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Beatles' 'White Album': 50 Years in the Making

Remixed 'White Album' delivers the band's brilliance for a new age

George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney

Apple Corps, Ltd.

George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney pictured in July 1968 at St Pancras Old Church in London.

On Nov. 22, 1968, the Beatles unleashed The Beatles.

More commonly known as the White Album, the polychromatic, panoramic double album pinballed from the charging “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and metallic “Helter Skelter” to a playful “Rocky Raccoon,” heartfelt “Julia” and civil rights ballad “Blackbird.” It was a massive, messy and mismatched heap of Beatles’ brilliance.

Fifty years later, the White Album has been upgraded, megasized and clarified. The iconic foursome’s ninth studio album returns Nov. 9 with its 30 tracks newly mixed by producer Giles Martin (son of the late “fifth Beatle” George Martin) and mix engineer Sam Okell. The White Album reissue has been fattened with 27 acoustic demos and 50 session takes, most of which have never been released before.

Martin and Okell, who also oversaw 2017’s 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, worked with a team of engineers and audio restoration specialists at Abbey Road Studios in London to create the new stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes. All the White Album material was sourced directly from original four-track and eight-track session tapes, and Martin’s mix was guided by the original stereo mix produced by his father.

Paul McCartney, 1968

Apple Corps, Ltd.

Paul McCartney during the White Album recording sessions in London in 1968.

Tackling the mountain of White Album tapes was not the tallest hurdle for Martin, who has worked on a variety of Beatles’ albums as well as Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week documentary and The Beatles: Rock Band video game.

“The biggest challenge of the White Album was keeping the character of the White Album,” Martin, 49, says. “It has that unmixed quality. It needs to feel like that. It’s not too clean, not too polished. It’s not Steely Dan. And there’s a lot of technical stuff. ‘Long, Long, Long,’ for instance. That should be open in the beginning, so when the drums come and hit you in the face, it’s all beautiful. Then there’s that middle section, which is compressed, so we changed the entire nature of the mix for that, which we can do now and they couldn’t do then.”

At Abbey Road, Martin and his team continue to use much of the recording gear the Beatles actually used: Studio 3’s old REDD desk that produced Sgt. Pepper, the TG desk deployed for some Abbey Road tracks, plus the big mixing console. Enormous advances in technology have streamlined many tasks. But the machines are not Martin’s most critical asset.

“It’s important that you mix with your ears and not your technology,” says Martin, who trained early as his father’s “hearing dog,” helping him identify frequencies as his hearing failed. “At one stage on this album, I thought it sounded a bit digital. I went through the chain, and it turned out the thing that made it sound a little too modern was the Beatles’ Altec compressors we were using, which they used originally. I took them out, and it sounded less bright and fizzy.”

The Beatles wrote much of the White Album in Rishikesh, India, in early 1968 while at the Maharishi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation. In May, they convened at George Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey, to record acoustic demos for 27 songs, 21 of which were fleshed out in studio sessions. And 19 of those were included on the White Album.

The Esher demos could be an MTV Unplugged prototype. The songs are spare, a bit rough, and the Beatles can be heard chatting and making adjustments.

Producer Giles Martin

Apple Corps, Ltd.

Producer Giles Martin reengineered the White Album in the same Abbey Road studio in which it was recorded.

Martin was first enlisted by the Beatles’ camp to coproduce (with his father) the Love remix soundtrack for the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. He was certain he’d be fired for taking liberties with Beatles’ classics, but Martin says Paul McCartney assured him, “You’ll get fired if you don’t push things.”

The album and theater production were hugely successful commercially and artistically, and Martin got the green light for subsequent overhauls by McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia.

They’ve expressed delight with the refurbished White Album.

Martin says, “Paul listened to it and said to me, ‘The funny thing about this album, it’s really contemporary.’ It takes him back. You can hear them in the room now more than you could before. He told me, ‘We were actually a good band, weren’t we?’ Both he and Ringo said it was definitely a band album. That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”

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