by Paul Ashby
It’s okay to feel nostalgia for the period that produced the Beatles’ White Album.
Or maybe I’m searching for a word other than “nostalgia” — it connotes positive memories. But I may not be the best person to ask, having let my subscription to the concept lapse somewhere along the way … because I finally realized even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Marketing bastards co-opted it a decade or three ago. 2018-era nostalgia sucks almost as much as post-Graydon Carter Vanity Fair.
Context: the White Album‘s release date was November 22, 1968. Nearly five years to the day after JFK was assassinated. What else happened back then? 1968 also brought us the Tet Offensive and My Lai. It brought us a police riot at the Democratic convention in Chicago and further domestic socio-political turmoil. 1968 was, also, the year violence was brought into our living rooms.
It was the year when my mother, horrified at the nightly news footage of Viet Nam, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, forbade my 9-year-old self to play with toy guns.
It also was the year that found me in my oldest brother’s room, shades drawn, black light illuminating a large day-glo mandala poster, hearing “Revolution 9” for the first time and scaring the bejesus out of myself.
I remember listening to side two, too, again and again, in less spooky surroundings. It was my favorite part of the album. I had no idea of the lyrical significance of “Piggies” or “Blackbird.” “Martha My Dear”, “Rocky Raccoon” and “I Will” made everything seem OK.
Personal context aside, then, why even write about the Beatles? Do they really need the exposure? Would it be, say, a challenge for a publicist to get the band’s story out? In view of the advance media reaction to The Beatles White Album Super Deluxe Edition 6CD + Blu-ray, apparently not.
The purpose behind many of my contributions to Part-Time Audiophile has been to proselytize about underrepresented or underexposed artists to a wider audience. There have been exceptions, sure. But I’m gonna set that noble crusade aside for a bit and talk about the Beatles. I mean, I promised the personal-context stuff was gonna end two paragraphs ago. Yeesh.
What’s the story, then, with this $140 6CD+ Blu-ray-and-book-Super-Deluxe Beatles White Album box set?
(Aside: there are also 4LP, 2LP and 3CD versions, but, presumably, they’re not as Super Deluxe. And all but the multichannel content — all 5 and a half hours of the six CDs — is available for streaming on Tidal, and for high-res download on HDtracks).
There are a limited number of audio tracks from the package on YouTube (most of the available ones are posted below), and I’ll spare you the obligatory unboxing videos from the legion of Beatles freaks who rushed to have their footage up before dawn on November 9th. If you feel strongly about such things, I assume you’ll know where to find them.
The original 30 songs have been stereo-remixed by George Martin’s son, Giles, and comprise the first two CDs. There are four more CDs packed with outtakes and rare and unreleased tracks of the era. There’s a Blu-ray 5.1 remix disc, and a slip-sleeved 164-page hardbound book. The numbered, embossed box also includes the original poster and the four glossy color portraits.
Let’s break this monster down.
The remixed version of the original album
Giles Martin’s credentials are established, if for nothing other than his imaginatively skilled work on 2006’s Love. White Album has endured multiple remasters, and this latest one seems to emphasize the extremes, to some extent. The high-frequency percussive and “clicking” sound effects on “Wild Honey Pie”, for instance, stand out more prominently. And the “I love you! Honey pie” bit during the fade is new and … jarring. The left-channel bass and bass drum on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” have a boomier quality than in the past.
I wasn’t swayed on this whole 2018-stereo-remaster thing until the final section of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Maybe the tubes on my Oppo 105D ModWright-modded CD transport output warmed up at a fortuitous moment. Dunno. But right when the bang-bang-shoot-shoots kicked in, Paul’s bassline seemed to take on superhuman powers, and the mix attained an intangible zen balance, or something approximating it. Honest. I went back and played it twice, just to be sure. Louder each time. It wasn’t my imagination. Trust me.
The strings on the latter portion of “Piggies” tend to come up and clomp you on the side of the head, as well. I mean that in the best possible way.
