After circulating among collectors for decades in varying levels of quality and completeness, the Beatles’ famed Esher Demos have finally been commercially released – 27 acoustic numbers laid down in advance of formal sessions for the Fabs’ self-titled 1968 LP known to everyone, everywhere as “The White Album.”
Filling one of the six CDs that make up The Beatles new super-deluxe, 50th-anniversary redux, these practice sessions contain many of the songs that would wind up on the finished two-album set, plus never-released goofs such as “What’s the New Mary Jane,” a novelty along the lines of “You Know My Name (Look up the Number);” songs that would appear on later Beatles albums, such as “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam;” and songs held for post-Fab solo records, such as Paul McCartney’s “Junk,” John Lennon’s “Child of Nature,” which is a fully formed version of “Jealous Guy” with different lyrics, and George Harrison’s “Not Guilty,” in which he rails against his inability to get only one song per album side.
I won’t upset the Apple cart, I only want what I can get/I’m really sorry that you’ve been misled, but like you heard me said/not guilty, he sings as Lennon and McCartney – Ringo Starr is a rare presence, mostly relegated to tambourine, on these specimens – accompany him.
It is here we learn the flight that landed McCartney “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was awful before it was dreadful and Harrison’s “Piggies” ate pork chops before switching to bacon. Even for people who’ve had these renditions on bootleg tapes for years, the complete set, with improved sound quality, is a revelation and worth the price of admission almost on its own.
As he did on 2017’s re-release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Giles Martin – son of producer extraordinaire George – remixed the original LP. And while there wasn’t as much to uncover on the stripped-down “White Album,” the younger Martin still brought some new sounds to the fore, including peppier percussion throughout, particularly on “I Will” and “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?,” and previously unheard acoustic guitar licks on “Mother Nature’s Son.”
For its part, “Wild Honey Pie,” twangier with more layers of vocals, sounds like a completely different take – the only song on which this is the case. But for folks who have a snappy, crackly, poppy version of The Beatles on vinyl, this remixed edition is the one to replace it with as those who know the album well will hear new nuances throughout that’ll be lost on most casual fans.
This thing runs nearly six hours and half of it – 50 tracks on three discs – is made up of full-band sessions that disprove the long-held assumption that The Beatles was essentially four guys recording solo tracks. The Beatles are playing as a unit here, and show that even when they were just practicing rough takes, they were better than most groups trying their hardest.
It’s here we hear a slow and embryonic, 12-minute version of “Helter Skelter,” where “Rocky Raccoon”’s doctor is “sminking” of gin and causing laughter in the studio, where Yoko Ono says “you become naked” (from “Revolution 9”) during an early take of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and where we learn Harrison’s “one more time” at the end of “Piggies” was actually grafted in from the beginning of an early version. Also eye-popping are the alternative lyrics – heard in the Esher Demos as well – to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
A primordial “Hey Jude” is so different from the officially released version as to make the played-out song fun to listen to again and one where the first pass makes the listener wonder whether there will be a wordless coda. “I’m So Tired” once had backing vocals. And “Let it Be” was originally a blues.
Oftentimes, demos, early takes and rehearsals are worth hearing once and then go on the shelf only to come out when fellow fanatics of this or that band come over for a listening session. These early takes and studio jams like “Los Paranoias” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” are so much more than that and serve to create another version of the “White Album” to enjoy for years to come.
“Mark it fab,” McCartney says after one early version of “Helter Skelter.”
Do the same to the entire super-deluxe edition of The Beatles.