The White Album Box Set: A Detailed Guide to the Most Significant Beatles Release in Decades
A detailed guide to the most historically significant tracks on the new box set celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' White Album
After more than half a century as a dominant artistic force, there’s still so much to learn and discover about the Beatles. Their unparalleled commercial success, vast cultural influence and seemingly ceaseless popularity have put them in a place where reality seldom ventures. As a result, truth is often obscured by myth, emotion, or simply the haze of time. Hyperbole is a frequent trap, but this isn’t the case when it comes to the new 50th anniversary of the band's 1968 double-disc forever known as the White Album. It is, without exaggeration, the most exciting Beatle-related release of the last 20 years. Along with a vibrant stereo and 5.1 surround audio remix, it contains four discs of never-released outtakes and demos that offer an unparalleled look at the album’s creation. Much like the original, it will entertain, challenge, baffle, occasionally confuse but ultimately delight. What’s more, it rewrites the history of the band’s most tumultuous period.
The received wisdom is that The Beatles (its official title) is in fact anything but — the sprawling collection is a record of four men desperately struggling for space while straining against the chains that bound them creatively for their entire adult life. According to Giles Martin, the sonic steward who deftly oversaw the reissue along with engineer Sam Okell, one person who inadvertently contributed to this widespread belief is his own father, the legendary Beatles’ producer George Martin. “Whenever anyone mentioned to my dad that the White Album was their favorite Beatles record, he would grimace,” he writes in the extensive hardcover book that accompanies the deluxe set. “Not because he disliked the album, it was more due to the fact that the recording sessions for it had been so different to the previous Beatles albums.”
Singles and soundtracks aside, their last full-length work was 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, an album assembled with scientific precision. Dates for the White Album were anything but. Sessions stretched through the night as the band plowed through dozens of takes, following their muse wherever it took them. Gone were the rigid orchestral scores and tedious (but necessary) layers of overdubs that had been George Martin’s forte. In his son’s words, “he lost the classroom.” Now the Beatles were searching for something more than technical excellence. Inspired by the Band’s Music from Big Pink and Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, they sought something spontaneous and authentic. “Our songs had developed from basic three-chord wonders into quite sophisticated compositions, and back again,” Paul McCartney writes in the reissue book. “We had left Sgt. Pepper’s band to play in his sunny Elysian Fields and were now striding out into new directions without a map.”
The punishing all night schedule understandably took a toll on some of the staff at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, particularly as the Beatles started breaking the “Take 100” mark for the first time in their career. Geoff Emerick, the band’s longtime engineer, resigned weeks into the sessions, and both Ringo Starr and George Martin took extended holidays in the midst of the production. Over the years, fans have cited this as proof that the energy in the studio was toxic and relations between the four friends had soured, but those who were there deny this was the case.
“When you’re in the studio for five or six days a week and spend hours and hours with the same people, at times you’re going to rub each other the wrong way,” Ken Scott, the engineer who took over for Emerick, wrote in his memoir, From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust. “There were definitely times when things blew up, but it was nowhere near as bad as it’s been reported over and over.” Giles Martin also confirmed this after listening to miles of tape documenting practically every minute of the sessions. “Many have assumed that there was a weakening of the bonds between the Beatles during the making of the White Album and that they preferred to work apart from each other with little collaboration. This is simply not true. It is clear listening to the tapes that their collective spirit and inventiveness were, in fact, stronger than ever…On the many tapes that have been carefully preserved from the sessions, there is extraordinary inspiration — mixed with plenty of love and laughter.”
One example occurs as John Lennon struggles to lead the band through “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” for the nineteenth time. “Is anybody finding it easier?” he asks with undisguised discouragement. “It seems a little easier. It’s just no fun.” Then George Harrison pipes up: “Easier and fun!” At that, a smile can be heard on Lennon’s face. “Oh alright, if you insist,” he adds with a laugh. It’s a small moment, but it shimmers with warmth, intimacy and friendship. It’s one of many that can be heard on the outtakes.
