In the category of decent jokes that haven’t dated well, count the scene from “Men in Black” in which Tommy Lee Jones walks Will Smith through a lab where aliens are developing new technologies and he holds up a disc even more minuscule than the Sony MiniDisc. “This is gonna replace CDs soon,” says Jones’ Agent K. “Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.” Give it credit for being funny at the time, just a decade out from the first release of the Beatles’ catalog on compact disc, even if it failed to foresee the end of all things corporeal. Anyway, the movie got one thing right: You have to buy the White Album again.
And — here’s a joke for you! — you have to buy it on CD. Well, should. It’s not that Capitol isn’t also servicing digital versions of the 50th-anniversary deluxe package of “The Beatles,” with Giles Martin’s crisp remix of the original 1968 double album and four additional hours of unreleased studio outtakes and acoustic demos. But WAV files make lousy objets d’art, and there are other elements that make this the boxed set that boxed sets were invented for, like the hardback book that encases tens of thousands of invaluable words about the album’s making as well as all those archaic discs. With its spaciousness and clean B&W typography, the packaging pays righteous homage to the original jacket design of British pop artist Richard Hamilton, which featured the band’s name invisibly embossed on the cover — proving there’s at least one thing streaming can’t replace, five decades on: such an excellent use of white space.
Since the ’60s, there’s been that perennial musical question: “Beatles or Stones?” Like all questions about preference, this is really a personality test in disguise. But one question is at least as telling about your worldview: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ or White Album?” If your predilection is for the conceptual conceits, connections and careful oversight of “Pepper,” maybe you’re a theory-of-everything person. The White Album, on the other hand, is all chaos theory — the Beatles left to their own nonlinear devices, with little check on whim-following after the death of manager Brian Epstein, and with producer George Martin on holiday through a lot of the recording. In this case, I’d suggest that rudderlessness is next to godliness. The idea that “The Beatles” (the collection’s actual title) would’ve been much better as a single album is just about the dumbest rock trope ever: Who’d want just half of a wonderful random universe?
With last year’s equally expansive “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” boxed set, the remix was really the thing. The bonus discs of outtakes were a little bit disappointing; because the original album was so grand and overdub-heavy, listening in on the band in the studio felt like watching Michelangelo brush up a corner of the Sistine Chapel. (Not that you wouldn’t pay Amazon $140 for that.) Here, Giles Martin’s sonic redo serves similar functions — reconciling the stereo and mono mixes, centering Ringo’s tom-toms into a more visceral thud, sharpening the guitars to where they could cut glass — but it’s a secondary attraction. You come to hear multiple alternate versions of material that could be and was played live by a rock band … or sounded just as complete in hootenanny form in the all-acoustic demos. With one obvious exception in “Revolution 9” (sadly, there is no campfire or jam-session version of that one included), “The Beatles” was close to being the group’s back-to-roots album, before they got all self-conscious about doing that and tried to commodify the idea, with mixed results, in the project that was to have been called “Get Back.” Here, they’re getting back just fine — if not to where they once belonged, then to a place where their roots in the blues, Chuck Berry, Elvis, flapper music and folk overlap with an ongoing need to push white envelopes.
That interest in past and future congeals when they take time out of the “Helter Skelter” sessions to play a cover of “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care),” just because the delay on Paul McCartney’s voice reminded them of the delay on Presley’s in Sun Studios. Never mind that they’re interrupting the virtual invention of heavy metal for this flippant aside, or that the Elvis cover lasts barely 30 seconds — it’s performed fast enough to count as a complete track, so baby, I don’t care.
What’s more interesting are the number of great tunes the Beatles left on the table while releasing the finished album’s 29, some of which, like “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” ended up on what few Beatles albums remained, others of which would show up on solo albums years or even decades later. George Harrison’s “Not Guilty” was not bad, even though it got abandoned after 107 takes; he’d finally release a lesser version sans the other Fab Three in 1979. McCartney’s “Junk,” lyrically unfinished here, would take a shorter path to appear on his solo debut. One of the most fascinating artifacts is a snippet of “Let It Be,” played in a completely different key and a more driving arrangement than the one to come, with Macca singing that “Brother Malcolm,” not “Mother Mary,” came to him. (A good change, that; McCartney might have had pal Mal Evans in mind, but listeners would have taken it as Malcolm X, and “let it be, by any means necessary” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) There’s even a demo for a terrible, terrible John Lennon song called “Child of Nature,” which he must’ve realized was scant competition for Paul’s similar “Mother Nature’s Son”; for once, at least, Lennon outdid his partner in alleged treacle. The melody of “Child,” though, was not so awful at all, and he would salvage it a few years later with a very fine lyric, as “Jealous Guy.”
