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The Beatles’ Revelatory White Album Demos: A Complete Guide

We delve deep into the 1968 home recordings that planted the seeds for the band’s classic self-titled double LP

Beatles' White Album demos take 3

We take a detailed song-by-song look at the Beatles' May 1968 home demos, which include most of the songs that would end up on the White Album.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“We are going in with clear heads and hoping for the best,” an optimistic Paul McCartney announced as sessions for the Beatles‘ new album lurched forward in the late spring of 1968. “We had hoped this time to do a lot of rehearsing before we reached the studios … but, as it happens, all we got was one day.” But the day in question, sometime toward the end of May, would be a remarkable one. Meeting at George Harrison’s psychedelic-painted bungalow, Kinfauns, in the leafy London suburb of Esher, the Fabs culled through a bumper crop of new songs, penned primarily during their time studying Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s secluded retreat in Rishikesh, India, earlier that year. By nightfall, 27 acoustic demos had been committed to tape, forming the bones of what would forever be known as the White Album. It was an unprecedented endeavor for the band – never before had they run through a complete body of work in advance, recording what was effectively an “unplugged” version of their next LP.

Considering their blitzkrieg of activity since returning to the West six weeks earlier, it’s surprising the group managed to find even a single day to work on new music. Any trace of inner serenity cultivated in India had been obliterated as they busied themselves with the launch of their multimedia company, Apple. McCartney and John Lennon jetted to New York in mid-May, where they struggled to present the “Western Communism” ideals of their new organization to a skeptical world press. The chaotic publicity trip was far from a triumph, but it did give McCartney a chance to get to know a young photographer named Linda Eastman a little better, thus dooming his engagement to actress Jane Asher. Lennon’s personal life was at a similar crossroads; soon after arriving home to England, he consummated a long-simmering romance with Yoko Ono, ending his own marriage in the process.

Personal and business stresses aside, the Beatles were also saddled with intense artistic pressure to top their prior album (Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack EP not withstanding), the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Lennon dealt with the expectations by doing his best to ignore them. “I wasn’t interested in following up Sgt. Pepper,” he later said. “What I was going for was to forget Sgt. Pepper. That was Sgt. Pepper and that’s all right, but it’s over! So let’s get back to basic music and let’s not try and string everything together, and pretend it’s a show.” To move forward they had to look back. Sgt. Pepper had been an elaborate studio production, assembled in a piecemeal fashion with endless overdubs. For their new album, they wanted to play together as a band once again, and to do so required practice.

Why they picked Harrison’s home as the site of their rehearsals is up for debate. The vibes at Chez Lennon were understandably tense as divorce loomed, and McCartney’s Regency townhouse in central London was perhaps too close to the hustle and bustle of city life – to say nothing of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, a five-minute walk away – to inspire calm. So they hunkered down at Kinfauns with some acoustic guitars, light percussive instruments and an Ampex 4-track tape machine and just let it roll. The result was a joyous, stripped-down, warts-and-all peek inside the band’s creative process. Of the 27 songs known to exist from the day, 19 would wind up on the White Album, two would be held over for Abbey Road and six were never issued by the group as an active unit. Lennon contributed a whopping 15 compositions to the proceedings, McCartney seven and Harrison five.

When all was said and done, Harrison made a mono mix of the tape and a presented a copy to each of his bandmates as a reference for the upcoming sessions. Exactly what happened to the recordings afterwards remains a mystery. Although a handful of these takes saw the light of day nearly three decades later on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection, the vast majority remain officially – and tragically – unreleased. Thankfully, audio has leaked in recent years, becoming available to all on YouTube. As a document, the Esher demo tape is both entertaining and historically invaluable, providing a fascinating work-in-progress glimpse of the band’s most varied collection.

Continue on to hear for yourself, and learn more about each of the songs recorded on that day 50 years ago when the Beatles made music just for themselves.

