotional responses to those touchstones, these demos reveal the infinite possibilities that surrounded almost all of the music the Beatles were writing during this period, together and (mostly) separately.
In other words, these songs are astoundingly durable, which is made more impressive by the audibly off-the-cuff nature of the recordings; they know no one's listening, and yet they're still this good, which is horrifying for us mere mortals. The highlights are innumerable. Thankfully, this disc covers all of the songs that were brought out at the sessions so we can hear early stages of their progression. (A couple of tracks are lifted from different takes than the old bootlegs of the Esher demos, but the differences are mostly minor, and the recording quality is a quantum leap above what we previously had.) John Lennon has the most trouble taking the scenario seriously, as you will note when the otherwise ethereal "Dear Prudence" bursts into a spoken-word explanation of how Prudence Farrow went "completely berserk under the care of Maharishi," or when he's unable to hold to any serious pose during Paul's beautiful rendition of "Junk," which otherwise sounds better here than it would on his solo debut McCartney. But he does rein it in eventually, and this does sound overall like a group recording rather than a series of individual solo ballads.
Paul is the consummate professional, of course; "Blackbird" is almost identical to the studio version -- though, to be fair, so is "Julia," double tracking and all. More intriguing, though, are the songs that actually achieve emotional depth that the masters don't. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Bungalow Bill" gain a lot from spontaneity, "Honey Pie" from being straightforward and not such a throwback, "Rocky Raccoon" from an unexpected sincerity; they're not so smarmy here, even though said smarminess would help the album find its identity as leaning heavily on burlesques of various musical genres. "Piggies" too is almost gentle in this guise, and "Yer Blues" -- again, seemingly before it was arrived at as a potential satire of blooze-rock -- sounds like completely straightfaced country blues as sung in an unadorned setting.
There are a lot of Harrisongs brought out to play on the demo tape; on top of the aforementioned we get a stark rendition of "Sour Milk Sea" and the creepy organ-driven "Circles," which -- almost as afterthoughts -- therefore become the first new Beatles "originals" released in over two decades. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" has a busier riff at this point that would be wiped in the solo Abbey Road recordings then fussed with again for the record. "Not Guilty" also shows its face here before its ill-fated Abbey Road sessions, which would result in hours of unused takes that would go nowhere, as likely as not because of resentment and jealousy on the part of his bandmates; George didn't release the song until 1979.
Except for "Cry Baby Cry," "Julia" and "Revolution," John's songs do not seem quite as fully formed as Paul's, but less because of inefficiency than because he expects to complete them as a matter of course within the studio walls. (One exception, the lovely "Child of Nature," was never fully recorded by the Beatles and instead got rewritten brilliantly as "Jealous Guy," one of the finest ballads from his solo career.) "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is a bare skeleton of its eventual final form, with only the "I need a fix" and "Mother Superior" sections already in place; interestingly, "I'm So Tired" at this stage embodies what would become the climax of "Warm Gun" plus a bridge that sounds like John's humorous spoken interlude on the old 1960 home recording "You'll Be Mine." And "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is little more than a chant. All that said, "Revolution" may be the best of the demos and improbably offers us a third distinct version of a song that one wouldn't necessarily think of as quite so malleable; actually, its spirit may be somewhat incongruous with its lyric, a tension Lennon would experiment with unsuccessfully on Some Time in New York City. It's a bouncy delight all the same, a sort of campire version of the song that in-the-know fans have long treasured.
Across the remaining three discs, there is very little that has been booted; in fact, a fun side effect of the Super Deluxe set is that it doesn't even actually render the underground Purple Chick twelve-disc collection of White Album odds and ends remotely obsolete. There's been a lot of talk about how this set presents the White Album sessions in such a good light, as if it was all fun and sunshine when we know for a fact that tensions were mounting (largely, not entirely, due to external pressures growing out of the band's founding of Apple) and there was open hostility between the band members and further open hostility directed outward toward the EMI crew. (Geoff Emerick quit working with the Beatles altogether during the sessions.) Really, the outtakes -- which, remember, can't possibly reveal everything that was happening -- serve to fairly counterbalance the conventional wisdom about the White Album's origins, and maybe it swings too far in the other direction. But what the new-to-us material proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is how fucking great the Beatles were, even at "rest."
The session material is offered up basically in chronological order, as indicated by the fact that it doesn't flow particularly well. I would divide it all roughly equally into "good," "essential/interesting," and "superfluous/redundant." Not surprisingly, there's almost nothing I'd call bad, and the only potential exception is an off-the-cuff jam so I'm really not casting shade at the Beatles but rather the compilers in that case.
