A Whiter Shade Of The Beatles

I’m listening to John Lennon’s scream in Glass Onion.  What a fucking performance!  ‘Listen to me!’  He doesn’t need to plead with us.  His vocal slashes the speakers and commands attention.  The White Album will always be my favorite Beatles record.  There are other favorites and from time to time I flirt with another, but this was the album where everything connected for me as a kid.  The record was scattered, sprawling, elegant, ragged, it was all over the place.  It was unlike anything ever made.  The Beatles were the lunatics.  The Beatles were the asylum. The Beatles were the insanity.  With all other Beatle records, there was a certain amount of professionalism. Even when they started smoking pot or taking acid, there was a certain amount of Brian Epstein polish.  This record was just crazy compared to anything else they’d done.  From sublime moments like Dear Prudence to thrashing rock and roll like Helter Skelter or the soul of Savoy Truffle, this record was an assortment.  The theme was any and everything, full steam ahead.  For it being considered a breakup record, The Beatles sound way more like a band here than on their previous two albums.  And I know that seems complicated as they were working on three different things at once and a lot of the record was made with individuals working individually.  Doesn’t matter.  There is a glue.   

When it was announced that Giles Martin was remixing this record, I was completely against it.  The year before he had re-mixed Sgt. Pepper.  That remix had logic to it.  You see, when Pepper came out in 67 people didn’t have a concept of mixing stereo.  It was a new technology that The Beatles avoided.  They mixed in mono.  They left the younger engineers to mix the stereo after they were done for the day.  But within a few years, stereo took over.  As a result, the stereo mix that we know as Sgt. Pepper was never created or even approved by The Beatles.  The Beatles always championed their original mono mixes.  But psychedelic music was made for stereo.  So, Giles used their mono mix as a template and created a fresh stereo mix to match The Beatles original intentions. The mix was received well by most still some fans felt that they were tampering with sacred ground.  I felt like it was a noble project.  A proper stereo mix seemed deserved of Pepper.  But The White Album is different.  This was the last Beatles record that even had a mono mix.  This was the first Beatle record where the members had to approve both mono and stereo mixes.  By 1968 mono was going out.   By 1968 people knew how to mix and maneuver better in stereo.  Even when I started reading/seeing the promo for this project, I wasn’t excited about the remix.  Reading Giles Martin talking about bringing the record up to speed with today’s sounds and how the younger generation could use a more pronounced mix seemed silly to me.  I mean, it’s The White Album!  As a rock and roll record, I don’t think there has ever been anything heavier than Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey.  Why update it?  And as I listen to it, I still am kind of wondering, ‘why update it?’   

The box is really nicely done, big, well made.  The records are housed in jackets that resemble the original (but not top loading).  There is a booklet. The original portraits are included, so is the poster. A lot of care went into the packaging as well as the audio.  Regardless of my thoughts on remixing the album, this is not a cheap rehash for cash.  Besides the remix, the deluxe edition vinyl comes with The Esher Demos, preproduction recordings The Beatles made at George Harrison’s house.  More on that in a minute. 

Let’s talk about the remix.  When the needle first dropped, I was really, really disappointed.  Sadly. Back In The USSR felt so damn sterile.  Could I hear more detail?  Sure.  Did it feel rocking like the original?  No.  It was like the grit was removed from the track.  It feels clinical.  As I type, I am listening to the mono reissue.  It literally made me jump up and shout, ‘yeah’ and clap along.  It feels real.  It rocks.  My original stereo copy doesn’t quite have the low end that my mono copy has, but it sure sounds good.  I read Giles Martin saying he rejected his first mixes saying he felt they sounded too much like Steely Dan or Dire Straits.  I hope those mixes have been buried in his backyard because USSR is way too sterile for my tastes.  There’s no fun in it.  Once we get to some of the more dynamic passages of the album, we achieve lift off.  Dear Prudence sounds incredible here.  Blackbird, Julia, Mother Nature’s Son, Sexy Sady…they alight.  But I feel like most of the rocking stuff falls flat.  It gets too close.  Helter Skelter is one that suffers from this same with my beloved Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey. They sound good but there is a polish to them that tarnishes the glory of those performances.  I do sort of enjoy hearing the closeness in Yer Blues.  The band sounds hot and the performance is bubbling with vigor.   

