The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) Super Deluxe Edition
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Okay, so this is going to be a long one. It’s not only about the legendary, polarizing and super-long 1968 self-titled double-album by the Beatles, more affectionately known as The White Album. It’s about its 2018 reissue subtitled the 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition. A lot has been said, written and debated about this iconic album. It’s diverse, unfocused, charming, confusing, and most importantly, it gets to effectively showcase a band morphing into what they didn’t know was going to be their final form.
In the context of the composition, recording, and release of this album, the Fab Four solidified their status as a youth force for Western culture with no parallel in pop music. The double-LP fully displays a dualism ever-present in their discography, a fame-fueled social claustrophobia, along with a wide openness for new trends and sounds coming from contemporary artists. The presence of ska, music hall, proto-metal, musique concrète, acoustic ballads, and even Chicago blues spoof efforts have all been famously noted in assessments of the record.
The broad genre and style range makes it clear that each band member was diversifying their interests while distancing themselves from the Beatle brand they had created. The loose, jam-like arrangements on some themes exhibit the Rolling Stones and The Band as influences. Soul music luminaries like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke seem to have impacted Paul McCartney’s delivery. Elmore James-like 12-bar-blues songs are more present here than in any other of the group’s previous LPs. Once it dropped in November 1968, The Beatles was met with acclaim by American and British press, which has aided in propelling it to become the group’s best-selling effort to date.
Now, back to 2018, and The White Album has been reissued by Apple Records with an additional 77 tracks, for a total of 107 songs spread across 6 discs. The first two contain the remastered version of the original stereo double-LP, the third is for demos recorded at George Harrison’s home in Esher, and the remaining three comprise outtakes from recording sessions at Abbey Road and Trident studios.
All of the 107 tracks have been re-engineered by Giles Martin, son of original producer, George Martin. There’s also a seventh (Blu-ray audio) disc, with the original 30 tracks in all four mixes: PCM stereo, DTS-HD audio, Dolby sound and mono.
To start, let’s see how this new remastering has affected the music, and changed the album from what it was in its original issue, as well as compared to its 2009 remastered edition. Side A starts with the representative airplane sound from “Back In the U.S.S.R.” The song does blare differently now, the vocals are clearer, the harmonies fit the mix and it sounds more polished. In “Dear Prudence,” the bass and piano make the beautiful ballad sound groovier now, John Lennon’s voice gets a more appropriate accompaniment. The string arrangement heard on “Glass Onion” is brighter in 2018, making it rock harder, and the overall instrumentation is more atmospheric.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” sounds funkier and cheerier than ever (if possible). The vocals on both “Wild Honey Pie” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” are clearer on this reissue, but there’s not much one can do to make these songs any better than in earlier releases. On “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Lennon’s rhythm guitar and McCartney’s bass can actually be heard, which improves the sound of the song, making it less gloomy yet more powerful. Something similar happens with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” another excellent composition on its own that gets more strength and complexity in its 2018 form.
The new mix for “Martha My Dear” offers the tune a more solemn feel, which it definitely benefits from. The great sequencing of the album delivers us with the woeful and neurotic “I’m So Tired.” It gets a more sinister feel now, with Lennon’s voice being calmer and warmer than before. “Blackbird,” on the other hand, is simple yet delicate, like always. The 2018 version of “Piggies” yields a more upfront string arrangement, which doesn’t make the song any more serious, although it’s decent.
The “Rocky Raccoon” 2018 mix does take some of the humor from McCartney’s initial output, presenting the song as a more convincing folk effort. For “Don’t Pass Me By,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” and “I Will,” there aren’t many differences compared to what the 1968 and 2009 issues provided. The B-side, of course, ends with “Julia.” Lennon’s voice somehow gets more peaceful and serene, embellishing an already great acoustic ballad.
Disc 2 starts with the remastered version of “Birthday,” which now roars fuller, more explosive, its drums crispier. “Yer Blues” has always been said to be a British blues spoof, but has remained one of the most devastating examples of the blues performed by any white act. The 2018 stereo mix is its ultimate version. For “Mother Nature’s Son,” Giles Martin demonstrates his prowess as a great producer and sound engineer, just like his father, by placing the brass arrangements correctly in the mix. The sound is pure saccharine, as it should be.
