The Beatles at 50: McCartney Talks White Album Box Set

A 50th anniversary seven-disc Super Deluxe Edition of the 1968 White Album by The Beatles has been confirmed by Paul McCartney after months of speculation. The double LP, which has been remixed in stereo and 5.1 surround sound by Giles Martin, is eponymously titled though widely referred to for its plain white cover designed by artist Richard Hamilton. Dubbed the father of Pop Art, Hamilton, who died in 2011, also created a photo montage of the band bundled with the original gatefold vinyl. In 1964 he had been Bryan Ferry’s art master at Newcastle University and remained one of the foremost inspirations to the Roxy Music frontman throughout his career.

The Beatles was made after about 30 rough demos had been recorded in May 1968 at Kinfauns, guitarist George’s Harrison’s home in Esher, Surrey. Many of the songs were written during the band’s stay in Rishikesh, India to study meditation at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi earlier that year. The happy-go-lucky ‘Esher Demos’ sessions went well, and the quartet later worked them up in EMI’s studios in St. John’s Wood in a process that was far less harmonious. Most of the demos became finished works that made the record, although some were held over to 1969‘s Abbey Road and a further few were subsequently released on the band members’ solo albums in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’ve got blisters on my… ffffffeet?” in Liverpool: 18 June 2017 just happened to be Macca’s 75th birthday © Steve Pafford 2018

McCartney, who turned 76 in June, made the comments about the expanded release in the pre-promotion for Egypt Station, due in September and his first solo studio effort since 2013. The publicity also included a headline-grabbing live return to The Cavern club in Liverpool. In an interview with DIY Magazine, the thumbs aloft one said of the boxed Beatles project: “It’s all in place. I’ve just got a couple of essays to sign off on. It’s all lined up and it’s really good.” He added: “Something sparks another memory, but it’s really nice because we were a great little band, I think we can agree on that. The album itself is very cool and it sounds like you’re in the room; that’s the great thing about doing remasters. But we’ve also got some demos of the songs, so you get things stripped right back to just John’s voice and a guitar. You just think, how fucking good was John?! Amazing. We were just doing it; it was amazing. We were having a good time.”

The idea that they were having a good time are words not all observers of the Beatles would describe the ’68 sessions with. After all, it was during the making of this particular album that the first Beatle let it know that he had had enough, and he was quitting. The quitter? Ringo Starr! The drummer took his family to Sardinia for a holiday, while the band struggled on with the recordings, taking turns playing drums. After a while, Ringo was to return to the Abbey Road studios, and was warmly welcomed back with a sign and with lots of flowers decorating his drum booth, courtesy of George Harrison.

Someone else who didn’t want to be part of the sessions was The Beatles’ engineer, Geoff Emerick. Having started engineering for the band on Revolver and then working on Sgt. Pepper (which he was awarded a Grammy for), Emerick already abandoned them during the recording of songs for Magical Mystery Tour, and Ken Scott took his place. Scott made his debut as a recording engineer during Your Mother Should Know, and had to figure out what all the knobs, meters, levers and wheels on the recording console did to the sound. But by the time the sessions for The Beatles started, Scott had learned his trade, and had already worked on the Wonderwall Music album with George Harrison, the Beatle he would remain the closest to. Scott would cement his status producing four albums in the early 1970s for David Bowie, including the epochal glam rock sets The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the album that prevented the Fab’s Red and Blue albums from reaching pole position, 1973’s Aladdin Sane.

Macca didn’t specify a release date for the Beatles set, but the original White Album was released on November 22, 1968 in Britain and three days later in America, so the smart money is on November 16, which is the nearest Friday before the actual anniversary and means the product would be in stores for Thanksgiving and the Black Friday sales. That’s exactly what EMI/Universal did with the 50th anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band last year. Shortly after that, Ringo Starr said in several interviews that he hoped for deluxe editions of both The White Album and Abbey Road.

