At The Atlantic, journalist James Parker writes about The Beatles’ self-titled ninth studio album (the one we call The White Album). This November marks the 50th anniversary of the record that took five bitter months to make, the same one that saw an exit from legendary studio engineer Geoff Emerick (who’d been on board since Revolver‘s first session, for “Tomorrow Never Knows”) as well as Ringo Starr’s week-long departure midway through. A series of new anniversary reissues, complete with mixes led by Giles Martin and loads of demo tapes, fill in some holes in our understanding of how the double album came together. Parker paints the scene:
If The White Album were a concept album, the concept would be this: The world’s greatest four-piece, comprising two geniuses, one great and searching songwriter, and a magical, melancholy drummer-clown, is breaking up—it just doesn’t know it yet.
Mid-1968: The Beatles, newly returned from their trip to the Maharishi’s meditation commune in Rishikesh, India, are in an undirected and febrile state. Brian Epstein, manager and whip-cracker, is dead. At Abbey Road, where they have the run of the studio, a combination of loosey-goosey late-night scheduling, wild productivity, and ever more fussy recording habits (99 takes of a George Harrison song—never to be used, in the end—called “Not Guilty”) has worn out their greatest musical ally, their supreme editor and controller of quality, the producer George Martin. And band telepathy is out of whack: John has fallen ego-dissolvingly in love with Yoko, who goes everywhere with him.
Read the whole piece at The Atlantic.
Included on the reissues are the fan-revered demos of White Album songs that were recorded at George Harrison’s home at the time. Harrison bought a bungalow in a suburb of London called Esher in the summer of 1964 (Patti Boyd moved in there with him when they married two years later). In the days leading up to the first actual studio session for what would become The White Album in May of 1968, the Beatles laid down 27 demos on George’s four-track reel-to-reel tape machine. The recordings offer a riveting peek inside what May of 1968 looked like for The Beatles—they’re entirely intimate and all-acoustic, and at times all of the hand-clapping and joviality mirror the mood of Beach Boys’ Party! better than they do anything on the finished White Album. Spare and loose, these rich renditions of “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and more served as blueprints for the work at Abbey Road that followed.
Among the recordings at Esher were also early versions of songs that ended up on 1969’s Abbey Road (“Polythene Pam,” “Mean Mr. Mustard”) as well as on solo LPs from John (“Child of Nature,” the melody of which would be cribbed for Imagine‘s “Jealous Guy”) and Paul (the demo of McCartney‘s “Junk,” which also appeared on Anthology 3)—”the only two Beatles who seemed to get along during the White Album sessions,” remembered engineer Emerick in his Here, There and Everywhere.
As they weren’t official Beatles recordings, the “Esher Demos” get but a passing mention in Mark Lewisohn’s otherwise exhaustive The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, but thankfully, Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield wrote a whole damn chapter on these home sessions in his 2017 book Dreaming The Beatles. It’s excerpted at Rolling Stone:
Fifty years later, the Esher demos remain one of the Beatles’ strangest artifacts. When the boys gathered at George’s pad in the last days of May—nobody’s sure of the exact date—they had excellent reason to feel cocky about their new material. They wrote these songs on retreat with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India, a place where they had no electric instruments. They also had no drug connections, which might help explain why they came up with their sturdiest tunes in years. As John Lennon said years later, “We sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food and writing all these songs. We wrote tons of songs in India.”