In late May, 1968, the Beatles convened at guitarist George Harrison’s English country home with an extraordinary body of raw materials for their next album. The so-called “Esher demos” — 27 songs taped on Harrison’s four-track machine — were at once stark and full, solo acoustic blueprints already outfitted with signature flourishes: double-tracked vocals; John Lennon’s raindrop-arpeggio guitar in “Dear Prudence”; the future guitar solo in “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” hummed by Paul McCartney.
There was evidence too of tension and estrangement: Lennon’s jagged rhythms and aggressive cynicism (“Revolution,” “Yer Blues”); McCartney’s determined optimism (“Blackbird”) and almost mutinous cheer (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”). In his Appalachian-ballad draft of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Harrison pointedly censured his bandmates, singing “The problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping.” He dropped the line in the final version. His dismay in the song remained.
Those recordings, issued in full for the first time, are the dominant revelation in the 50th-anniversary expansion of The Beatles. At 30 tracks on two LPs and dubbed “The White Album” for its blank-canvas sleeve, it was the group’s longest, most eclectic and emotionally blunt record – an admission of frayed nerves and strained bonds in the zigzag of garage-roots rock, delicate balladry, proto-metal fury, country ham and radical experiment. The “Super Deluxe” edition of The Beatles has even more. In addition to the demos and a new remix of the album overseen by Giles Martin, son of the late producer George Martin, there are 50 tracks of the work in progress – outtakes and sketches; roads not taken and songs left behind – across the summer and fall of 1968.
But the Esher tapes are a profound record in themselves. There are rough lyrics and missing parts; Lennon’s “Glass Onion” is just one, repeated verse. But this is an unprecedented view of the Beatles at the ground zero of songwriting as well as the trials and conflict that charged that bounty: the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967; the chaotic launch of Apple Corps.; the disappointment of the Beatles’ recent trip to India. Lennon takes his swipe at the Maharishi (“Sexy Sadie”); he is also exhausted to the point of begging (“I’m So Tired”). McCartney finds relief in corn (“Honey Pie”). Harrison is coming up strong but frustrated. His Esher songs “Circles” and “Not Guilty” have to wait for solo albums.
The outtakes vary in impact. A 12-minute “Helter Skelter” is not the noise fest I hoped but a solid groove, McCartney leading a blues-jam Beatles. The minute differences in Lennon’s two takes of longing for his mother, “Julia,” are telling; his vocal falls more naturally over the guitar in the second pass. An alternate down-home “Good Night” is a marvelous shock, Ringo Starr’s homely vocal gilded with earthy harmonies closer to the Band, moving in Byrds-like formation. And do not fear for the original album: Giles’ remix adds depth and detail without betraying the ’68 balance as in the new, striking contrast between the doldrums and tumult in Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long.”
The Beatles is now seen as the album on which they started to break up. But it was wisely titled: a self portrait of the band at odds but pulling together behind each writer, playing as they always did: in service to the song.