Tracing the small lyrical changes is a delight. The Beatles were fantastic self-editors, down to realizing at some point that “A Doll’s House” was a lousier title for the album than the eponymous one they settled on, or as microscopic a tweak as McCartney changing “awful flight” to “dreadful flight” in “Back in the USSR,” or the band jamming through a just-OK instrumental of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” before perfecting the guitar licks that make the song.
Some of the greatest satisfactions on the bonus discs are alternate arrangements that would have sufficed perfectly well on record, even though the actual versions did better, like a guitar-strumming, piano-less “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Martin discovered a previously unknown rehearsal version of “Cry Baby Cry” that he’s likened to Pink Floyd. And you can see why, with Lennon playing a fairly Rick Wright-ian organ. Most precious of all is a 15-minute slow-blues version of “Helter Skelter”; if you never thought you’d hear the mellow version of that song, now you can, for a quarter hour. The alternate versions of Ringo Starr singing “Good Night,” with and without the other lads harmonizing, but sans orchestra, are the lullabies you’ve waited 50 years to go to bed by.
Some early reports back from fans who’ve heard this new “super deluxe” edition have posited that “Good Night” is maybe the one time where the Beatles made the wrong decision about which version to put on the album… that we should have gotten the tender, understated versions we hear in the outtakes here instead of the symphonic mawkishness that ended the original double-LP. Yet the more Disney-fied version that fans got in 1968 was the perfect antidote, or at least counterpoint, to the “Revolution 9” madness that preceded it, leading you from the terror or uncertainty of a generation in chaos to a soothing balm. Rough juxtapositions, ironic and otherwise, recur throughout the album. It feels weird to hear alternate versions of “The Continuing Adventure of Bungalow Bill” and think of it as a song that might have been meant to stand on its own, as opposed to the way we’ve thought of it for 50 years: as a brilliantly cheeky lead-in to the more spiritual and sober “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It becomes clearer what a masterpiece of sequencing “The Beatles” is… and why it needed to be a double album: to incorporate oddball asides that would have been cast aside on the way to a sculpted opus like “Sgt. Pepper” but which seem indispensable as part of a sprawl. There’s a reason why all these decades later, most of the artists making an album encompassing multiple styles still cite the White Album as their touchstone: It contains universes within universes, or desert island discs within desert island discs.
And it’s the sound of four individuals firing on all cylinders as a band — even as, yes, things are getting testy enough that Ringo is actually quitting the group for a couple weeks, as everyone who’s read any Beatle lore surely knows before reading the thick book here. Perhaps lesser known is John saying that he wrote Paul’s name into “Glass Onion” (“The walrus was Paul”) because he had already realized he was going to leave his partner for Yoko, and he wanted to throw him a nice bone in the meantime. No one would mistake this for the Beatles at their most unified. But that doesn’t mean we have to buy that other common false trope about the White Album: that it’s a collection of four great solo albums.
There’s a kernel of truth in that; Lennon’s “Julia” and McCartney’s “Blackbird” are classic tracks untouched by other Beatle hands. But it’s the lesser truth when you examine the credits here and see just how willing they were to tackle whatever instrument was closest to hand to serve each other’s visions. There’s a sweet spot in maturity for young adults — that place when the pull to move on and become a lone wolf is powerful, but you’re still too caught up in the exuberant goodwill of the gang, or the belief that there’s world-changing strength in numbers, to go solo just yet. By that measure, the seemingly wild and unfettered White Album is actually the Beatles’ most mature effort … and maybe, just maybe, rock ’n’ roll’s best too.
“The Beatles – Super Deluxe”
Original album and sessions producer: George Martin
Additional producer: Chris Thomas
Escher demos producer: The Beatles
2018 mixes producer: Giles Martin