Friday, September 18, 2009

The White Album Remastered: Take This, Brother, May It Serve You Well

Coming back from their madcap adventures in India, in May 1968, with more songs than they knew what the hell to do with, The Beatles hit upon a rather smart scheme for the first LP on their own - about-to-be-formed - Apple label. Let's make it a double LP and include everything. And so, from 30 May to 17 October 1968, they virtually lived in the studio. And, Yoko Ono lived there with them. Inevitably, egos got frayed and torn. Geoff Emerick – their engineer since Revolver – quit because the atmosphere got so bad. George Martin was frequently bored by the whole thing and sometimes left the sessions in the hands of his assistant, Chris Thomas. A depressed Ringo departed for a fortnight when he thought he was being taken for granted and the band simply carried on without him (Paul plays drums on 'Back in the U.S.S.R.' and 'Dear Prudence'). A deeply pissed-off George managed to place four songs on the LP but tried over one hundred takes to get a fifth - 'Not Guilty' - to work, felt it still wasn't right and buggered-off to Greece to cool his jets. Thirty four songs were recorded, thirty made the record ('Not Guilty' and John's spiteful anti-Francie Schwartz missive 'What's the New Mary Jane' missed out, 'Hey Jude'/'Revolution' became the biggest selling Beatles single). Many of them could, perhaps, have done with some further group input or, at least, a bit more polishing but, by this stage, they were acting virtually as each other's session-men, if that. A fact evidenced by Paul recording 'Why Don't We Do It In The Road' (his song about letting-in-all-hang-out which John admired greatly) without even bothering to ask for John's help despite the fact that Lennon was in the studio next door working on some mixing. The session that produced 'I Will' (a really simple song) went on all night although, even here, the Beatles could throw off a little gem like the medley of McCartney's 'Step Inside Love' and the make-it-up-as-we-go-along 'Los Paranoias' between takes.

Yet even amid all this sprawling chaos, business incompetence, barely veiled public squabbling and downright nasty bitching, The Beatles, almost despite themselves, were creating a masterpiece. A massively flawed, hugely self-indulgent and bitterly personal masterpiece, admittedly. One that includes 'Rocky Raccoon' fer Christ's sake. And 'Wild Honey Pie.' I mentioned flawed, yes? But, really, that's all staggeringly incidental to the Big Picture. Where The Beatles is good, it's brilliant but, even where it's not so hot, it's still fascinating. This is the one Beatles LP that you'd take with you if you were going to be marooned on a desert island because of the variety and the strangeness of the moods it creates – alternatively bright and summery and yet also, in places bleak, sinister and shadowy. It's been said that, with the possible exception of hip-hop, virtually every new musical style that's emerged since 1968 (from white reggae, to punk, glam, metal, indie and funk, to ambient trance) can find their, sometimes haphazard, origins on what soon became know as The White Album. But, just in case you want to get carried away with the idea that, in any way, this isn't one of the greatest LPs ever made by anyone, just remember - the finished set features 'Dear Prudence', 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', 'Happiness is a Warm Gun', 'I'm So Tired', 'Blackbird', 'I Will', 'Julia', 'Sexy Sadie', 'Helter Skelter', 'Long Long Long' and, yes, 'Revolution 9'. And nearly twenty others. It's a mad-strange, baffling, challenging trip. But it is often a wonderful one.

