The Beatles’ White Album gets a re-boot
The 50th Anniversary edition of The White Album reveals The Beatles at the height of their creative powers
What more can be said about The Beatles? How much more can they be lionized? According to music writer David Hepworth, we haven’t even begun. In his new book of essays on culture, Nothing Is Real, Hepworth argues that The Beatles are, if anything, underrated. Their genius was too casual and lightly worn, and their legacy so assured, that the actual music they created between 1962-70 has largely been eclipsed by their perfect showbiz story. The band’s record label, Apple Corps, has been trying to rectify this all decade—the 50th since their 1960s heyday—primarily by releasing huge tranches of previously unheard music, by way of demos and studio outtakes, bringing audiences closer to the music rather than the myth.
In the 50th anniversary edition of the band’s eponymous 1968 double-album, commonly known as “The White Album", Apple has surely outdone itself. A massive collection of music that clocks just under five and a half hours, the 2018 version lays bare the recording process of the album. And after hearing all the music, it might now be safe to say that the 1968 album was the artistic apex of their career. Of all their albums, here you can now actually hear the songs grow, from their genesis in acoustic home demos that the band recorded after returning from Rishikesh, to countless takes of studio noodling and finessing to the final, luminous versions. And thanks to Giles Martin’s—son of George, the band’s legendary producer—brilliant new re-mastering, the album itself has never sounded better.
All this amount of music dispels one big Beatle-myth: that the band members couldn’t stand each other by this point and were in the process of fractiously disintegrating. To hear the sheer joy with which John, Paul, George and Ringo craft what would become some of the world’s most famous popular music is nothing short of revelatory. In the aftermath of 1967’s high of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the band seem determined to be a band again, recording live in the studio and cutting back on the overdubs. Indeed some of the most eye-opening studio tracks are the one-take instrumental versions of songs like the Chuck Berry-Beach Boys pastiche Back In the U.S.S.R., Harrison’s ode to R’n’B Savoy Truffle, or McCartney’s immaculate Swing Jazz of Honey Pie. These and other tracks reveal a band with exceptional chops mastering the art of ensemble playing, with no musical style seemingly beyond them. Beyond the music there are priceless snatches of conversation where the band encourage, cajole, joke and chide each other into getting their performances just right. To hear Helter Skelter evolve from an early Fleetwood Mac-style 12-minute blues jam to its final proto-metal roar is thrilling.
When you come to the album proper after listening to the creative process, what takes your breath away is how much further is the leap in quality from excellent takes to the final, killer version. “The White Album" has, since its release, stood as the epitome of the dark and difficult “double album" where successful recording artists let it all hang out, warts and all. The interesting thing about this album is that now even the most throwaway track sounds calculated. It’s all a carefully designed tapestry of The Beatles showing off their mastery of pop music, jumping genres and styles with ease, while inventing or heralding new ones, like art rock, heavy metal or world music.
The quality of the remasters come from Martin placing the bass, the guitars and the vocals primarily in the centre of the mix, rescuing them from their previously disembodied digital existence on the left or right channel. This gives the songs added crispness, depth and punch. The rockers rock and the acoustic melodies positively ache with beatitude. The Beatles sound like who they were in 1968—four adults in their late 20s leaving their comfortable nest behind and discovering new depths, emotionally and musically. The result? Lucky, lucky us!
The Beatles—The Beatles 50th Anniversary Edition is available in CD and vinyl box-sets as well as digital downloads.