SOME would have us believe it’s the sound of the world’s biggest band breaking apart.
It took the form of a sprawling double album, four sides of vinyl offering 30 tracks spanning 93 minutes and 35 seconds.
Paul McCartney has said after sitting down with Giles Martin that the White Album ‘sounds really modern’
Released in 1968, it came housed in a mysterious plain white gatefold sleeve and had two small words embossed on the front cover . . . The Beatles.
The minimal design was in stark contrast to Peter Blake’s riotously colourful celebrity collage for previous release, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
We know and love it as The White Album, an aural rollercoaster complete with Back In The USSR, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, Dear Prudence, Helter Skelter and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
Many of the songs were written in India when The Beatles attended a transcendental meditation course in Rishikesh with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi . . . or Sexy Sadie as John Lennon mischievously called him later after Mia Farrow raised some #MeToo-style suspicions.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney still had a strong bond on the album
The band wanted Ringo Starr to sing one song on every album even if it was against his wishes
Despite their spiritual quest to the subcontinent, various accounts of the ensuing sessions at Abbey Road involve Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr pulling in different directions, often disappearing into separate studios to do their own thing.
To add to the tense atmosphere, say the reports, wives and girlfriends were allowed into the studio for the first time, including Lennon’s new obsession Yoko Ono.
Even Lennon himself remarked years later that “the break-up of The Beatles can be heard on that album.”
Now, 50 years on, another very different White Album story is emerging, one of surprising unity, joyful creativity and playful humour.
‘Bond between John and Paul still existed’
The anniversary is being marked by a range of reissues including an astonishing seven-disc edition containing the original album, the acoustic Esher demos and numerous out-takes with studio banter.
It means The Beatles’ most expansive and experimental album just got a whole lot bigger, 30 tracks becoming a mind- boggling 107.
Masterminding the project is Giles Martin, son of “Fifth Beatle” producer Sir George, and it continues his labour of love on the band’s back catalogue.
After one unsatisfactory attempt, his second set of remixes of the original tracks capture the explosive chemistry of the performers while revealing new depths and subtleties.
I’m meeting Giles at (where else?) Abbey Road in his office/production suite tucked away in the back of the building past the iconic Studio 2.
Giles Martin is the man behind the re-release ‘The White Album’ on which he’s added and extra 77 tracksAlex Lake
Paul McCartney wrote and recorded ‘Hey Jude’ at The White Album sessions
I pull up a chair next to the large mixing desk and feel honoured when he says: “The last person to sit right there with me was Paul McCartney. “We listened to The White Album mix and Paul said, ‘I never realised how modern this record sounds. This could be a band today.’”
Next, Giles addresses those “break-up album” accounts and says: “After hearing the tapes and out-takes, I just don’t get it.
“I looked for fractiousness and I couldn’t find it. That bond between John and Paul still existed. It doesn’t sound like an unhappy time.”
He backs up his argument with revealing anecdotes: “When I went through The White Album with Paul recently, he really wanted to hear the song Julia again. I always thought it was just a John song but now I think Paul was kind of producing it.
John Lennon brought Yoko into the recordings but she wasn’t as big an influence as people think
Mr Martin has said that this project was like ‘falling through a hole to 1968’
“And while Paul was writing Hey Jude (recorded at the sessions), there was talk of dropping the line that eventually became ‘don’t carry the world upon your shoulders’ but John said to Paul, ‘That’s your best lyric,’ and of course it stayed.”
During long and testing sessions for Happiness Is A Warm Gun, there was another telling moment.
Giles says: “You hear John going, ‘It’s not getting any more fun but it’s getting easier,’ and George replying, ‘It’s more fun and easier!’”
He adds: “There’s a richness and a visceral quality to The White Album and the reason is because it’s THEIR album.
‘It was a bit like falling through a hole to 1968’
“Even though Ringo left for a while during the recording process, I get from talking to him that it’s his favourite Beatles record because, he says, ‘It’s when we were a real band.’
“Don’t forget they always wanted Ringo to sing a song on an album, sometimes against his wishes.
“John wrote Good Night for him. On the demos, you can hear them propping him up. This isn’t a band in free fall.”
Giles, it’s safe to say, was overwhelmed by the huge quantity of leftover White Album recordings in The Beatles’ vaults.
George Harrison was described by Giles’ father as the ‘carpet weaver’
“This is way, way bigger than our Sgt. Pepper’s project,” he says. “It was a bit like falling through a hole to 1968. You stay there for a bit but you have to resurface before you go mad.”
To give you an idea of the sheer volume, Giles and his Beatles expert colleagues chose “take 102” of a George Harrison jam called Not Guilty.
“It’s a bit like being a detective inspector,” he admits. “I’m a slave to quality, trained under the Martin wing.
