Holiday Gift Alert! Music Review: The Beatles - The Beatles (aka The White Album) - Super-Deluxe Edition (6 CDs / 1 Blu-ray)

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Most Beatles fans have played the game before, possibly many times: what would you trim from The Beatles' 1968 double album (aka the 'White Album') in order to make it a more compact, single album? Producer George Martin was very vocal in the decades after The Beatles was released in his strong belief that, had what he perceived as the weaker cuts been omitted, the album could've been a masterpiece. That's not to say a great many people don't consider it just that in its released form, but the late Sir George deemed it less than the sum of its parts.

Of course the fascinating part of taking the "single-disc version of the White Album challenge" comes from fans' seeming inability to ever agree on what the definite lineup would be. (I'll indulge by offering my own personal tracklist at the end of this review.) The monumentally important news for Beatles people is that this holiday season, fans can not only argue about which 'White Album' tracks are the most vital, but which of the famous "Esher Demos" and studio outtakes are indispensable. Universal Music Enterprises has just followed up last year's super-deluxe Sgt. Pepper's box set with a 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles.

As with Pepper, Giles Martin (son of Sir George), along with engineer Sam Okell, have painstakingly remixed the entire album. More on that later. For now, suffice it to say that if you're intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the album's 30 tracks, you'll notice various differences... choices made by Martin and Okell, two individuals not involved in this particular piece of art's creation. Again, more on that later. The new mix offers a listening experience that is really by no means radically different than the one offered by the original mix for the last 50 years. But it is... different.

The real meat of this set is found over five bonus CDs. The 2018 stereo remix is presented on discs one and two, but after that all sorts of treasures abound. Bootleg collectors will be well familiar with disc three's "Esher Demos"—several of which were widely heard on 1996's Anthology 3. Back in '96, the pristine fidelity of those demos was revelatory to those who strained to make out nuance in bootlegs of varying clarity, so naturally it's fantastic to have all 27 in sterling quality.

And of course, those who've never heard them before will rejoice in hearing these demos, many of which feature not-quite-final lyrics. Basically they're either Paul McCartney, John Lennon, or George Harrison accompanying his vocals with simple acoustic rhythm guitar. They've often been collectively referred to as an "unplugged" version of the 'White Album.' (Some highlights include tunes that didn't wind up on the album, like Harrison's "Circles" which finally found a home on 1982's Gone Troppo.)

Labeled "Sessions," discs four, five, and six offer dozens of alternate takes and rehearsals. Disc four kicks off with the legendary Take 18 of "Revolution 1," with its long jam of an ending, featuring Lennon vocals (Yoko Ono, too) later re-purposed for "Revolution 9." Anyone who has read about this take while pouring over Marc Lewisohn's Recording Sessions book from the late-'80s will be in heaven, finally able to hear what very few people had been privy to.

Some of the 'White Album' material on Anthology 3 has been carried over here, while some tracks remain exclusive to that set. We'd already heard Ringo Starr singing album-closer "Goodnight" backed my George Martin's piano rather than syrupy strings (on Anthology), but we now get to hear priceless takes that include guitar and a harmony vocal arrangement by Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison.

While Anthology 3 offered the slow-burn second-take of "Helter Skelter," it did so in drastically-edited form. On this new release, the full 12-minute take is included (still no surfacing of the much-longed-for FIRST take, which runs a reported 27 minutes, maybe because it would simply take up too much disc space). Adding to the thrills, we now get to hear Take 17 of "Helter Skelter"—the one cut prior to the take that was chosen as the master. That's found on disc five, which also includes a short but intriguing early rehearsal of "Let It Be" (with a significantly different feel than its 1969 final version).

While highlights are simply too numerous to mention, admittedly it's disc six that starts to wear a bit thin. This one gets too much into alternate mixes—"outfakes" is what old school bootleg collectors called 'em—that basically offer the master album take, only with various elements mixed out. "Martha My Dear" without brass or strings (speaking of which, the credits in the hardcover book contradict the long-held belief that this was basically a McCartney solo track, crediting Ringo with drums and George with guitar), "Savoy Truffle" without vocals, "The Inner Light" (a George-led b-side recorded during the 'White Album' sessions) without vocals. These are inevitably far less interesting than hearing the aforementioned revelations.

