Less a collection of music than some kind of Rosetta Stone for the downturn of the entire culture that the Beatles epitomized.
Perhaps the most deeply scrutinized album in rock ‘n roll history, The Beatles’ eponymous ninth album contains enough documentable fact, juicy gossip and outright mythology to fill a multi-volume series. And that’s not even getting to the music, which remains simultaneously canonized and hotly debated for the wild, clashing range of musical styles and whimsical, seemingly aloof songwriting. The Beatles set down the party line on pop double albums: clearing houses for bursts of creativity where the usual pruning of single-album track selection results in uneven, filler-rich material that nonetheless show the full breadth of a band’s ambitions and experimentation. That the album was so clearly the result of rapidly escalating tensions between the members of the most popular band of all time only deepens the sense of the album as less a collection of music than some kind of Rosetta Stone for the downturn of the entire culture that the Beatles epitomized.
Newly remixed and remastered for its 50th anniversary, The Beatles offers yet another chance to appraise the album, now with four additional discs of demo and session material tracing the development of the record. The album itself is still the most eminently pleasurable experience of enervation in pop history. For a band whose transition from rebellious mop-headed but relatively straight-laced pop breakouts to psychedelic innovators made them figureheads of the Boomers’ counter-cultural evolution throughout the ‘60s, the Beatles sounded shockingly divorced from the roiling cultural tensions rocking the entire West. Instead, the material alternates between affectionate parodies, larkish satire and, on occasion, lush and searing ballads. What anger suffuses the album, and there is a great deal of it just under the surface, seems self-directed more than anything, which only intermittent spikes of outward fury like “Helter Skelter” escaping from the band’s acrimonious implosion.
By the same token, this is arguably the band’s most pop-oriented songwriting showcase since at least Help, with the group’s retreat to India eliminating the distractions that surrounded them and prompting a fit of ideas. This was especially true of John Lennon, who dominates the album in ways compelling and controversial. Two of Lennon’s sweetest latter-day Beatles tunes, the droning ballad “Dear Prudence” and the plaintive “Julia,” his ode to his dead mother, appear here, but so does his knottiest and most experimental material. That includes, of course, his Stockhausen-esque slab of baffling, aggravating musique concrete in “Revolution 9,” but also poppier numbers like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” which unspools rapidly into a series of wild changes in tempo and rhythm that the band had to rehearse extensively to nail. “Yer Blues” anticipates the raw therapy of Lennon’s first solo album, while “Revolution,” here simplified from its more fiery single version and lyrically revised to remove any inadvertent endorsement of violence, also finds him pulling away from his image as a counterculture hero.
Elsewhere, McCartney illustrates the widening schism between his twee but complicated, Brian Wilson-esque pop and Lennon’s brash introspection. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” maybe McCartney’s funniest song, opens the album with piss-takes of both Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys while sardonically inflaming yet more media frenzy about the band’s politics. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is the Beatles’ most insidious earworm, a complete goof-off that is all the more irritating for how catchy it is. But he also contributes many of the album’s most tender moments, from the jaunty ragtime of “Martha My Dear” to the brittle “Blackbird.” Somehow, he manages to out-rage Lennon on “Helter Skelter,” a proto-metal masterpiece that sounds like the band driving right up to the edge of the cliff that the Stooges would later dive off of. George Harrison’s contributions are more relaxed than the well-honed show-stealers on other records, but his playing is incendiary throughout, roaring through jams like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and layering gentle chord progressions into his own “Long, Long, Long.” Then, of course, there’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the album’s finest song, a gorgeous duet with Eric Clapton that keeps the star guitarist restrained and lyrical, resulting in the most beautiful solo Clapton ever recorded as Harrison crafts a wall of sound with organ and acoustic guitar.
Where earlier Beatles albums prioritized the mono mix over the novelty of stereo, The Beatles marked the first time that the group recorded in the wake of stereo’s general adoption as the default audio format of the public. As such, the original album had relatively equal input into both mixes, with each having its own distinct flavor. For the 50th anniversary set, George Martin’s son, Giles, has produced a remix akin to the one for last year’s Sgt. Pepper release, an attempt to split the distance between the mono mix’s starker, rockier sound and the more elaborate experiments of the stereo version. Where the last release felt more like a novelty reissue, Martin’s mix here may be the definitive version of these songs. Easing up on the primitive panning of the original stereo mix, Martin manages to center the sound with more of a mono field while more subtly distributing stereo effects with a greater sense of range. The result is simultaneously punchier and more abstract, and while it may raise the suspicions of purists, this new mix gives a far clearer sense of just how advanced the album really was, recasting it as the birth of the indie pop magnum opus.
In addition to the album itself, the set comes with one of the holy grail items for Beatles fanatics, the Esher demos. Recorded just after the Beatles’ return from India, the Esher tapes find the group running through the bulk of the album (and some songs that would be held over for Abbey Road and future solo releases) in warm, acoustic rehearsals. The demos themselves are disarming peeks into the fundamental songcraft underlying tracks that would be radically transformed and complicated by the band’s exacting studio experiments, but most fascinating is the audible sense of camaraderie and cooperation between the band members. The Beatles would become notorious for just how hostile the band grew, with each member effectively treating the others as guest musicians if not recording songs entirely without their input, but here the Beatles sound like the band they were when they hit it big: four mates with well developed chemistry playing and joking around.
Beside the Esher demos, the box set comes with three discs of recording sessions from the proper album recording, and just glancing at some of the take numbers is mind-boggling to conceive. “Not Guilty,” which would not even make the album and eventually find release on Harrison’s self-titled 1979 album, appears in its 102nd take, the implications of which explain immediately why recording this record drove the band members to war with each other. Rock alternate takes rarely offer much beyond esoteric curiosity, but these sessions are genuinely fascinating. A back-to-back pair of recordings of “Revolution” captures a massive contrasts in approaches; one complete rehearsal is a breezy bit of summer pop that recasts the song in ironic terms, the other an instrumental run-through so furious and distorted it gives “Helter Skelter” a run for its money. Speaking of, a 13-minute version of “Helter Skelter” finds the band working at its loosest, a clear take of the band idly jamming that nonetheless sounds like a strange, dubbed-out version of the group’s most lacerating track.
By 1968, the Beatles had been off the road for two years, and a band that had sharpened its skills playing multiple, amphetamine-charged sets every night in Hamburg clubs and recorded their first LP in a single day had given way to studio-bound experimenters who couldn’t even knock out a goof like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in fewer than a dozen takes. Yet by presenting such a deep selection of those arduous sessions, the 50th anniversary set proves how seriously the band took even the album’s silliest moments. The Beatles would emerge from these sessions irreparably splintered and resentful, mustering up just enough common ground to craft the all-time best break-up record in Abbey Road before fracturing permanently. The Beatles always contained the clues for what drove the group so quickly to disintegration, but this new set, from the laid-back, jovial acoustic demos through to the demanding, tense studio sessions and the complex final product, gives something close to the full account.