“Junk”

Originally referred to by its working title of “Jubilee,” this pretty yet slight number was the only one of McCartney’s Kinfauns songs that didn’t make the cut for the White Album – or indeed any Beatles album. It would surface on his self-titled solo debut in 1970 as both a lush instrumental (called “Singalong Junk”) and an acoustic folk ditty.

It’s clear from the demo tape that McCartney had more work to do on “Junk,” as many lines consist of la-la’d and ooh’d dummy syllables or repeated verses. The few lyrics that do exist simply list the detritus of a bric-a-brac shop. Amusingly, McCartney can be heard laughing as he harmonizes with himself via vocal overdub. Perhaps he knew, even at this early stage, that it would be some time before “Junk” saw the light of day.

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“Dear Prudence”

It’s well known in Beatle lore that the Prudence addressed in the song is Mia Farrow’s sister, the band’s classmate at the Maharishi’s retreat. The young woman threw herself into meditation with a pathological intensity that frightened others at the course. “Being on that course was more important to me than anything in the world,” she later told Steve Turner. “I was very focused on getting in as much meditation as possible, so that I could gain enough experience to teach it myself. I knew that I must have stuck out because I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so that I could meditate.” Lennon and Harrison were enlisted to help coax her out of seclusion, and together they strummed a tune intended to soothe.

Lennon can be heard giving his own (less-than-charitable) depiction of Prudence in a brief narration at the end of the Kinfauns demo. “No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” he says, barely stifling a chuckle. “All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane. So we sang to her.” The monologue is certainly the highlight of this early version of “Dear Prudence,” fingerpicked and double-tracked seemingly by Lennon alone. In the third verse he sings of a “sleeping child” rather than the more familiar “little child.” He also sneaks in an additional “look around, round” bridge just before the final verse, which shifts into a hard-strummed double time – complete with lyrical flub, resulting in a hilarious “Whoops!”

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“Sexy Sadie”

Lennon and Harrison’s stay in Rishikesh came to an abrupt end in mid-April after a rumor swept through the ashram that the Maharishi had made sexual advances towards a blonde American woman who, depending on who’s telling the story, may or may not have been Mia Farrow. The nasty tale has never been verified, and it seems likely that it was concocted by the infamous “Magic” Alex Madras, who felt the spiritual master challenged his own influence on the Fabs. In later years the band expressed serious doubts that the Maharishi ever acted in an untoward manner (Harrison dismissed the rumor as “total bullshit … just ask Mia Farrow!” in the Anthology, while McCartney expressed his own belief that the story “was completely untrue” in Many Years From Now), but at time Lennon was particularly scandalized by the episode. He led the exodus of their remaining party, leaving a baffled Maharishi desperately asking why. “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why,” Lennon hissed back.

While waiting for his ride out of the camp, a disillusioned Lennon mulled over a song in his head. The words and melody bore traces of one of his favorite Motown tunes, 1961’s “I’ve Been Good to You” by the Miracles, which opens with the lines, “Look what you’ve done, you’ve made a fool out of someone.” Consciously or not, Lennon adapted the lyrics to address his former guru: “Maharishi, what have you done/You’ve made a fool of everyone.” “I wrote it when we had our bags packed and were leaving. It was the last piece I wrote before I left India,” he remembered in 1980.I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt. I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste. You know, it seems that my partings are always not as nice as I’d like them to be …” However, Harrison, the Beatle most taken with Eastern thought, blanched at Lennon’s dressing down of the yogi. “I said, ‘You can’t say that, it’s ridiculous,'” he recalled in the Anthology. “I came up with the title of ‘Sexy Sadie’ and John changed ‘Maharishi’ to ‘Sexy Sadie.'” (Lennon did vent his spleen in private several weeks later, taping a venomous and widely discursive blues ballad, dubbed “The Maharishi Song” by bootleggers, in the music room of his Surrey estate.)

Any libelous references had been successfully excised from “Sexy Sadie” by the time the track was demoed at Kinfauns several weeks later. Lennon took the lead on double-tracked guitar and vocals, backed by McCartney and possibly Starr, who added a soft percussive bed of maracas and bongos. Lyrically complete, the song is structurally a bit of a dirge at this early stage, meandering between verse and chorus without any dynamic shifts before finally petering out. A lengthy instrumental coda was added when the group tackled the song in the studio that July, during which time Lennon shared a verse that revealed the fury that forged the song: “You little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.”