Overall, there’s adequately-increased definition and less overmodulated mush compared to past remastered versions. However, the CD can’t be spun to any degree of loudness; shrillness soon intrudes. The bass may be slightly overemphasized, but that’s easily overlooked, or, at least, tamed by moving your speakers away from the walls. Should you have to resort to such drudgery? Send your complaints to Giles Martin. Let me know what he says.
Caveat: I have not heard the HDtracks 24/96 version. I’ve bought this album at least five times over the past 50 years. I can’t bring myself to pay $98.98 for it again.
“Dear Prudence” is probably the highlight here. Distilled to a double-tracked vocal and two acoustic guitars, it’s simply beautiful. Lennon manages an off-cuff lyrical coda that almost kills the mood, but not quite. “Blackbird” and “Julia” are nearly indistinguishable from the final songs, other than some studio polish. “Mother Nature’s Son” is close, as well, but without the bomp-bomp-bomp of the finished refrain, the song brings a soothing vibe missing from the album version.
There’s occasional goofing-around on some of the tracks, a mood which belies the stories of Ringo walking out and engineer Geoff Emerick quitting due to (in part) Paul McCartney’s insistence on endless takes of his songs (and/or perhaps John Lennon’s 100+ takes of “Sexy Sadie”? Oh wait — it was during “Cry Baby Cry“?). The ad-libbed interjections on “I’m So Tired” are amusing, as is the skiffle rendition of “Honey Pie”. Oh, Paul, sorry, you know I love you, but could this song get any lighter? It’s in danger of drifting off like a Mylar balloon.
On disc 3, the demos veer off into unreleased material like “Sour Milk Sea”, “Child of Nature”, “Circles”, and “Not Guilty.” There’s also early sketchbook versions of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” that’ll interest followers of . . . well, the album that followed White Album.
And do we need proof of the existence of a demo version of “What’s the New Mary Jane”? Apparently we have no choice.
The outtakes / rehearsals / early mixes / rarities
I like the various versions of “Revolution”, especially the stripped-down, acoustic hoot (track 9 on the 4th CD). There’s also an instrumental take of the preamp-overload version that lays out the song in all its fuzzed-out semi-glory. The sometimes-elusive acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with McCartney on harmonium is a wonderful moment. Another bright spot is the recording of George Harrison’s “The Inner Light”; it always deserved better than mere relegation to the b-side of “Lady Madonna.”
Oh, and there are two alternate versions of, um, “Lady Madonna,” including an instrumental take, plus a minute-long bit of b-roll sillyness. And that naked acoustic-guitar, solo-vocal take of Lennon doing “Across the Universe” without all the syrupy Phil Specter orchestra / chorale backing is always worth another listen or five.
The rendition of “Helter Skelter” on disk four is just plain weird. It’s 12 minutes and 53 seconds long. It resembles the drug-addled soundcheck of a band warming up for a set at a strip club. Me, I like that sort of thing. Others may differ.
There are throwaways like “What’s the New Mary Jane?” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and inveitable and disposable McCartney wanks like “Step Inside Love” and “Los Paranoias”.
And I could die contentedly without ever hearing “Hey Jude” again, especially one with a scratch McCartney vocal and barely-perfunctory backing. Even completists are gonna make a compulsory trip to the bathroom during this one. Sorry, Jude. Similarly, I can’t vouch for the worth of a 10:28 version of “Revolution 1” (Take 18, for those of you keeping score at home), unless you’re in need of the original spoken track that was was merged into the closing of “Revolution 1”. Confused? Me too. I need coffee.
Speaking of coffee, there are three tracks from the “Good Night” session. The third one (Take 22) presents Ringo Starr with just piano and the absence of orchestration makes the song sweeter and much more intimate.
Some of the material on discs four, five and six has been available as iffy bootlegs (Purple Chick sessions and similar); it’s good to have less-hissy recordings at last.
The Blu-ray 5.1 mix
Your choices: PCM stereo : DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 : Dolby-True HD 5.1 : 1968 Mono Mix
Part of me wants to say, oh gosh, let’s see what these wizards can do with 3.1 extra speakers!
The other part of me wants to be a snob and say gracious, stereo was good enough for me and mine back in the day; take your surplus channels and get the hell off my lawn with your nefarious class-of-2005 home-theatre gimmicks!
