frank ramblings

Fifty Years of “The White Album”

Come on it’s such a joy

After the 2017 fiftieth anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles fans wondered if more remixes might be coming soon. A couple of months ago, the official word came: 1968’s The Beatles would be receiving the Sgt. Pepper treatment for its fiftieth anniversary. Fans everywhere rejoiced — including me!

Clocking in at 93 minutes with a total of 30 tracks across 2 LPs, The Beatles (affectionately known as “The White Album” because of its plain white cover) has long been the subject of debate among fans. Many consider it the band’s magnum opus, while others feel the double LP has too many filler tracks. Personally, I’m with Paul McCartney on this one: “It was great, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles’ ‘White Album,’ shut up!”

Until about five years ago, the White Album was the Beatles’ album I had spent the least time listening to. It’s long, and it’s not necessarily the band’s most accessible work (“Wild Honey Pie” and “Revolution 9”, I’m looking at you.) But since this reissue was announced, I listened to the original stereo and mono mixes over and over again to prepare. While I don’t think the White Album needed a new stereo mix quite as much as Sgt. Pepper did, there were a handful of White Album tracks whose original mixes left me wanting more. These new mixes not only left me satisfied, they breathed new life into songs that I didn’t know even needed it. The way I see it, a good chunk of the White Album was pretty close to perfect already, but there were a few tracks that needed a little sprucing up. Giles Martin and Sam Okell took on the responsibility and delivered in a big way. This remix is another triumph and a fitting follow-up to their work on Sgt. Pepper.

I’ll provide a track-by-track analysis (because I’m a nerd like that) but here’s the TL;DR overview first. The entire album has a brighter, cleaner, more balanced sound overall. Plus, the drums and bass have been brought to the forefront in a lot of cases. In the 60s, drums and bass could cause record players to skip (the beat could literally cause the needle to jump out of the grooves), but today’s digital technology makes it possible to emphasize Ringo and Paul’s work the way it should have always been.

I mentioned that the album sounds more balanced. If there’s one thing this reissue proves, it’s that Giles Martin has a talent for filling the entire stereo field with sound. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that if the original stereo mix of the White Album has a flaw, it’s too much strict separation of instruments that almost pits the left and right sides of the tracks against one another. In the old mix, it was plain to hear how much of the album was recorded in overdubs. And that’s not bad per se, but it did sound kind of cold at time. You could tell when the guys weren’t playing together as a band. Plus, there were times in the old mix where either the left or right side were completely silent, resulting in a lopsided sound. In this remix, there’s much less of the lopsided effect, and instruments generally sound like they’re being played together, which adds more warmth and intentionality.

It’s interesting to note that some mixes were only slightly altered (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), while others were practically started again from scratch (“Glass Onion”). There’s a definite respect for the spirit of the album and a desire to provide the audience with an updated version that elevates the source material rather than trying to fix something that wasn’t really broken to begin with. And that’s a spirit I can get on board with.

SIDE ONE: looking through a glass onion

Track 1: Back in the U.S.S.R.

The Big Picture: From the opening sound of jet engines, the album is off to a rocking start. The stereo field on this track is wider than the old mix, and the new dynamics really bring out things like the drums and piano like never before. I had never really paid much attention to the piano for most of this song until hearing this version!

The MVP: John’s bass playing really has a great new kick to it. The previous mix buried the bass and now sounds tinny and more flat by comparison. This mix emphasizes the bass and drums in a way that makes the song rock on a whole new level. This is actually pretty consistent on the entire record, but it shines in a special way on this song.

Track 2: Dear Prudence

The Big Picture: This track is now so much richer! The decision to take full advantage of the stereo field results in a much more immersive sound that still preserves the intimacy and simplicity that makes this song so beautiful. The bass, the lead guitar, and those exquisite backing vocals embrace the listener from all sides, rather than hanging out on one side or the other. So crisp and clear in a new and exciting way!

The MVP: John’s finger-picked rhythm guitar is absolutely otherworldly and I could listen to it on a loop for hours. The song starts so cleanly and simply with that finger-picking as its foundation, builds to its peak, and then strips everything away again, leaving us the same way it began. And as it fades out, there is a sense of physical closeness, as if he’s right in the room, playing the song just for you.