The prevalent notion of each Beatle recording solo in his own studio is patently false. In many ways, they were more together on this record than on Sgt. Pepper. Even before sessions formally began, the band met up at George Harrison’s house to record demos of each new song they had — and unprecedented show of single-minded teamwork. “Birthday” came together following a group movie night at McCartney’s house. “Yer Blues” was taped in a tiny storage closet, a tight squeeze that would have been impossible for four guys who weren’t already close. “While we were recording the White Album, we ended up being more of a band again,” recalled Starr. “And that’s what I always love. I love being in a band.”
The 50th anniversary celebration of the White Album has many revelations, but perhaps its greatest achievement is dispelling the myth that the work was born out of pain and unhappiness. Exorcizing the malaise is just as important as the technical remasters when it comes to appreciating this music afresh. Read on for some of the most historically significant moments on this astonishing collection.
Paul McCartney’s Songwriting Notebook — and Other Handwritten Lyric Sheets
The story of the White Album really begins on the banks of the Ganges in February 1968. The Beatles, their romantic partners, and other notables including pop-folk singer Donovan, actress Mia Farrow, jazz flautist Paul Horn and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love gathered at an Ashram in Rishikesh, India for an intensive Transcendental Meditation course under the guidance of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ironically, music couldn’t have been further from their agenda. “I remember talking about the next album and George was quite strict,” McCartney remembers. “He’d say, ‘We’re not here to talk music — we’re here to meditate.’ ‘Oh, yeah, alright.’” But even Harrison wasn’t able to turn off his songwriting brain completely. Within weeks they had cultivated a bumper crop of new music between them. “Paul must have done about a dozen. George says he’s got six and I wrote 15,” Lennon said at the time. “Because we were in India and only had our guitars there, they have a different feel about them.” Starr had left the Maharishi’s compound weeks before the others (he missed his children, and the food wasn’t working for him) but he received an encouraging postcard from Lennon: “We’ve got about two LPs worth of songs now so get your drums out.” He wasn’t kidding.
The richly detailed book featured in the White Album box set includes close up scans of McCartney’s notepad from the period, decorated with the incongruous image of an aircraft carrier steaming off into a mean yellow sunset. “Academy of Meditation, Shankaracharya Nagar, Rishikesh, India,” reads the inscription on the first page, while the adjacent sheet says, “Spring Songs: Rishikesh 1968.” The remainder of the book contains lyrics, handwritten in McCartney’s own scrawl, in various states of completion. Some are White Album tracks like “Rocky Raccoon,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Back in the USSR.” Others, like “Junk” and a fragmented “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” finished up on other albums.
Elsewhere in the box set book are photos of other White Album-era lyric sheets, scribbled on a charmingly haphazard array of items. “Long, Long, Long” can be found on a page from Harrison’s calendar (dated the second week of August 1968) and the Lennon-penned “Glass Onion” is on the back of an envelope. A very early version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” features a number of rewritten lines and verses, while the somewhat less complicated “Birthday” is sketched out using almost nothing but signifiers like “Riff,” “Solo” and “Drums.” To view the humble beginnings of these future classics is a strangely emotional reminder that these songs weren’t handed down from rock gods, but were very human in origin. Plus, the alternate lyrics are fascinating and occasionally hilarious. Of special note is Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” which contains the memorable couplet: “I feel a little foolish sitting here alone / Instead of eating crackers, I think I’ll just get stoned.”
The Long-Awaited Issue of the Esher Tapes: a.k.a. ‘The While Album: Unplugged’
In late May 1968, days before sessions for what became the White Album were due to begin at Abbey Road Studios, the Beatles convened at George Harrison’s bungalow in the leafy London suburb of Esher to take stock of the new material they’d written in India and beyond. “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,” McCartney later remembered. With acoustic guitars and the odd light percussion instrument in hand, they got down to business with remarkable efficiency. Using Harrison’s Ampex tape machine, they recorded elaborate, multi-tracked demos of 27 titles. Mono copies of the tape were dubbed down for each Beatle to serve as a reference for their upcoming album.
