For some folks—even some of the people that had a hand in making it—The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album, is far too long, far too jumbled for its own good. In the 50 years since its original release, fans the world over have attempted to boil down the two disc, 30 song sprawl into a tight, single LP. Even today, rock critics Steven Hyden and Rob Mitchum have, on the Celebration Rock podcast, put together their dream version: a 12-track album that even swaps out the well-known renditions of songs on the original release with alternate takes and other songs from the era.
What must all of those folks make of the recent re-release of The Beatles, particularly in its super-deluxe form: six CDs and one Blu-ray, gathering together everything from the demos the group recorded at George Harrison’s pad in Esher before entering the studio to copious studio outtakes? And, of course, a remastered, remixed version of the 1968 album, overseen by Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ longtime producer George Martin.
It’s the kind of overstuffed treasure chest prevalent in an era where no album anniversary can go uncelebrated. And it’s kind of nostalgia bomb that music fans are feeling the slow aftershocks of in recent months with the luxe re-releases of other 1968 masterpieces like Music From Big Pink, Electric Ladyland and Cheap Thrills. But this is the Beatles we’re talking about, one of the most overanalyzed bands to ever walk this planet. No opportunity to remind the world of their collective greatness can be dismissed, no matter how shaggy and out of tune the rough takes are.
That doesn’t make The Beatles’ reissue any less illuminating and delightful. The Esher Demos, in particular, are the real diamond of this set. The oft-bootlegged recordings find the band in the midst of a creative high. During their retreat to Rishikesh, India, they had plenty of time to kill and acoustic guitars at their disposal. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Harrison wrote and wrote and wrote. When they returned home to England, they got together over an afternoon and laid down the rough sketches of their songs on George’s new-fangled two-track reel-to-reel tape deck. The resulting collection are the sound of a bunch of friends having the time of their lives before the stress of being Beatles comes back into play when they return to the studio and the offices of Apple Corp. Even the ballads have a lightness to them that got worried out of them at Abbey Road Studios.
Some of that looseness bled over into the album sessions, as heard on the three CDs of outtakes included in this deluxe set. John Lennon’s attempt to record “What’s The New Mary Jane?” devolved into giggles, and there’s a handful of jam sessions included where the band has silly run throughs of tunes like “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care” and “Blue Moon.” But this was the period that started to see the relationships between the four men start to fray. As the exhaustive liner notes for this release spell out, there were plenty of tunes where one or more of the band didn’t participate. And George and John further threatened the equilibrium by bringing in guests (Eric Clapton and Yoko Ono, respectively).
Your interest in Take 44 of “Long, Long, Long” or an unformed version of “Rocky Raccoon” may vary but walking through these sessions are still a wonderful indulgence. The kind of peek behind a curtain that us plebes rarely get. Within this extravagant set, there is a chance to hear an early, bluesy attempt at “Let It Be,” “Martha My Dear” before the brass and strings got added, the raw elements of other soon-to-classics, George’s lunch order and Paul’s pitiable Elvis impression. (It really should go without saying that the remaster of the finished album sounds wondrous, a lush web connecting the four men in ways that they were unable to in the studio.)
In effect, sets like this aim to humanize the god-like people who created them. Much like seeing pictures of your favorite celebrities pumping their own gas or looking puffy and tired. We need to read about and hear their struggles to hit the right notes or keep the proper tempo to draw us closer to them. It’s the kind of aspirational listen that makes us want to keep pushing forward in our own lives, warts and all. And for those folks that still think that the White Album should be shortened and condensed, its appearance on streaming services now give you the chance to make the ultimate playlist of your dreams. You’ll miss out on the pleasant flood of a set like this but that’s the price of convenience.