Track 3: Glass Onion

The Big Picture: I felt this mix could use some sprucing up, and I’m really pleased with what we got here. The hard-panned bass and drums never sounded natural to me. Again, the band sounds like they’re playing together as a unit. The psychedelic strains of the string section and the steady piano really jumped out to me in a new way.

The MVP: John’s vocal sounds brighter, and it’s been brought to the forefront of the track. I hear some interjections from Paul that weren’t as noticeable before. That’s one of the real joys of reissues like these: hearing little tidbits for the first time, even though they’ve been right there (sometimes buried) in the music for all these years.

Track 4: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

The Big Picture: Paul famously labored over this track to the point where his band mates lost their patience with him. It seems that Martin and Okell didn’t feel the need to tinker with it much further, giving us a mix very similar to the original in most respects. It’s one of the rare spots on this album that actually benefits from some increased stereo separation. Previously, there was an almost muddy warmth to the horns section and the final verse’s piano trills, but that’s been brightened up. An acoustic guitar is now faintly audible, providing a steady ska beat throughout the whole track. The hand claps, maracas, and other percussion instruments are pleasantly set apart from the rest of the track, and John and Paul’s comedic vocal overdubs are much clearer than I’ve ever heard them.

The MVP: The high-pitched “la la la” backing vocals during the chorus now soar above the rest of the track, sounding cleaner and crisper than before. They really bring the party vibe!

Track 5: Wild Honey Pie

The Big Picture: Let’s just admit that this song wasn’t the Beatles’ finest musical achievement. Okay. Now that that’s out of the way, the changes in this mix are minor, creating more isolation between the layered vocal harmonies.

The MVP: The tape distortion on the guitars is much more exaggerated than before. Seriously, it’s kind of a big difference. More than I realized at first. Was that entirely necessary? Maybe not, but it further emphasizes this track’s defining characteristic, so I’m here for it.

Track 6: The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill

The Big Picture: A much fuller, richer sound. For maybe the first time, I’m actually able to take this song seriously. I had always regarded it as a sort of novelty song, but its musical merits are finally on display here. Guitars, group vocals, percussion, and mellotron create a party vibe that’s not unlike “Birthday” (which we’ll get to a bit later.)

The MVP: Mandolins! Mandolins everywhere! Wow, they really create tension during the verses, don’t they? They now augment the story (slightly absurd as it is) in a really powerful way.

Track 7: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

The Big Picture: When this track dropped on Spotify a few weeks before the rest of the reissue, I was surprised that the new mix was actually fairly similar to the original. The real change here is the way the acoustic rhythm guitar ties all the elements of the track together, allowing the sounds to build on one another and create a finished product that is greater than the sum of its parts. Martin and Okell managed to polish a gem that we didn’t even realize could shine any more than it already did.

The MVP: Ringo’s hi-hat really stands out — just kidding! The obvious MVP here is the iconic Eric Clapton guitar solo! The new mix brings this slice of music history to new life, and I can’t help but play air guitar every time I hear it.

Track 8: Happiness Is a Warm Gun

The Big Picture: Happiness is a balanced stereo mix. And that’s exactly what this track delivers. Every instrument works together to weave a soundscape that imitates the experience of hearing the band play live. The added double-tracking on the fuzz guitar solo was an interesting choice. But I do have some criticism: it’s now much harder to hear Paul’s doo-wop vocal bassline during the chorus, and that’s a real shame. It adds so much charm to the end of the song, and I’m bummed that it’s not as clear as it used to be.

The MVP: The backing vocals on the chorus do a lot to elevate the song from a standard rocker to something transcendent. It hits the listener right in the face and signals a change in the direction of the song.


SIDE TWO: take these broken wings

Track 9: Martha My Dear

The Big Picture: The opening of this song is much improved! It starts with a simple piano melody, which had been hard-panned to the left in the old mix. Now, it’s centered and feels much more open — as if the piano itself is relieved to have some breathing room.

The MVP: The horn solo sounds so clean and modern! On one hand, it’s actually a bit of a shame that it seems to be missing some of the trademark Abbey Road reverb that used to be there. On the other hand, this crispness is a better fit for the new mix.