Never before that the band made a concentrated effort to run through a whole body of work in advance of recording dates — and it would never happen again. Energetic and extraordinarily well performed, the so-called Esher Tapes have reached mythical status among Beatles fans as a sort of “White Album: Unplugged.” Scratchy second-generation recordings have made the rounds on the bootleg circuit for decades, but it wasn’t until 1996’s Anthology 3 that a handful of the demos recorded that day finally surfaced in hi-def audio. Now, for the first time, all 27 tracks are available on a single disc, the crown jewel of the new box set.
While the lion’s share of the titles — 19, to be exact — wound up on the White Album, there were other surprises. Most interesting are the six songs that were never issued by the band as a working unit. Harrison’s compositions frequently got the elbow — “Not Guilty” was recorded for the White Album but was ultimately left off the final track listing (more on that later), while “Sour Milk Sea” was never attempted in the studio and offered up to Apple Records artist Jackie Lomax. “Circles,” an eerie organ-based track, was never attempted at all, and to date this remains the only record of the song. McCartney’s “Junk” would see the light of day on his 1970 solo debut, but a highlight of the batch is Lennon’s “Child of Nature” — a languid ode to rural life that he’d revamp with new lyrics three years later as “Jealous Guy.”
Many of the tracks destined for the White Album are equally interesting in their own right as works in progress that differ greatly from their final form. “Yer Blues,” most familiar as a high-wattage shouter, appears as a slow jam, with Lennon singing the verses in a self-parodying falsetto. A stripped down “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey” is transformed into a jokey campfire sing-along with Lennon adopting a Dylanesque drawl. McCartney’s future pub piano favorite “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has a ska swing, and Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” contains a completely different verse: “I look at the trouble and hate that is raging / While my guitar gently weeps / As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging / While my guitar gently weeps.” But pride of place on the Esher Tapes belongs to “Dear Prudence,” which includes Lennon’s spoken word breakdown detailing the song’s muse, Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence — who freaked out members of the Beatles’ Indian entourage with her feverishly intense approach to meditation. “No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” Lennon says on the tape. “All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane. So we sang to her.”
The Missing Link Between “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9”
It’s long been known that Lennon’s ripped-from-the-headlines call to action and his disorienting sound collage were born of the same primordial track, but exactly how these two disparate pieces ever fit together was enough to puzzle even the most dedicated music theorist. The White Album box set presents the answer to this riddle with Take 18. The 10-minute sonic saga begins with the version of “Revolution 1” heard on the final version before devolving into a musique concrète hell-scape.
It was recorded during the inaugural White Album session on May 30, 1968. Just days before, Lennon and avant-garde artist Yoko Ono had consummated their creative (and romantic) union at the Beatle’s Surrey estate by staying up all night recording a collection of tape loops and sound effects, which they’d release later that year under the title Two Virgins. The experience was still clearly fresh on Lennon’s mind as he settled in with his bandmates at Abbey Road to begin work on “Revolution.” Ono attended the session at his invitation, signaling a breach to the famous foursome that would be much mythologized in the years to come. But relations sound warm and friendly on the tapes, and Ono herself even comes across as occasionally bashful. “That’s too much?” she asks at the end of a take. Lennon insists it’s not, and even McCartney can be heard piping up: “Yeah, it’s wild!”
Emboldened by Ono’s presence — and possibly the 400,000 student protestors storming the streets in Paris that very same day — Lennon tears into his latest composition with an almost militant fury. As the conventional song and its sloganeering references to Chairman Mao, changing the world and evolution begin to fade away, the track starts to disintegrate. McCartney bashes the piano keys and Ono contributes electronic beeps and loops from her tape recorder, unleashing snatches that would become familiar to listeners on “Revolution 9.” But Lennon remains front and center, bringing his voice from a whisper to a shout as he intones “Alright!” like a fervent mantra. Engineer Geoff Emerick remembers him “spitting out the lyrics with barely restrained venom…He seemed to be trying to exorcize some inner demons, screaming the words ‘all right‘ over and over again…By the end of it, his voice was shredded and he seemed exhausted.”
