×
Home Music Music Features

The Unheard White Album: An Exclusive First Listen

The massive new box set of the Beatles’ 1968 masterpiece is full of unheard gems. Here are 15 of the most revelatory moments.

Photo session. Thomson House, London. 28 July 1968.Credit: © Apple Corps Ltd.

The Beatles in London, July 28th, 1968.

© Apple Corps Ltd.

Everything we know about the White Album is about to change. The Beatles’ 1968 masterpiece has always been been the deepest mystery in their story—their wildest, strangest, most experimental, most brilliant music. But as it turns out, the White Album is even weirder than anyone realized. Especially when you’re hearing it in Abbey Road, the fabled London studio where the band spent five long months making it. Over a couple of sunny days (and late nights) in Abbey Road, Rolling Stone got a one-on-one exclusive tour of the previously unheard gems from the new Super Deluxe Edition of The Beatles (due November 9), forever known as the White Album. Producer Giles Martin, son of George Martin, is a valiant guide, playing outtakes from deep in the vaults, often grabbing a guitar to demonstrate a chord change. “They were a band on fire,” he says. “It’s double or triple Sgt. Pepper—the four walls of this studio couldn’t hold them anymore.”

Part of the White Album mystique is all the drama that went into it—the arguments and bad vibes are the stuff of legend. So the big shock is all the humor, excitement, and camaraderie on display in the new set. Case in point: a previously unknown version of “Good Night” where John, Paul, George and Ringo all harmonize over folk guitar. As Martin admits, “You listen to them sing together and ask, ‘This is the White Album?”

Yes, this is the White Album—and the stunning box set goes deep into the creative frenzy the Beatles surged through in 1968. There’s a new mix from producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell, plus four discs of outtakes. The bonus material is full of revelations, especially the crown jewel of buried Beatle treasures: the acoustic Esher demos.

It follows in the wake of last year’s acclaimed anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper. But this is a deeper dive, since the album covers so much ground. With their batteries recharged from their India retreat, all four were hitting new peaks as songwriters—even Ringo, who contributed “Don’t Pass Me By.” They couldn’t wait to get back into the studio. They had no idea how much trauma they were in for. George’s “Not Guilty” went through 102 takes—and still didn’t make the album. Their long-suffering producer bailed after a few months. Ringo not only quit the group for a couple of weeks, he fled the country.

They drove each other to the edge making it—but that’s how they came up with the most audacious music of their lives. What comes across all over the new material is the nerve, the spontaneity, the collective risk-taking, the team spirit. As the tapes roll, the lads sound surprisingly playful. At the end of one take, Paul quips, “Keep that one. Mark it fab.” They’re not afraid to indulge their craziest ideas. As Giles Martin diplomatically puts it, “The line between a final master and dicking around is narrowing down.”

The outtakes defies the conventional wisdom that this is where the band split into four solo artists. “Do you think the perception of the Beatles history has been tainted by their own commentary in the early Seventies?” Martin asks. “That’s what I get. I think post-Beatles, when the champagne cork has flown out of the bottle, and they’ve gone their separate ways, they reacted against it. ‘Oh, to be honest we didn’t work well as a group,’ and that sort of thing. Yet they never slowed down creatively. I quite like the idea of them throwing cups of tea at each other in the studio. I’m mildly disappointed not to find it. But what they’re doing is making a record.”

The Deluxe and Super Deluxe Editions finally unveil the Esher demos, which hardcore Beatle freaks have been clamoring to hear for years. In May 1968, just back from India, the group gathered at George’s bungalow in Esher (pronounced “Ee-sher”) to tape unplugged versions of the new songs they’d already stockpiled for the new album. Over the next days, working together or solo, they busked 27 songs. The tapes sat in a suitcase in George’s house for years. Seven tracks came out on Anthology 3; others have never been released in any Beatle version, including John’s “Child of Nature” and George’s “Sour Milk Sea.” The Esher tapes alone make this collection essential, with a fresh homemade intimacy that’s unique. Martin says, “They’re rough takes, but spiritually, the performances stand on their own.”

