November 9, 2018
When it comes to rock music, events of half a century ago are almost ancient history. So, we can imagine the thrill that Giles Martin, the son of record producer George Martin, must have got, when he received a parcel from Olivia Harrison, widow of George Harrison, and found inside a collection of demo recordings of over thirty Beatles’ songs – which hadn’t been heard in half a century.
It may not have been quite the buzz Indiana Jones would get on finding some ancient cultural artifact, Giles joked recently, but it was pretty exciting, all the same.
It’s well known among fans that prior to starting work on their White Album in May 1968, the Beatles had assembled at George Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey, and gone through some songs that they planned to record.
What hadn’t been appreciated was that Lennon and McCartney had recorded guide versions of their own songs in the little studios they’d each had built in their homes, and had brought the tapes with them. Harrison already had his.
Then, forgetting about the demo tapes’ existence, to the extent that neither Paul nor Ringo can even remember them, the Beatles had gone off to the Abbey Road Studios in London to make the album.
‘Getting the Esher tapes was a revelation,’ says Martin, who has the job of remixing and restoring the Beatles’ recordings that his father originally produced for the modern, high-tech, digital world. ‘I didn’t know they existed. There’s so much inspiration to be taken from hearing songs in their raw form… basically acoustic, unplugged demos of the songs that would go on the White Album, complete with human frailties.’
I, like any other self-respecting nerd, can understand that. And, from today, everyone who cares about these things can hear the Esher Demos as a bonus disc in the new deluxe version of the White Album that Martin has been updating this past year, as part of the Beatles Fiftieth Anniversary.
It will cost almost £20 – with a super-super version, including various out-takes of all the songs on the original record, also being available at a painful £129 for super-rich fanatics.
Personally, I’m happy with the twenty quid version to take me back to that night half a century ago when I went to Abbey Road for the first time and watched John Lennon and George Martin doing the final mix on Cry Baby Cry.
It was a moment of change for the Beatles. Their previous album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, had been an unsurpassed hit a year earlier, but then, shortly after its release, Brian Epstein, their manager, had been found dead from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
Needing a break from the constant pressure of their lives, they had settled on a retreat in the Himalayas, where, at an ashram run by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they’d studied a little transcendental meditation.
To Ringo the ashram had been ‘a bit like Butlins’, where he’d once worked. But to the other three Beatles it had offered the perfect serenity to enable them to write, in John Lennon’s words, ‘about two LPs worth of songs’.
And although soon the personal lives of the main songwriters Lennon and McCartney would be in turmoil as Paul McCartney and his long-time girlfriend actress Jane Asher broke up, and John left his wife Cynthia for avant-garde Yoko Ono, musically it was one of the most fertile periods of their careers.
Songs of all kinds were flowing from them – Blackbird, Back In The USSR, OB-LA-DI, OB-LA-DA, Martha My Dear, Birthday and I Will from McCartney, not to mention Hey Jude that was released as a single. And Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Glass Onion and Dear Prudence from John, as well Sexy Sadie, his disguised verbal attack on his spiritual guru, the Maharishi, whom he believed to have ‘made a fool of everyone’.
The death of Brian Epstein had prompted them to not only try their hand at managing themselves – not very well, as it turned out, in that they were hopeless business men, but to be more assertive in the studio, a which they were more successful.
For five years George Martin had been the boss. But after having been encouraged to work all his musical and technical wizardry on the Sgt Pepper album, Martin found that the Beatles wanted to be more of a clean, uncluttered rock and roll band again. What’s more, they felt that they didn’t need him as much as they had done.
‘It was as though the lunatics had taken over the asylum,’ Giles Martin now laughs, which would undoubtedly have been his father’s judgement of the situation.
The Beatles weren’t lunatics. But two of them, Lennon and McCartney, were certainly egotists. And, without a manager to act as a referee between the two, from the very first session there were clashes when John insisted that Yoko Ono should be with him in the studio at all times.
Girlfriends and wives had never been automatically invited to Beatle sessions, and, when they were occasionally present, heaven forbid that they should make any comment on what was being recorded.
Yoko didn’t see things that way. She knew nothing about rock music, nor had she liked it until she met John Lennon, believing it to be ‘culturally crude’. But that didn’t stop her voicing an opinion, and even, on the very first song that was recorded, Revolution, (1968 being a year of international revolution in China, Paris and college campuses in the US), singing along in her own particular way. Although two recordings of the song would be released, the one that included Yoko was not.