The impact is a stunning aural representation of revolution as all traces of melody, a comforting sign of status quo, is engulfed by anarchic noise.
The Epic Uncut Version of “Helter Skelter”
Hardcore fans were dismayed when the Anthology 3 collection issued a truncated four-and-a-half minute version of the Beatles’ second pass at “Helter Skelter.” However, the White Album box set restores Take 2 to its full glory, pushing 12 minutes in length. Vastly different from the searing rocker found on the finished White Album, this early incarnation — one of three recorded on the night of July 18, 1968 — is an ominous E-minor vamp, dripping with echo, bluesy guitar fills, and a relentlessly plodding bass played, unusually, by John Lennon. Despite the epic length, it’s a flash compared to the attempt recorded immediately after, which stretched to over 27 minutes and holds the distinction of being the longest track the band ever recorded. This version, perhaps understandably, remains in the vault, but the enlarged Take 2 provides a reasonable approximation.
“Helter Skelter” had a long genesis before finishing up as the raunchiest track in the Beatles’ canon. Amazingly, one of the first attempts committed to tape is a breezy acoustic affair recorded between takes during sessions for “Blackbird” on June 11. This slight version would be a distant memory when the band convened on Sept. 9 to remake the song as rip-roaring bid to outdo the Who as the gnarliest rock band in the land. With producer George Martin away on holiday, they felt truly free to pull out the stops. Guitars were treated with overloaded distortion and McCartney’s vocals were further drenched in live slap-back echo. This effect reminded the band of the early Sun Studio recordings made by their hero, Elvis Presley, and they couldn’t resist tearing off an impromptu rendition of a song made famous by the King: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” Though just a brief 43-second snippet exists, it’s a highlight of the collection, providing a rare of glimpse of what it must have sounded like during those beer-soaked nights when the Beatles were just another bar band playing Hamburg’s red light district.
Warmed up both vocally and spiritually, they blew through 18 takes of “Helter Skelter.” Take 17, included on the box set, receives McCartney’s seal of approval. “Keep that one — mark it ‘Fab’!” he instructs on the tape. Despite the endorsement, it would take four more tries to capture the master.
The Earliest Known Attempt at “Let It Be”
For years it was believed that McCartney first recorded his modern hymnal during sessions for the Beatles’ “Get Back” project in January 1969, but a tape from Sept. 5, 1968 revealed a surprise. In between takes for Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” McCartney leads the band through a fragment of his new composition. Though inspired by dream visit from his late mother Mary — who offered some much-needed succor as the band’s business headaches began to increase — McCartney sings of “Brother Malcolm” whispering the titular words of wisdom. It remains to be seen whether he’s giving a playful name check to the Beatles’ ever-present roadie Mal Evans, or he simply hasn’t finished the lyrics (or possibly both). As the take breaks down, Harrison can be heard saying, “Cans on, Eric!” — a note to Eric Clapton, who was present that day to record his standout solo for his good friend’s song.
A Bluesy Take on “Cry Baby Cry”
The box set features a host of alternative arrangements of familiar Beatles standards, often varying greatly from their final incarnations on record. One of the most notable — and fascinating — is a bluesy version of Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry.” He first began tinkering with the tune back in the fall of 1967, inspired by the slightly sadistic advertising slogan, “Cry baby cry, make your mother buy.” The words were solidified in India, drawing surreal imagery from the 18th century English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” The starchy parlor room feel of lyrics inform early demos of the song, but an unnumbered rehearsal take from July 15, 1968 — long believed lost — reveals a far moodier approach with organ and electric guitar at the fore. Lennon starts the take with a gleeful nursery rhyme of his own creation — “Semolina semolina Pilchard, green snot pie / all mixed together with a dead dog’s eye!” — borrowed in part from his earlier Carrollian masterpiece, “I Am the Walrus.” The keyboard stabs and swampy bass makes for a deeply atmospheric track, far heavier than the final one. Ultimately, the band decided on a more delicate approach when they started recording formal takes the following day.
