As The Beatles' White Album turns 50, Nick Triani essays the album's standing in 2018 whilst admiring the new possibilities the reissued and remixed album still promises.
My year in music has been a redux kind of affair. Oldish, older and simply old sounds have been a constant. Yes, I’ve listened to a lot of new stuff too, but as my own personal retromania takes over, the past feels like a place where the endless promise of pop music still lives, rather than in the stale present. As we dive further into music being defined by numbers – FB likes, streaming figures etc., a real sense of adventure is required. The one album that felt progressive for me in any sense was Double Negative by Low, a record that not only shows a thrilling re-invention for the band, but offers that aforementioned sense of promise and a world of new possibilities for the genre Low have felt comfortable in for many years. If that other new wheeze, bedroom pop offers a possible changing of the guard moment in 2018, it somehow feels insubstantial.
the past feels like a place where the endless promise of pop music still lives, rather than in the stale present
Meanwhile, in that older world, The Beatles continue to cast a defining shadow. Criticism of The Beatles as a concept is not new. It has always been there. Yet, now it feels like a growing weariness permeates in some quarters regarding any Fabs related activity. It’s quite fare to compare The Beatles’ own standing to some of classical music’s most iconic specimens. Bigger than Jesus? Not sure, but obviously bigger than Beethoven by now. Mojo and Uncut magazines surely can’t offer anymore insights or untold stories to justify another front cover? But there we are, Mojo’s 300th issue is a White Album special. And here I am at OQM, adding to the noise. Fawning over the band’s catalogue in general terms makes The Beatles ripe for disdain. For many, it’s “all too much” as George Harrison once sang. We know every word of every song. What more can we find out about The Beatles that we didn’t know? Why should we care and honestly, what relevance should this bare on 2018?
The 50th anniversary reboot of The Beatles – AKA The White Album – has had a slow burn build up with new mixes, videos, acoustic demo releases, making of the remix video clips etc, all teased to the media and gobbled up by a still adoring public. What none of this teasing gives you is a sense of The White Album’s standing today or the context of what’s been happening since it was first released. The Apple machinery of curating the band’s repertoire is as meticulous as ever, but none of this pre-teasing conveys the true sickness or creepiness that permeates most of The White Album. The new message is clear: The Beatles were not falling apart during the making of the album, they were having fun – listen to the in-between song banter found on the literally dozens of unreleased outtakes included with the super deluxe edition (more on that later).
It’s quite fare to compare The Beatles’ own standing to some of classical music’s most iconic specimens. Bigger than Jesus? Not sure, but obviously bigger than Beethoven by now
Most of the songs for The Beatles were conceived in India on a transcendental meditation course in Spring 1968. Yoko Ono was now in a relationship with John Lennon; perspectives, relationships and priorities were shifting within the band. George Martin, forever the 5th Beatle, was discarded for the album recording sessions, The Beatles initiating their own Brexit and taking back control. During the long sessions for the album, engineers would quit and Ringo Starr would quit then return. Tension was in the air.
Richard Hamilton’s sleeve for The White Album discarded much of the visual colour that had preceded it, a blank canvas – this was the first album cover not to feature the band on the front. Across the four sides of The White Album a sense of solo adventure pervades, especially on most of the material supplied by Paul McCartney, where his multi-instrumental skills are utilised to the max. As many have commented, The Beatles were no longer operating as a unit at this time, exasperated by the decision not to tour anymore. None of this is news.
There is a sense of fun and childlike whimsy displayed here, but overall, the mood is odd and sometimes real dark. Of far more interest is the role The Beatles would take in 1968, where we find the band no longer bathing in flower-power positivity as the late 1960s hippy-era drew to a stark conclusion.
Like no other Beatles album before it, The White Album was poured over and scrutinised – with many theories and thoughts deducted from its grooves. Some of this pointless conjecture can only leave one to surmise that the drugs were particularly strong at the time and people read a little too much into the lyrics. Left leaning commentators felt much of the intent behind The White Album had seen the band lose their edge and their political direction, especially seeing Lennon’s “in/out” declaration on ‘Revolution’ as a political betrayal. In the USA, Charles Manson foresaw “an apocalyptic message predicting an uprising of oppressed races” in the albums lyrics, aligning the feel of the texts to the Book Of Revelation. The most gruesome murders and Beatle lyrics written in blood were to follow.
