Album Spotlight: The Beatles—The Beatles (The White Album)

Almost fifty years ago exactly, The Beatles’ tenth album and their only double album of new material was released, five years to the day after With the Beatles. When you think about what a progression their music had undergone in just that short period, it makes the experience of listening to The Beatles, more popularly known as the White Album because of its minimalist cover, even more incredible.

The Beatles was recorded over the course of five months, from May 30th to October 14th of 1968. The group had spent time in India with the Maharishi at his ashram, meditating and listening to his teachings. It didn’t end well—Ringo and Paul left early, and John and George stormed out after learning that the guru had been making advances to the women present—but it fueled an amazing burst of creativity. At George’s house in Esher, the band recorded 27 demos of new material, with more recorded in the studio.

Currently, with the release of the Super Deluxe Edition of the White Album, including the Esher demos and three discs of outtakes as well as a remix of the original record, the narrative is that the sessions weren’t nearly as acrimonious as the myth makes them. Giles Martin, who supervised the project, is doing interviews stating that the band was all playing together and getting along, and everything was just fine. With all due respect, I reject this interpretation. All four Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick all stated that the sessions were hell. Ringo left the group for two weeks, although it’s uncertain if he was serious about making it permanent; Emerick quit working with the band midway through; and George Martin took a long holiday in September. I don’t imagine that it was awful all of the time, but I think many factors ensured that it was the beginning of the end for the group.

Part of the goal in recording this album was to get away from psychedelia, which had begun to run its course at this point, and go back to performing together. Despite this, many of the songs were recorded by Paul alone in the studio. Others were overdubbed by the Beatle who had written the song, sometimes while the others worked on their own in adjacent studios.

The Beatles is a long album—93 minutes and 35 seconds—and not all of its 30 songs are classics. Martin allegedly pleaded with the group to compress the best material into a single album, but they refused, in part perhaps because they wanted to quickly fulfill their record contract with EMI. It’s become a favorite game among fans to create their own single-disc White Album; the asterisked songs below would be my choices.

A last digression before the track analysis: I remember buying this album, only knowing three of its songs, and opening it and studying the poster and photographs. When I put it on, it struck me at once that almost all of the songs were in a minor key (musicologists, feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken). The overall sound wasn’t white; it was black. This is their darkest album.

*Back In The U.S.S.R.: A strong rocker and a satire of both Chuck Berry’s Back In The U.S.A. and the Beach Boys’ California Girls. (According to Mike Love, he cowrote the Beach Boys parody middle eight with Paul in India. But Mike Love says lots of things.) Paul drums (and possibly John and George as well) because Ringo quit the group and took a vacation right before this session. He returned two weeks later to find his drum covered with flowers. It tells you something about Beatles history that no one can agree if Paul, George or John was responsible. At any rate, this song sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which is full of pastiches.

*Dear Prudence: The second and final song recorded during Ringo’s absence.1 Recorded at Trident Studios so they could use their eight-track recorder, not realizing that EMI also had one but hadn’t approved it for use yet. When the band found out, they dragged it out although the testing hadn’t been completed and began using it. This is a beautiful ballad by John, inspired by Prudence Farrow (Mia’s sister) who got so involved in meditation at the Maharishi’s ashram in India that she would spend all day in her room. The guitar work is exquisite. John began playing in that fingerpicking style after Donovan showed him how to play  while they were in India.

Glass Onion: A piss take by John for people who looked for clues and meanings in Beatles songs. It includes references to Strawberry Fields, I Am The Walrus, Lady Madonna, The Fool on the Hill and Fixing A Hole. Naturally, fans began reading meaning into *this* song. The basic tracks were produced by Chris Thomas, who was apprenticing for George Martin to learn the ropes of record production.2 Although Thomas claimed he wasn’t actually producing the group—at this point, they could handle themselves—he was given credit on the tape boxes and a general thanks on the White Album poster. Martin went on holiday for almost an entire month (he had a new baby), but scored this song for strings when he returned, replacing a rather bizarre ending which can be found on the Anthology 3 version.

*Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da: A bit of reggae from Paul, inspired by a Jamaican gentleman he knew who used the phrase (and who promptly and unsuccessfully sued him when the song was released). This went through three different versions, including one with outside instruments overdubbed, and caused some aggravation within the group due to their impatience with Paul. It also caused Geoff Emerick to quit working with the Beatles until the recording of Abbey Road. John plays the piano, and John and George shout “arm”, “leg” and “foot” after Paul sings “hand” in the second and third verses. Paul accidentally messed up the final verse, confusing Molly and Desmond, but liked the result so much he kept it (although I think he probably rerecorded his vocal to solidify the lyrics). 