We'll start with the good stuff. "Revolution 1," which kicked off the sessions, begins the story; fans demanded the now-legendary take 20, which leaked out to the internet in 2009 and is a truly remarkable recording providing an account once and for all of how the track devolved into the nightmarish "Revolution 9," but instead they got the slightly earlier take 18 which is missing a few backing vocals and some other interesting experimental elements. The essence is here though, and so are John's immortally creepy repetitions of "it's gonna be alll riiiight," a sentiment it was never more difficult to believe, and this performance makes us doubt he does either. This is the Beatles' adventurousness and eclecticism in ten-minute microcosm.
Ringo appears on the microphone soon afterward for "Good Night," which improbably offers some of the biggest surprises on the entire set; in addition to Ringo's charming foul-ups on the vocal ("Daddy went a bit crazy!") there are variants that exhibit it as a much prettier, more delicate song than, once again, John and George Martin's deliberately over-the-top Hollywood treatment on the LP. Take 10 has a lovely guitar bit and improbably lovely vocal harmonies -- all this is likely to really turn around many opinions of this song, which always gained much of its meaning and importance strictly from its placement on the record. (Take 22 is the same one from Anthology 3 but now unedited, and with a good perspective offered on everyone's participation.)
Of the many moments of brilliant band interplay across this compilation, the highlight might be the instrumental backing track of "Me and My Monkey," which reveals the song underneath the bells and screaming as an incredibly propulsive piece of prototypical New Wave. Second to that is the legendary twelve-minute "Helter Skelter" (this arrangement is said to have stretched to twenty-seven minutes in one performance), which seems like indulgent wankery at first but really soars as an extremely tense slow burn and a fine jam, if you're attuned to it; it's made sublime by the Neil Young-like guitar trickery and, especially, Paul's killer vocal performance, which is electrifying every time he hits his guttural peak on the chorus.
There are moments that allow even those of us who count this as our favorite Beatles album to mourn the sweeter, less sardonic record we now find hiding in these songs. Not that "Martha My Dear" is a bitter song at all on the White Album, but it's calmer and sweeter here sans production adornments and general busyness. Before a wonderful alternate take of "Long Long Long" that has George's vocal more intimate and direct and is derailed only by some dicking around on his part during the bridge, he conjures up memories of the band's gentle welcoming of Donovan this same year: "here we go lads," he says. "We're not really what we make out to be." Of course the sweetness doesn't hide on "I Will" -- one of the most sincere and lovely moments in the band's catalog -- but in the spirited, stripped-down session that produced it, with Paul, John and Ringo in high spirits, we get a glimpse at the mood and cooperation that was possible when they still worked at it, giggling even at the lamest of Paul jokes. (Emerick once said that one, two or three Beatles was a dream scenario, but as soon as all four were in the room starting in late 1967, the tensions became unbearable.) Paul slips at one point into an ancillary "Blue Moon," his voice heavenly right up to the point where he fucks it up. And we can also mourn the album Get Back/Let It Be could have been if they'd really been able to commit themselves to the original idea behind it, which was never more arrestingly captured than on a blistering version of Elvis' "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" that's so energetic and vicious you absolutely yearn for it to go on longer than a minute.
In contrast to Paul and George, John's songs seemed always to be still finding their place and essence by the time during the Beatles' studio time, but the evolutionary process demonstrated here -- as usual -- produces some incredible abandoned notions and works-in-progress along the way. There's a great "Revolution" rehearsal resembling the demo; "Cry, Baby, Cry" acquires extra, human character in this performance, which leans into a ponderous bluesiness and a loose feeling replete with John fumbling the lyrics (there's a "seance... for a seance"). "Dear Prudence" is the master stripped to just singing, drums, guitar and a bit of piano, with no bass or production sheen, and it remains a breathtaking performance; it's truly amazing to hear John's vocal in relative isolation.
As contemporary as a lot of the White Album still sounds, the Beatles and especially John periodically stumbled during the sessions on some remarkably innovative sounds, many of which have remained in the Abbey Road vaults all these years. "Glass Onion" is just a backing track with guide vocal, but that muddle of motivations gives it a very contemporary, "college rock" feeling. Take 19 of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" sounds like Lennon entering Lou Reed territory through very rough, contemplative singing that changes the whole character of the song and gives it a mournful quality entirely missing from the master, along with the harder-rocking abrasiveness, no longer hidden behind the vocals, in the instrumentation. "I'm So Tired" is rawer and looser here -- listen for some engagingly warm communications between John and Paul -- and one remarkable take adds answering guitar and backing vocals, plus, well, a bit more of John's fake drunk chatter that was mistaken for him mumbling "miss him, miss him" in regard to the supposedly deceased Paul McCartney. (There is an outtake on bootlegs with further embellishment that's quite odd and unsettling and I wouldn't have minded hearing it in better quality.) Finally, "Across the Universe" is heard here in its sixth take -- halfway between the second take from Anthology 2 and the two masters -- and it's not as lovely as take 2 but still better than either of the "official" versions or even the long-abandoned mono would-be single mix.
