What’s the most clear-headed way to look at the Beatles in 2018? Half of the quartet still walks the earth. Paul McCartney was featured last August 2018 in a surprisingly sweet and nostalgic installment of “Carpool Karaoke”, the popular running series from The Late Late Show‘s James Corden in which musical icons past and present are welcomed to drive around with the host and sing songs and reminisce. McCartney looked old (probably for the first time in public) and sad as he drove around Liverpool, visiting childhood haunts, only to come alive when he got on stage with his touring band and surprised an audience at a local pub. Corden’s joy while singing with McCartney was infectious, and the eternal thrill of the music was overwhelming. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr recently announced the 2019 20th anniversary tour of his All-Star Band. That’s 12 years longer than the Beatles tenure as a recording entity.
McCartney and Starr long ago embraced and came to terms with the overwhelming legacy of their Beatles past, and Capitol Records continues to embrace the marketing potential of nostalgia. That can yield mixed results. Last year’s 50th anniversary release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band justifiably honored the legacy of a groundbreaking album, but in doing so, it also revealed some flaws. Was the singer in “Getting Better” a domestic abuser? Was “Good Morning, Good Morning” too cluttered in its studio version? The total premise proved a little better than some of its singular parts, but the Beatles completist is a collector with deep pockets and unlimited willingness to max out any variety of credit cards for the best sound and every available version of a limited amount of tracks, no matter how negligible.
The new Super Deluxe six-CD 50th Anniversary Edition of The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album”, will trigger nostalgia even for those of us who came upon it as a double LP in the mid-1970s. These were the scary Beatles. John Lennon was cynical and exhausted (“Revolution 1”, “I’m So Tired”, “Yer Blues”). McCartney was remarkably optimistic, cheery, nostalgic, melodic, and proto-metal (“Blackbird”, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Honey Pie”, “Helter Skelter”). George Harrison was cheeky (“Piggies”), anthemic (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), and achingly dramatic (“Long, Long, Long”). Starr was given his two spots that displayed his usual affectations towards country music (“Don’t Pass Me By”) and the finale, a string-soaked sweet ballad (“Good Night”) that served as the perfect antidote to the still frightening sound collage “Revolution 9”.
The original album was 30 songs, four sides, melodies that drifted into and perfectly played off each other. The first two CDs in this release properly present the tracks as first introduced. McCartney’s Beach Boys homage (in the bridge) “Back in the USSR” blends into John Lennon’s gorgeous “Dear Prudence”, one of the many songs (like “Sexy Sadie” and “Mother Nature’s Son”) that came from their time in India at a meditation retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Meditation entered and stayed with Harrison, not quite as much with the others, but everything was grist for the mill in those days. Their manager Brian Epstein had died. They had launched their Apple Corps business. All the stability and certainty that had been such a part of their amazing initial trajectory was unwrapping along with so many other elements of that decade.
By the time this original album was released in November 1968, the Beatles had not been a touring band for a little over two years. Where they proved their studio prowess under producer George Martin with everything recorded in 1966-1967 (the albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour), 1968’s The Beatles was presented in what was surely a purposefully pristine white package. The four-color photograph portraits were an assortment of scruffy, dandy, pop idol longing, and proto-grunge. The poster photo collage featured a tastefully nude John and Yoko (not yet his wife) relaxing in bed. The package then (as it does now) seemed determined to allow listeners to imprint themselves on their favorites. Each Beatle lived up to their reputations. We knew what Lennon and McCartney had done, and we could probably predict where they would be going, but Harrison’s contributions (particularly “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and its standout solo from Eric Clapton) was the strongest sign that this was a talent that would not be contained in a quartet much longer.
It’s in disc three, “The Esher Demos” (named after the Harrison estate where they were recorded), that we hear clear proof that the bitter estrangement that eventually put an end to this group within the next 12 months was not as evident as we might have believed. We can hear McCartney humming the guitar solo in “Back in the USSR”. Harrison’s songs sound like they were plucked off the Appalachian Hills. McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon” might have had aspirations towards being a hidden track on the soundtrack of a lost John Ford Western, but it was more humorous than authentic.
Lennon’s “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” were minor efforts here (only to find purpose on side two of 1969’s Abbey Road) and his “Glass Onion” was really just one verse repeated twice, with no bridge and apparently no purpose. It does seem that Lennon’s songs were hardest to salvage. “Julia”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Yer Blues” existed on their own feet, but the start of “Dear Prudence” and the end of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” had to be blended into other songs in the final release. Still, what we hear in the Esher Demos (including an always gorgeous “Across the Universe”) reveal the pure promise he had on his own and with McCartney. Listening to some of the demos we can hear McCartney backing up Lennon with some high and lonesome harmony vocals like they’re the most successful amateur buskers in the London Underground.
The best boxed set should add different shades to conventional wisdom. For those who just think of McCartney as a hopeless romantic, listen to the blues jam version of “Helter Skelter”. For those who wonder if Lennon’s primal scream vocals from his 1970 solo album John Lennon Plastic Ono Band were immediately and immaculately conceived, listen to his longer take on “Revolution”. The screams sound dangerous and unhinged, too frightening for a Beatle at that time. The album version of “Good Night” featured a string section that all but overwhelmed Ringo Starr’s nasal vocals. That’s why the various stripped-down versions of the song on several of these discs are a revelation. It’s a quiet, sweet song now that evokes eternal comfort more than just the knock-out sleeping pill we’d always known it to be.
In a way, this boxed set is less an antidote to the official record than it is a compliment, a supplement, alternate versions that shine a sometimes startlingly fresh new light on old songs. Listen to McCartney try out alternate ways to start “Hey Jude”. Listen to Lennon’s “Child of Nature” before it became 1971’s “Jealous Guy”, and an early version of McCartney’s “Junk”, still gorgeous after all these years and interesting to consider as Beatles songs rather than where they first surfaced (the latter on McCartney’s 1970 debut solo LP). The Beatles Super Deluxe Edition features all 30 original tracks, 27 early acoustic demos, and 50 session takes, most of which are being officially released here for the first time.
Giles Martin (son of the late George Martin) and mix engineer Sam Okell have curated a fresh batch of songs here. Now in 5.1 surround audio and a pure crisp stereo mix, this music has never sounded so clean. The plane takes off through both ears in “Back in the USSR”. The strangeness of “Revolution 9” is even more frightening (listen to it in a dark room) and Yoko Ono’s contribution here (and in “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”) proves she was a vital contributor to the band in its final years. McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” is tender and beautiful just as a bouncy piano love song, stripped of the horns and brass heard in the final version.
At least half of the 30 songs in The Beatles stand among the best of their career. Now, with this carefully detailed and appreciative restoration of how they were developed (from the beginning to end), this boxed set is yet more proof that genius doesn’t take time so much as concerted, focused effort, and there is no way to trace the roots of perfect sonic chemistry. You just know it when you hear it.