How the Beatles’ ‘Esher Demos’ Enhance the White Album
In an interview a few years ago at Radio.com about the reissue of his Hater side-project, Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam commented on the deluge of outtakes included in box sets. “It can almost be like an invasion of privacy,” he said. He felt that not every note recorded in the studio is meant to be heard by the general public.
The conversation veered towards the latest installment of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series: it was Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966, an 18-CD collection that contained every surviving take he recorded during those two years, including an entire disc devoted to the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone.” He laughed and said, “Are you really going to listen to that?”
Which brings us to the Beatles. Although they’ve been heavily bootlegged over the decades, they haven’t mined their vaults as much as Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and many of their other peers. There were the Anthology collections, two compilations of BBC recordings and last year’s six-disc 50th anniversary expanded edition of 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pepper seemed to be an odd choice for an expanded version. The original album seems so perfect, the idea that it would need any enhancements at all seemed odd. Even the inclusion of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which were recorded during the same era, felt a bit out of place. The extras were interesting, but not essential.
On September 26, Giles Martin (son of George, and producer of the expanded edition) hosted a listening session at New York’s Power Station to preview select tracks from the upcoming 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles (aka the White Album). A double album that, at times, feels like separate EPs by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, its sequence doesn’t seem quite as set in stone as Sgt. Peppers’. So it’s less jarring to hear different versions of the original songs and additions to the original track listing.
For someone considering paying $160 for the Super Deluxe Edition (you can opt to get more expensive bundles, one of which includes a white turntable and costs $1,880), the bonus material here -- at least what Martin played at the Power Station -- is worth it. The legendary Esher Demos, recorded at Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey, are a blast. Martin played “Back In the U.S.S.R.,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” as well as “Not Guilty,” a Harrison-penned song which didn’t make the White Album, but was re-recorded for his self-titled album in 1979. He also played “Child of Nature,” another song that didn’t make the cut, but which would later evolve (with completely different lyrics) into Lennon’s classic solo song, “Jealous Guy.”
Intellectually, it’s interesting to listen to these tracks; they give insight to how the White Album was made. That’s also true of the bonus material on the Sgt. Pepper's reissue. But the Esher Demos are fun to listen to in their own right. It’s almost like hearing the Beatles if they were around long enough to do an episode of MTV Unplugged, albeit a bit less polished and a lot more fun than that.
Last month, Martin cited a quote from Lennon, who said that the White Album is “the sound of the Beatles breaking up.” Martin said he didn’t get that from listening to all the outtakes (which also includes banter between the members), and most listeners would probably agree. It sounds like they are having a great time, and it’s fun to listen to.
The outtakes were interesting as well: there a version of “Good Night” featuring the Beatles singing over an electric guitar that's far more raw than the orchestral version that made the album. Martin also shared rough versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the early version, like the album version, features Eric Clapton on lead guitar) and a bluesier “Cry Baby Cry.”
Did the Beatles ever intend for all of this stuff to be released? Probably not: then again, they might not have suspected that they’d still be so popular, 50 years later (interestingly, the box set will be released just a few weeks after McCartney’s Egypt Station topped the Billboard Album chart). More importantly to you, at least some of the bonus material will hold up to the existing Beatles catalog, and may prove to be something worth listening to over and over.