If ever a remastered CD caused a wave of almost sexual excitement deep in the virry groin of yer Keith Telly Topping before he'd even got in the fekker in the machine and hit 'play' it was this one. An über-joy that threatened to produce a bit of overflow as, during the first fifteen seconds of 'Back in the U.S.S.R.', a sodding great aeroplane screams across the stereo channels. Not a little turbo-prop sixteen seater like you might've heard in the past but a sodding great 747 with all of its engines on fire. Good start. Cross-fade into 'Dear Prudence' and we've got tiny tambourine shakes and acoustic guitar strums buried deep in the left speaker scrambling their way to the surface like a corpse prematurely buried. Harrison's guitar arpeggios - finger-picked in a style he picked up from Donovan in Rishikesh - shimmer, diamond white on the horizon in the twilight of a late summer day. Magical. 'Glass Onion' was never this bass-led previously, surely? I mean, is my memory playing tricks on me, here? No, I went an got the old CD out and played it and you can hardly hear the basslines. Maybe that helps to explain why McCartney isn't still having people genuflecting themselves at his feet in awe. The sinister little creeping footsteps of the song's fade out sound genuinely unsettling, the first of many moments on this remaster where the listener is caustically reminded of just how dark parts of The White Album are. That Revolution in the Head description of 'shadows and half-hidden laughter behind closed doors in the late afternoon of The Beatles career' is so applicable. The White Album is a mature work but there's a childlike thread running through it. Like a bunch of bank executives who suddenly decide to abandon their board meeting for a game of Murder In The Dark. Not on 'Ob-la-Di-O-La-Da', though. That's still what it always was - a half-annoying, half-witty full-hit-single-that-never-was. Thank you. If there's one thing that 'The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill' proves once and for, apart from the fact that Yoko can't sing (don't even try, chuck, it's not worth it) then it's just how imaginative The Beatles could be with even the most slight and unpromising of material. The remastering process has cleaned up a cluttered and messy backing track and revealed all sorts of little sound-effects and production asides that had lay too long buried and forgotten.

'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', Harrison's ponderous first stumble into yer-actual AOR sounds, still, a tad lumpen and overproduced - not helped by Eric Clapton's shrill lead-lines (although McCartney's bassline, again, is an undiscovered gem). By contrast, 'Happiness is a Warm' might, just, be the single best moment on not just the CD but indeed the entire remastered Beatles catalogue. The delicious mixture of sounds, the pitching and yawing of the song's movement through four, torturous distinct phases, Ringo's wonderful percussion, the switches of time-signature, the beautiful doo-wop backing vocals, even the little mistake of a partially wiped vocal-track, it's all still there but, this time, it sparkles. The CD's biggest disappointment is 'Martha My Dear', a lovely song bothered by a notable, constant and damn annoying hiss that distracts the listener throughout the entire song. Which is a pity as, if you can manage to ignore it, the remastering has revealed some gorgeous little extras (and, yet again, highlight Macca's superb bass-playing). 'I'm So Tired' crawls along in its usual lugubrious, lethargic way, making the listener chuckle at the sheer cheek of the thing. And the nonsense muttering at the end sounds great as well. 'Blackbird' is simply stunning - as clear as a swimming pool once everybody's got out, revealing the delicacy and intricacy of McCartney's acoustic guitar (and the pitch-perfect double-tracked vocals). Ditto 'I Will' and its slyly warming mood (like having a hot towel placed around the listener after a quick shower). It's one of my favourite Beatles song and, here, it sounds better than ever.

'Piggies' has never had a particularly good press but I've always rather liked it (as an example of George's really dark 'dry sod' humour) and I'm delighted to report that this is another one that majorly benefits from the remastering. Particularly in the middle section where Chris Thomas' harpsichord and George Martin's delicious strings score play off each other so beautifully. One more time before we move on, I think. Sharp. If 'Piggies' has its reputation enhanced by remastering then 'Don't Pass Me By' has its reputation made by the process. Previously, one of the few Beatles songs with a word-of-mouth lower than rattlesnakes piss, remastered its deliciously sloppy in everything from the opening piano flourish to Jack Fallon's mad fiddle interlude. Dear old Ringo's first solo composition sounds, at last, like what you have to conclude it always was - an infectious slice of inane-fun. You can also hear a little 'hmmpf' (I think from Macca) just after the 'one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight' bit that you'll have missed previously. There's another triumph up next - 'Why Don't we Do it In The Road?' sounding utterly magnificent, full of hard bottom-end and with the song's eccentric drum patterns pushed into sharper focus. The first disc - the second half of which, in particularly, is virtually flawless - ends with possibly its greatest moment, 'Julia'. The dreamy ying, to Macca's 'Blackbird' wry yang. Again, Donovan's influence on the guitar-picking helped to produce a quite stunning performance in which chord movements squeal their protest and Lennon's fingers slide over the frets. The sonic peaks are breathtaking. It's a hell of a way to end a disc.