Some of this pointless conjecture can only leave one to surmise that the drugs were particularly strong at the time and people read a little too much into the lyrics
It’s also worth noting that The White Album is The Beatles record with the widest world-view commentary. We find peak Cold War (‘Back In the U.S.S.R.’), an American perspective on culture (‘Rocky Racoon’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’) and a cynicism born of post-Imperial England (‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’, ‘So Tired’, ‘Piggies’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’). Compared to the predominantly English focus of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, this outlook shows the band looking further afield for inspiration.
The Beatles was also the first release on The Beatles’ new label and imprint Apple. Despite all this supposed turmoil and repositioning, The White Album was a huge success. In America alone the album has been certified as a 19 times platinum seller. The White Album has sold well in excess of 10 million copies. Phew. The many contours and roads of The White Album are as convoluted and strange as the music on the record.
Past, present, future
So why do we need a new The Beatles in 2018? I still have the original version on vinyl and a 30th anniversary edition on CD. Can I muster any more hope for this double album 50 years on? Well, yes – quite a lot in fact. As with their Sgt. Peppers… 50th anniversary release of last year, The Beatles have decided to give The White Album a new lick of paint. Giles Martin (son of George, who remixed Pepper) and mix engineer Sam Okell do the deeds on this new edition. In fact, what Martin and Okell achieve here is more substantial than the Pepper remix. They give the meandering White Album some focus and a contemporary sheen. It’s an impressive achievement. An album that I’ve worn out from repeated listens now sounds re-energised. There is no sacrilege here.
They give the meandering White Album some focus and a contemporary sheen. It’s an impressive achievement. An album that I’ve worn out from repeated listens now sounds re-energised. There is no sacrilege here
A slightly beefier drum sound, strings now seem razor sharp and swoon (especially apparent on the new remix of ‘Glass Onion’), backing vocals which were once muddy mumblings all of a sudden sound rich and transcendent. By adding a little widescreen, without sacrificing the proto lo-fi sound, this new White Album reveals its inner workings. Small details that were always there, now reveal themselves to be a vital part of the song arrangement – which in turn shows The White Album to be far more constructed and nuanced than the reputation of the record suggests. Some songs are instantly improved. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a George Harrison song I’ve always struggled with, now soars on the chorus with more urgency. ‘Piggies’ – a track that particularly appealed to Manson, now has a great string arrangement you can really hear in the minutest detail.
Likewise, the extra clarity and punch on ‘Martha My Dear’ suit the song better without sacrificing any of the tracks’ power pop. ‘Long, Long, Long’, ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ all sound like new discoveries amongst the familiar. Anything that doesn’t work here didn’t really work before. The mellower, pre-single version of ‘Revolution’ really comes across as too ironic in sentiment and performance. ‘Revolution #9’ was always one of the tracks that freaked me out when I was a child. Now it suffers poorly from the remix and feels genuinely dated as opposed to being the grand Stockhausen experimental statement. Followed by the Ringo Starr sung mawkishness of ‘Good Night’, The White Album ends with a whimper rather than a ‘A Day In The Life’ like gesture. But it’s more in keeping with the general ethos of the record to end it this way.
The extras will draw the disciples. The much bootlegged Esher Demos find 27 songs the band had written in India put to tape at Harrison’s home on their return. These are good value to fans, especially to find songs not featured on the final album. Otherwise, they are a little boring. Three more discs of outtakes seems and are excessive. There are some gems here still – a breezy ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is less annoying than the original. Harrison’s much recorded but never used ‘Not Guilty’ finally gets an airing. But various versions of ‘Helter Skelter’ requires dedication. Some insights are given, but at no point does it feel like any of these takes supersede the originally released version.
but at no point does it feel like any of these takes supersede the originally released version
So, The Beatles and The Beatles, still pushing and revealing more 50 years on. I always felt The White Album was the last weary hurrah, where all the final great songs from the band appeared. Mood and weirdness – an at times a creepy Victorian sounding affair, an album to revisit over time and not in one stuffed helping. Always revealing more, the 2018 version more so than before. The White Album is the last great Beatles record before the grim failings of Let It Be and the more polished calculations of Abbey Road. There are more ideas here than we could have really hoped for from a band at this point in their career. From their perch at the top of the tree, The Beatles rejected a lot of what they helped create in 1967 by delivering a dream-state sigh of an album in 1968. It still sounds like nothing else out there.
Read Nick’s 50th Anniversary essay on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.