“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”

For “Happiness,” which ranked among the Beatles’ favorite tracks on the White Album, Lennon pieced several district sections of music into a fractured mini-suite, weaved together into what he described as a “history of rock ‘n’ roll” in miniature. “That’s one of my best,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970 – high praise from a man who often dismissed most of his Beatles work as “crap” in various permutations. “I love it. I think it’s a beautiful song. I like all the different things that are happening in it. … It seemed to run through all the different kinds of rock music.” An early draft of the lyrics indicate Lennon divided the piece into three movements: “Dirty Old Man,” “The Junkie” and “The Gunman (Satire of ’50s R&R).” Only the second of these, the middle section on the final version, was given a public airing as the tapes rolled at Kinfauns.

Halting guitar chords open the track before Lennon’s weary voice can be heard uttering the despondent words: “I need a fix ‘cos I’m going down, back to the bits that I left uptown.” The song is barely a sketch at this stage, which likely explains why he left it until late in the session. It’s so new that he doesn’t quite know how it goes, and the first pass quickly breaks down. “Oh, shit,” he says sheepishly. “Wrong chord!” He has better luck the second time through, vaulting through the “Mother Superior” section with renewed vigor. Given the inspiration behind the line, it’s not surprising why. “Mother Superior was Yoko,” he explained in 1970. “She was rabbiting on in the car one day, and I said, ‘mother superior jumped the gun again,’ because she’s always one jump ahead. So that was Yoko really.” From there he fingerpicks a hauntingly beautiful guitar figure, sadly removed from the final piece, over which he gently sings the cute aural pun “Yoko … Ono – Oh, no. Yoko … Ono – Oh, yes.”

The song would eventually come together at Abbey Road that September, with Lennon repurposing the Fifties doo-wop coda he’d originally employed on early versions of “I’m So Tired.” Donovan’s fingerpicking guitar technique came in handy again, providing Lennon with an introductory piece (the so-called “Dirty Old Man” element) featuring lyrics culled from a long night of acid-tripping with Derek Taylor, former roadie (and future Apple chief) Neil Aspinall and Lennon’s childhood friend, Pete Shotton. The memorable title came from some reading material left in the Abbey Road control room by the band’s loyal producer. “‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ was from the cover of a gun magazine that George Martin had in the studio when we were making the double album,” Lennon recalled. “On this cover it had a picture of a gun that had just been shot and was smoking. I thought, ‘Wow! Incredible’ … I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say.”

“Mean Mr. Mustard”

Writing fictional “story songs” never came as naturally to Lennon as it did to McCartney – “He makes ’em up like a novelist,” he once marveled – but “Mean Mr. Mustard” proves that he had great aptitude for such character studies. Of course, it always helped if the characters were the nefarious type. “I’d read somewhere in the paper about this mean guy who was hiding five-pound notes, not up his nose but somewhere else, and so I wrote about him,” he explained in 1980. Lennon ultimately melded the song with “Polythene Pam” when it was released in its final state on Abbey Road in 1969. Few realized the pair of songs were demoed a full year earlier at Kinfauns until they were issued on the Anthology 3 double disc in 1996.

This early take of “Mean Mr. Mustard” features John by himself on double-tracked acoustic guitar and vocals. The lyrics are largely identical to the official version, save for the fact that his sister is not named “Pam” but “Shirley,” reputedly a reference to accordionist Shirley Evans, who Lennon produced the previous year. It also features a brief bridge consisting of Lennon repeating the phrase “Mean Mr. Mustard, he’s such a dirty, dirty,” three times before devolving into mutterings of gobbledygook. This would evolve, somewhat inevitably, into “Mean Mr. Mustard, he’s such a dirty bastard,” when the song was dusted off for the Get Back sessions in January 1969, but the section was scrapped by the time it was included on Abbey Road’s Side Two medley later that year.

