“The White Album” Revisited

1968 was a year filled with upheaval, and history-changing events.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated only months apart.  Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas.  Richard Nixon became president by only a half million votes.  Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis.

It was a busy year for The Beatles personally, and professionally as well.  They traveled to India in February with Donovan, Mike Love, and others, spending 4 weeks practicing meditation with the Maharishi.  When they returned, Paul eventually broke his engagement off with Jane Asher, and invited Linda Eastman to move in with him.  In the summer, John and Paul went to New York to do interviews promoting their new business endeavor, Apple.  They even appeared on the Tonight Show, hosted by Joe Garagiola that night, during which they indulged in some incoherent chitchat with Tallulah Bankhead, who passed away a few months later.  Cynthia was granted a divorce from John, citing his adultery with Yoko.  John and Yoko were arrested for drug possession, and only a month later Yoko suffered a miscarriage.

Away from the distractions of London, John, Paul and George were immensely creative during their stay in India.  The “White Album” would likely have never happened without it.  They wrote a total of over 30 new songs, enough material to fill two albums.  Other songs from this period became hit singles on the radio, like “Lady Madonna,” “Hey Jude,” and “Revolution,” and were not on any album.  Not to mention, some of the songs written and recorded in 1968 wouldn’t even appear until Abbey Road, Let It Be, or McCartney’s solo album.  Additionally, a few wouldn’t be released until Anthology 3 in 1996.  Towards the end of May, they spent an entire day recording demos of most of their new songs on George’s 4-track tape recorder, at his house in Esher, a suburb of London.

The sessions for the album they called decided to call The Beatles, were not easy going.  Both Ringo and George quit at different times, temporarily.  When the four of them were together, they were so busy in the studio, they needed different rooms at the same time to work on recording and arrangements on their own.

“Back In The U.S.S.R”
The album version:

The Esher Demo:

With Ringo having quit, in order to record “Back In The U.S.S.R,” Paul had to play drums, while John took over the bass part.  Paul had written this while in India.  Paul played it for Mike Love, of the Beach Boys, and Love suggested the rhythm should be similar to the Chuck Berry tune, “Back In The USA.” Love said it could use some Beach Boys-styled backup vocals.  Paul incorporated Love’s ideas in the final arrangement.


“Dear Prudence”

Prudence was Mia Farrow’s younger sister, who accompanied her to India.  Prudence was so painfully shy she had panic attacks and wouldn’t leave her room.  The distinctive finger picking style was taught to John, by Donovan.  Once again, Paul is on drums, while John plays bass on one track, and guitar on another.


“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
The album version:

The Esher Demo:

One of George’s most beloved songs began as a random experiment.  He said,  “I was thinking that anything I see when I open a book, I’m going to write a song about. So I opened this book and I saw ‘gently weeps.’ I shut the book and then I started the tune.”  Beginning life in a delicate acoustic folk song style, the song went through a complete transformation.  George felt too challenged to come up with an appropriate part for solo guitar he felt the song deserved, so he called in his pal Eric Clapton, who nailed it in one take.


“Martha My Dear” without brass and strings:

This was the first recording by The Beatles, entirely recorded by only one of them.  Paul sings, plays piano, and also performed the drum track, as well as guitar.  The finished recording on the album has a small brass and string ensemble, arranged by George Martin.  Paul added a bass guitar part later.  Without the brass, strings, and bass, one can appreciate the skill of Paul’s piano playing.  Also, the guitar is more exposed, and you can hear much better the jazzy 7th and 9th chords that he plays in a variety of positions.  A photograph of the session, shows George adding a guitar part that mostly covers over, or replaced, McCartney’s own track.

The stark, vacant, white album cover of The Beatles was an intentional decision to distinguish it from the previous albums, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour, both of which were very much inspired by the psychedelic style of 1967.  Paul worked closely with artist Richard Hamilton in coming up with he design.  The blank visual was very much connected to the minimalist movement in art emerging in the late 60’s.  Until only a few months before the release, the album’s original (and baffling) title was going to be A Doll’s HouseGeorge Martin always maintained they should have pared down the number of songs to make one great single album, instead of a really good double album.  But it was four against one, and The Beatles got their way, as they always did.

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