The Missing Harmonies on “I’m So Tired”
The master of “I’m So Tired,” Take 14, is included in the session outtakes, and for a few seconds it sounds just as it does on the record. But then a host of previously unheard instrumental adornments, edited out of the final version, peek through. Fuzzed out guitar fills pierce Lennon’s sleepy intro, before he gets some help from his bandmates with doo wop-y harmonies. Keyboards, drums, and electric guitars are far more prominent, and Lennon gives a double dose of the gibberish vocals that have confused fans for decades. The busier approach doesn’t exactly serve the song’s “tired” theme, but it’s certainly entertaining.
The Complete Version of a White Album Secret Track
On side four of the original album, a ghostly acoustic ditty courtesy of McCartney acts as a bridge between the unsettled final chord of “Cry Baby Cry” and the unsettling sound collage of “Revolution 9.” It doesn’t show up on the track listening — on the EMI tape box it’s listened only as “Jam – Unidentified” — but fans have nicknamed it “Can You Take Me Back?” after the mournful line repeated over the gentle twang of acoustic guitar. The tune lasts just a few seconds before it fades into the sonic ether like a Cheshire Cat’s eerie smile, but now the complete version is available on the box set.
It was recorded on Sept. 16 at the same session that produced McCartney’s “I Will.” The sunny mood of the song apparently rubbed off, as a cheerful Macca leads a maraca-wielding Lennon and Starr (Harrison wasn’t present) through a series of jams between takes. The Lorenz & Hart chestnut “Blue Moon” is dusted off for an acoustic reading. So is the McCartney original “Step Inside Love,” which he’d written as a television theme tune for Cilla Black, the band’s old friend from Liverpool. This charming incomplete take is found on Anthology 3, paired with a snippet of the goofy jam “Los Paranoias.” The full version of the ersatz Latin groove is included here in full for the first time, showcasing — for the ages — the two greatest songwriters of their generation swapping faux Spanish phrases over McCartney’s vocal mimicked trumpet solo.
Even proper takes of “I Will” feature the odd prank or two. Take 29 begins normally, with McCartney’s voice oozing sincerity through the first verse until he arrives at the last line: “Will I wait a lonely lifetime? If you want me to…I WON’T.” Song over. Cue laughter.
The Lost Orchestral Introduction to “Don’t Pass Me By”
Ringo Starr’s vocal vehicle “Good Night” wound up with a full-blown orchestral score, but the genial stick man’s other White Album track, “Don’t Pass Me By,” very nearly opened with an equally lush symphonic overture. Starr had been slaving over his songwriting debut for years, referencing it in interviews as far back as 1964. When the band finally recorded “Don’t Pass Me By” for the White Album, they were at a loss for how to start it. Eventually, they turned to George Martin to provide an over-the-top prelude to the simple country-tinged ditty. “It was for John that I did an off-the-wall introduction, because we hadn’t a clue what to do with Ringo’s song,” he said years later. “In the event, the intro was too bizarre for us to use, and the score was scrapped.”
The brief orchestral piece, recorded the same day as the backing for “Good Night,” eventually surfaced under the title “In the Beginning” on Anthology 3. On the White Album box set it can be heard in situ as the lead in to “Don’t Pass Me By.” The effect is, as Martin feared, bizarre, though comical in a tongue-in-cheek way. Also included on this alternate take is the disused fade out, featuring the band frantically whispering the song’s one-time working title, “This Is Some Friendly.”