Wild Honey Pie: A doodle recorded by Paul in one session, overdubbing all instruments. He would do this with several songs on the White Album, but the rest were for the most part more substantial. Some very strange guitar sounds.

The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill: John’s satire about a hunter he’d met while in India. Yoko sings the line “Not when he looked so fierce” and joins John on the chorus, as does everyone in the studio, including Maureen Starkey. Yoko was present every day during the White Album sessions, doubtless adding to the tensions within the group as Beatle wives had only infrequently been allowed to visit.3 The Spanish guitar solo at the beginning is from a Mellotron, which was also used for the mandolin and trombone interludes. John says “Eh up!” at the end.

*While My Guitar Gently Weeps: George’s first true classic. Like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, it went through three different versions before settling on this bluesy rock number, with guitar solo played by Eric Clapton. George brought him in to try to dispel some of the acrimony among the group, and this partially succeeded. This was the first song to use the new eight-track recorder, and no producer was listed on the tape box for this final version (which means that the Beatles produced it themselves, basically). [I would include the acoustic first take on my single-disc White Album instead of this take.]

*Happiness Is A Warm Gun: John got the idea for this song from an NRA magazine, although it’s really three different fragments of songs. The initial piece is quite poetic, with lyrics about multicolored mirrors on hobnail boots and soap impressions of wives. The second bit, in comparison, is almost frightening, with an air of despair. Then the tone shifts immensely with a doo-wop parody and “bang bang, shoot shoot” backing vocals. Quite a schizophrenic number. Produced by Chris Thomas.

Side 2: John, Paul and George Martin sequenced the album, and part of their ordering the diverse songs was to put most of the songs about/mentioning animals onto one album side. This is that sequence.

Martha My Dear: This song made a lot more sense to me once I learned it was about Paul’s sheepdog. Except Lewisohn says that it wasn’t. Eh, I think he’s wrong on that one. Anyway, it’s a lovely number with some brilliant orchestral backing (the rest may have been played by Paul on his own). When I heard the remaster in 2009, this was one of the things which really caught my ear—the crispness and definition of the horns coming in on the choruses.

*I’m So Tired: A brilliant counterpoint by John to I’m Only Sleeping, and a perfect description of insomnia. Lennon mutters “Monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?” at the end, which is one of the “clues” about Paul’s death; supposedly it says “Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him” if played backwards.

*Blackbird: Recorded solo by Paul in Studio Two while John was working on Revolution 9 in Studio Three. The ticking sound is a metronome. Francine Schwartz, Paul’s girlfriend at the time, was in the studio listening. The song is a shout-out to the Black Power/civil rights movement, and a beautiful one.

Piggies: George’s takedown of greedy rich people, and not particularly subtle. His mom gave him the line “What they need’s a damn good whacking”. John said he contributed the lyric about forks and knives and eating bacon (which is pork chops on the Esher demo). Produced by Chris Thomas, who plays the harpsichord. Although Thomas stated that John was present for the session, it isn’t known what, if any, instrument he played. He did, however, help compile the tapes of pigs grunting.

*Rocky Raccoon: Paul’s Western number, with all sorts of Dylanesque characters (MacGill/Lil/Nancy, e.g.). John plays harmonica for the final time on a Beatles recording, as well as the bass guitar. George Martin plays the honky-tonk piano solos. Harrison’s only contribution was to help with the backing vocals. Absolutely my favorite White Album song. I’m so upset that Paul never played it live. Too late now; his voice isn’t up to it.

Don’t Pass Me By: Ringo’s songwriting debut, originally entitled This Is Some Friendly despite the fact that he’d had it around since 1963 under the title Don’t Pass Me By. The verse about the car crash is bizarre, but perks up what otherwise might be a somewhat dull number. Originally it had an orchestral beginning, composed and arranged by George Martin, which can be found on Anthology 3 and on the Super Deluxe Edition outtake. The violin busking at the end is different on the mono and stereo mixes, as is Ringo’s vocal; it’s sped up considerably on the mono mix, which sounds really strange, as if he’d snorted helium before singing.

Why Don’t We Do It In The Road: While John was remixing Bungalow Bill in Studio Two, Paul nipped down to Studio One to record this brief sexual interlude.4 Inspired by a pair of monkeys Paul saw in India. Ringo overdubbed the drums. This sort of “Hey, I’ll go make a recording while they’re doing something else” attitude really pissed John off. No producer.