On “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” and “Sexy Sadie,” the brand new remastering makes Lennon’s vocals and harmonies clearer, making both numbers more enjoyable. And now, here comes the polarizing “Helter Skelter,” rocking harder than ever, the instrumentation and background vocals are loud as ever but never noisy. It’s a whole experience, the harmonies take you down just for the lead guitar to get you higher in a wild ride, as Ringo Starr gets blisters on his fingers. Again, great sequencing leads us to “Long, Long, Long,” where Harrison sounds like he’s whispering right in the listener’s ear. The new mix makes every element on the song more visible and appreciable.
For “Revolution 1,” the trumpets are more lucid, and the trombones are finally there! It’s a whole new song. With the D-side’s track number 2, “Honey Pie,” saxophones, clarinets, and Harrison’s six-stringed bass get more upfront, boasting a more glaring and cohesive sense in the cut. The Harrison-penned “Savoy Truffle,” in its 2018 version, gets way funkier, sounding almost like a Meters song with a Beatlesesque chorus. Great job by Chris Thomas, with the electric piano, organ, and horn arrangements.
For “Cry Baby Cry”, the piano sets the atmosphere, then Ringo’s drums kick in and you’re all the way in for Lennon’s tale. Great track, as always. “Revolution 9,” well, it’s still weird as hell.
The original track listing ends with “Good Night,” at times sweet, at times dull. The only Beatle in the track is Ringo, in the lead vocals. The orchestral instrumentation is way up in the mix now, along with The Mike Sammes Singers’ backing vocals. After all is said and done, it gets a little better.
And that’s how the original double-LP concludes, reinforcing that Giles Martin did a bang-up job with the remastering. The white noises and shy instruments are gone. The listener gets to properly hear every piece of music captured in studio. If the 2009 remasters made the 1988 issues sound like a forgettable digital novelty, the 2018 mixes bring the Beatles to the present. And the audience is reintroduced to a timeless recording studio where the Fab Four created their quintessential double-album, with George Martin producing his supreme arrangements alongside them.
Now let’s move on to the incremental material, including the Esher demos and the unearthed May 1968 recordings from Kinfauns, George Harrison’s home.
Disc 3, like disc 1, begins with “Back In the U.S.S.R.” This time the soviet-referencing surf rocker is presented in a stripped-down acoustic version. It’s fun. For “Dear Prudence,” there’s not much difference from this version and the final one. “Glass Onion” has some variations in Lennon’s delivery. The demo for “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” sounds just like a silly pop song, which in its final version, somehow, it still is.
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” here, is like a fireplace camp song, in a good way. This offers the listener a glimpse of Lennon’s writing approach. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in its infancy, is a beautiful, sorrowful folk anthem. Harrison couldn’t go wrong with this composition. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is still an unfinished track in Esher, lacking George Martin’s great production. “I’m So Tired” is here without its characteristic anguish and sounds more like a confrontational complaint to life itself. The demo of “Blackbird,” expectedly, sounds almost like a replica of the official version.
Both “Piggies” and “Rocky Raccoon”’s Esher incarnations miss some of their eventual blitheness, making them more profound, yet not dully self-serious. In the demo of “Julia,” while Lennon’s finger-picking is a bit more pronounced, other than this minor adjustment, this could easily have been the official album version. With “Yer Blues,” as with “I’m So Tired,” the demo is not as bluesy as the final track.
The recording for “Mother Nature’s Son” is almost an exact copy of the official version. While “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” and “Sexy Sadie” are even more explicit and stern in their Esher phase. “Revolution” and “Honey Pie” never sounded so gladsome again. “Cry Baby Cry,” without the piano, is still deep, haunting, and beautiful.