All that by itself would make this set worth the purchase for enthusiasts, but there's even more, although what follows is unlikely to really capture the interest of casual fans; the above would all be worthwhile listening for just about anyone, but here is where things get a little more intricate and where a number of readers will start skimming.
Again, part of the purpose of this session material is less to offer impeccable new music than to present the case that we've interpreted the Beatles' White Album era all wrong. Now that the two surviving Beatles and most others involved are in their twilight years, they seem to want to present a redemption narrative; and of course, given what we're allowed to hear in this context, there's obviously truth in it. The Beatles are depicted as cooperative and interested in improving things, and a lot of these moments also have a nice, humanizing effect on people we're tempted to see at this point as sort of distant and godlike. For example: during the representative sample of the long "Blackbird" session (which you can hear a lot more of on bootlegs), you get Paul speculating on "which voice" he should use; or there's George humming "Getting Better" just before an unrelated session; and John, ever the showman, requesting that the others "feel it" when they get started on "Sexy Sadie." Or best of all, George Martin informing Paul after a few runthroughs of "Mother Nature's Son" that there were "a couple of nice ones, and a lot of ones where you fucked up." Cheeky bitch, indeed!
Lots of outtakes here are either mostly interesting in a historical sense or are less than radical variants obviously placed to represent songs that didn't need a lot of "working out" at EMI. Take "Sadie," which is heavier on drums and has dryer instrumentation but is identifiably mere steps away from the canon. An alternate take of the Clapton-soaked arrangement of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" breaks down because of George's vocal when he, in his words "tried to do a Smokey and I just aren't Smokey" but it's close to fully realized as it exists on the album. "Helter Skelter" gets a solid, almost-there performance and boasts some clips of Paul having fun with the vocal slapback. The unedited mix of "Yer Blues" with the guide vocal throughout -- so that the whole song sounds like the end of the master, on which John's vocal eerily seems to continue from a considerable distance, a moment I always loved even though it was evidently a mistake -- is the kind of archival curiosity that would never have made an official release twenty years ago, but it's fascinating to hear the mild secrets it unfolds: the lyrics being unfinished at this stage, some extra guitar that later got mixed out, and the ending proceeding without the intentionally jarring edit on the master, a longer jam in its place. And "Julia," which was already quite polished at Esher, is here in a brighter, strummed variation featuring nice interplay between John and George Martin. We also receive proof at last that the orchestral extract "A Beginning," rumored to have been tossed onto Anthology 3 to give George Martin a piece of the pie on songwriting royalties, really was once intended as an intro to "Don't Pass Me By," where it doesn't work at all. It's the same performance as the master with faders up so there's fiddle all over it, weird prominent bassline, and Ringo's spoken portion which provides its working title "This Is Some Friendly."
Among the more intriguing departures, there's probably nothing that will strike anyone as much as the wilder excursions on Anthology 3. The acoustic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" reappears, as if even the Beatles themselves now realize it's the only proper way to hear this song, now with harmonium. There's another very raw early attempt at "Hey Jude" with Paul's inspirational sentiment "unnnnngh unnngh unnngh ungh-ungh-ungh-unnnngh." Along similar lines Paul leads the band through an extract of "St. Louis Blues," and I like this kinda hot kinda music but it's pretty innocuous. Paul's pretty modest on the alternate "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" but it's pretty much identical in its approach to the outtake from Anthology. And in John's corner, we get a sloppy "What's the New Mary Jane" on which he's far too impressed with the humor of his own lyrics (it sounds like something off one of the later Christmas flexis here, and I love the more complete version issued before) plus a mostly acoustic "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," which has a bit of peaceful back-and-forth among the band, producer and Yoko Ono, likely included just to prove such a thing was possible.
When the tracklist for this release slipped out onto the web, fans were most psyched up about the inclusion of a 1968 version of "Let It Be," dating from earlier than anyone knew it had been attempted. It's extremely rough around the edges but quite a privilege to hear, coming off as more of a rock song -- really, just a jam -- and featuring the "brother Malcolm" (referring to Mal Evans) lyric in lieu of "mother Mary." This too feels like something that would've been rejected from Anthology and dismissed as slight if it had somehow made it, but now it feels like a modest revelation, though it's not likely to become a regular part of most fans' Beatles repertoire.
