Music played on a vinyl record has a quality different from any CD or MP3. Vinyl albums have a classic sound, which can't be replicated, and give listeners a more authentic listening experience. In each month's Groove & Needle article, we'll take a closer look at one must-have album for your vinyl collection.
The Beatles Alternate White Album is a set of three LPs, which include previously unreleased demos as well as alternate and acoustic takes. This special 50th Anniversary Edition of the White Album was compiled by George Martin's son, Giles.
In addition to the final mixes of the songs included on the White Album, the Alternate White Album features the Esher demos, which were recorded during a casual songwriting and jam session at George Harrison's house in spring of 1968. Many of the song ideas shared during this session were written earlier that year while the band studied Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's retreat in Rishikesh, India.
Although the group found inner calmness during the retreat, that peace was destroyed as soon as they returned to the states; there was much work to be done regarding the launch of multimedia company, Apple Corps, as well as many changes in the band members' personal lives. “We had hoped this time to do a lot of rehearsing before we reached the studios … but, as it happens, all we got was one day," shared Paul McCartney in a public statement. By the end of the songwriting session, the Beatles completed an acoustic run-through of the demos for their upcoming White Album.
In addition to professional and personal pressures, the Beatles also faced the immense burden of producing an album which was better than the last: the iconic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. “What I was going for was to forget Sgt. Pepper. That was Sgt. Pepper and that’s all right, but it’s over!" John Lennon knew that he wanted to take the next album in a different direction. "So let’s get back to basic music and let’s not try and string everything together, and pretend it’s a show.” Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band demonstrated extensive production elements, with overdubs and alterations of parts throughout the album, but Lennon hoped that the White Album would have a more organic recording process-- that the band would play together during the takes.
The name 'Esher demos' comes from the location of the session (Harrison's house), which was the London suburb of Esher. Lennon's house was not chosen due to tension from his impending divorce, and McCartney's townhouse in central London was too close to city distractions.
19 of the 27 songs from the session-- which were recorded with an Ampex 4-track tape machine, acoustic guitars, and some light percussion, made it onto the official White Album, two were released later on Abbey Road, and the remaining six songs were not used in any later albums. Lennon wrote a majority of the songs (15), and McCartney and Harrison wrote the others (seven and five songs, respectively). Many years later, a few of the Esher takes were released officially on the Beatles' Anthology III collection, but most of the takes were not made public until the special Alternate White Album (50th Anniversary Edition) was released in 2003.
Not only does the Alternate White Album include unique early demos and unreleased songs, but it also gives Beatles fans a glimpse of the band's energy and songwriting process. In some of the Esher demos, including the demos for "Glass Onion" and "Julia", the band can be heard talking, joking around with one another, and laughing.
In addition to the Esher demos, the Alternate White Album includes various early takes, recorded rehearsals, and backing tracks. Track "Yer Blues - Take 5 With Vocal Guide" features some particularly tasty guitar licks in an epic instrumental jam. Vocal directions for the band can be heard faintly over the groovy take. "Rocky Raccoon - Take 8" begins with a rhythmic spoken introduction before transitioning to the first verse. Though the spoken piece was taken out of the final version of "Rocky Raccoon" and other elements of the song were altered, the early take is playful and fascinating, despite its imperfections. Another favorite take on the extended album is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Acoustic Version / Take 2". Within the first seconds of the song, there is a slight warp in the soft acoustic guitar strumming, and after only a few lines of the verse, everyone in the band stops playing save for the Hammond organ sound, which continues through the entire take. In this pause, Harrison tells someone in the room that "yeah, maybe you'd have to give him his own mic", and immediately resumes singing the next hook and playing the acoustic guitar part. The take, which consists only of acoustic guitar, organ, and vocals, is an extremely intimate song in a rather large collection of Beatles tunes.
There are many exceptional elements of the Alternate White Album, but the most heartbreaking by far is a take of "Good Night" in which all four Beatles sing together. Around the time of the recording and in the coming years, the band began to drift apart, with increasing pressure from the public, struggles with Apple Corps, and problematic social dynamics within the band and their private lives. It is likely that this recording of "Good Night" was one of the last times the band was able to find the simple pleasure in playing together as bandmates and friends. Just as soon as the idyllic moment arrives, it's gone, and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da - Take 3", an upbeat pop song, begins.
The Alternate White Album is a perfect snapshot of the Beatles' band dynamic at the height of their career, and provides intriguing insight into the factors that influenced their eventual separation. The album is available on streaming platforms, but feels especially nostalgic as a set of Vinyl LPs. A very limited number of copies of the Alternate White Album were made on vinyl, but they transport listeners to the private sessions and mindset of the Beatles in a way that cannot be replicated by streaming the songs.