Jersey Reflections: Beatles, 1968

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Music fans locally and around the world have a chance to revisit a favorite song collection.

This month Apple Records will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the two-record set The Beatles, more commonly known as the White Album, with a deluxe box set that will no doubt set in motion a much-needed reappraisal of the work and its context. In the accepted mythology of the past five decades, the 1968 recording sessions for this 30-song collection have been portrayed as a turbulent period in the band’s history, the resulting recording merely a gathering of solo tracks by each Beatle that would have been better served as a one-disc release.

There’s no need to make a case for 1968 being one of the most prolific and creative years in the Beatles’ brief existence. The songs from that year began early with the February recording sessions for “Lady Madonna,” followed by “Hey Bulldog,” which was recorded while filming the “Lady Madonna” promo film. After the brunt of the White Album songs were written during a retreat in Rishikesh, India, the summer and early fall was spent recording them, with the single sides “Hey Jude” and “Revolution,” released as harbingers of what we could expect in November. 

After nearly 50 years of sporting a somewhat tarnished backstory, the White Album now seems poised to shake loose this albatross. Earlier this year, the British periodical Record Collector featured an insightful article in which insiders who witnessed the recording process attested that it certainly wasn’t a moody affair or the series of isolated solo projects that had comprised the Buffalo Springfield’s swan song, Last Time Around, recorded earlier that year.

Information in Kenneth Womack’s new biography of Beatles’ producer George Martin, Sound Pictures, indicates that, amidst numerous rehearsals, takes and overdubs, the Beatles consistently worked as a unit. Yes, there were moments of frustration and Martin seemed to remain doubtful about the album but undertaking a project of this magnitude in the same amount of time it took to finish the Sgt. Pepper sessions a year earlier was unprecedented.

For the White Album, the Beatles favored a hands-on role in every facet of its creation. They prefaced the sessions by recording demos for many of the songs at George Harrison’s home studio, a first for the band. These “Escher Demos,” as they are usually known, reveal some of the more intricate details the group envisioned for the tracks. Another new approach was the recording of all in-studio rehearsals. This year’s deluxe box set features both demo and rehearsal selections to afford a better understanding of how the White Album came to be. 

Those of us listening 50 years ago knew nothing about the demos or the rehearsals or the need to use several of Abbey Road’s recording studios simultaneously in order for the band to meet its late October deadline. It was only about the music, four vinyl sides that kicked off with a Beach Boys-styled tune about the Soviet Union and ended with an orchestrated lullaby, with the genre-spanning material in-between reclaiming and redefining the basics of rock music after a year of psychedelia.

Admittedly, the sound collage of “Revolution 9” may have taken some additional time to appreciate, but from the self-referential lyrics of “Glass Onion,” the ear-crunching cacophony of “Helter Skelter” and the wistful balladry of “I Will” to the varying time signatures of “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” the crying guitar (courtesy of Eric Clapton) of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the eye-winking allusion to “Dylan’s Mr. Jones” in “Yer Blues,” the White Album communicated on a level we immediately understood, and any thought that it should have been a single album never crossed our minds.

That idea came later, along with the theory that we were listening to a collection of solo projects.

With the release of the White Album deluxe set, we now have the opportunity to reassess the revisions made by history, to reevaluate just what was accomplished during the summer and fall of 1968, and make a more informed decision.

Devoted fans of the album undoubtedly have every guitar solo, every vocal inflection, every piano fill etched permanently into their brains. But now is a good time to dust off your old vinyl copy, check out the new CD set or stream those 30 tracks in celebration of 50 years. And be sure to give “Birthday” an extra listen.


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