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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.

“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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