Track 10: I’m So Tired

The Big Picture: The actual mix is fairly similar, but a bit more centered. This track was previously very bass-heavy, and that’s been leveled out here. Paul’s bass still drives the song, but it doesn’t dominate like it had before, and that’s a good thing in this case.

The MVP: Ringo’s drumming, for real this time! You can now fully appreciate his ability to always make the exact right choices for a given song. Never too much, never too little, always just right. I feel Ringo is severely underrated in general (this podcast episode covers the topic well), and while this isn’t even my favorite performance of his, it’s a great showcase for his talent.

Track 11: Blackbird

The Big Picture: Did you ever notice this track had audible tape hiss? Because I never did, until now. And it’s gone now! Another improvement for the better, without any drawbacks.

The MVP: Well, the guitar, clearly. It’s now centered for a fully immersive experience. Sure, it’s a little harder to hear those foot taps, but I don’t think we really needed to dedicate the entire left channel to them, either. This centered approach is the way to go!

Track 12: Piggies

The Big Picture: Songs like this one don’t always get the attention they deserve. Sure, George is earnestly singing a satirical, baroque ballad about pigs clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon. But shouldn’t he sound good doing it? Well, clearly Giles Martin thinks so, and he blends the strings, keyboards, guitar, and tambourines so they sound like they’re in the room with the listener.

The MVP: The harpsichord wins this round. It’s always been this song’s defining characteristic, and I’m thrilled to hear it front and center as the star of the song.

Track 13: Rocky Raccoon

The Big Picture: This might be the best example of how to update the overall feel of a song by mixing the bass and drums in the center. Everything else falls into place once those are where they belong. As deeply familiar as I am with the song, the honky-tonk piano and harmonica felt so fresh, it was almost like hearing them for the first time all over again.

The MVP: The doo-wop backing vocals during the final verse made me gasp. Until now, they had always sounded slightly low-fi. I assumed that was on purpose, but now I wonder if that was a result of multi-track bouncing that’s been corrected in the digital age. Either way, the voices surround the listener and have become one of the highlights of the song for me.

Track 14: Don’t Pass Me By

The Big Picture: Why was Ringo’s drumming ever sentenced to fifty years of solitary confinement in the left channel? I don’t know the answer, but I’m certainly relieved that they’ve been released. The result is a delightfully jangly country rock song that may lack in polish, but makes up for it with charm.

The MVP: I can’t in good conscience point to anything other than the fiddle. It’s what gives the song it’s southern charm and it’s more integrated into the song than it’s ever been.

Track 15: Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

The Big Picture: This is probably my least favorite song in the entire Beatles catalog. In fact, until writing this review, I had forgotten that I’d removed it from my iTunes library way back in 2009 when I got the remastered set. That’s how little I care for it. It’s been made warmer and clearer than before, but it’s still the track I’ll skip most often.

The MVP: Paul’s baseline is groovy and (for my money) the most musically-interesting element of the song. It sounds much more crisp and snappy.

Track 16: I Will

The Big Picture: This album features a healthy number of acoustic tracks with relatively simple arrangements. This song really didn’t need much work. I don’t love that the lead guitar is now slightly more buried in the mix, but I appreciate the effort to pull the vocal harmonies slightly to the left and right, creating that sense of being surrounded by music on all sides.

The MVP: Paul’s vocal bassline always amuses me, and it’s really easy to pick out and enjoy now.

Track 17: Julia

The Big Picture: How do you take a vocal and an acoustic guitar and give them the weight and impact of a full band? Well, take a few pointers from this track, because they’re on to something here. It feels like they’ve taken us listeners inside of John’s guitar.

The MVP: John’s multi-tracked guitar finger-picking is haunting and surreal. ‘Nuff said.

SIDE THREE: Yes we’re going to a party, party

Track 18: Birthday

The Big Picture: This is another one of those mixes that benefits from more stereo separation. By comparison, the old mix sounds much less dynamic — almost flat. And I don’t know that I’ve ever actually noticed that guitar riff that accompanies the bass during the “I would like you to dance” segment around the 2-minute mark. I’d always heard the bass, but never quite picked out the guitar that goes along with it.

