As MOJO’s founding editor I was honoured when they asked me out of retirement to write the cover story of the magazine’s 300th issue. Dated November 2018, this was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ White Album.
For research I visited Abbey Road to meet Giles Martin (son of The Beatles’ producer George) who had supervised the reissue. I also interviewed two of the album’s original engineers, Ken Scott and Chris Thomas (who each went on to storied careers as producers). Another important figure, Geoff Emerick, was unable to participate and died that very October. The Paul McCartney quotes were supplied by MOJO’s Keith Cameron.
A brand new edition of The Beatles’ most controversial album reveals a band more united than history has presumed, while the songs – their darkest, hardest and weirdest, but also their most heartbreakingly beautiful – shine stronger than ever. By Paul Du Noyer.
“No matter what was going down – no matter who’d left, who was annoyed at who – when we sat down to play, something else happened. It was what The Beatles*was.”Paul McCartney
“My dad went on holiday. He went on holiday because the walls had come up around The Beatles.”Giles Martin
“Once Ringo had left and came back, the camaraderie was greater. Suddenly they realised how much they appreciated each other.”Ken Scott
“There’s an out-take of Cry Baby Cry that’s quite Pink Floyd-y. They opened Pandora’s Box, and by the time they closed it, it was too late.”Giles Martin
A hot summer in London NW8, and the shade of green leaves is sought by the tourists who congregate in strange silence near the old townhouse that’s become a pop shrine. Some gaze through its high iron gates while others pen felt-tipped tributes on its low white walls. Black taxis and red buses idle inside the queue of city traffic that growls as yet more pilgrims attempt that tricky zebra-crossing shot, selfie sticks akimbo.
At 3 Abbey Road itself, in its windowless, sound-proofed rooms, technicians are toiling at the digital coalface, buffing up the newest iteration of a record that was first completed here 50 years ago. Properly called The Beatles, but only ever known as the White Album, this record will now reappear in a remixed form, with the option of extra discs containing its original demos and a great many out-takes. What light will these new artefacts throw upon the legend?
It’s a complicated legend. History has cast the White Album as an almost sombre thing, the fractured testament of a band in full artistic flourish but riven by divisions. In those five months of recording – between May 30 and October 14 1968 – we perceive theFab Four becoming four Fabs, straining at the shackles of their shared identity. This was The Beatles imagining a life beyond The Beatles, and subtly preparing the world for a future without them.
It’s even feasible to read that bland catch-all title – The Beatlesindeed– as a droll disguise for what’s often heard as three-and-a-half solo projects, scarcely a band enterprise at all.
In their abrupt rejection of psychedelia, as rock culture was rediscovering its older and earthier roots, we imagine the four individuals employed their fellows as backing players at best. Each withdrew into private worlds, finding common ground only in beat-club memories, ramped up through the emerging “heavy” sound that other bands, like Cream and the nascent Led Zeppelin, were taking to the mega-domes and festivals.
But is that the real story of the White Album? Or at least, is it the whole story? Listen to the disc of demos, for example, and you hear something else. Recorded at George’s suburban home in Esher, after the band’s spiritual sojourn at Rishikesh, in India, where many of the album’s 30 tracks were written, these tapes give every impression of a band enjoying themselves.
“We were, yeah,” Paul McCartney tells MOJO today. “I’ve just been checking it out, as I was asked to write an introduction to the White Album, and that’s one of the things I mention in there: that no matter what was going down – no matter who’d left, who was annoyed at who – when we sat down to play, something else happened. It was what The Beatles was. Since the early club days. If I went, ‘Gonna tell Aunt Mary…!’ There’d be no, ‘Woah! What song’s that? What you doin’?’ It would be BA-DUM! Ringo would be there, everyone would just be BANG, and we’d be into Long Tall Sally. And that, I think, is the sign of a good band. You read each other.”
It’s not just the ebullient Esher tapes, either. Three extra discs of out-takes, including album tracks and contemporary singles like Lady Madonna and Hey Jude, are replete with snippets of a band that’s comfortable in its own skin: joking, co-operating, each man bringing his best attentions to the others’ compositions.
While there were deepening fault-lines between The Beatles, the White Album tapes themselves present an alternative narrative. About the only instance of a disagreement comes when George calls out for a cheese-and-Marmite sandwich and is rebuffed by Ringo, who doesn’t like Marmite. If you were given to those loopy Beatle theories that John ridiculed in Glass Onion (“the Walrus was Paul…”) you might conclude it was really Marmite – that famously divisive condiment – that broke up The Beatles.
