The "White Album," original edition. Photo by Flickr user The Real Cloud2013.
When “The Beatles,” more often called the “White Album,” came out in 1968, the most important music from 50 years earlier included Enrico Caruso’s rendition of George M. Cohan's martial “Over There” and vaudevillian Al Jolson’s “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
I was just a 10-year-old kid in the autumn of 1968, but I can assure you that as the Vietnam War was at its height, no one except musicologists displayed much interest in “Over There.” As for Jolson, famous for performing in blackface, well – that was the year both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Any song that began with the lyric “Mammy mine” had no chance of getting radio play, even on the college stations.
Meanwhile, in 2018, many people still care enough about “The Beatles” that they are willing to listen to a seven-disc super-deluxe expansion on the original two-record set. If you prefer your music streaming, that comes out to about five-and-a-half hours of music, including remastered tracks, demos, rehearsals and studio chatter. Promptly after its release, the reissue was climbing charts and selling copies at rates far beyond what many modern artists can expect from a brand-new release. Not bad, at 50.
The Beatles were my first and greatest favorite band, but I was too young to really participate when they were together. I was barely in grade school when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan, and I was in seventh grade when they broke up. My working-class family did not even have a true stereo. I listened to their records on a portable turntable until I reached my teens, when I got my own combination AM-FM radio and cassette player from Lafayette Radio Electronics. Around the same time, I got a subscription to the Record Club of America, which let me order music right from my bedroom for a low price plus postage and handling. Many of my orders were albums the Beatles had released when I was too young to buy them.
Now I can listen to all the music I want in the highest digital fidelity – I, for one, am never going back to vinyl – in privacy and with great sound from my Sennheiser and Beats Studio headphones (the latter a much-appreciated birthday gift from my co-workers when I turned 60 last year). The newly released “White Album” sounds remarkable on this setup.
The reissue of the Beatles’ ninth studio album is actually a set of reissues. Vinyl purists can get the 2018 stereo mix of the album as a pair of LPs with “faithfully replicated original artwork.” The “deluxe” edition, on either four LPs or three CDs, includes the 2018 mixes and 27 “Esher” demos, which were recorded during the early “White Album” sessions at George Harrison’s home in Esher, England. The “super-deluxe” version includes all of this plus 50 additional recordings of varied material. If you buy your own copy, the set also includes a Blu-ray audio disc and a 164-page hardcover book that gives further insight into the making of the album. If you’re not the album-buying type, Spotify has curated “The Beatles White Album Experience,” an audio-visual playlist that includes the super-deluxe recording interspersed with various short videos essentially serving as the streaming equivalent of liner notes.
Whatever version you listen to, you’re hearing a production by Giles Martin, son of late Beatles producer George Martin. To my untrained ear, the 2018 version of the “White Album” sounds as though it could have been recorded on today’s equipment. As Steve Marinucci observed in his Billboard review of the rerelease, the 2018 mix allows listeners to more easily appreciate the instrumental work and the intricacies of the band’s musicianship. The younger Martin, free of 1968 constraints like the danger of turntable needles jumping out of record grooves, worked hard to create a clearer and more immediate version of what was already on the master tapes. That work has paid off handsomely.
Not all of the additional tracks will be new to die-hard Beatles fans. Many of the working tracks on the five-disc deluxe compilation became material that appeared in later releases “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be.” Other songs had to wait for band members’ future solo projects or stayed on the shelf. I can’t speak for whether any of this material was released in compilations that have come out over the decades – reviewers have observed that some of it, notably the Esher demos, has been available in lower quality bootlegs, passed from fan to fan – but personally, I have never heard a lot of the material on the later discs in this set. For many listeners, much of the super-deluxe edition will constitute entirely new glimpses into a band working at the height of its creative powers.
The long-standing legend is that by the time they recorded “The Beatles,” the band was already disintegrating; Ringo Starr famously walked out at one point during recording. That the album is the work of a band already on an irrevocable path toward collapse is still possible, but seems less likely in light of the new release. This edition of the “White Album” makes clear that even if they were drifting apart, the bandmates were also collaborating in deliberate and complex ways. The result is an album on par with the classic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” if plowing very different ground.
As Martin pointed out in an interview with NPR: “They wanted to be the biggest pop band in the world and they became that, and then they wanted to be the most respected band in the world and they became that. They had this force of nature.” The Beatles were in transition, but it does not strike me that, at the time, they viewed the album as the end of anything.
In the two years that followed the “White Album” sessions, the Beatles would try to recapture the simplicity of their early music, with just mixed success. But as they worked through the tumultuous year of 1968, they were still at the peak of their studio-band abilities, making music that can hold our attention through seven discs and over five hours, half a century later.