By 1968, Lennon and McCartney were not writing together so much as they had done, and now, as Paul found Yoko’s presence inhibiting, that way of working ended completely.
‘If I started to think of a line, I’d start to get nervous,’ he would later tell me. ‘I might want to write something like “I love you, girl”, but with Yoko watching I always felt that I had to come up with something clever and avant-garde… John and I tried to work together a few more times, but I think we both decided it would be easier to work separately.’
At the same time, part of the Beatles’ distinctive sound, notably that of Paul singing a third above John, was also being lost. ‘I would have loved to have sung more harmony with John then, and I think he would have liked me, too,’ Paul went on. ‘But I was too embarrassed to ask him.’
Altogether the White Album sessions lasted for almost six months, with EMI giving the group the run of the studios, so profitable had they been for that record company over the past five years. Judging by the music created, musically the sessions went well.
Not everyone was happy, however. The late Geoff Emerick, the brilliant young sound engineer who had worked on all the other Beatles’ sessions, left because of the constant bickering within the group; while Ringo, criticised by Paul for his playing of the tom-toms, walked out one day and went on holiday in the Mediterranean. That meant that Paul had to play the drums himself on Back In the USSR.
George Martin, whose hands-on role as teacher and supervisor had become diminished, then also took two weeks off to go on a booked holiday, leaving a 21year old assistant, Chris Thomas, in charge. The Beatles themselves were, in fact, in charge.
For years George Harrison had fretted, perhaps with some justification that Lennon and McCartney were keeping his songs off Beatles’ albums in favour of their own. So when they were both lukewarm about a new song he’d written, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, he invited his friend Eric Clapton to the studio to take the lead guitar part instead of him. The result was a classic.
That an outside musician should be invited to be, in secret, a Beatle for a day, came as a surprise when word leaked out. But it was in keeping with the way the group’s members had begun to see themselves – that is, not so much as a unit of four equals, but more as a lead singer/songwriter, whether it be John, Paul or George, with the other three being his backing band.
Probably the biggest row occurred over the eight minute track Revolution #9 – a montage of electronic sounds and disconnected voices and phrases that had been started the night that John and Yoko had first made love when John’s wife, Cynthia, had been away on holiday.
John was adamant that it should be on the album, while Paul was equally certain it should not. In the end, for the sake of quiet life, and to get the album out, Paul caved in, telling me, off the record, that ‘it just doesn’t belong on a Beatles album’.
He was right. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, although it’s still there on the newly minted version. At least now, unless you buy the expensive vinyl version of the record, you can just click on your CD player’s remote as soon as it comes on, and go to the next track.
John refused to understand why the other three Beatles resented Yoko’s presence day in and day out at the sessions. But it was perfectly clear to everyone else.
In Yoko, John had found a new partner to play with in a game that was becoming increasingly threatening. Paul put it best when he told me: ‘I was afraid about the possibility of the break-up of a great musical partnership.’ He had every reason to be worried.
For many other musicians such internecine strife might have been disastrous, with little getting done. The Beatles, however, had an iron work ethic.
With the sessions having to be completed by the end of October so that the album could be out in time for Christmas, the Beatles edged towards the finishing line with no-one having decided what the title of the record would be – something that would never have happened had Brian Epstein still been alive.
In the end it was simply decided to call it The Beatles, which was hardly suitable, in that it could just as easily have been the name of a compilation of old hits as a new album. Not that it mattered. The decision that the sleeve would be all white, in complete contrast to the flower-power Sgt Pepper album, came to the fans rescue, who within weeks of its release, had renamed the record unofficially as the White Album.
Not every track on it was vintage Beatles. George Martin was later of the opinion that it would have been better to have edited it down from a double to a single disc, and I never liked Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? – nothing song knocked off by Paul after he’d happened on a couple of monkeys having sex on a lane in the jungle when he’d been in India.
While John Lennon’s song Good Night was one of his weakest – which would, of course, be why he gave it to Ringo to sing. The drummer nearly always got the left-overs.
So, as an album, there was good and poor. But, having said that, as an example of songwriters and a band stretching themselves and displaying a bewildering number of styles, from Twenties pastiche, to hard rock, reggae, country and western, doo-wop, folk and even a melange of Chuck Berry with the Beach Boys it was astonishing.
* The Beatles White Album is released today by Apple records in several formats.
* Ray Connolly’s biography, Being John Lennon – A Restless Life, is now on sale in hardback from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.