Yoko, you’re off the hook.
Let’s investigate. By an Abbey Road mixing desk, surrounded by towering black speakers, sits a man who’s learned more of the White Album’s secrets than most. Giles Martin, son of The Beatles’ original producer George Martin, has lived with this music for a long time. Re-mixing it, and all its attendant tapes, is his latest Beatle assignment since stepping in to assist his father, who suffered years of hearing loss before his death in 2016. Giles Martin’s credits already include the Lovealbum, Martin Scorsese’s Harrison film, some Paul McCartney solo work and last year’s Sgt. Pepperdeluxe makeover.
Despite an engagingly boyish manner, the junior Martin is now 48 and his sonorous speaking voice is strikingly reminiscent of his father’s. His eyes suggest the thousand-yard stare of long months in front of a Pro Tools screen, while his ears interrogated every nuance of multiple micro-variants. “How many hours? God, I don’t know,” he sighs. “This project is 30 songs, each with a stereo mix and a 5.1 mix, and 27 Esher demos to be done and then 50 or 60 extras. By the end you go, That’s a lotof things that had to pass through my head.”
He thinks he first became aware of the White Album when he was 19: “I mean, I must have heard bits of it. But I had no interest in The Beatles per sewhen I was growing up. The Beatles are way more popular in the zeitgeist now than they were then. People think that being the son of George Martin you were born in a Yellow Submarine cot. But we didn’t even have a hi-fi in our house.”
“If you work intensely on records, the last thing you want to do is go back home and listen to records. I listen to comedy and podcasts in my car. I do listen to music but we do 14 hours of it in a day. It’s all enjoyable but it’s a different mind process.”
How does a project like re-mastering the White Album begin?
“It’s talked about. My view is always, Give me a couple of weeks and let’s see what we can do. Is it gonna be any good? That’s the question. So we listen to the out-takes and see what’s there, see if it’s valid. And the four [Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Olivia Harrison] have to be happy. And they’re the biggest sceptics of all.
“My job isn’t to persuade them. I’m with them. I’d sit with Paul and play him mixes and talk about what we’ve enjoyed, and the same with Ringo: I’d go to LA and play him some things, talk about what’s important to him. It’s a very small process, like a little cottage thing. Which is good, there’s no committee that sits and judges me and says ‘Put some more on the snare drum.’”
- Once agreed, what questions do you have to ask yourself? What are you listening for? What do you think you can improve?
“I want to make sure that the emotional feel of the White Album is the same. The main intention is to try and peel back the layers, try and get closer to the band. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with Paul and Ringo and they talk about the days they were recording it, and on the multi-track tapes I hear them in the room. But with the way records were made in ’68, you lose that to a certain extent. We can afford to do things that they couldn’t do because we’re not so worried about the needle jumping out of the groove.
“I’m like, What do the drums sound like? Is it aggressive enough? Helter Skelter was to be the loudest record ever made. I have to give that thought justice when we mix it. I’m not changing the essence of the White Album. It’s a collection of songs which is completely random to a certain extent. That’s the beauty of it, like a Jackson Pollock painting – a splattering of ideas.”
In the huge selection of out-takes, we catch far more glimpses than even the Anthologyseries had scope to offer, of The Beatles clocking up studio time in scores of alternative interpretations. There’s a take of Helter Skelter here, Paul’s competitive attempt to out-Who The Who, that runs to nearly 13 minutes – and that was far from being the longest version they recorded.
So what was guiding Giles Martin when he selected those out-takes?
“Each out-take,” he explains, “has to be different, or show an evolution of ideas, or have conversation in it. What’s wonderful about music is that it’s made with human spirit. And more so with the White Album, because The Beatles were in control of their own destiny. I think there’s 102 takes of Sexy Sadie. There’s a lot of material.”
He cues up various tracks from the Esher demos disc: “They’re different tapes. I don’t know if they were all recorded in George’s house or done on different four-tracks by different Beatles. George isn’t present on all of them. Some are Paul and John, some are George on his own. [He locates a heartfelt demo of Dear Prudence]This is John, entirely double-tracking himself. [He puts on Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da] Sounds like a shaker, for percussion…”If the background personnel varies from one track to another, each song’s lead composer always runs the initial session, with or without assistance.