There's also a Blu-ray, which it should known going in, does NOT include video content. That seems like a wasted opportunity. Even the EPK pieces found on YouTube, with Giles Martin discussing the product in detail and boasting awesome footage of the Beatles in-studio, could've added some extra value to the Blu-ray disc. Instead we get the 2018 remix presented in PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1, and Dolby TrueHD 5.1. After extensive sampling of both surround tracks, my clear-cut favorite is the punchier Dolby one, which seems to favor vocals more than the DTS. I know many people love surround mixes of albums. Hey, this sounds good to me—what Beatles fan doesn't want to sit in a room surrounded by the music, as close as you'll ever get to being in the studio—though replay-ability on this format... well...

Okay, honestly, how many people have time to sit in their living room listening to a Blu-ray over their 5.1 system? It's impractical to think this would be a regular experience for the average person. Also on the disc is the 1968 mono mix (previously available as part of the Beatles in Mono CD box set). This brings up the whole issue of the new 2018 mix, as I mentioned I'd be returning to the topic. As with last year's Sgt. Pepper box set, the ORIGINAL stereo mix by George Martin is nowhere to be found. The decision was made to simply ignore its existence. And I have a problem with that sort of revision.

At least in the case of Sgt. Pepper, the original mono mix was considered the definite mix by the people who actually created it. The mono mix was labored over for weeks by the Beatles and George Martin, while the quickie stereo mix was a tossed-together afterthought. So last year's remix found Martin and Okell essentially creating a stereo expansion/re-imagining of the mono mix.

Here, with the 'White Album,' they've taken Sir George's original stereo mix as their basis (that essentially had nothing intrinsically "wrong" with it—i.e. no wonky 'all vocals in one channel, all instruments in the other channel' mixes as found on the Beatles' earliest releases). And they've added their own choices and enhancements (nothing sore-thumb-ish in its obviousness, except maybe a now-foreign-sounding mix of "Wild Honey Pie"), resulting in out-and-out revisionism.

The original mix is readily available on the 2009 remaster, but for a comprehensive (and, ahem, expensive) collection like this 50th anniversary box, why not throw in a remastered version of the original stereo (and the mono, for that matter, on CD instead of relegating it to the Blu-ray, where it will quite likely be seldom heard by most owners of this set)? Had both the original stereo and mono been included on CD, the set would be complete and true to the album's original form (while still allowing listeners to choose the new remix).

That said, with five discs of tremendously interesting additional recordings, this is an exemplary set, any quibbles aside. The hefty hardcover coffee-table-worthy volume that accompanies it is the icing on the cake. Happy holidays indeed.

Beatles White Album display.jpg
Almost forgot... the "Turn the 'White Album' into a Single Disc" challenge... Ground rules, as set by me... Since the original 30-track album breaks down to 12 John, 12, Paul, four George, and two Ringo, I'm retaining the even distribution. My choices for six John, six Paul, two George, and one Ringo. 

SIDE ONE (approx. 25 minutes):
1) "Back in the USSR"
2) "Dear Prudence" 
3) "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"
4) "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
5) "Happiness is a Warm Gun"
6) "I'm So Tired"
7) "Blackbird"
8) "Don't Pass Me By" 

SIDE TWO (approx. 23 minutes):
9) "Julia"
10) "Birthday"
11) "Yer Blues"
12) "Mother Nature's Son"
13) "Sexy Sadie"
14) "Helter Skelter"
15) "Long, Long, Long"

For the record, I love the 'White Album' just as it is. The sprawl allows for such a far-reaching canvas for the band to explore tangents in addition to disciplined songcraft. But if I just HAD to make it a single album, the above is MY take—and I'm sticking to it (I feel like every choice is easily justifiable, not merely based on 'personal fave' songs). Feel free to add YOUR take in the comments.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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