The joy of this record is the fact that it is off the rails.  It is an exercise in minimalistic excess.  The original mixes reflect the songs, their state of mind and the time period.  I feel like Giles forgot some of that.  It’s interesting.  It certainly has moments of wonder and offers a different perspective.  There’s no harm in that, in fact it is enjoyable to hear.  But with a record like Pepper, Giles Martin was able to bring out more color on a colorful record.  The whole point of The White Album was to strip it back.  To me, Giles take on the rock and roll songs sort of puts the boys back in their suits and makes sure they don’t swear in front of the Queen.  Pity.  However, the quieter music comes off quite nice.  It’s a worthy listen and I have no regrets but I definitely would not consider this THE version of this album to own.  I realize that I am not in the norm here.  Most people I know that are fans are raving over the new mix.  That makes me happy. Overall, it just doesn’t quite do it for me.   

Now let’s get rid of my pros and cons of the remix and talk about why the deluxe box is absolutely essential for your Beatles collection.  THE ESHER DEMOS!  These recordings have been bootlegged for years.  I know some Beatle nerds that were upset that these were coming out as they’ve been spread around so much unofficially.  It is my understanding that Giles was able to transfer the original 1/4” tapes.  They sound fabulous here.  If you have heard some of the bootlegs, you may know some of the performances but hearing them straight from the source on vinyl is incredible. The track listing is close to the order of The White Album but is missing a few songs and adding some songs that were around at the time but didn’t make the final cut.  Side 1 is playing as I write this.  The demos are truly special.  From hearing John Lennon's soft double tracked voice on Dear Prudence to George Harrison’s fast acoustic version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps to Paul’s early version of Junk, we can sit in George’s house as the boys excitedly demo’d their new material for their next record. I was knocked out how even songs like Blackbird come alive here and feel so new and fresh.  Honestly, I wasn’t that curious about a track like that as we know how it ended up…but in Esher you can almost hear McCartney’s excited pride in each guitar chord.  You can feel how much he knows he’s got something special.  I must add that my favorite demo of the bunch is Sour Milk Sea by George Harrison.  This song ended up going to an artist George was producing, Jackie Lomax.  There is something infectious about this demo.  His vocal performance is stellar.   

While I can say that I enjoyed the experience of the remix, I can’t say that I really think it needed to be updated.  While it offers insight, while it takes us closer, it also feels like it loses that wonderful sloppiness that made The Beatles the band and The Beatles the album so magical.  I can tell you that the more I listen to it, the more I understand it and there is nothing on there I can’t stand (well, the guitar effects on Wild Honey Pie really drive me nuts).  I have always been one to champion different pressings and mixes of favorite records.  I have a mono reissue, an original stereo, a stereo reissue and now the 2018 mix.  I won’t get rid of any.  They all have their place.  I will say that one thing that bothers me is it appears that the new Sgt Pepper mix is the only mix that is currently available.  You used to be able to purchase it in mono and stereo.  I understand that The Beatles didn’t know how or care to mix in stereo, I get why they didn’t like that mix.  I also get that we don’t listen to as much mono anymore.  But something bothers me about the fact that one of the greatest records of all time is currently only available in a modern capacity.  There is something about that that feels like we are now tampering with musical history.  I sincerely hope they do not do the same thing with The White Album.  There’s no need to.  Even though I am a huge fan of bonus material and insight into classic recordings, sometimes I worry we want too much.  I don’t share the same view as Giles that this music needs to be updated for the younger folks. I think this music stands on its own with or without modern advances. In the words of Paul McCartney, ‘It’s The Beatles bloody White Album, shut up.’