The second CD begins with an impressively chunky, in-yer-face 'Birthday.' Main point on interest here - behind the thumping percussion - one can clearly make out the sound of screaming Macca encouraging his band to effing-well go for it. Oh, and the off-the-wall honky tonk piano sounds even more off-the-wall than usual (garnished with the lightest drizzling of reverb). Another highlight, 'Yer Blues' packs one of the collection's biggest punches with a full-on hard rock as Lennon invents heavy metal a year before Led Zeppelin even got in the studio. The echo-treated vocals sound magnificent whilst the performance is raw and rough with leakage from one instrument to another bleeding all over the recording in a most disarmingly interesting way. It's Ringo who saves the whole thing from descending into an unholy chaotic cacophonous mess with a brutally together bed. Who says he wasn't the best drummer in The Beatles? Following the gentle acoustic glories of the original LP's side two on the first CD, it surely can't get any better? Think again - 'Mother Nature's Son' is another contender for being the best moment of the package. Effortlessly beautiful, evocative, wistful, nostalgic. Quite, quite perfect. The remastering reveals the full majesty of George Martin's horn arrangement and McCartney's sympathetic, generous vocals. Legend has it that the sessions surrounding that particular song were some of the most fraught of the whole LP but none of that is evident on the final performance. If that's one of the best of the remastered songs, then 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide...' ain't far behind. A previously rather turgid rocker with a belting vocal, what is revealed by remastering is, shock/horror, The Beatles 'actually having fun' in the studio. There's so much going on in the background that it draws the listeners attention away from the song's somewhat one-dimensional rhythm. And, again, the bass is wonderful.

There aren't many disappointments on The White Album's remaster but, sadly, 'Sexy Sadie' is one of them. Crushingly, all of the spite and bile of the song is gone. Lennon's vocals sound almost relaxed - not a good thing in a song as bitter, pointed and vicious as this. Otherwise, the backing track just sounds ... a bit flat. It's almost as if night they recorded the version we all know, The Beatles went out and had one motherfucker of a party. Then, they came back into Abbey Road the next morning with a massive hangover and rerecorded it note-for-note and somebody, somewhere has replaced the first version with the second for this CD. It's such a shame because it's one of my favourites on The White Album and I was expecting great things from it. Mercifully, 'Helter Skelter' is next. What do you get? What do you think?! Paul McCartney's greatest gift to the world - the invention of punk rock - is reliably, comforting, tense and fucked-up. The Beatles sound everything you'd expect them to be in that particular session - stoned off their tits and pissed-off with life in general. God, it's a joy to listen to - a sonic explosion of blind, wilful fury that goes on and on and on until you just want to go out and commit mass murder. Which, you know, some people actually did. Remastered, in all its bombastic, chest-beating, come-and-have-a-go-if-y'think-yer-hard-enough feedback-drenched glory, it sounds hard as nails and like it's looking for a fight. You'll get blisters on yer fingers just thinking about it.

And so to my favourite ever Beatles song, George's achingly beautiful 'Long, Long, Long.' The songwriter Robyn Hitchcock once described his first experience of listening to The White Album whilst stoned in the early seventies. 'Helter Sketler' comes on an freaks him out completely. And then it finishes and the gentle opening chords of 'Long, Long, Long' start and he sighs 'thank goodness for that!' Yeah, there's a little bit of that emotion in the remastered CD for even the listener who isn't troubled by artificial chemical stimulants. A song about reconciliation with God, 'Long, Long, Long' is something that is touched by an almost supernatural karma. It's calming and languid. A raft of sudden sunlight catching the surface of a rippling steam and temporarily blinding the onlooker. In that split second, all the other senses rush to compensate and the flood of sheer sensation is almost overwhelming. That's what 'Long, Long, Long' feels like remastered. There's so much to experience, where the hell do you start? It is, quite simply, the best thing The Beatles ever recorded and, here, it sounds like it as well. And the bottle rattle/drum roll/organ/skeletal guitar chord climax thingy is the icing and the cherry on the cake.

