“We had left Sgt. Pepper’s band to play in his sunny Elysian Fields and were now striding out in new directions without a map.”
That’s what Paul McCartney says in his introduction to a new, remixed version of ‘The White Album’, the 1968 double-album that saw The Beatles tear up the rulebook once again. Released on November 9 to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the new versions of the album were mixed by Giles Martin (son of “fifth Beatle” George Martin) and mix engineer Sam Okell. They feature 27 early acoustic demos and 50 session takes, the vast majority of which have never been heard before. And thrillingly, the demos and session outtakes are some of the most revealing to ever be released from The Beatles’ archives.
Martin revealed some of the treasures last week at a special playback at BBC’s Maida Vale Studio, where The Beatles recorded their famous 1963 ‘Pop Goes The Beatles’ session, and explained how the tapes had revelations about an album that seemed to have a simple narrative: that of the world’s biggest band tearing itself apart.
Here’s everything we learned.
It was a more challenging project than the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ remix
After the re-mix of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’ last year, Martin said that though the idea behind the project the was similar, the two remain very different projects. “The plan was the same… we started with the thought, ‘Is this a good idea?’ It’s a question you have to ask yourself all the time, especially with something like ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ [This was] a very different album and a very different process because it’s a very different sounding record. I actually always thought ‘Sgt. Pepper’ would be a real challenge to remix and that the ‘White Album’ would be fairly easy. But the ‘White Album’ has such a visceral quality to it and it’s such an immediate record that it took a while to get right.”
It’s your chance to dip into the mythical ‘Esher demos’
To help us understand both the process of remixing the album and the “raw materials”, Giles Martin worked from the EMI and Apple vaults.
Much of the original writing for ‘The White Album’ took place in Rishikesh, India, between February and April 1968, when The Beatles attended a course at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation. When they returned home in May, the Beatles gathered at George Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey and recorded acoustic demos for 27 songs. The ‘Esher Demos’, as they are now known, are included in the new package, all of which were sourced from The Beatles own original 4-track tape recordings. Twenty-one of the demoed songs were recorded in the subsequent studio sessions with 19 making it on to the eventual album.
“Certainly Paul, John and George had their own four-track tape machines at this time,” Martin said. “I had no idea what the ‘Esher Demos’ were and then they sent me this CD bootleg that had been out.” With some of the demos having appeared on ‘The Beatles Anthology’ in 1995 and others on the Bootleg CD Martin talked of, does this mean we’ve heard most of them before? Not according to Martin.
“[The bootleg CD] sounded terrible,” Martin said, explaining that he went through the originals at George Harrison’s house and unearthed many more than those previously heard. “I’d heard these at George’s place when I was working with Olivia [Harrison] on [George Harrison biopic] All Things Must Pass. I found [all] these tapes. If you’re working on a project like this and you’re trying to tell a story with an album and you come across 27-tracks with a template for an album, it makes your job a lot easier. To me, it’s like “The Beatles Unplugged.”
There was “an astonishing amount” of unheard demos
“We found this huge Pandora’s Box of material they recorded that we went through and [it became] the foundation of the [remixed] album,” Martin explained. “We dug through and come up with some really interesting things… There’s 107 takes of ‘Sexy Sadie’.”
Talking the audience through the initial process, Martin detailed how he listened to all the outtakes and made notes on each together with a small team at Abbey Road. Between them, they’d argue about what should and shouldn’t be included, narrowing the enormous selection down. “The key to everything is that you want to tell a story about the album’s making and also everything has to be valid to listen to – there’s no point in putting on something just for the sake of it.”
People think the band were falling apart, but the tapes tell a different story
It’s always been widely perceived that the ‘White Album’ coincided with the most fractious period in the band’s history. However, according to Martin, there is “little evidence” of this in any of the demos or recording sessions in the studios.
“The ‘White Album’ was really the band taking back control, the band becoming a band again,” Martin said. “I always thought the ‘White Album’ was a fractious time where the band are pulling each other apart but in essence when I listened to the outtakes, it’s not that…this is still a band functioning as a band [and] as a unit.”
According to Martin, there was “no real evidence” of the arguments many link with this period in the Beatles’ history save for a row Ringo had with Paul over his drumming. Ringo left during the sessions and flew to Sardinia, returning 11 days later. On his return, the band had adorned his drum kit with flowers as a peace offering and all was well again. After spending four months in the studio recording so many intense takes, there was bound to be friction – and there was – but not in the way many had previously thought.
