The White Album Listening Session
by Bruce Spizer
A listening session for the upcoming of 50th anniversary release of The White Album was held on September 26 at the Power Station recording studio in New York City. The event was hosted by Apple Corps and Universal Music Group. After playing a brief promo video on the super deluxe edition, Apple CEO Jeff Jones gave brief introductory remarks before turning it over to the project’s producer, Giles Martin.
As the son of Beatles producer George Martin, Giles understood the importance of the music’s legacy. He stated that his objective for the project was to tell the story of how The White Album was made. In going back in and listening to the tapes from the session, he felt that he was opening up a time vault. The music didn’t sound old. It was timeless. As for why to do the project in the first place, Giles stated that the music was worth listening to and should be shared, in this case through 107 tracks, including the remixed album, all 27 of the Esher demos and 50 outtakes.
As a complete listening session for the super deluxe edition would have taken several hours, Giles limited the session into three parts, each consisting of five selections. First up was the Esher demos, which were acoustic rehearsals of recently written songs (most in India) that were recorded and/or transferred to George Harrison’s Ampex four-track recording at his bungalow in Esher. Martin described the 27 recordings, most of which would be recorded for the album, as a record in their own right, a “Beatles unplugged.”
The first track played was “Back In The U.S.S.R.” The tape has Paul’s lead vocal double-tracked. Some of the words are different and the third verse had yet to be written, but otherwise the song was pretty darn close to being complete. “Sexy Sadie” has John’s vocals double tracked and is also close to completion, although the song would later be rearranged a bit. “Not Guilty,” one of the songs that was recorded for but did not appear on the album, has a jazzy feel, which George playing some lead guitar lines on acoustic guitar. The basics of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” were in place, although Paul would rearrange the song a couple of times during the recording sessions. John’s “Child Of Nature” was not recorded for the album. He later rewrote the lyrics and recorded the song as “Jealous Guy” for his Imagine album.
After listening to all of the outtakes, Giles could not find evidence of stress in the recording sessions, as has been widely reported. He believed that his father did not like the final results of the double album because it was, in his mind, a fall from the peak reached on Sgt. Pepper. He did not enjoy the lateness of the sessions, with the group pushing back their start time until late at night. Most of all, he was bothered that the sessions were not organized.
The first track played by Giles was one of the few in-studio rehearsals that survived and was not recorded over as was often the case for rehearsals. “Cry Baby Cry” opens up with a short silly poem by John and is drastically different than the released version, having a bluesy feel to it. Paul’s “I Will” shows how much fun the group was having in the studio during parts of the sessions. “Julia” has John at first strumming the song as it is difficult to play and sing at the same time. He then redoes the songs, this time using the finger-picking technique he had just learned from Donovan during the Beatles stay in India. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is one of the outtakes with Eric Clapton playing lead guitar. The performance is remarkable and going great until George starts pushing the upper range of his vocals before calling it off, saying “I tried to do a Smokey and I just aren’t Smokey” (referring to singer Smokey Robinson). The recording of “Good Night” played by Giles was one of the highlights. It has John’s finger-picking guitar backing Ringo’s charming lead vocal, augmented by backing vocals from John and Paul. It is much more intimate than the lush arrangement that would be re-recorded for the album.
Giles’ goal for the remix was to open up the recordings by using less compression and changing the placement of some of the instruments and voices. He wanted a mix that was more aggressive, sometimes filling in the blanks as it were, doing “things that the Beatles would do today” had the technology been available then. He wanted to “capture how a song makes you feel” more than be concerned with copying what had been done before. He recognized the importance of making sure the songs did not sound old. Everything the Beatles did was relevant-“a new generation should listen to it.”
For “Dear Prudence,” Giles applied ADT (artificial double-tracking) to the guitars to give the backing a fuller sound. The clarity of the guitars and vocals is striking. The bass and hi-hat stand out, as does the piano riff at the end of the song. The bass drum into on “Mother Nature’s Son” pushes through the speakers, followed by increased clarity on the acoustic guitar and vocals. The brass instruments sound better than ever. One of the album lesser tracks (at least in the minds of many, myself not included) is Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long.” It benefits tremendously from the remix, sounding fuller and lovelier, with highlights including the clarity of the acoustic guitar and vocal, the swinging waltz tempo of the middle eight and the rattling ending. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” demonstrates how great a singer John was. It’s a complex song made even better. Finally, “Helter Skelter” is heavier and more dynamic than the 1968 remix. Paul’s vocal and Ringo’s drums really cut through the backing.
Those attending clearly wished they could have heard it all, not just 15 tracks. They could only imagine what it will be like to hear all 27 Esher demos and 50 outtakes, wondering what treasures will be heard for the first time. As for the remix, the preview indicates that the songs will sound fuller and the instruments and vocals will have stunning clarity. Giles did not play any of the 5.1 surround mix, but warned that “Revolution 9” was “really disturbing.” My own take on the project is that listeners will realize that the Beatles make the right choice in including all 30 tracks on the album. As Giles put it, everything the Beatles did was relevant and should be heard.
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