These demos are, mostly, very like the songs that we ended up with. So why did the album take so long – the legendary 140-odd days?
“With John, for instance, records never sounded as good as they did in his head. So they would tryvarious things: there’s an out-take of Cry Baby Cry that’s quite Pink Floyd-y. They often took things away from those demos, tried studio versions and ended up going back to what they had before. They opened Pandora’s Box, and by the time they closed it, it was too late.”
What Giles Martin drew from his prolonged exposure to the raw material was that The Beatles of 1968 retained deep reserves of solidarity. They enjoyed playing together and could be brusque towards outsiders.
“If someone else says ‘The guitar’s a bit…’ they would go ‘Yeah, fuck off, this is how we like it.’ It’s very much a garage band album in that way. It’s a much more live album: tracks on Sgt. Pepperwere recorded with the knowledge that they were going to overdub the other parts on. Quite often the White Album was recorded as ‘This is the record. We’re going to play this song live in the studio.’
“And Ringo… we read about how he left during the White Album and came back to the flowers and all this stuff. Yet he talks with such enthusiasm about this album, because it’s the bandalbum.”
(Ringo, feeling burnt-out and a little unloved, did actually disappear between August 22ndand September 4th.)
“From what I can hear,” Martin continues, “the atmosphere is very good.” He turns to the desk and cues up an out-take of Happiness Is A Warm Gun, on which the Beatles had laboured interminably: John starts by saying, “It’s not getting any easier. Is anyone finding it easier? It seems a littleeasier. It’s just no fun, but it’s easier.” And then George Harrison quips: “Easier, andfun.”
“Ha! That’s not a fragmented band,” says Martin. “And that’s loads of takes in. That’s the general sense, and I’m not saying that as some glossy PR thing.” He cites a notorious moment in the later Let It Besessions, when George sulks to Paul, “I’ll play whatever you want me to play,” before noting, “There’s none of that on these tapes. And if there was I would put it on there, because it’s interesting. I don’t think they would mind me doing it. I never get a message from Central Office saying, Can you make the White Album sound happy?”
Did he pick up any friction between Yoko and the other members? Her presence at John’s insistence, was often described as problematic, not least by George Martin.
“No, nothing at all. There’s no conversations about that, on tape anyway. I’ve been in bands that have had much worse arguments than that. In essence, in the White Album the band are collaborating pretty well together – though not so much with my dad.”
Indeed. We never had the impression this was George Martin’s favourite album.
“I spent a lot of time with my dad, growing up, because of my training process. I’d shadow him all the time because of his hearing loss and if people said their favourite album was the White Album, he’d make this sort of grimacing face. And I never really understood that.”
Well, he did say it would have been a great single album. Could you see why?
“Yes. Going back, his very first job at EMI Studios was to make sure that records fitted on the side. He edited scores very precisely, so they would fit. One of our biggest family arguments was when he saw me making a Pimm’s without measuring it. He went completely mental! He almost wouldn’t speak to me.
“And that for him was the White Album. In a way he’d lost the class, to these lunatics.
“I think the atmosphere in the control rooms was probably worse than it was down on the studio floor. The band would go, ‘We’ll come in at 10 in the evening, start recording and go through till 5 in the morning.’ And it wasn’t heard of in those days, especially in England. It was not done.
“Even The Beatles didn’t work like that, they were very precise and very deliberate – Paperback Writer  was one-and-a-half takes. How the White Album was done was the first time it had happened.
“My view of the White Album is that it really stemmed from the death of Brian Epstein. My father and Brian Epstein were very close and worked very well as a team, not controlling, but certainly steering the ship. And Brian’s sudden death affected The Beatles greatly. The Maharishi was a person they thought spiritually would be able to guide them. That didn’t work out, they came back from India and they didn’t have anything else to do.
“Studios were what they did. The person who said ‘No, you have to be in this place now, you’ve got two weeks to do stuff,’ had gone.”
And your dad was actually absent for quite a spell in the middle of it? (George Martin took leave from 9thSeptember until the end of the month.)