“Polythene Pam”

Appropriately, the next song on the Esher demo tape ultimately followed “Mean Mr. Mustard” on Abbey Road. Lennon has alternately offered two tales behind “Polythene Pam,” a “half a song” he wrote in Rishikesh. The PG version is that Pam was Pat Hodgett, “a mythical Liverpool scrubber dressed up in her jackboots and kilt” known to the band in the early Sixties. A hardcore Beatles fanatic and Cavern club regular, she also had the unusual habit of eating polythene – a plastic substance – earning her the nickname “Polythene Pat” from Lennon. “I’d tie it in knots and then eat it,” she explained in A Hard Day’s Write. “Sometimes I even used to burn it and then eat it when it got cold. Then I had a friend who got a job in a polythene bag factory, which was wonderful because it meant I had a constant supply.”

But it was a kink-filled night on the British isle of Guernsey that left a stronger impression on Lennon’s subconscious. Following a gig there on August 8th, 1963, Lennon met up with Royston Ellis, a local Beat poet known to the Beatles since their earliest Liverpool days. Described by Lennon as “England’s answer to Allen Ginsberg,” Ellis invited Lennon back to his attic apartment to meet his girlfriend. “He said she dressed up in polythene, which she did,” Lennon recalled in 1980. “She didn’t wear jackboots and kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag. Just looking for something to write about.” Ellis later clarified, albeit slightly, exactly what went down in the bed they shared that night. “We’d read all these things about leather and we didn’t have any leather but I had my oilskins and we had some polythene bags from somewhere. We all dressed up in them and wore them in bed,” he told Steve Turner. “I don’t think anything very exciting happened and we all wondered what the fun was in being ‘kinky.'”

These two memories apparently fused into one in Lennon’s mind, leading to the tune he demoed at Kinfauns. It’s truly just a snippet, less than 90 seconds long and clearly in his “needs work” pile. As he does on the final version, he spits out each word with his finest Scouse accent, a tribute to the track’s Northern muse. The lyrics consist of a pair of verses, the ones heard on record, endlessly looped. At this stage Lennon extols Pam’s virtues with the line “It’s a little absurd but she’s a nice class of bird,” rather than comparing her to the bombshells found in the pages of the down-market English newspaper News of the World. Though the running time is brief, it’s clear that just two verses aren’t going to cut it for a full song. As the track disintegrates, Lennon can be heard saying, “It’s too long, that!” The version on Abbey Road is markedly shorter, even with the addition of a 30-second guitar solo.

“Glass Onion”

A freeform collage of words and dreamy images juxtaposed as Lennon’s fervent imagination saw fit, “Glass Onion” served as his sequel to the previous year’s “I Am the Walrus.” The titular phrase, a nautical term for a large bottle kept shipboard and also, supposedly, a glass-topped coffin, appealed to Lennon for the seemingly contradictory notions of transparency and multiple layers. (He later suggested it as a potential name for a new Apple signing called the Iveys. They went with Badfinger instead.) A lyrical tour de force, “Glass Onion” teased overzealous fans with references to past songs including “Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Fixing a Hole,” “Lady Madonna,” and “The Fool on the Hill,” becoming the band’s meta-masterwork.

The wordy track was far from finalized by the time the band met up at Harrison’s home, but Lennon fully commits to his acoustic version of the song, confidently singing double-tracked gibberish syllables that would have made his literary hero Lewis Carroll proud. The lyrics for the first verse are repeated on the second, revealing a minor alternation to the more familiar version: “I told you about Strawberry Fields, well here’s a place you know just as real.” The “Oh yeah” bridge has yet to be added, so instead Lennon sings his one and only verse again, this time in dramatic halftime. Lennon emits a playful “Help!” before the song dissolves into another spell of “Jabberwocky” nonsense, fully disintegrating prior to the two-minute mark. As it was the last song recorded that day, perhaps his patience was wearing thin, or maybe he knew the band had more than enough in reserve to begin their new album. 

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