Recorded and released as they began to fall apart, this 1968 double LP is the longest and most eclectic album John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr ever made. It is still capable of great surprise, even discovery, in the right circumstance. In this case: freshly pressed monaural vinyl, especially via headphones.
The Beatles – a forward rush of extreme moods, textural density and solo-album prophecy nicknamed the White Album for its minimalist sleeve – was, in one respect, an antique: the last Beatles record mixed in mono and issued in that format, although only in Britain. Over there, McCartney’s ”Helter Skelter” was a tighter ruckus, a minute shorter than in stereo and minus Starr’s shout about his ”blisters.” Starr’s country pie ”Don’t Pass Me By” ran faster in mono, and Eric Clapton’s guitar soloing was up front longer in Harrison’s grand sigh ”While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
That White Album and its quirks were digitally remastered for CD in a 2009 box, The Beatles in Mono. But this new vinyl edition produced from the ’68 analog masters (available by itself and in a lavish box of LPs also called The Beatles in Mono) is the Beatles as they wanted to hear themselves. They started making albums in 1963, when stereo was new science and a luxury. As late as The Beatles, they treated a mono mix as the definitive document.
There is a unique, almost vertical drama to that concentration. In ”Dear Prudence,” the slippery layers of guitars and harmonies move behind Lennon’s drowsy pleading as if down a long hallway. ”Birthday” becomes a clenched-fist garage-band charge. The abstract chaos of ”Revolution 9” is inevitably diminished in mono, but spare, acoustic ballads like ”Julia” and ”Blackbird” feel more private and tender. In ”I Will,” with the bongos dialed back, McCartney sounds closer to the mic – and his love.
This reissue reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones’ crack about technology in Men in Black: ”Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.” But you get it as the band intended you to hear it.