Martin said: “You’ll hear it in ‘Goodnight’… they wanted Ringo to perform and… well, you hear the conversations. In ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, John says “it’s getting better but it’s not getting more fun,” and [in response] George says, “It’s getting fun and it’s getting better,” so there was [still] that element of love and support and I think that existed during the ‘White Album’. I think it was tough for my dad and for people who had to sit in the control room… they were taking more control.”
The sessions took a toll on “fifth Beatle’ George Martin
Martin revealed that the period was an unsettling one for his father, George: “He didn’t like his time doing it.”
In fact, whenever he was interviewed about the album, Giles said his father balked on its mention. The reason was two-fold: The Beatles wanted to “take back control” of the studio themselves, taking a greater role in the structure of sound on there and the band had taken to all-night recording sessions, which didn’t fit in with George Martin’s life as a young father.
“He had an idea about the direction they wanted to in which was really ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and he liked the idea of a [sound] collage [and of] pushing sound boundaries and trying different instrumentations and orchestrations.” The Beatles however, had other ideas. “The White Album’ was about the band becoming a band again.”
Despite the strained relations, George Martin still wasn’t afraid to speak his mind to the band. At the end of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, Martin can be reportedly heard telling them “you’ve fucked it up!”
It has a DIY feel
“As opposed to having an architect of sound overlooking everything [The Beatles wanted] to build from the ground up [which is why] they spent a long time doing numerous takes of songs,” said Martin. “The sounds themselves didn’t come from tamburas or dilrubas or tubular bells or anything they had, they came from the instruments they were playing and that’s why ‘The White Album’ is such an influence album for bands because it’s one of those albums where you think ‘I can play that.’”
Giles Martin feels the pressure when working with Beatles material
When speaking about the re-mixing process, Martin said he is in a “hugely incredibly privileged position to be able to go to Abbey Road and listen to these tapes” and the purpose of the project is to share the recordings with the public – “I think everyone else should get a chance as well” – but also “to tell the story” behind the record. He describes it as “polishing gold” and mining material to document, historian-like, “how a record was made.”
“We listened to everything they recorded…it’s so important when doing a project like this that we get everyone to experience what [they] experienced. We are not trying to edit stuff, we are trying to get that excitement across,” Martin said.
It’s also a project supported by Ringo, Paul and the families of George and John. “The Beatles do want to do this and they are incredibly supportive of everything and there’s this great sort of blanket around me where people give you a licence…Paul will say to me, ‘Your job is to push things as much as you can and we’ll tell you if you’ve gone too far,’ and that’s the way it works.”
Martin also revealed that Paul McCartney encouraged him to push boundaries from the onset. “We don’t pay you to be safe, that’s not a Beatles thing.”
They were trying to be “the loudest band in the world”
A new, longer version of ‘Helter Skelter’ was uncovered on the Esher Demo tapes. Martin says he was struck by how loud the band were.
“On the Esher package, there’s a long version of ‘Helter Skelter’, like a blues version,” he said. “Paul came to Abbey Road and I played him [this] version and he said, ‘Was this us trying to be the loudest band in the world?’” Apparently not, as an even louder, 30-minute version was later found. While this didn’t make the final cut, a 10-minute version of ‘Revolution’ that eventually became ‘Revolution 9’ is included.
Eric Clapton was present for the whole ‘Why My Guitar Gently Weeps’ session
Originally, it was always presumed that Eric Clapton only came in to record on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ after the track was finished, overdubbing one version on the album. However, Martin revealed that Clapton was there throughout the whole recording.
“I think George mentioned to him ‘do you want to come and do this thing?’ and they drove to the studio together and spent the whole day there [recording] it. I think that from talking to Paul and going through things that John and Paul were this creative hub and this workforce – and that didn’t change. My dad always felt a bit bad as George was always slightly side-lined… I think having Eric there was [George’s moment to say], ‘See, see!’ George was a songwriting powerhouse as well.”
The original ‘Jealous Guy’ is here
A big treat for fans is the inclusion of the first version of ‘Jealous Guy’, which ended up on John Lennon’s 1971 solo album ‘Imagine’, but was written for ‘The White Album’.
The hippy-dippy ‘Child Of Nature’ has the same melody as ‘Jealous Guy’ but an entirely different set of lyrics. Martin revealed that it missed the cut simply because John had “so many other songs”.
At the playback of the album in the US following its preview at Maida Vale, an early run through of ‘Julia’, John Lennon’s emotive song about his mother, was also played. “It’s very hard to sing this, you know,” Lennon reportedly says at the start of the recording.
‘The BEATLES’ (‘The White Album’) Special Anniversary Releases are available on November 9