The MVP: The main guitar riff complements the bass so beautifully throughout the track now, it’s amazing! They had been locked in together previously, but they’ve been given their own spots on the left and the right, and that allows them to share the spotlight and raise each other up.

Track 19: Yer Blues

The Big Picture: This earns the prestigious Frank Ramblings Award for Most Improved Track! The song packs even more of a bluesy punch now, with Ringo drumming like a madman right up the middle, and George and John’s guitars off to the sides.

The MVP: John’s lead vocal always had reverb, but now it really reminds me of the sound he went for on solo albums like Imagine or Rock ‘N’ Roll. This one will be in heavy rotation for me.

Track 20: Mother Nature’s Son

The Big Picture: If it struck you as odd that this track was always essentially split down the middle of the stereo field, that’s been addressed. I found that having the guitar and orchestra share some space in the center channel really opens things up and draws me in further.

The MVP: The brass section used to feel like it had been tacked on to an otherwise acoustic song — which is really what happened. But the new mix provides a more cohesive sound and brings a sense of intentionality that was always missing before.

Track 21: Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey

The Big Picture: Glad to see this song finally getting some love. Adapted from a saying by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during The Beatles’ time with him in Rishikesh, India, the lyrics are a bit silly, but they’re wrapped in a legitimate hard rock coating. Re-arranging the stereo imaging made it much easier to appreciate the percussion and the enthusiastic screams and shouts from the band throughout the track.

The MVP: Paul’s driving bassline is front and center in this mix, giving the song a focal point. The rest of the song feels anchored around it.

Track 22: Sexy Sadie

The Big Picture: Another song written by John about the Maharishi, though this time with a decidedly less positive attitude. This may come as a surprise, but I think I prefer the old mix on this one. It wasn’t perfect, but it was brighter and less muddy than the new mix. Now the bass is a touch too dominant for my taste, and it drowns out the piano almost completely. On the bright side, you can hear a Hammond organ now (especially in the final 10 seconds or so) that I’d never noticed before.

The MVP: The guitar solo has been brought up in the mix and it’s never sounded so good. It makes me wish for a hybrid mix, taking the best parts of both the original and new versions.

Track 23: Helter Skelter

The Big Picture: The term “heavy metal” wasn’t in wide usage yet at this point in 1968, but if there was ever a true heavy metal song, this is it. The signature guitar lick is so dynamic that it sears itself into the listener’s memory immediately. Ringo does some of his best work on this track, and the new mix really gives him the chance to shine. In the old mix, John’s bass had taken up residency in the left ear, throwing the track off-balance at times. Now, it joins Ringo’s drums in the middle to create a rocking rhythm section. Plus, if you listen carefully, you’ll notice some spoken bits from Paul that weren’t so easy to hear until now.

The MVP: The backing vocals are absolutely haunting now. It’s almost jarring at first. They jump out at the listener and make it pretty clear that this is something special and different.

Track 24: Long, Long, Long

The Big Picture: It seems fitting that the loudest song on the album is followed by one of the quietest. Prior to this new mix, George’s vocals and acoustic guitar would very quickly modulate from a whimper to a soulful shout. That’s been smoothed out, and it’s infinitely more listenable than before! It’s one of the more experimental songs on the album, and it’s presented here in a way that is much more enjoyable to listen to.

The MVP: Check out the phase effect on the drums. It’s pretty wild, and I’m positive I never noticed it before.

SIDE FOUR: We All Want To Change The World

Track 25: Revolution 1

The Big Picture: The old mix of this song was the result of some odd choices. It sounds highly compressed, the low frequencies are muted, the high frequencies are intense, and the horns section is completely isolated on the right side. In stark contrast, this new mix sounds like a brand new recording. Honestly, this is one of the most-improved tracks out of the whole bunch. The acoustic backing track and lead vocals anchor the whole song, with backing vocals, lead guitar, and horns surrounding the listener on the left and right, giving the impression of a 180-degree field of sound. And the bass is actually audible this time! How novel!

The MVP: The horns section adds an air of sophistication to the entire song. And now that it’s somewhat mixed in with the rest of the instruments, you actually feel like they’re intentional and not added off to the side.