“For me, it’s difficult not to edit things, like the 14-minute version of Helter Skelter or the long version of Revolution No1.
“But I know there’s a bunch of fans who don’t want me to do that. For the sake of, say, four minutes, you might as well put the whole thing out.”
Of all the people in the fickle music business, Giles has got to be one of the nicest. The decency so evident in his father has clearly been passed on.
The responsibility of being entrusted with the most precious legacy in pop history is not lost on him. “There’s some guilt attached to being George Martin’s son,” he says. “It’s not as if I had to work my way up.” As Beatles producer from their first single Love Me Do, schoolmasterly Sir George had kept his charges on a relatively tight and focused rein.
He’d helped fashion Sgt. Pepper’s into a grandiose, orchestrated and coherent masterpiece.
‘The Beatles ‘revelled’ in their ‘musical playground’ during the recording of The White Album
The follow-up proved much more problematic, as Giles explains: “In his later years as he grew deaf, I was his ears and I would spend a lot of time with him doing interviews.
“Despite him not necessarily wanting it, we’d always get on to The Beatles. Then he might ask someone, ‘What’s your favourite album?’
“People would often answer, ‘The White Album’, especially in America, and he’d grimace. They’d be offended that George Martin was grimacing at their choice of album.
“With Sgt. Pepper’s, he finally had the band in a place where he could work with them and develop what he thought was a work of art.
George Martin had less control over this album and grimaces when people say it’s their favourite album
“The Beatles revelled in this musical playground but by the time The White Album came along, he’d completely lost the classroom. It was their playground but they didn’t want the teachers to be there.
“My father was upset because he’d had such influence and suddenly they didn’t want it.”
And what of the perceived disruption caused by the presence of Lennon’s partner Yoko Ono?
Again Giles believes it wasn’t as big a deal as people think. He uses the recordings of Revolution 1 and Revolution 9 as an example.
Having Eric Clapton there was quite a good thing
“You hear Yoko saying, ‘You see me naked’ followed by, ‘Was that OK or was I going little bit too far?’
“Then John answers, ‘No, it’s great, it’s great!’ and they’re laughing with another Beatles.’”
Another intriguing aspect of The White Album was the growing stature of George Harrison as a songwriter.
He’d written a truly great song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, but to get it past the dominant Lennon and McCartney axis, he introduced a certain guitar maestro to the studio . . . Eric Clapton.
Ringo and George had a strong bond but ‘less power’ than John and Paul
Giles explains The Beatles dynamic at the time: “John and Paul were still as thick as thieves, so too were George and Ringo but with less power.
“John and Paul had taken over much of my dad’s authority and had become more influential. In order for George to get heard and be respected, having Eric Clapton there was quite a good thing. In 1968, no one was going to disagree with Eric as a guitar player.
“My dad always used to say George was like a carpet weaver . . . the rest would go on to something else and he’d still be meticulously threading.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of the key songs on The White Album. By the time Something and Here Comes The Sun appeared on Abbey Road, the weight of George had become huge.”
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is a masterpiece written by George Harrison which features Eric Clapton
It has to be said that Savoy Truffle, a song about the redemptive qualities of sickly food and drink, is one of Harrison’s more throwaway compositions.
“Creme tangerine and montelimar? A ginger sling with a pineapple heart,” it begins.
Giles repeats a story told him by recording engineer Ken Scott: “George was working on away from the other Beatles on Savoy Truffle and he and Ken were mixing it.
“My dad came in to the studio and said, ‘It’s a bit bright, George’ and George said, ‘Yes I know and I like it!’”
Giles Martin has said that ‘the demos made the whole thing worthwhile’Alex Lake
The story of the new expanded version of The White Album wouldn’t be complete without mention of the gorgeous and revealing Esher demos, named after the Surrey town where Harrison was living in a sprawling modern bungalow called Kinfauns.
The unadorned, intimate recordings are pure gold for Beatles fans. They include a lovely Harrison song, Circles, which finally saw light of day on his 1982 album Gone Troppo. There’s the Lennon track Child Of Nature with its slightly cringe lyrics which one day morphed into his great solo effort Jealous Guy, retaining the same memorable melody.
The ditties Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam eventually wound up on the medley of short songs on side two of Abbey Road.
Giles says: “These tapes were at Friar Park (Harrison’s home) so I phoned George’s wife Olivia.
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“Each tape has a different Beatle on it so I wonder whether they recorded them on their own machines and brought them to Esher. Paul and Ringo can’t remember . . . no one knows.
“For someone trying to put together snapshots of 1968 for a package, it was like Indiana Jones finding the lost ark. The demos made the whole thing worthwhile.”
It might come in a plain white package but the colourful story of a great Beatles album just got an illuminating new chapter.