Now, the songs that didn’t make the album. In order: Harrison’s “Sour Milk Sea” (later released by Jackie Lomax), McCartney’s “Junk,” Lennon’s “Child of Nature” (later re-worked as “Jealous Guy” for the Imagine album), “Circles” (which later appeared on Harrison’s 1982 LP, Gone Troppo), Abbey Road medley tracks “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” “Not Guilty” (later featured on George Harrison’s self-titled 1979 album), and, finally, “What’s the New Mary Jane,” a Lennon song, apparently co-written with Greek swindler Alexis Mardas.
In the end, the Esher demos are pretty good. Giles Martin even said that they weren’t demos, they were simply “Beatles unplugged,” and he might be right. His work in remastering them does not hinder this claim, either. These tracks have already been heard, debated, and dissected by Beatles fans over the decades with the help of bootleg releases, but ultimately, this improved quality does help in understanding the band’s creative process and the makings of a great album.
So, what is the listener left with after all of this? What’s the rest of the super deluxe edition of The White Album? Well, 50 tracks worth of outtakes. 3 whole discs of studio sessions (!). Let us get to it. With the highlights, the interesting tracks, and the weird stuff, here we, disorderly, go…
To start, there are the “studio jams” (they’re mostly covers). First, the band plays the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller original “(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care.” It’s fun and it sounds like they’re having fun, as well. W. C. Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues” is quiet and short, just a little pinch by McCartney. Then there’s the pop standard “Blue Moon,” which is also a little sweet rendition, recorded between “I Will” takes, using almost the same bongo pattern. A Lennon and McCartney original written for Cilla Black’s TV show, “Step Inside Love” is another “cover.” The last jam is a fun track called “Los Paranoias” previously released on Anthology 3. Now it’s longer and, somehow, weirder.
There are other unearthed outtakes and discoveries like the “A Beginning” (Take 4) / “Don't Pass Me By” (Take 7) medley, which is interesting given that it meshes the George Martin orchestral theme with Ringo’s country original. There’s “Good Night” (Take 10 with a guitar part from Take 5) that might (or might not) be better than the official version. The same hold true for Take 22 of the same song. The outtake from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is straight bubblegum pop, and it lets us know why Lennon called it “granny music shit.”
The recorded rehearsals for “Revolution” and “Cry Baby Cry” are pretty good, showing how the band could get right on a groove to play a new number. The “Hey Jude” outtake reveals, again, the majesty of George Martin’s production and how he could take a hot song and make it an unforgettable anthem. The Harrison-penned “Not Guilty” took up to 102 takes (!) only for it to never get issued on a Beatles record. This recording was used on Anthology 3 and here it sounds fantastic, as well.
And then there’s the mythic 12-minute-long version of “Helter Skelter.” This track is said to have single-handedly birthed heavy metal. And this version, more somber and loose, seems to be the first example of doom metal ever recorded. The “Yer Blues” instrumental version proves how incisive and effective this tune is.
“Let It Be” is presented here as an unfinished, scattered ballad, that has almost no resemblance to the 1970 mega-hit. “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (Take 5) shows how McCartney had already envisioned this as a destroying rocker with just an acoustic guitar in his hand.
The standalone single “Lady Madonna” and B-side “The Inner Light” are also present in the form of studio outtakes, just like “Across the Universe,” the closer, an immortal ballad that has been issued in numerous forms and remains astonishing.
Discs 4, 5, and 6 have their good share of “filler” or what music enthusiasts might call “tracks fulfilling historical purposes.” Either way, they have been masterfully remixed and repackaged for 2018. Now, fans have the opportunity to experience the creation of a collection of beloved (and not so beloved) tunes.
Ultimately, this reissue serves two purposes. Firstly, Beatles nerds can indulge in some 50-year-old recordings treated with the most modern technology, so they (we) can stop looking for bootlegged content elsewhere. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s for the general audience to get the (perpetually looked for) ultimate Beatles experience with top audio quality. In this case, the reissue delivers. It doesn’t sound like a 1968 album remixed 50 years later. Rather, it sounds like a timeless, ever-fresh testament produced by one of the most beloved pop acts that ever was and ever will be.
Notable Tracks: “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (2018 Stereo Mix) | “Helter Skelter” (2018 Stereo Mix)” | “Not Guilty” (Take 102)