With disarming candour, Producer Giles Martin has described the White Album as “when they started becoming properly indulgent. There are so many takes of Sexy Sadie, for instance. The efficiency went slightly out the window.” Martin, 49, the son of the “fifth Beatle” Sir George Martin, also hinted at plans to revisit more material. In an interview with the Bob Lefsetz Podcast in April, Martin was asked if he had plans to remix any more Beatles records: “Not at the moment. But there is talking about it.” 

There have also been suggestions that Let It Be may also see a deluxe reissue. That album was also born after multiple rehearsals. While the 1968 demos were produced in an informal, happy spirit, the recording sessions in Abbey Road that immediately followed were fraught, with more than 100 takes on some tracks. Things got worse as the musicians tried to film their next project which was originally titled Get Back. Outtakes and alternative versions from both albums have been released on the Anthology series and 2003’s controversial stripped back revisit Let It Be… Naked.

This and featured image: Recording Honey Pie at Abbey Road, 1 October 1968

Speculation has been growing for months with music magazines printing guides to the lost demos on the album. For many a year Beatles collectors have been circulating alternate takes of leftovers such as Circles, Not Guilty and Junk. Some are from studio masters, others just sketchy home recordings. Regarded as the second most sought-after outtake from The White Album is McCartney’s Etcetera, recorded as a one-take demo by its composer.

Recalled by EMI technical engineer Alan Brown as a beautiful ballad, Etcetera’s tape no longer resides in the label’s vaults, apparently. That could be because Paul, contrary to Brown’s estimation, didn’t rate the song highly when he spoke about it in Barry Miles’s biography Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, where he remembered “it’s a bad song” written with a troubled Marianne Faithfull in mind, and that he’s “glad it died in a tape bin.” The most sought after White Album outtake? A legendary 27-minute version of Charles Manson’s personal favourite, Helter Skelter. Of course, whether any of these tracks make the cut in November remains to be seen. 

The Beatles was the Fab Four’s ninth studio album. The convention in the British music industry at the time was that singles and LPs were distinct entities and shouldn’t duplicate songs. Thus, Hey Jude was recorded at the end of July 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles but was issued separately as a 45 nearly three months before the album’s release, backed with a version of Revolution. 

But athough no singles were taken from The Beatles on either of the Atlantic, seven-inch releases of the McCartney-penned Back In The U.S.S.R., written as a pastiche of Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys (backed with Ringo’s Don’t Pass me By); and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, written as a pastiche of ska (coupled with George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps) were issued in other markets, with both releases a particular commercial success in Australia, where they spent a total of eleven weeks at the top of the charts. In Britain, Marmalade’s cover of the Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da provided them with the distinction of being first Scottish group to top the UK chart.

Incidentally, a further three songs from the White Album sessions would go on to become significant singles by other acts: Sour Milk Tea was given to fellow Scouser Jackie Lomax to help launch Apple Records later that year. Written and produced by George Harrison, it marked a rare occasion when three of the Fab Four appeared on a non-Beatles recording.

Child of Nature became Jealous Guy, and featured on John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine. One of its composer’s most covered songs, a decade later Roxy Music recorded a version as a tribute to the murdered Beatle, which became Bryan Ferry’s art-pop pioneers’ only No.1. single, and giving Lennon the distinction of posthumously denying Adam & The Ants, my favourite band of the time, a No.1 single with two different releases just a couple of months apart. Two years later, Dear Prudence also gave post-punk trailblazers Siouxsie and the Banshees the biggest hit of their career, peaking at No.3 in October 1983, on what would have been its author’s 43rd birthday. Lennon had written the song about Prudence Farrow, the sister of Frank Sinatra’s then-wife Mia. I do hope you like hairy armpits.

 The final word goes to Sioux, who credits the White Album with being a big influence on her band: “The Beatles got slated for it when it was released – it was unbelievable – but there’s just something about that record.” Roll on November. 

Steve Pafford

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