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50 years later, ‘The Beatles’ reaches its peak

The+Beatles+in+1964.+From+left+to+right%3A+John+Lennon%2C+Paul+McCartney%2C+George+Harrison%2C+Ringo+Starr.+
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50 years later, ‘The Beatles’ reaches its peak

The Beatles in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr.

The Beatles in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr.

Library of Congress/TNS

The Beatles in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr.

Library of Congress/TNS

Library of Congress/TNS

The Beatles in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr.

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John Lennon was once quoted saying “the break-up of the Beatles can be heard” on it.

It was recorded over the course of five months, resulting in Ringo Starr briefly leaving the Beatles and stressing recording engineer Geoff Emerick to the point where he would no longer work with the band.

It’s long, it’s moody, and it’s epic. Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles released their eponymous ninth album “The Beatles,” which became known to fans as the White Album because of its plain, white cover.

With the 50th anniversary remix released on Nov. 9 – the production of which was overseen by Giles Martin, son of longtime Beatles producer George Martin – even those who have been with the Beatles for decades now have something new for their ears to feast on.

Background

When I first downloaded a Beatles album on Spotify in November 2016, I started with “The Beatles.”

Honestly? Not the best place to start a new listener. The album can be intimidating due to its length, and those who haven’t listened to the Beatles previously may be turned off by some of the weirder tracks on the White Album – see “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” “Wild Honey Pie,” and “Revolution 9.”

While “The Beatles” contains some of the stranger moments from the greatest band in music history’s vast catalog, it also contains some of the group’s highest highs.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” stands the test of time as one of the greatest songs of the late 1960s and one of George Harrison’s all-timers. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Revolution” is Lennon at his best. “Helter Skelter,” the song that inspired Charles Manson and his followers to commit murder, is often credited as the first heavy metal song, written by Paul McCartney in response to Pete Townshend (of The Who) claiming his band had recorded the loudest, dirtiest record ever.

From the opening licks of “Back in the U.S.S.R” to Starr concluding the 93-minute journey by whispering “Good Night,” the White Album has never been more fun of a listen. I’ve only been listening to the Beatles for two years, and the anticipation for the release of this mix made me a bigger fan of the album than I was already.

What’s new

In this new mix, the 30-track double album that was a showcase for everything that defined the mystique of the Beatles after they transitioned from British rock-n-roll to “modern rock” is now better than ever.

McCartney’s bass lines are crisper. Harrison’s philosophical musings combined with his increasingly stunning guitar riffs help unveil sounds that were previously hidden, while Lennon’s inspired takes on love and loneliness (thanks, Yoko) bounce back and forth between soft (“Julia”) and outrageous (“Yer Blues”).

With all the fanfare that came with this remastered mix, what was more exciting for long-time fans was the never-before-released music by the Beatles that was to be included. These new tracks created what streaming platforms dubbed “The White Album Experience” and in physical form as the “Super Deluxe Edition” of the album.

Courtesy of Amazon/Tribune News Service
A publicity shot of the Beatles released as promotional material for “The Beatles.” Clockwise, from top left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison.

This new set of recordings make use of what are known as the Esher Demos. The tapes that became the White Album, recorded in Harrison’s home studio in Surrey, England, were only available previously as bootlegs.

The demos feature the four members of the Beatles bringing the raw outlines of the songs that would make up the final album to their lead guitarist’s home and recording them in acoustic form. The acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” released as promotional material leading up to Nov. 9, nearly brought me to tears the first time I heard it.

Other songs included in the Esher Demos, such as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Revolution,” sound so different in acoustic form when compared to their studio recordings that it’s like hearing a cover version by a different artist.

That isn’t a bad thing. Even 50 years later, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr are still surprising us.

Inside Abbey Road

Also included in the deluxe editions of the 50th-anniversary remix are dozens of demos recorded in Abbey Road Studios during the White Album’s official creation. This is where it gets even cooler, as an early version of “Let it Be,” which wouldn’t be released for another year and a half, is present.

One of the first takes of “Hey Jude” (one of the album’s singles, therefore not included in the final tracklist) is there, which doesn’t sound too far from the master take, but features some scat singing from McCartney when he still hadn’t nailed down the full structure of the song.

Literally, the biggest treasure to be uncovered in all this is the mythical, previously unheard 12-minute version of “Helter Skelter.” Yes, the first version of McCartney’s iconic metal track was 12 minutes long – and it sounds absolutely nothing like the final version.

This initial take of “Helter Skelter” takes the form of a slow blues jam. McCartney had just one of the verses and the chorus worked out lyrically, so occasionally you can hear him mumble through lines he hadn’t yet written in order to transition between sections – which, honestly, makes the demo even cooler.

The music that fills the silence between McCartney’s solemn vocals is dark in a depressing way, not scary and in-your-face like the final mix. Starr’s heavy drums and Harrison’s repeating guitar riffs, combined with Lennon’s uncharacteristic, thumping bass playing makes for a bluesy, somber atmosphere that will have diehard Beatlemaniacs jamming for dozens of minutes at a time.

Conclusion

“The Beatles,” upon release, was and is characterized by the increasing divide between the group’s four members, who by the late ‘60s felt they could do anything they wanted when it came to crafting music.

As a result of the four Beatles heading down their own musical paths, the White Album strays in every direction in terms of genre. The genres range from hard rock, spiritual and psychedelic to reggae, country and soul “food” (see “Savoy Truffle”).

But for as heavy, rocking and downright weird “The Beatles” may seem to newer fans, the 50th-anniversary mix is a perfect opportunity for those who have never given the album a proper listen to jump in for the first time.

Gone is the blurriness and audible noise that held the Beatles back in 1968, and now each of the album’s 30 tracks sound as if they had been recorded in a modern studio – not that it matters when it was made, because few things transcend time and popular culture like the works of the Beatles.

1 Comment

One Response to “50 years later, ‘The Beatles’ reaches its peak”

  1. Hank on November 26th, 2018 8:35 pm

    The remix sounds absolutely incredible. and to hear the creative process on all the demos and early takes. Hard to believe it`s 50 years old.. The world will probably never see and hear another band with this much creativity again..So much music from one band all recorded in 5 months.

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