Last year’s re-release of Sgt Pepper proved that there’s ample interest in reexamining a Beatles masterpiece and uncovering the outtakes, seminal efforts and experiments that went into ratcheting up the results. Truth be told that there’s a treasure trove of rarities that have yet to be uncovered, the Anthology series and endless onslaught of bootlegs aside.
The latest opportunity to explore Beatles work that still resides below the surface nominally lies with Universal/EMI’s epic and expanded seven discs (in this case, six CDs and one bluray) reissue of The Beatles, commonly referred to as “The White Album.” Being that it originally boasted two full discs of music — some 30 tracks in all — it provides plenty of possibility for uncovering further archival entries that led to the album’s ultimate completion. Along the way, the listener is treated to an intimate glimpse of songs in formative stages — in the case of the Esher demos (so named for George Harrison’s home where they were recorded shortly after the group’s return from the Maharishi’s retreat in India), a series of early tryouts in an unplugged manner, and the various discs of session outtakes, including early takes on songs that would eventually make the cut and a number of others that were either discarded or repurposed elsewhere.
Wading through it all is a time-consuming task but well worth every moment. It’s a revealing collection, augmented by a beautiful book of photos, essays, extensive recording notes and reproductions of the original handwritten lyrics. The idea that the White Album was in fact, simply a series of solo efforts with the other Beatles backing whoever was responsible for the song, is both confirmed and discredited; even the tracks later considered closely associated with their authors — John’s “Julia,” Paul’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” George’s “Savoy Truffle” — show the input of the others in a substantive way, And with the book giving the intimate details about each number’s genesis and eventual gelling, the larger picture begins to emerge.
Until now, Let It Be has been the most scrutinized period of the Beatles’ later evolution, but with this box, an equally in-depth examination is added, thanks to the glances of the most ultimate treasure trove of them all, a wealth of unreleased outtakes and recordings both extensive and intimate. There’s Paul’s early take on “Junk,” initially abandoned only to reappear on his first solo album, George’s “Sour Milk Sea,” later repurposed for Jackie Lomax, George’s “Not Guilty,” long forgotten until it resurfaced years later on a post Beatles effort years, early takes of “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe” and “Lady Madonna,” and the quirkiest Fabs recording of all, the crazy and controversial “What’s the New Mary Jane.”
The early takes on the more memorable songs are essential as well, especially when given the chance to hear them before any additional additives were applied. While the Esher sessions suggest that some songs emerged fully formed, even more trivial offerings like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” and Ringo’s sole original contribution, “Don’t Pass Me By,” were fastidiously labored on until they reached their final form.
Yes, it’s damn expensive, and to some perhaps prohibitive. but if there’s ever an excuse to splurge The Beatles box is it. Spend the money now; it will be well worth it later.