This edition has new versions of other songs from the same period: “Hey Jude,” “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light,” “Across the Universe.” (But not the B-side “Hey Bulldog,” since there aren’t any outtakes—they tried it only once.) They also have a bash at oldies like “Blue Moon” and “You’re So Square (Baby I Don’t Care).” It shows what should have been evident all along from the original record—they sound like a true band, four guys who can’t stop showing off for each other, too passionate about their songs to consider backing down. (Or to notice everyone around them cracking under the strain, even the stoic Mr. Martin. His son explains, “There was no schedule, and he loved a schedule.”)

Of course, the essence of the White Album is that everyone hears it differently—including the Beatles themselves. They clashed over what to include, what to leave out, whether it should have been edited down to a single record. (Years later, in the Anthology documentary, they were still arguing over it.) This edition will fire up those arguments. But even for fans who know the original album inside out, it’s a whole new experience—one that will permanently change how we think and talk about the Beatles.

Here are 15 of the most revelatory moments:

1. “Revolution 1”
The legendary Take 18, a nearly 11-minute jam from the first day of the White Album sessions. The other Beatles were surprised to see someone new at John’s side: Yoko Ono, who became a constant presence in the studio. It begins as the version you know from the record: John’s flubbed guitar intro, engineer Geoff Emerick’s “take two,” John’s “okaaay.” But where the original fades out, this one is just getting started. The groove builds as John keeps chanting “all right, all right,” from a low moan to a high scream. Yoko joins the band to add distorted synth feedback, while Paul clangs on piano. She recites prose poetry, fragments of which that ended up in “Revolution 9”: “It’s like being naked…if you become naked.”

The story of this jam has been told many times, usually presented as a grim scene where Yoko barges in, sowing the seeds of discord—the beginning of the end. So it’s a surprise to hear how much fun they’re all having. It ends in a fit of laughter—she nervously asks, “That’s too much?” John tells her it sounds great and Paul agrees: “Yeah, it’s wild!”

2. “Sexy Sadie”
As the band warms up, George playfully sings a hook from Sgt. Pepper: “It’s getting better all the tiiiime!” John snorts. “Is it, right?” Take 3 is an acerbic version of “Sexy Sadie,” with Paul doodling on the organ. Yet despite the nasty wit, the band sounds totally in sync. When George asks, “How fast, John?,” he responds, “However you feel it.”

3. “Long, Long, Long”
George’s hushed hymn has always been underrated—partly because it’s mastered way too quiet. In the fantastic Take 44, “Long, Long, Long” comes alive as a duet between George and Ringo, with the drums crashing in dialogue with the whispery vocals. Giles Martin explains, “I suppose, as is documented here, George was Ringo’s best friend, as he says. That song is kind of the two of them.” George starts freestyling at the end: “Gathering, gesturing, glimmering, glittering, happening, hovering, humoring, hammering, laquering, lecturing, laboring, lumbering, mirroring…” It closes with the spooky death-rattle chord, originally the sound of a wine bottle vibrating on Paul’s amp. “It still gives you the fear when it comes.”

4. “Good Night”
Of all the alternate takes, “Good Night” is the one that will leave most listeners baffled why this wasn’t the version that made the album. Instead of lush strings, it has John’s finger-picking guitar and the whole group harmonizing on the “good night, sleep tight” chorus. It’s rare to hear all four singing together at this stage, and it’s breathtaking in its warmth. “I do prefer this version to the record,” Martin admits. (He won’t be the last to say this.)

John plays the same guitar pattern as “Dear Prudence” and “Julia.” That’s one of the distinctive sonic features of the White Album—the Beatles had their acoustic chops in peak condition, since there had been nothing else to do for kicks in Rishikesh. In India, their fellow pilgrim Donovan taught them the finger-picking style of London folkies like Davey Graham. “Donovan taught him this guitar part. John was like ‘great!,’ and then in classic Beatle style, went and wrote three songs using the same guitar part.”

The other “Good Night” takes are closer to the original’s cornball lullaby spirit. In one, Ringo croons over George Martin’s spare piano; in another, he does a spoken-word introduction. “Come on now, put all those toys away—it’s time to jump into bed. Go off into dreamland. Yes, Daddy will sing a song for you.” By the end, he quips, “Ringo’s gone a bit crazy.”

5. “Helter Skelter”
This Paul song inspired endless studio jams, lurching into proto-headbang noise—they started it the day after the Yellow Submarine premiere, so maybe they just craved the opposite extreme. This take is 13 minutes of primal thud—remarkably close to Black Sabbath, around the time Sabbath were still in Birmingham inventing their sound.