“He went on holiday. I think he was just battle-scarred by it. I don’t think they didn’twant his input, but they wanted more say in what they preferred. He went on holiday because the walls had come up around The Beatles. And it wasn’t fun for anyone. Geoff Emerick walked off the sessions. Engineers in the building would dreadbeing put on Beatles sessions…”
Two important exceptions to that rule were Chris Thomas and Ken Scott. When George Martin took a vacation, he asked Thomas – a young trainee at his independent production company AIR – to continue visiting the sessions and offer any help that was needed. Thomas would quickly prove himself a valued studio hand, whose later production credits include everyone from the Sex Pistols to Elton John.
And when Geoff Emerick stood down as engineer, he was replaced by the 21-year-old EMI staffer Ken Scott. Scott, too, turned his baptism-of-fire into the basis of a starry career: within a few years he was co-producing David Bowie’s breakthrough albums and more. Perhaps understandably, he takes a sunnier view of the White Album experience.
“I was working with the biggest bloody band in the world,” recalls Scott. “It was terrifying, it was amazing, it was the best training that anyone could ever have. As a young engineer learning my craft, here I was with the band that had no budgetary problems, no time problems, and they wanted everything to sound different every time. So it allowed me to experiment and they were totally up for that.
“Geoff Emerick made it pretty obvious that he was fed up with the whole situation. The weird thing is he feels that the band were arguing the whole time, and yet I had the complete opposite situation. It was a blast. Chris Thomas and my assistant engineer John Smith all felt the same way: we had an amazing time with them. Were there blow-ups? Yes of course, there always are, that’s the artistic temperament coming through. But they were short-lived.
“In fact once Ringo had left and came back, I think the camaraderie was greater. Suddenly they realised how much they appreciated each other. And they started to play as a band at that point. The amount of material we recorded in a very short time once Ringo came back, was amazing.”
(It’s always odd to realise that one of The White Album’s signature rockers, Back In The USSR, was made during the drummer’s brief flounce-out. The re-mastered version reveals how strongly the other three upped their percussive game to compensate, with vigorous hand-claps and McCartney himself commandeering the kit like a Fab possessed.)
Chris Thomas, for his part, had found the early White Album sessions pretty dull to watch. And on the first day of Martin’s break the band, especially McCartney, were slow to accept the new boy’s presence. “Paul was basically the engine behind it. Then when the sessions started I sat next to Ken Scott and they totally ignored me, going How’s that Ken? How’s that Ken?”
He figured he only had one chance to prove himself.
“Towards the end of the evening I realised that if Paul told me to fuck off I would lose my opportunity with AIR and George Martin,” says Thomas, “so I took the bull by the horns and when they made a mistake I interrupted and told them. They didn’t believe it, they came upstairs and listened to the tape. I basically barged in. At the end of the evening Paul was the last one to leave. I said to him, What about tomorrow? He said, ‘Well if you want to come down then come down.’ When he walked off, I metaphorically leapt in the air: He didn’t tell me to fuck off!
“And from there I got stuck in and for some reason the tempo really went up.”
So The Beatles’ mood was now upbeat?
“That’s true. Sometimes John would crack up the whole control room, we’d be howling with laughter. There were tensions; I wasn’t here when Ringo left the band, but especially at the back end of the sessions it was great, they were funny, they seemed to get on, it was fantastic.”
Like Thomas, Ken Scott doesn’t mention Yoko as any sort of stumbling-block to the band. In fact, as he sees it,the sessions were often tougher for the studio staff. Their millionaire Scouse overlords weren’t only given to surreal brainwaves, they also favoured long, unsocial hours: “But for us who were on overtime it was a blessing. The old school were completely against it. But for us youngsters it was fine: if we weren’t working in the studio we’d probably be out in clubs, keeping exactly the same hours. So we understood it. Plus we didn’t have families to get back to, whereas the old-timers did. So they didn’t appreciate it.”
Listening to the White Album today, we sense the band playing asa band – much more so than on Sgt. Pepper. There’s a stand-out example of those dynamics in Long, Long, Long, where George’s ethereal murmurs get a monumental counter-point in Ringo’s room-enveloping drum-wallops: today the drummer cites this re-mixed track as a cherished keep-sake of the band’s intimacy.
“Yes,” Ken affirms. “It was back to basics,they wanted the four of them again. They’d done their big masterpiece, now they wanted to do a small pen-and-ink drawing. And it was great to see. I know when it first came out it was panned a lot because everyone was expecting Sgt. Pepper II. But that wasn’t The Beatles, they wanted something different every time. And people were shocked by it. But over time I think it’s held up even better than Pepperin some respects.”