Elsewhere, Martin and the gang do a bit of housecleaning on this deluxe set, for which I'm quite grateful; they offer up cleaner mixes of the previously released alternate version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" (which, when it was scrapped and remade, became the first unreleased Beatles track to use session musicians) and the outtake "Not Guilty," whose exclusion from the White Album never did make sense in the first place. Both songs sound better and fresher without the echo-laden rechanneling done for the aborted Sessions album that made it onto Anthology 3. Surprisingly, one of the few other moments of anything like overlap with that release is "Rocky Raccoon," and that's a case in which the alternate take is no longer edited, now featuring a lost coda with further extemporaneous lyrics from Paul; that they're pretty desperate -- Paul could be funny, but not on the spot like John -- doesn't detract too much from the chance to hear a complete performance finally.
Lastly there are some items that, in my heart of hearts, I don't think we really needed... and it's this that keeps me from thoroughly recommending this package to casual fans despite the presence of maybe two discs of splendid material out of four. I've never felt that "track-only" mixes of Beatles songs were particularly revelatory; there are exceptions, but most of these are not -- they are occasionally interesting ("Back in the U.S.S.R." heard at the original speed with George muttering along, the single version of "Revolution" showing off its searing velocity, "Birthday" showing off a chiming character we didn't know it had, and "The Inner Light," included prior to this on a Harrison compilation, offering a rare portrait of George as gifted arranger) but feel too much like filler on a release that hardly needed it. Also: from one of the many moments of idle tomfoolery of the "I Will" session comes the off-the-cuff medley "Step Inside Love"/"Los Paranoias," heavily edited on Anthology and now presented in painstakingly complete form -- unfortunately, "Los Paranoias" is insufferable, already bad enough on the old release and here staking a claim now that it goes on for fucking ever as perhaps the lamest thing the band has ever actually released. Speaking of "goes on forever," while I understand being curious about "Can You Take Me Back?", the semi-song by Paul that joins "Cry Baby Cry" and "Revolution 9" together on the LP as a thirty-second fragment, we really are given nothing new by its full 2:22 expanse because it's so painfully repetitive and obviously wasn't intended for release at full length.
Still... now we've heard it, I suppose, and I certainly don't want to discourage Apple from doing just what we've long wanted them to do: dump out the archives. I'm extremely pleased with this set and the way it was done, which I think is totally correct and commendable. My only point is that this isn't exactly a Beatles record you'd ideally throw on at a party, it's really something for the true believers to pore over. With that in mind, I had a bit of a giddy moment when traversing through this the first time and making it to the "Lady Madonna" sessions (which don't seem to properly belong, but oh well) only to find that holy shit, people, the Marmite exchange made it to an official release!. I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them, even though it was 3am and almost none of them would know what on earth I was talking about. A month before this deluxe collection hit the stores and the streaming services, I described the Marmite conversation in my review of the bootleg Magical Mystery Year as follows:
We're treated to a complete vocal overdub session for "Lady Madonna," capturing the full process as well as some now-iconic (among bootleg collectors) excess, the famous "Ringo vs. Marmite" exchange whereby, on the first backing vocal track, George munches on chips and discusses "Marmite-flavored ones," an idea which Ringo decries because he dislikes the product. Because subsequent overdubs use playback of this same tape, we hear that same conversation about half a dozen times, along with a bit of goofing off from Paul melodramatically jumping in with the first line of the song in full-on nightclub mode before bursting into laughter. This is a great example of something that separates extremely hardcore Beatles fanatics from the more healthily obsessed; you can know the catalog back to front but it takes a special kind of weirdo to know Ringo's Marmite secret, yet there have been inside jokes about it in the outer reaches of the community for decades now. [...] Beatles fandom is often a source of amusement as much as transcendence, and I have a certain love for strange little objects like the Marmite discussion.
Now, none of that is quite true anymore, and I kind of love that: as of 2018, you can pull up the Beatles' Marmite debate on your streaming service of choice right now, anytime and anywhere you want, in perpetuity; once a calling card of obsessive fandom, it's now part of an officially licensed piece of Apple Records product. The whole world will hear Ringo mumbling "I don't like Marmite" just as in 1994 they thrilled at him announcing that he "like[s] grapes." This weird quirk we all grew so familiar with in our sequestered private worlds isn't so private anymore, even if it's really just a graduation of visibility from frighteningly devoted obsessives to slightly less fanatical obsessives. The world is coming around to our point of view, ladies and gentlemen; soon maybe they'll even put out a limited chrome cassette copy of the Rumitape. It's history, folks, and you just never know.