6. “Blackbird”
Paul plays around with the song—“Dark black, dark black, dark black night”—trying to nail the vibe. It isn’t there yet. He tells George Martin, “See, if we’re ever to reach it, I’ll be able to tell you when I’ve just done it. It just needs forgetting about it. It’s a decision which voice to use.” He thinks his way through the song, his then-girlfriend Francie audible in the background. “It’s all in his timing,” Martin says. “There’s two separate things, a great guitarist and a great singer—he’s managed to disconnect and put them back together. He’s trying to work out where they meet.”

7. “Dear Prudence”
Of all the Esher demos, “Dear Prudence” might be the one that best shows off their rowdy humor. John ends his childlike reverie by cracking up his bandmates, narrating the tale of Prudence Farrow that inspired the song. “A meditation course in Rishikesh, India,” he declares. “She was to go completely berserk under the care of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Everybody around was very worried about the girl, because she was going insaaaane. So we sang to her.”

8. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
There’s an early acoustic demo, but Take 27, recorded over a month later, rocks harder than the album version—John on organ, Paul on piano, lead guitar from special guest Eric Clapton. (George invited his friend to come play, partly because he knew the others would behave themselves around Clapton.) The groove only falls part when George tries to hit a Smokey Robinson-style high note and totally flubs it. “It’s okay,” George says. “I tried to do a Smokey, and I just aren’t Smokey.”

9. “Hey Jude”
Recorded in the midst of the sessions, but planned for a one-off single, Paul’s ballad is still in raw shape, but even in this first take, it’s already designed as a 7-minute epic, with Paul singing the na-na-na outro himself. Another gem on this box: an early attempt at “Let It Be,” with Paul’s original lyric showing his explicit link to American R&B: “When I find myself in times of trouble / Brother Malcolm comes to me.”

10. “Child of Nature”
Another treasure from Esher. “Child of Nature” is a gentle ballad John wrote about the retreat to India: “On the road to Rishikesh / I was dreaming more or less.” He scrapped it for the album, but dug it back out a few years later, wrote new words, and turned it into one of his most famous solo tunes: “Jealous Guy.”

11. “JULIA”
One of John’s most intimate confessions—the only Beatle track where he’s performing all by himself. You can hear his nerves as he sits with his guitar and asks George Martin, in a jokey Scouse accent, “Is it better standing up, do you think? It’s very hard to sing this, you know.” The producer reassures him. “It’s a very hard song, John.” “‘Julia’ was one of my dad’s favorites,” Giles says. “When I began playing guitar in my teens, he told me to learn that one.”

12. “Can You Take Me Back?”
The snippet on Side Four that serves as an eerie transition into the abstract sound-collage chaos of “Revolution 9.” Paul toys with it for a couple of minutes, trying to flesh it out into a bit of country blues—“I ain’t happy here, my honey, are you happy here?”

13. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
Paul spent a week driving the band through this ditty, until John finally stormed out of the studio. He returned a few hours later, stoned out of his mind, then banged on the piano in a rage, coming up with the jingle-jangle intro that gets the riff going. This early version is pleasant but overly smooth—it shows why the song really did need that nasty edge. A perfect example of the Beatle collaborative spirit: John might loathe the song, Paul might resent John’s sabotage, but both care too deeply about the music not to get it right.

14. “Sour Milk Sea”
A great George highlight from the Esher tapes—“Sour Milk Sea” didn’t make the cut for the album, but he gave it to Liverpool pal Jackie Lomax who scored a one-shot hit with it. (It definitely deserved to rank ahead of “Piggies,” which remains the weakest track on any version of this album.) “Not Guilty” and “Circles” are other George demos that fell into limbo—“Not Guilty” sounds ready to go at Esher, yet in the studio, it was doomed to over a hundred fruitless takes.

15. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
A tricky experiment they learned together in the studio, with John toying with the structure and his mock doo-wop falsetto. “Is anybody finding it easier?” he asks. “It seems a little easier—it’s just no fun, but it’s easier.” George pipes in. “Easier and fun.” John replies, “Oh, all right, if you insist.” It’s a moment that sums up all the surprising discoveries on this White Album edition: a moment where the Beatles find themselves at the edge of the unknown, with no one to count on except each other. But that’s when they inspire each other to charge ahead and greet the brand new day.

beatles white album box

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment