This November marks the 50th anniversary of one of popular music’s most definitive and enduring landmarks. In a remarkable burst of creativity, The Beatles eponymous 1968 album redefined the boundaries of what a record could be with a sprawling, eclectic and mesmeric double album which remains singularly unique in the annals of rock music – both for its music and the myriad myths that surround its creation and its ultimate role in the eventual dissolution of the band just over a year after its release.
To celebrate this anniversary, Apple Records have put together an extraordinary reissue of the record, containing the original demos for the album recorded at George Harrison’s Knifauns residence in Esher, Surrey. These remarkable “Esher” demos capture the band in a candid and intimate light, categorising the genesis of songs such as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Dear Prudence’, and ‘Revolution’ in their earliest forms. Alongside this are a huge number of outtakes, demos and unreleased tracks from the sessions to give an insight into the unorthodox recording sessions for the album. But possibly the most fascinating aspect of the reissue is a striking new remix of the album from Giles Martin, following on from his remarkable work on the Cirque de Soleil Beatles Love project and the excellent 2017 reissue of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Having had the chance to write about the influence that The White Album has had on my life earlier this month I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Abbey Road studios to meet Giles and talk about his experience of remixing the album and how not to be fearful, the challenge of approaching such a monumental project, the legacy of the album on subsequent musical generations, and why the frequently-accepted story of the band’s fractious and disintegrating relationship during the sessions may not stand up to actual scrutiny of the evidence.
DiS: It sounds like so much work has gone into this reissue. When did you first start working on it?
Giles Martin: We started last December on the actual mixes. The plan was to mix the whole album before Christmas and start listening to the outtakes, because it does, as you say, take a long time. And also it’s one of those things where you have to have breaks because otherwise you go crazy – especially the listening, because you have to listen to everything and give every song, every take, the same amount of attention as the previous one. Because otherwise…if you’re listening to 25 takes in a row and you are comparing one, two, three, four… on take 23 you’ve got to listen as much as 15. So you get a cup of tea or a piece of cake or whatever and things just go like that.
So I do it in sporadic stages and have other teams of people working on things. We mixed the whole record and then in my standard sort of miserable format, I got to Christmas and then realised we needed to remix it again because it wasn’t right.
So, yeah, you just start work. You know from writing an article - you just start doing it and then you know that it’s going to finish at some point.
How did you decide which takes to use in terms of what best reflected the process of the recordings?
I have to think about what I'm trying to do, and that’s trying to tell the story of the making of a really famous record. The biggest revelation was the Esher demos because I've already got everything laid out for me without any work at all, really. I'm mixing and bits and bobs, but they were pretty much there as a backbone of The White Album.
And then it’s the passageway, so you know that you want—there’s no point me putting on a track that’s too similar to the finished version – although we do have a version of ‘Yer Blues’, but that’s kind of a visceral track. So you want to make sure it’s different enough, and also it’s interesting to listen to and it’s good enough to put on a record. So those are the things.
Kevin Howlett and Mike Heatley, who are a team that work on this as well, they would argue to put different mixes of a song on, and to me, that’s just not as interesting as a different performance. The key thing is: does it tell a story? Is it worth listening to it on its own? If you didn’t know the other song existed, would this be interesting to listen to?
Were the Esher demos the first time the band got together before the album, and did that process of doing demos ahead of going in the studio differ from their normal process?
Yeah, it’s the first time I'm aware of. I think they would record things, but lose or wipe them over or whatever. They certainly play around with tape machines – I mean, that’s where ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ came from. If you think about that, and that was…
Only two years before. The Beatles are…it’s like doggy years, you know? One year is seven years. So I think they definitely had tapes, but it was a very different process, The White Album. And I think it’s also because they spent less time together; before, they’d hear each of the songs because they’re on tour. I'm sure they’d hear songs in a van, or play stuff to each other, or play things constantly or, you know, sit in the hotel with the guitars, but that didn’t exist with The White Album. That existed with Sgt Pepper because they toured before Sgt Pepper. So I think that would be the reason why.
With the Esher demos I expected to hear fragments of songs etc, but some of them are pretty much complete at demo stage.
Yeah, most of them are. And there are some, like ‘Cry Baby Cry’, whereby the Esher demo is close to the finished version, but some of the outtakes are very different from those – they went through this whole journey with it to find the right thing.
Also, the way the Esher demos were done is that, you know, having that very precise double tracking of the vocals. I guess in their mind's eye, there’d be no point in going and spending the effort and recording stuff if they hadn’t finished the song.
Because it’s that efficiency of studio time?
Demos didn’t really exist, really. I mean, demos then would be songwriting demos. Leiber and Stoller record demos all the time, and they’d be finished songs. So a demo would typically be a finished song.
With the demos they (the band) are very relaxed, but the recording sessions themselves became quite fraught in the end, right?
No, that’s not the case. Actually, I can really say - no it wasn’t. I looked for the arguments, and there’s a lot of stuff been written about this, but it just isn’t the case.
I did a presentation in New York where I played – there’s a whole section of ‘I Will’ where the band played ‘Los Paranoias’ and a journalist said to me: “But I read that ‘I Will’ was recorded with Paul on his own in a studio.” I said: “Yeah, but it wasn’t.” So he went: “Who are the other two people?”, I went: “There’s John Lennon and Ringo Starr.” He said: “But I read it wasn’t them.” I said: “Well, it is them!”
It’s that thing where a lot of stuff’s written…largely with John, actually, and a little bit of George, in the ‘70s saying: “The White Album was the sound of the Beatles breaking up”, but I think that John wrote a lot of things, or certainly said a lot of things. When my dad saw John in 1980 and said: “Why do you say all those things about me?” John went: “I was just high, what do you expect me to say?”
I looked as hard as I could for audio of acrimony on The White Album, because it is interesting, and my job was to document The White Album, and the Beatles certainly wouldn’t be in a situation where they’d tell me to clean things up and give it a glossy image. Read Paul’s recent interviews – they’re certainly not him trying to make the Beatles saccharin.
But there really isn’t. I think it was tough for the people in the studios, it was tough for my dad, tough for engineers, but not tough for the Beatles. If you listen to ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, there are a lot of takes of it and John says something like, “It’s getting better but it’s not getting any more fun”. And George, who was probably one of the most acerbic, goes: “It is, it’s getting better and it’s more fun.” And that’s not the sound of a band breaking up. A band breaking up doesn’t go into a cupboard and record ‘Yer Blues’, you know?
Do you think one of the reasons for that is the desire to over-mythologise the band and disparate strands? Because a lot of things come from Revolution In The Head (Ian MacDonald’s famous 1994 Beatles tome which is famously critical of much of the album and its recording process), and I gather a lot of the things in that have been critiqued and disagreed with quite strongly by people over the years?
It’s hard to comment on why people have written certain things or what the basis is. But the tricky thing is that something’s written may be a half-truth, or maybe a three-quarters truth, and then that’s taken, analysed and becomes a half-truth. It’s like Chinese whispers as it goes – I mean, Paul says to me, all the stuff that’s written about the Beatles, there were only four of them and they can’t remember what happened. So it’s that – people fill in the blanks as best they can.
All I can do in my job with them is listen to what they recorded on tape, and take a view on that. That’s what I have. So the mood of The White Album was surprising in that it wasn’t the mood I thought it would be.
My dad never liked The White Album really. He didn’t enjoy the process, he thought it was quite flabby as a record. He liked to be very efficient. They had to work – they worked overnight, which he didn’t like. They wanted less of his involvement, which he didn’t like. My view of The White Album was that it wasn’t a fun record to make for him. But I think for the band, they quite enjoyed it. You talk to Ringo or Paul now, they enjoyed it, you listen to the tapes and they’re suddenly enjoying themselves.
I assumed your dad was frustrated with them doing long takes etc, but in reality, was it more that they wanted to do more stuff by themselves?
Well, the two are connected. The sessions are dragging on because – he argued – he had less involvement. A lot of the sessions you hear the band say to him, or Paul or John say” “We’ll tell you when we’ve got it”. It was a very different relationship. I think it certainly changed with Let It Be because it did become more fractious, and then Abbey Road was a different record altogether. But The White Album isn’t the sound of the band breaking up.
It’s a darker album but there are moments of real joy and beauty on it.
I reckon the Beatles were always slightly dark. I think there was a frustration from within themselves as a band, which they addressed with Sgt Pepper, but then, if you think about it, with Sgt Pepper they deliberately weren’t themselves anymore, they were this fictional band. And pre-Sgt Pepper they were still rejecting the era of being a boyband if you like.
I think that there was this resonance of “they’re not proper musicians”. That was a stigma that was attached to the Beatles in those days, in the early to mid-60s, that they were this boyband. Eric Clapton said in an interview when we did the George Harrison documentary, “I was just surprised when I did a gig with them that they could actually play their instruments.” The White Album was a band record, it was going back to basics.
For my father, he thought they’d be progressing from Sgt Pepper onto something more elaborate, I think. My father’s roots were classical. I remember it was always his ambition to write a symphony with Eric Clapton, you know, doing classical guitar stuff but playing with guitars. He had lots of these ideas.
I know he loved the second half of Abbey Road. That was really what he wanted.
In terms of remixing these songs, how do you start going about that? As a producer, how much of a challenge is it to take something with all that heritage and trying to do something new and unique to it?
When you start it, you don’t think of that. You think it’s what we do, my job, remixing or mixing songs. So you treat it like mixing any song. And you think about also how the song makes you feel, how you remember it. Because songs have—in essence, you’re kind of mixing how you think the song sounds in your head. And then you listen to the original and it’s not the same. And then sometimes it’s worse, and sometimes it’s better. Most of the time it’s sort of…so so. That’s the way it works. It’s the same process.
I worked on the George Harrison project, Living In The Material World. And I was down in Friar Park (George and Olivia Harrison’s London home). Olivia Harrison phoned me and said: “Scorsese’s not happy with your revisionist approach to mixing.” I was like: “Well, okay.” She goes: “You’re fired” and then they got rid of me [laughs]. They just said: “Stop working, stop doing it”, and I was like: “Okay”.
And then a month later she phoned me and goes: “They got played back and Marty’s not happy with the sound of the songs”, and I went: “Oh right, okay, well they’re not my mixes.” So I met Scorsese in De Lane Lea in London, which is a film studio. ‘All Things Must Pass’ was his favourite George Harrison song - and I played him it and said: “Listen, just choose which one you like”, and he listened and he goes: “This is the one I remember” and of course it was the mix, it wasn’t the one from the record in 1970. I just said to him: “Listen, that’s what happens.”
You can't mix in fear. But then when you listen to the original you have to make sure that you respect the nuances– I mean, I was lucky that when I did the Love (Cirque de Soleil) soundtrack, we did ‘I Am the Walrus’ and I thought it sounded great, but I listened to the original and it sounded worse but felt much better. Because it was claustrophobic, it was dirty — all the mix I'd done was too clean.
Take something like ‘Glass Onion’, for instance. The vocal sound on ‘Glass Onion’ is kind of gnarly, it’s really important for the song. I spent a lot of time with Sam Okell – an engineer – getting the sound of John’s vocal right, because it’s really important for the sound of ‘Glass Onion’.
I remember Bob Clearmountain’s (legendary US engineer and mixer) mixing – a brilliant mixing engineer – and he remixed ‘All Right Now’ by Free that I listened to when I was about 14. And I thought: “This doesn’t sound like ‘All Right Now’ by Free. The snare’s too clean, the cow bell’s too loud”. It didn’t feel right to me. So for me, I think it’s really important that we get the feel of the song right.
Do you have free reign to do that?
I can do whatever I like, but then they have to be happy with the end result. They say to me – all of them say to me – “Your job isn’t to be safe, you work for the Beatles, your job is to push boundaries”. So we do things, ADT to the guitars for instance. ‘Dear Prudence’, for example, you remember the song in your head, you think about that guitar’s tone, John’s arpeggiated guitar, and it sounds beautiful – his voices comes in directly on top and then the bass and drums come in. You listen to the original song, the guitar is…I think it’s in the left-hand speaker, but it’s quite small. You don’t remember it being small.
So we ADT-ed the guitar, which is double tracked, to a tape machine and stereo-ed it, so it sounds more how you remember it in your head. And it’s that, it’s doing that.
Now, you wouldn’t know I'd done that unless you AB the mono – AB the original to the thing. But the mix just sounds like ‘Dear Prudence’. So that’s kind of the process, if that makes sense. I don’t think I'm ruining their guitar sound or making it sound modern – because I'm using the same techniques they would have done.
And I think that being my father’s son and being trained under him, knowing the Beatles…I didn’t know John very well, met him once when I was little, but I spoke to Yoko about it. I think if I'd say to him, “Shall I ADT the ‘Dear Prudence’ guitar using this tape machine?”, he’d probably go: “Yeah, try it out”. So that’s what you do. And they couldn’t have done that then, they didn’t have the technology to.
Your dad, I believe, was always trying to say, “Put the best songs together, make a single album. Make it more concise”. What’s your opinion?
That’s a good question. I don’t really have an opinion on it, it was made before I was born. I wouldn’t go down the road of second guessing things. Decisions were made, and The White Album is what it is. I can't imagine it being a single album. In a way, they had too many songs, if you think about the songs that didn’t go on it. Think about the songs that we discovered or, you know, the fact that they recorded ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Hey Bulldog’…
‘Across The Universe’ and what ended up becoming ‘Jealous Guy’ – ‘Child of Nature’?
Exactly, so I just think it is what it is. It was more of a shift that their working methods had changed, that he was saying these things. They were deciding more what the songs would be than he was at that stage.
From a recording/producing perspective, what do you think the legacy of the album is in that regard? Did it change anything or have any real lasting influence on the music industry or the studio process?
The funny thing about The White Album is it’s very difficult to pigeon-hole as an album. It’s not an experimental album, it’s not a pop album. It’s just this big behemoth of a record with a bunch of different styles in it. So for it to influence certain things, or be a sea change in the way music is done – I mean, there hasn’t been another White Album since. So you can't say it triggered a bunch of White Albums.
However, I think it’s been the most influential Beatles album on bands, from Pixies to whoever. It’s also got the most covered numbers of Beatles songs on it. I remember Siouxsie and the Banshees doing ‘Dear Prudence’ or whatever, and it seemed to trigger that genre of a certain type of very bittersweet alternative music that stems from The White Album.
You can’t imagine before The White Album. If you went to a number of bands and asked: “What’s your favourite Beatles album?” they’d probably say The White Album. So I think it has that, but also, it’s an album with ‘Good Night’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Revolution 9’, ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Wild Honey Pie’, ‘Honey Pie’… It’s all over the place as far as a genre of recording. It’s certainly the bravest Beatles album, you could argue that.
Whether they were really being brave, because…they were untouchable at the time. So is it confidence or bravery?
Going through the record/outtakes etc, was there anything that was a revelation to you that you didn’t know before?
The first revelation was the fact that they got on with each other. That was the biggest revelation for me. Because I'd read – same as you – I'd read these stories about how George would be off making ‘Savoy Truffle’ and Paul would be working on ‘Blackbird’ in a room on his own.
When Paul came in here and sat where you’re sitting now and we listened to The White Album, he really wanted to listen to ‘Julia’. I was like, “Really?” He wasn’t saying he doesn’t read press about The White Album, but he was very much a part of that recording process with John.
That’s not the sound of a band breaking up to me. So that’s the biggest thing. You talk to Ringo and he just talks about how he loves The White Album, and he loves the fact that it was a band collaboration, loves the fact that ‘Yer Blues’ was recorded in a machine room, you know?
And then as far as tracks go, there’s a version of ‘Julia’ which no one knew existed, which is at the end of a tape. Matthew Cocker upstairs catalogued everything and there’s this version of ‘Julia’ at the end where he is having a conversation with my dad about whether he should be strumming or picking it, and he goes: “It’s really hard to sing this, George”, and he goes, “It’s a hard song, John.”
Lots have been written about sound and recording and process. But the most unquantifiable thing – the hardest thing to write about is that here’s a reason why I think records sound good: generally it’s because the people are really good that sing them. You can have Joe Cocker or Stevie Wonder or John Lennon or Paul McCartney sing into an answerphone and they're going to sound better than you or I on a Neumann 48. That’s the way it is. It’s upsetting for us to hear that because we like to analyse stuff, we like to be able to write things down in numbers and form.
And all of these outtakes, what that shows to me is you have that switch between the conversation and the singing, that makes you realise how natural it is for someone to be that good. So that would be an outtake that really shows that up.
What are your plans following this? Do you have a plan to go and look at Abbey Road in the future?
Well, when Sgt Pepper came out and it was really well received, I’m sort of humbled by it. You don’t expect these things to be that well received, you just do the best you can. The White Album has to come out first. We’ll see. I mean, if I do it, I'd have to start very soon because of the amount of work that needs to go into it…but at the same time I've got to finish this Elton John film at the moment, it’s a really good laugh actually. We finish shooting tomorrow, wrap party’s tomorrow.
I saw the trailer this week. So it’s still shooting?
I had to make the trailer before we’d even shot two weeks, it’s bonkers. So, yeah, I'm doing all the music for that. The funny thing is, we did that trailer to show off that Taron can sing. No one thinks it’s him singing
So that is actually him singing on the Elton John trailer?
See, that’s the point, everyone thinks it’s Elton John! So I've been working with him for a year, you know, ‘Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be Elton John’, which has been great. And it’s a completely different thing for me. It’s interesting interpreting – people go: “So you got all the masters?” and I go: “No, I'm re-interpreting Elton John’s songs”. So there’s a lot of work to do, and I'm really loving that. That’s ten and a half weeks from now.
So, yeah, if I do it (the Abbey Road remix) then there are no plans yet. I think we’d have to look at it and see whether we can make a difference to it. That’s my attitude. And if you can’t, then don’t do it. So, yeah, I don't know yet. We’ll see.
The White Album, remastered and reissued, is out now via Apple / EMI and is available in a number of deluxe CD and LP boxsets. To see the full range of formats, pleae visit the Beatles official webshop.
Photo Credit: Alex Lake