The Full Version of George Harrison’s Fiery White Album Offcut “Not Guilty”
It’s fitting that George Harrison’s cantankerous “Not Guilty,” which brims with resentment towards his two “senior” bandmates, had one of the most difficult births of all Beatle tracks. Packed with idiosyncratic chord clusters and distinctive stops, starts and time shifts, it earned the dubious honor of being the first Beatles song to require more than 100 takes. After four long days of work in August 1968, “Not Guilty” was completed but ultimately shelved. The reasons for this aren’t known for certain, but the barely disguised barbs leveled at the other Beatles might provide some indication. “It was me getting pissed off at Lennon and McCartney for the grief I was catching during the making of the White Album,” he explained to Musician in 1987. “I said I wasn’t guilty of getting in the way of their career. I said I wasn’t guilty of leading them astray in our going to Rishikesh to see the Maharishi. I was sticking up for myself.”
Harrison revisited the song for his 1978 eponymous solo album, but the Beatles’ completed recording, Take 102, remained in the vault until the Anthology 3 collection was released in 1996. This variation was edited down by over a minute, frustrating some fans by the absence of guitar solos and other musical embellishments that had originally been present. The version included on the White Album box set is complete, with all of these elements intact.
The Very First Take of “Hey Jude”
Paul McCartney gave a low-key premiere of his transcendent 7-minute epic on the night of June 30, 1968, when he dropped in at a pub in the small Bedfordshire village of Harrold and blew the minds of a handful of lucky punters. “Paul got to a piano and a sing-song was started — he’d always been good at that sort of thing — and he said, ‘Well; here’s a new one,’ and he played ‘Hey Jude,’” recalled the Beatles’ friend and sometime press officer Derek Taylor, who was there that magical night. “[He] taught them all how it went: ‘Na, na, na, na, na, na naa…’ so they were all at it!’”
Sadly, the box set doesn’t have that performance on record, but it does have the next best thing: Macca’s first attempt at the song in the studio on July 29. Before singing the words he’d written to comfort John Lennon’s young son Julian during his parents’ divorce, McCartney takes a couple practice passes at the introductory “Hey,” imbuing the word with maximum sympathy. He backs himself on piano, singing with a loose swagger largely absent on the final single. The arrangement is still in its early stages; rather than entering one at a time on each verse, Starr’s drums and Lennon’s acoustic guitar are present early on, with Harrison’s tossing in a few tentative electric fills just before McCartney tackles the anthemic coda — which he gamely sees through for three and a half minutes with full-throated vocal runs and Little Richard howls.
A Stripped Down Version of “Good Night” with the Whole Band on Vocals
“Everybody thinks that Paul wrote ‘Good Night’ for me to sing,” Starr admitted in 1968, “but it was John who wrote it for me. He’s got a lot of soul, John has!” The uncharacteristically tender ballad was, like McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” written to sooth Lennon’s young son Julian. Towards the end of his life he would publicly embrace his sentimental side on record with songs like “Beautiful Boy,” but he wasn’t quite there back in the ‘60s. “We heard him sing [‘Good Night’] in order to teach it to Ringo and he sang it very tenderly,” McCartney remembered in the book Many Years from Now. “I think John felt it might not be good for his image for him to sing it but it was fabulous to hear him do it, he sang it great…I don’t think John’s version was ever recorded.”
While his solo rendition has not been uncovered, the White Album box set features an exquisite recording of the full band harmonizing with Starr while Lennon employs his new finger-picking skills — taught to him by Donovan in India — to pluck out a delicate guitar figure. One of the few times all four Beatles blended their voices together on record, it serves as the perfect curtain call for a work of astonishing creative breadth and musical maturity. Having spent the previous two years mastering studio wizardly, plumbing the depths of their souls for lyrical honesty and redefining the popular song as an art form, they offer a lullaby — a soft and sweet reassurance that all would be well. For those listening in 1968, and now, it’s a welcomed gift.