I'll tell you what, you can't accuse The Beatles Empire of playing it safe with this one. And actually, they rarely play it safe. They've messed with the classics on many occasions, from reworking old John demos into posthumous singles (Free As A Bird) to putting out albums the way they should have been (Let It Be ..Naked) to remixing the whole catalogue (the Cirque du Soleil show Love). Whereas last year's Super Deluxe package left Sgt. Pepper basically intact, The Beatles (AKA The White Album) has been remade and remodeled, and already causing tons of debate. Basically it goes, "Who does Giles Martin think he is, messing with art?" to "Wow, I can't believe what this sounds like!"
I'm in the latter. It comes down to this: Yes, Martin the younger has taken the White Album we know and turned it into something different. But why the heck not? It's not like he's thrown out the original, it is and will always be readily available. What he has done is given us another version, one that his father and The Beatles didn't imagine back then, but certainly laid the groundwork for in the first place. Plus, we also get about four hours of demos, rehearsals and early takes. In a world that has been without The Beatles for nearly 50 years, quit complaining, they just opened a very big vault.
The Super Deluxe box differs from the Sgt Pepper reissue in many ways. Most strikingly, its the radical remixing done to the original. That covers the first two discs. For the bonus features on the four others, this time we get a whole different focus. The Pepper box concentrated on showing how the tracks were assembled, as they developed over the course of the production. It was a forensic study of a masterwork of the studio. The White Album is a different beast altogether. Rather than being a series of meticulous arrangements and complicated ideas, The White Album was more about songcraft, wild and experimental, unfocused, fighting sometimes, struggling. They might have been having troubles, but they had songs, lots of songs. So instead of the works-in-progress bonuses, we get basically the rolling tapes of the sessions.
That's not a bad deal, and in fact, includes some long-hoped for (and sometimes long-bootlegged) unreleased material. Disc three is the famous Esher Demos, made at Harrison's house after the group returned from India. Most of them are early, acoustic drafts of the tracks that made the forthcoming album, but also songs that went elsewhere. Harrison's Sour Milk Sea was given to his Apple signing Jackie Lomax; McCartney's Junk would grace his first solo album, while Lennon's Child Of Nature became his Jealous Guy; Harrison's Not Guilty and Circles would also be resurrected for his later solo works, and Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam were saved for Abbey Road. While some of these have been allowed out on the Anthology projects, to hear so many more of them finally is a long-awaited joy. They are loose, and themselves, no outsiders or onlookers, save constant companions such as Mal Evans. They get the basic ideas done, but also have some fun. This is where Lennon tells the story of Prudence Farrow's breakdown in India in the opening to Dear Prudence, and ad-libs a spoken word part in I'm So Tired. George had exploded as a songwriter, evident on the quiet, bare bones version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Paul had developed the soft-side writing that would typify his latter Beatle days, presenting Blackbird and Mother Nature's Son. There was every reason to assume that great things would happen with their next album.
The infighting that marred the recording is well-documented, with spats and tension leading to George Martin's displeasure and Ringo's brief resignation. You won't find any battles on these discs, but you won't find too much evidence of great teamwork either. Mostly there were just lots of takes as they tried to capture the original fun of theses songs in a long, five-month studio incarceration. But that does give us lots, like three CD's worth, of early versions, jams and out-takes to enjoy, gleaned from the multiple attempts, often in the many dozens. They just weren't particularly complicated productions, like Strawberry Fields Forever.
Included in the takes are another version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, still acoustic, before it's decided to bring in Eric Clapton and have him spice it up. We also get an early version once he joins the fray, working out his iconic lines. We hear first run-throughs of songs under development, such as Helter Skelter, which shows it was a piece of wild abandon right from the start. One of the most interesting is Good Night, that Ringo-warbled album closer that few got to, thanks to the confounding fray of Revolution 9 preceding it. Ringo shows he's a much better musician than he's given credit for (his croaky voice is the problem), with some solid instinctive singing. Meanwhile George has to back off his attempts at soulful singing at one point, admitting, "I tried to do a Smokey (Robinson) but I'm no Smokey."
Most intriguing are the early versions of songs not further pursued at that time. McCartney's first attempts at Hey Jude and Let It Be are heard, the latter at that point featuring Brother Malcolm instead of Mother Mary. Not Guilty is still in the running, dropped from the album in the final days. And there's a notorious studio jam that has shown up illicitly over the years, called Los Paranoias, named after a Lennon quip. It was part of a general goofing around that came out of a take of I Will, with McCartney running through his Step Inside Love, which had been given to old Liverpool pal Cilla Black, and ended with his little adlib Can You Take Me Back, which was edited onto the album as a linking bit after Cry Baby Cry.
All this studio stuff is fascinating and informative, and normally I'm all about the bonus tracks. But what really blew me away was the remixed original album. It is brave and brazen on Giles Martin's part. On almost each song, he's done a complete overhaul, with parts salvaged from obscurity, others featured that were merely background, extros extended and different takes added on. Usually with these remixes of classics, the work is subtle, where you think that the bass might be louder or the echo lessened. Here, the differences are so many and so often, you loose track. Only the very hallowed tracks remain roughly the same, Back In The U.S.S.R. and While My Guitar staying pretty true. But Happiness Is A Warm Gun's first half has a new prominence on McCartney's bass playing, Piggies is greatly cleaned up with a crisp sound to Harrison's acoustic. Even quiet songs such as I Will sound remarkably different, with the percussion effects a greater part of the song. Yes, there are quibbles. The drums on Dear Prudence seem too intrusive now, to my ears. But that's not really the point. What's happened is it's now new. It sounds bright and alive, which is really amazing considering how well we know this album.
Much of the most drastic rearranging comes on disc two (sides three and four of the original). That's because many of the most experimental tracks are on those sides. Lengthy rockers Yer Blues and Helter Skelter get played with, the electric stuff moved around. And the whole Revolution project really gets turned inside-out. Revolution 1 has its horns and harmonies more prominent, and Revolution 9, well, I'd have to get out a pen and paper and mark down all the differences, except it's, you know, not that interesting to bother.