I Will: Recorded with John tapping a block of metal with a wooden instrument (drumstick or mallet) and Ringo playing maraca and tapping cymbals. Paul plays acoustic guitar and sings. The bass guitar is really Paul imitating a bass guitar (you can hear this best on the intro to the middle eight). These sessions led to the recording of the Can You Take Me Back number included between Cry Baby Cry and Revolution 9, which is included in its entirety on the SDE outtakes. A straightforward unassuming love ballad. Produced by Chris Thomas.

*Julia: John’s completely solo ballad about his mother, with a mention of Yoko in the lyric “ocean child” (her names translates to ocean). Utterly gorgeous, with naked emotion. The final song recorded for the White Album.

Side 3: Again, with the sequencing, this was considered the “rock songs” side. It’s the side I feel drags the most.

Birthday: Written by Paul in the studio and finished in one session. Pattie Harrison and Yoko Ono sing on the choruses, and Mal Evans helps with handclaps. Allegedly written because Paul wanted to create a standard, which was partially successful. They stopped work about 8:30 PM so they could got to Paul’s house nearby to watch The Girl Can’t Help It, the 1956 rock and roll classic, televised on British TV for the first time that day. When it was over, they returned and completed the song. Produced by Chris Thomas.

Yer Blues: A piss take by John of blues artists and the blues, which nevertheless captures the feeling of depression quite accurately. Recorded in a tiny room where the four-track recorders had once been stored; it was just big enough for the group and their instruments, which gives the tune an even more cramped feel. Blues is such a restricted musical form that I feel it takes either a lot of emotion or a lot of talent to play it well; this song (for me) doesn’t make the grade, although it’s good.

*Mother Nature’s Son: A solo Paul ballad, recorded after the rest of the band had gone home. It’s a beautiful song which just avoids being saccharine due to the simplicity of the arrangement and the sincerity of Paul’s vocal. John Denver had a minor hit covering this tune. EMI engineer Ken Scott recalled that when Paul was supervising the brass overdubs, things were feeling really good, and then John and Ringo walked in and the atmosphere instantly became electric. “You could cut [it] with a knife,” he told Mark Lewisohn, noting that as soon as the pair left, everything felt good again.

Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except For Me And My Monkey): I believe this is the longest title of a Beatles song. At the time, speculation went that the “monkey” mentioned was Yoko, but John denied this. It’s a loud rocker, but lyrically it’s like cotton candy: nothing much there, and without any apparent meaning overall. Sped up considerably on replay.

*Sexy Sadie: Originally entitled Maharishi; a dig at their former spiritual master. Less bluesy and more of a rock song than the original demo. This is the third version; John wasn’t happy with the first two run-throughs.

*Helter Skelter: Named after a children’s playground slide which goes around and around a cone. Paul heard Pete Townshend discussing a new rock song which the Who had just released (probably I Can See For Miles), declaring it the loudest, most raucous number the Who had yet recorded. “I thought, ‘Right. Got to do it.’” The first takes of this song were slow and bluesy, with long instrumental passages. This remake was part of a “mad session” where John played bass and saxophone, Mal Evans played trumpet and Ringo screamed at the end, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” While Paul recorded his vocal, George ran around the studio holding up a flaming ashtray. Produced by Chris Thomas. (Note: The mono mix does not include the fade-outs and fade-ins, so doesn’t include Ringo’s blisters.)

Long, Long, Long: An eerie yet lovely ballad by George Harrison. John is not present. The rattling sound at the end during the organ note is a bottle of wine which was disturbed by the vibration; Ringo augmented this with an overdubbed drum roll. 

Side 4: This side’s theme is food. Or revolution. Or both.

*Revolution 1: The slow, semi-acoustic version of what would become one of the Beatles’ most rocking songs. It was rerecorded faster for the single, although John wanted this version released. The first song recorded, this take lasted over ten minutes and became the basis for Revolution 9. John demonstrates his ambiguity toward violence here by saying “Don’t you know that you can count me out…in….” On Revolution, he’s just out. That’s Geoff Emerick announcing “Take 18” at the beginning.

Honey Pie: I recently had a piece of peanut butter/chocolate pie which was delicious, but almost unbearably sweet: creamy and rich and gooey. That is the essence of Paul’s throwback to the Roaring Twenties’ jazz. George plays bass and John electric guitar, with Paul overdubbing the lead guitar riffs.

*Savoy Truffle: Written by George Harrison about his friend Eric Clapton’s addiction to chocolates. Good News is a brand of candy, and the various pieces described—cream tangerine, montelimart, ginger sling, coffee dessert and the Savoy Truffle itself—were all real. According to George, Apple PR man and friend Derek Taylor helped out with some of the lines in the bridge (“You know that what you eat you are”). Again, John did not participate in recording. George deliberately distorted the brass overdubs to make them sound dirtier.