Track 26: Honey Pie

The Big Picture: Paul’s tribute to the 78 RPM music hall style takes on a new character in this mix. Previously, there was an unnatural (by 2018 standards) separation that made it clear these musicians were not all playing together. In the new mix, the stereo separation is still used to great effect, but the entire track sounds much more dynamic. The jazzy electric guitar and the piano bind the entire track together, along with Paul’s lead vocal.

The MVP: Another win for the orchestra! The clarinets now span across the entire stereo field and envelop the listener in a sphere of jazz reminiscent of the old records Paul is honoring here.

Track 27: Savoy Truffle

The Big Picture: This song wasn’t always a favorite of mine, and I can’t help but wonder if the old stereo mix had a lot to do with that. First of all, the old mix was painfully quiet by comparison. And I can’t understand why George’s vocals were isolated on the far right. I far prefer this new mix, which once again creates a unifying effect that draws the listener in and makes for a generally more pleasing listening experience.

The MVP: Stabbing brass on all sides elevates the song to a new level! Seriously, I can’t get over this sound! I can’t tell if it’s the placement of the microphones, the new centered mix, or just the simple fact of going back to the source tapes. Maybe it’s a combination of all those factors? Whatever it is, this song quickly rose up the ranks for me.

Track 28: Cry Baby Cry

The Big Picture: This has always been one of the highlights of the album for me. The melody and lyrics strike me as somewhat McCartney-esque, though I’m aware it’s a Lennon composition. I enjoyed by the way the old mix had John’s vocal floating from the center during the verses to the left during the chorus. I was a little bummed out that the new mix didn’t preserve that, but I still prefer this new version by far. But that’s OK, especially because the lead guitar totally wails now. The piano and acoustic guitar are also noticeably easier to hear, giving the song a sort of backbone that it only really had in the mono mix until now. And did you realize there was a bass guitar on this song? Because I barely realized it until it became so pleasantly audible in this mix.

The “Can You Take Me Back” segment sounds largely the same, but louder and more vibrant. I wish they had preserved the old mix of this section— with the new volume boost, but it’s a matter of personal preference.

The MVP: John’s vocal is warm and enveloping, particularly during the chorus when it’s double-tracked. It’s very telling that the vocal is still the centerpiece of the song, given how much more vibrant the other instruments have become in the new mix.

Track 29: Revolution 9

The Big Picture: Oh boy. Just the thought of trying to summarize this track makes me nervous. I had read that the original mix was preserved, and I can confirm it. Honestly, it’s a relief. The original mix was the result of hundreds (if not thousands) of very intentional and specific choices by John Lennon, George Harrison, and Yoko Ono. Altering it would be unthinkable to many die-hard fans. It’s probably for the best that they didn’t mess with what so many consider an avant-garde masterpiece.

The MVP: It honestly hasn’t changed, so I can’t say anything new jumped out at me. But if you’re like me, maybe it’s been a while since you last listened to this one. Take this as an opportunity to pop on a good pair of headphones and experience it again.

Track 30: Good Night

The Big Picture: This is a perfect album closer. Framed as a lullaby, it ends the record on a high note. And it sounds much cleaner and more polished than ever. My eyes widened when I heard how crystal clear the backing vocals are now! And I love the Beatles’ four-part vocal harmony later in the song, but I had never noticed that it can be heard during the intro as well!

The MVP: George Martin’s orchestration is absolutely sublime. You’ll feel like you’re in a concert hall listening to a live orchestra, surrounded on all sides by music, and whisked away to dreamland. It’s one of the most overlooked orchestral arrangements in the Beatles’ catalog.

Now It’s Time To Say Good Night

Even if you already own and love the White Album, this new mix is a must-have. A discerning listener will notice that it sounds fresher and more energetic than before. I absolutely have a new appreciation for it and I’ll be listening often.

If you don’t feel strongly about the White Album, I’d encourage you to check out this new mix on your favorite streaming service and give it another honest try. It’s worth it for the bonus tracks alone! I won’t dive into the details here, but they’re an absolute treasure trove of early takes and mind-blowing demos.

In 2018, the spirit and culture of 1968 lives again in many ways. In dusting off the White Album and polishing up some of the band’s finest work, both the Beatles as a band and The Beatles as an album are as relevant today as they’ve ever been.