The Beatles' 'White Album' at 50: Producer Giles Martin Peels Open the "Glass Onion"
Published Nov 13, 2018In his 2017 book Dreaming the Beatles, longtime Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield writes that the band's 1968 self-titled studio LP (colloquially known as The White Album) was made over "five agonizing months" that involved in-fighting amongst members, a revolving door of producers and engineers, and even the brief departure of drummer Ringo Starr.
Those studio stories have long been treated as the beginning of the end for the Fab Four; they would famously split in 1970. But as producer Giles Martin — son of famous Beatles producer George Martin — contends, he found that next to none of these supposed disagreements were caught on session tapes when revisiting the vault of material ahead of reissuing The White Album for its 50th anniversary.
"I think they're wrong, these historians. I really do," Martin tells Exclaim! "I've now listened to all of everything they recorded from this period of time. I was actually looking for the conflicts, because I think it's interesting — and I really found it hard to find. It's not as though I was trying to do some Hollywood version of the Beatles in any way, but if you listen to the conversations [in the reissue's outtake material] they're generally pretty positive."
Not unlike the expanded reissue treatment given to the band's iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band last year, the anniversary edition of The White Album features the famed double-album newly remixed by Martin and Sam Okell. The pair's process involved remixing the album twice over in an effort to, as Martin puts it, "peel back layers so that the listener can get closer" to how the band would have sounded in the studio.
"In essence, songs don't have to be perfect," Martin concedes. "If you make drums too loud, or treat [old recordings] like modern sound, you'll lose the claustrophobic nature of the recording, and the essence of what makes the song sound great. The White Album is trickier like this, since there's something slightly visceral about it. If I were to approach it and make it too hi-fi, it would lose its charm. At the same time, we wanted it to be more dynamic. I need to make sure that when you've gone and heard a track from The White Album that we've remixed, it's still the song you love, so you can then go back and hear the original and go, 'Ah yes, now I get it.'"
An additional bounty of session outtakes and the first official release of the band's fabled Esher demos brings the Super Deluxe reissue package to 107 tracks, spread over six CDs. The deep dive of vault material includes both acoustic and electric versions of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the 28th take of "Blackbird," instrumental backing tracks for "Birthday" and "Back in the U.S.S.R.," three different versions of sleepy album closer "Good Night" and five different in-studio jams, among many more.
"You don't want to choose a take that's the exact same as the one on the record, or even slightly different," Martin says of his outtake selection process, adding that he makes his picks through considering "a combination of showing innovation, development and quality.
"It's really important for me that the listener gets an experience of what it's like to be with the band in studio," he adds. "At the same time, it's also important that what you're hearing is valid, that it's worth listening to and it's enjoyable. There are 100-and-something takes of 'Sexy Sadie,' we could probably make six CDs of those. But after a while, you'd go slightly mad!"
While Martin himself was only an infant while his father and the Beatles were at work on "The White Album," he came to discover the album later in life as a young guitarist ("I badly wanted to be Stevie Ray Vaughn").
"I remember once when I was about 23 or so that a bass player friend of mine, who I was actually in a band with, we sat in his apartment and listened to it," Martin recalled. "I said 'Oh this is The White Album,' and he goes 'you don't really know The White Album?' I said 'well why should I?' and he goes, 'Your dad's George Martin, surely you know The White Album.' It's like a son whose dad is a plumber: 'You don't know how to fix my sink?'"
How would Martin now describe the album to the uninitiated? "It's a really odd record. What is the sound of The White Album? Is it 'Martha My Dear'? Is it 'Helter Skelter'? Is it 'Happiness Is a Warm Gun'? Is it 'Revolution No. 9'? It's an album that gives so much to everyone. It's like nothing you've heard before. You can't pin it down."
The 50th Anniversary Edition of The White Album is out now on Universal in 7-disc, 3-CD, 4-LP and 2-LP editions.