Fifty years after it originally hit record stores, The Beatles’ double album arrives once again, this time as a deluxe anniversary edition. Simply titled The Beatles, but of course quickly dubbed ‘The White Album’ due to its colorless and image-less cover, the album contains 30 tracks that have been analyzed ad nauseam. There was even the infamous (and ultimately deadly) misinterpretation of the entire release by the late Charles Manson, an unfortunate chapter in true-crime history that left an lasting stain for some sectors of the listening public (a late-’70s “worst Beatles song” poll was topped by “Helter Skelter”). Producer George Martin thought it should’ve been cut to a single disc, leaving its more tangential moments on the cutting room floor (or, one supposes, to be discovered on archival releases like this set). Ultimately, the album presents the most varied collection of tunes ever recorded by The Beatles.
While UMe has issued a more economical three-disc “Deluxe” edition, it’s the full seven-disc super-deluxe box (six audio CDs, one audio-based Blu-ray) that Beatles completists will crave. And while not cheap, the hardcover book alone is invaluable for those who want the full story behind the album’s creation. The disc of “Esher Demos”—solo acoustic demos taped by whichever Beatles wrote the song in question—is also pure gold (and comprises the third disc in the standard deluxe set). Those old schoolers among us will remember releases like Yellow Dog’s Unsurpassed Demos, which presented all of the material in quite listenable quality way back in the ’80s and early-’90s.
And more casual fans will recognize some of the demos (as well as some of the “Sessions” outtakes) from the official Anthology 3 (1996). But there’s something very special about having all these raw demos in one place—and now sounding as good as possible. Tunes like “Blackbird” and “Julia” are naturally pretty close to the way they ended up on the album, but it’s fascinating to listen to songs that are full-band tracks on the album—”Back in the USSR,” “Yer Blues,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps, to name a few particularly interesting ones—in such basic (sometimes unfinished) form.
Discs four through six contain tons of alternate takes and a different mixes, some of which will also be quite familiar to longtime boot collectors (including a snipped of Paul singing “St. Louis Blues,” a highlight of many off-the-cuff moments). Non-album singles are accounted for in different form, too, including take one of “Hey Jude” (take two appeared on Anthology 3) and an instrumental-only mix of “The Inner Light.” Legendary takes like the extended “Revolution 1” turn up (in fact, that one kicks off the first “Sessions” disc)—a joy for fans who’ve long read about such performances in Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions all the way back in 1988.
You won’t find the unbootlegged, unreleased first-take of “Helter Skelter” (over 20 minutes long), but you will find the uncut second take for the first time (a heavily-edited version of that take first turned up on Anthology 3). The big question is just how much repeat-listening value all these alternate takes/mixes/rehearsals have. Many of these are curiosities at best. The alternate mixes of the album masters are, just as they were on last year’s big box reissue of Sgt Pepper’s, worthwhile in terms of close study—but ultimately hearing the songs in unfinished form sends me directly to the completed, polished album for the far preferable listening experience. I speak for myself, only of course.
Back in the ’90s when the Anthology sets were issued, the surviving band members and George Martin had the difficult task of deciding how to present the unreleased stuff. In a way, the bootleggers had often done a better job by simply issuing raw tracks, unaltered, false starts and studio chatter included. In numerous cases, the Anthology series contained “outfakes,” alternates that were simply remixes, or in specific cases were new “productions” in their own right (with elements from various takes combined; stitched-together to create a new, alternate “master” take—the the Anthology 3 edit of “I’m So Tired”). It was as if the Anthology double-disc compilations were being presented as “alternate” greatest hits collections, rather than rough-and-tumble archival documents.
Many of those questionable decisions from that era have been righted on the reissues of Sgt. Pepper’s and now The Beatles. Whereas that aforementioned alternate “I’m So Tired” was, in fact, a composite edit of unused takes, this new set features takes 7 and 14, straight up. There’s lots to discover here, though it might’ve been boiled down to one less disc if the more marginally-interesting tracks (say, the album version of “Martha My Dear,” only without brass and strings) had been omitted. Even something like take 19 of “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” sloppy and uncertain, is only really interesting the first time through.
Paul McCartney once worried in public (prior to the Anthology releases) that the alternates stood a chance of usurping people’s memories of the released, finished version. Unlikely, perhaps—but nonetheless an entirely valid concern for an artist to have about his work (and the same reason some film directors prefer not to record commentary tracks or add deleted scenes to home video releases of their movies).
The Blu-ray presents the entire original mono mix of the album, along with 5.1 surround mixes (in DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD) of the brand new 2018 remix. Unlike the Sgt. Pepper’s box last year, the original mono mix of The Beatles doesn’t appear on CD. For that you still have to get The Beatles in Mono box set from 2009. Relegating the mono to the Blu-ray is essentially a kiss-off to that version of the album—as if reissue producer Giles Martin (son of Sir George) was saying, ‘hey, this is only here to compare to our NEW mix!’
Too harsh? Not at all. Yes, Giles Martin is the son of the man who produced the original record. And the surviving Beatles, plus spouses of the deceased, had to stamp their seal of approval as well. None of that excuses the re-writing of history that is occurring with these new super-deluxe box sets. Just like Sgt. Pepper’s (which omitted the original stereo mix from the set), The Beatles‘ omissions (the mono mix in an easily accessible form; the original stereo mix entirely) are unconscionable and should be of legitimate concern for anyone who considers the music of The Beatles to be works of art.
That said, the new remix is quite listenable and does sound as if it was, as claimed by Martin and engineer Sam Okell, based upon George Martin’s original stereo mix. There are changes throughout (a fluttering, final bass lick previously buried in “Dear Prudence”, some squeaking brass that now accompanies Ringo’s “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” declaration, to name but a pair), and those are artistic decisions that have been made by Giles Martin and Okell. The new mix isn’t really an improvement over the original, so why didn’t they simply recreate the original mix—track-by-track—when returning to the original multi-tracks?
Overall, a tremendous package… even if much of the content won’t find itself on “repeat” in many fans’ players (my prediction only, of course, and impossible to verify—again, the book itself is nearly worth the price of admission). And if you ever have been creeped out late at night listening to “Revolution 9” through headphones, just wait until you hear it in 5.1 lossless surround (the Dolby track is, in my opinion, the preferable surround mix, featuring much more presence in the lead vocals than found on the DTS).