The final lap begins with 'Revolution I' which sounds great - far more relaxed and laid back than you might have been aware of in the past (lyrics, notwithstanding). And the brass section is truly fabulous. The hiss that so spoiled 'Martha My Dear' is there on 'Honey Pie' as well and, again, is damned distracting. A word of praise, though, for Lennon's much-admired Django Reinhardt inspired guitar solo. Lovely. 'Honey Pie's another one that's never had a particularly good press but I've always quite admired the cheeriness of it. Like the best of Macca's work, it doesn't take itself too seriously. And, unlike the worse of Macca's work, it doesn't take the listeners goodwill for granted. 'Savoy Truffle's another one of The White Album's traditional 'meh' moments but, again, remastering had conspired to give a previously rather unconsidered song fresh colour and volume. It sounds like a Cream song, not wholly unexpectedly. Then we come to the final three recordings and to, as has been previously discussed at some length, a curiously naked examination of the psyche of the alcoholic Scouse junkie wife-beater who wrote them. A chillingly sinister little faux-nursery rhyme, the sound of a nightmare and a gentle lullaby. Oedipus schmoeipus. There's a distinct element of childhood in the mood and texture of all three - but particularly 'Revolution 9', something that the McCartney song-fragment ('Can you take me back where I've been') which prefigures it, greatly enhances. When The Beatles appeared, most of the million people who – according to the Guinness Book of Records - bought a copy on the day of release reached side four and, when they listened to that second-to-last bit, assumed that they'd bought a faulty record. What, you mean it's supposed to sound like that? Opinion quickly divided into two camps and, pretty much, that's still the situation with regard to 'Revolution 9' – the oddest thing that The Beatles ever recorded. There's no such thing as a neutral option: You either love it (and, to be fair, a few people do) or you hate it and everything it stands for. 'Revolution 9' was a John Lennon-produced sound-collage, an example of avant-garde sonic experimentation that, actually, wasn't a million miles removed from some things The Beatles had tried earlier in their careers. After all, 'Tomorrow Never Knows' had tape-loops too. Admittedly, it also had a tune. This form - musique concrète - wasn't new either; John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen had been composing such left-field modernist pieces for twenty years. The difference, of course, was that The Beatles was a mainstream pop record, bought by millions of people who'd never heard or never would hear Imaginary Landscapes or Gruppen.

The stereo remastering of 'Revolution 9' is quite extraordinary. Mind you, there are those that will tell you to get the mono CD on the strength on this one item alone. Ben Adams for one, who notes 'the mono version comes on rather like being trapped on the Midnight Meat Train as things-with-no-faces advance towards you with horrible sounds dripping from their open mouths, while the stereo version sounds like polite conversation in the waiting room to Hell. Just be glad Charlie Manson didn't have his hands on the mono version.' I kind of know where he's coming from - I've had the mono White Album on vinyl since the late seventies and on that 'Rev 9' is ... clingy. It's like being in a womb. The stereo version is more atonal. More antisceptic. Maybe one of us should write to Charlie in Corcoran and ask him which version he and the family were getting their kill-spree on to at Myers Ranch? Okay so, a few random impressions; 'turn the red light on, Geoff' is louder and clearer than ever; John and George's prose mutterings are much cleaner (in many places frighteningly so); the manic laughter still has the ability to scare me, thirty six years after I first heard it; the 'fire' sound-effects spanning across the stereo channel are quite, quite horrible; the sound of the echo tape reel spooling back at 3:34 is far clearer than before; 'my wings are broken and so is my hair'. And, that bit of radio-tuning at 7:01 one where, for five seconds, you've got nothing at all in your left-hand speaker, and nothing but pure noise coming out of the right, just before Yoko gets all naked remains, quite simply, the most distrubingly anti-everything moment on just about any record I've ever heard. Not even Metal Machine Music comes close to this in terms of pure, unadulterated menace. 'Revolution 9' remains the least played eight minutes in the Beatles discography. Pity, because there's more going on in there than on the whole of Help! The lush 'Goodnight', relaxing as a cup of Horlicks®, calms the listener after the horrors of what's just gone. Remastered it sounds like the punchline to a rather sick joke (albeit, a pretty good one), George Martin's so-sweet-you'll-get-a-toothache score suggesting a few too many late nights in Studio 2. (Although, it's always worth remembering that, as Ian MacDonald points out, The Beatles themselves were, by no means, immune to occasional lapses of serious bad taste.)

So, what do you get for your £16.99? You get probably The Beatles most challenging, difficult, self-indulgent and tense work. And, one of their very best. And now, it sounds like it too. Would it have been better as a single LP as George Martin has repeatedly said that he would have preferred? Who cares, frankly, it wasn't. History will judge what we got instead of what might have been. This blogger is with Sir McCartney MBE all the way on that score: 'It was the bloody Beatles White Album. Shut up!'