Well, one had to win out — and wouldn’t you know it, this one got shoved into the Oppo, I sat in the couch sweet-spot with a delightful beverage (maybe two), and off we went…
(confidentially, one of the key reasons I shelled out for this Super Deluxe extravagance was to hear the 5.1 version. Go ahead. Mock me).
Producer Giles Martin and mix engineer Sam Okell only had eight tracks of original multitrack recording to spread out among five channels and a subwoofer. In the hands of less restrained and skilled hands, the multichannel version could have been a disaster. As it turned out, there’s something for everyone … although some may be left wanting more.
Perhaps it’s just me (and/or my six-year-old mid-fi Marantz-separates home theater system with so-so Paradigm Studio 100 v5 speakers and Surround 3 speakers), but the DTS-HD selection seems rather heavy on the back channels, and slightly muffled. The Dolby-True HD output is considerably brighter and more pleasing.
Some quick hit-n-run first impressions:
“Dear Prudence”: some eye-opening back-channels background vocals. Also, fades early on the coda. You’re keeping track, right? “Wild Honey Pie” just sounds bizarre, as if it’s being played from beneath several heavy pillows as they’re thrown about the room.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is, mostly a disappointment in 5.1; McCartney’s bass is impressively chunky, but Clapton’s guitar sounds as though it’s being piped through a transistor radio, and Harrison’s usually-transcendent vocal is too far back in the mix. Having the tambourine pan across the back channels during the final 40 seconds isn’t enough to rescue this one.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is another underwhelmer. The back channels, again, just seem to be a place to which background vocals are relegated. “Piggies” does have pigs snorting over your shoulders. I was startled, at first.
One of the most “spacious” mixes, by far, is “Rocky Raccoon”, which, conversely, is probably one of my unfavorite tracks on the album. So it goes.
“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” succumbs to that McCartney-chunky-bass thing again, but hey, render unto Paul what is Paul’s, I guess.
“Birthday” hasn’t ever impressed me as memorable, but hey, presto! it’s the highlight thus far. The mix isn’t flashy, but it’s effective, and wide-screen, considering the simple, rave-up nature of the song. “Yer Blues”, too, benefits from a big-hall room treatment, where John’s slapback-echoed vocal sounds as though he’s bleating through a megaphone from just beyond a closet door. I like it.
And to those haters who think McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son” would’ve been better saved for “Ram”, I can only say stop hating. This multichannel mix is subtly lovely.
“Sexy Sadie” is given the backchannel backing vocals treatment, and the wa-wa-wa-wa-wa works wonders.
“Helter Skelter” finds Ringo’s snare hits delayed to the rear channels and the backing vocals accentuated. It’s effective, but, to some degree, it’s gilding the lily. At least McCartney’s stomping bass doesn’t blur the whole thing out like on some other songs I could mention.
“Long Long Long” — there’s nothing gimmicky about it; it just feels right . . . even the bombastic drum break. Perhaps even because of the bombastic drum break.
“Revolution 1” does about what you’d expect with the bah-ohm-shooby-doo-wah interludes and bass-y n’ sassy brass. It’s probably one the most affecting mixes on the disk.
Hearing the orchestral bloom after the first bar of “Honey Pie” almost redeems the tune for me. Almost.
“Savoy Truffle” sets the bright (“The brass seems a bit bright, George” –George Martin) brass about where you’d expect it, and the result doesn’t disappoint, either.
More than any other track, “Revolution 9” is made for multichannel due to its tape-driven montage basis; it stands to lose the least and gain the most from 5.1 trickery. It’s familiar, yet weirder than ever, and appropriately inappropriate. John Cage probably found it a tad on the nose. There is panning. There are abrupt transient swells. There is much disorientation. There is Yoko mumbling something about becoming naked (and there are clues about Paul being dead, if your mind works that way).
“Good Night” is near-overwhelming in its swooping, channel-jumping smoothness. Backing vox are crooned and whispered as sweet strings circle and envelop. It’s all over before you know it, and you want to go back and play it again. Do it. You know you want to.