What Chris Thomas remembers is the energy that kicked in when the primitive Merseybeat group was re-awakened: “I once said to Paul, I noticed how good they were in the studio when all four of them were actually playing as a band. And he reminded me that if you did a gig in the ’60s, the most important thing was to blow the other bands off stage. That’s the thing that was rather wonderful about those sessions: you were watching The Beatles, never mind just making a record, but together as a four-piece.”
Thomas emerged with his job intact and a thank-you credit on the finished LP: “I was there when John and Paul were talking about it, and John said that my name should go next to George Martin’s. I got 36 quid for it – four session fees of nine quid a throw.”
And did Ken Scott ever feel he was present as history was being made, that this music would still be pored over in 50 years’ time?
“Absolutely no idea. If someone had said it to us at that point we would have laughed in their faces…”
That said, only 15 of the White Album’s 30 tracks feature all four Beatles: indeed all three of Abbey Road’s studios were often running simultaneously. John was said to be miffed that Paul and Ringo bashed out Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? without his input. By the same token, tracks like his own Revolution 9 show Lennon chasing a very singular vision. But the sheer length of the White Album’s recording made it inevitable that various members would sometimes be out of the country. And tracks such as Paul’s Blackbird had as little call for group participation as Yesterday had, three years earlier.
Meanwhile George Harrison saw new opportunities to exceed his meagre ration of one or two tracks per album, and he seized the moment heroically. Paul and John were distracted, too, by the ructions of their personal lives, each abandoning their established partners (Jane Asher and Cynthia Lennon) for respective new loves Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono. And the newly-formed Apple organisation, once a collective daydream, quickly embodied the flaws of hippie capitalism.
There was yet another source for the disquiet that pervades these songs. In 1968 the psychedelic fantasia of 1967’s Summer of Love was abruptly punctured, and problems of the real world seeped into the cloistered calm of Abbey Road. Youth rebellion went from a matter of parent-bothering haircuts to the stuff of actual street-fighting; invasions, assassinations and riots filled every news bulletin and not even The Beatles could stand aloof – least of all John Lennon.
It’s occasionally claimed that the White Album should have been a single instead of a double. But the record’s strength is in its light and shade. John expressed his feelings through some of the deepest statements he’d ever made, from the grungey and desperate Yer Blues to the meditative tribute to his mother,Julia. George’s spiritual yearnings, most notably the Clapton-assisted While My Guitar Gently Weeps, were beautiful but did not lift the mood. Were it not for Ringo’s moments of whimsy or sentiment, and Paul’s mix of exuberant rockers and super-tuneful interludes, the results might have been claustrophobic. Instead, even without Sgt. Pepper’s small pretence of coherence, the record matches that album’s satisfying sense of emotional wholeness.
Giles Martin: “My exposure to this album has given me a different appreciation of the songs. Happiness Is A Warm Gun is probably my favourite track, but I also really enjoy Martha My Dear. Actually, Paul has a good attitude to all this: ‘Why are you having a conversation about a double or a single album? It’s a double album!’ Like, move on, it’s not even worth thinking about.”
The tensions that would pull The Beatles apart surfaced very visibly in their sessions of the following year. They were filmed for eventual exposure in the Let It Bemovie – even if they’re admirably disguised on the band’s true swansong LP, Abbey Road. Paul McCartney tends to echo our observers’ opinion that the White Album was the work of an authentically integrated group, who could still park their personal differences at the studio door. “I think that’s true,” he tells MOJO. “When we recorded, or when we played, or sat down to write, all that went away.
“Even though we may be arguing about something or something crazy might be going on on the business side of things, the great thing about being in a band is it just blew every cobweb away, and you just did what we were good at – we just played. And we’d been good at that since Liverpool, Hamburg.”
We like to read patterns into history, but perhaps the White Album wasn’t quite so stuffed with omens of the end as our hindsight pretends. The sessions gave the Beatles all a taste of solo life, but who knows? If the band had taken a six-month sabbatical they might have stayed together. Anything could have happened. Seen another way in 1968, that inscrutably blank cover might easily have said, The Future Is Unwritten.
Fifty years now separate us from the White Album’s first release – as long as had separated November 1968 from the Armistice of World War I. Born at the birth of hyper-accelerated consumerism, of instant gratification and plastic disposability, the music remains strangely ageless, achingly sad and stubbornly optimistic. Just like plastic, the greatest pop has proved almost imperishable.