*Cry Baby Cry: John’s last psychedelic ballad, and perhaps his most childlike. A gorgeous and spooky song. This was Emerick’s final session for the White Album.

++Revolution 9: John and Yoko’s sound collage, with tape loops, sound effects, and overdubs galore. John and George recorded most of the spoken asides (“financial imbalance”, “El Dorado” and the like); the “Number nine, number nine” was from an EMI examination tape (sadly, the speaker’s identity has been lost). The goal was to create the aural sound of a revolution, and it succeeded brilliantly. I wouldn’t save this for a single-disc White Album, but it’s one of my favorite tracks on the record.

Good Night: John wrote this ballad for Julian, and gave it to Ringo to sing. He directed Martin to give it an overlush, Hollywood-style orchestral arrangement. The effect directly after Revolution 9 is even more unsettling, although the song is lovely.

The all-white cover with The Beatles discreetly embossed and stamped with a unique serial number (prefaced with an A on the US copies) was designed by Richard Hamilton, who also created the collage on the poster included with McCartney’s assistance.5 The lyrics are included on the reverse of the poster, along with credits. John Kelly took the four individual portraits which are included in black and white on the right inner gatefold facing the song titles on the left side. These portraits were also included in color with the record. This was the first Beatles album on their Apple label. It was the last Beatles album to be mixed for mono and stereo; some of the mono mixes, such as Helter Skelter and Piggies, differ noticeably from the stereo mixes.

Released in 1988 on CD; the remastered version was released September 9th, 2009. The Super Deluxe and Deluxe editions were released on CD and digitally on November 9th, 2018. The Esher demos are beautiful, and are as close as we’ll ever get to an unplugged Beatles album. Unused songs performed include Child of Nature, which later became John’s Jealous Guy; Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, which ended up on Abbey Road; Junk, originally entitled Jubilee, which Paul recorded for his first solo album McCartney; and Sour Milk Sea and Circles by George. He gave the former to his friend Jackie Lomax, whose album he produced, and ended up recording the latter song for his solo album Gone Troppo in 1982.

Highlights of the outtakes include the 10 minute complete take of Revolution 1, the last six minutes or so of which became Revolution 9; a 12-minute version of Helter Skelter, played as a slow blues6; the full take of Not Guilty, a George song which didn’t make the final cut; take 1 of What’s The New Mary Jane, a John song which also wasn’t released on the album; the songs from the I Will sessions, including Can You Take Me Back, Step Inside Love and Los Paranoias; and the sessions for Good Night with the other three Beatles on backing vocals. Giles made some decisions which I don’t care for, such as not including the “Mama…Dada…” vocals on Revolution 1 or some of the guitar overdubs on Not Guilty. Also, many of these tracks are simply instrumentals. (And why, oh why, did he include the same take #8 of Rocky Raccoon that’s on Anthology 3??!! At least it goes on a bit longer.) I think there’s a fair bit of padding here. This could have been a five or even four CD set without much loss.

Regarding the remixes: Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a teddy bear who she loved dearly. Over time, the bear grew old and his fur came out in patches and the bow got lost and his left ear got torn, but she still loved him dearly. Then one week she went to camp and forgot Teddy, and called her mother, panicked. “It’s all right, sweetheart,” Mom said. “Teddy will be right here when you get home.” Then Mom had an idea. She took Teddy to a toy repair shop and had him fixed up, with a brand-new bow and a new fur coat and his eyes shined up and his ear repaired. When they were done, Teddy looked marvelous.

A few days later, the little girl came home. Teddy was waiting in his place of honor on her bed, leaning against the pillow. The mother watched with a smile as her daughter ran up to Teddy…and then stopped dead in her tracks, staring at the bear with a look of shock.

“Mommy!” the child cried, spinning around, her eyes wide. “Where’s my Teddy?”

My point is this: The remixed White Album is not my Teddy bear. It might sound better (although I could debate the point), but there have been some subtractions and changes and other things done that have totally destroyed MY White Album. So I give Giles an F.

Before you say I’m being too harsh and I just don’t like remixes, I give you the Ultimate Imagine, released in October and remixed by Paul Hicks. This is what a remix should do. It sharpens the sound and makes John’s vocals clearer, without losing any of the elements of the original production. The White Album remix, sadly, fails at this.

At any rate, The Beatles is a spawling, diverse and eclectic work of art, with highs and lows. It’s All Too Much, as George might say, but it’s a trip worth every step.