Sides 3 and 4 work well in 5.1. This is where I’d start if I wanted to show off the Blu-ray disc.
Other than that, I’m not certain the 5.1 experience is worth the price of admission. Maybe I listen to too many Gentle Giant 5.1 DVDs and my expectations for the medium (let alone this album) are entirely unrealistic. Should Steve Wilson had been given a seat in front of the joystick, it might’ve been a different story. I guess we’ll never know.
(and yes, purists, you can forgo even the two-channel nonsense and choose the 1968 mono mix, should you so desire. No one is stopping you.
What’s not to like? It’s hardcover, slip-sleeved with a clear silkscreened cover, and numbered (I managed to snag #0006353). The pages are slick, with an expensive feel. There’s an introduction from Paul and another from Giles Martin. There’s essays from those who were there. There are black and white and color photos. Track sheets. Scrawled lyrics. Ad reproductions. Candid shots from the sessions. Excruciatingly-detailed song-by-song descriptions (evidently I’m into that sort of thing) that’ll be familiar to those who’ve devoured books like Revolution In the Head and The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road years 1962-1970. Your coffee table will benefit from its presence. Visitors will pick it up, flip through a couple pages, and become engrossed. It’s everything a box-set book should be.
It’s fifty years later. Trainspotting and hairsplitting aside — how has the White Album aged?
I don’t buy the theory that this was a four-sided solo album, or sorts, with each of the members alternately at each others’ throats and using fellow band members as session players. That’s facile.
Sure, we can envision a certain three holding their figurative noses during, say “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But let’s rise above that image.
Yes, fans and critics alike claimed to hear the sound of a band fragmenting, its demise imminent due to internal and external pressures. But a mere year later the same band managed to muster something called Abbey Road, considered by many to be a, y’know, decent followup. So there’s that.
White Album was recorded by a band, seemingly, on its last legs, and during a time when the world’s center also could not hold.
But the band got it together, as did we — for awhile, anyway.
A country divided was, however temporarily, mended. A war was stopped, and a criminal president deposed (well, yeah . . . six years later). And few alive when this album was released would claim now that we’re doing better than we were back then, or that, hey, the best is yet to come.
What does all this have to do with one of your favorite Beatles albums?
Glad you asked. I don’t have an answer, mind you, but I got more questions.
In 2018, is “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” a slogan still, more than ever, worthy of scorn and satire? Do “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Piggies”, “Blackbird” and “Revolution” (and “Back in the U.S.S.R., for that matter) have renewed relevance? Notwithstanding Charles Manson’s criminal delusions, does “Helter Skelter” still stand as one of the best and earliest examples of heavy metal? Is “Revolution 9” as creepy and affecting as ever? Does the ethereal plod of “Dear Prudence” sound as though could’ve been recorded last week? “Long Long Long”, a track I never really cared for that much until I saw Scorsese’s Living In the Material World documentary — can this song really be as perfect as it seems? And is side two still amazing, both as a suite of sorts, and as individual, unrelated songs sequenced perfectly?
Yes. Yes to all. These things I know to be true.
I’m writing this while sequestered in my home, windows firmly shut, due to extremely unhealthy air quality as a result of raging wildfires at both ends of the state. I’m trying to find meaning in a sprawling, disparate album that, in its original 2LP form, was overwhelming. I ordinarily retch at the overused adjective iconic, but in its “Super Deluxe” state, this album verges on monolothic. The fact that this box set arrived on a day when it’s unwise to leave the house is, well, perverse . . . as are so many other elements of life in 2018.
There’s comfort to be found here. Comfort that the music hasn’t changed — but also, via such projects as this, the work can be elaborated upon, expanded — improved, perhaps . . . and, even now, reveal more about its essence and creation. Maybe the Beatles, for all their squabbling, came together on White Album in an attempt to form a more perfect union. Perhaps reveling in that effort and the comfort that results isn’t mere mawkish nostalgia, or embedding one’s head in the sand in search of some bliss — however dark and grainy that momentary bliss might be.
Maybe it means that there’s some hope.
Not only in music, but in the passing of time.