I have never really felt anything post-Pepper to be a “proper” Beatles album, tainted by the now apparent path to their break-up in 1970 and exemplifying how the individual creativity of the Beatles was widening the cracks that had already started to appear in the band. The White Album was released following a time of turmoil and upheaval for the band that began with Sgt. Pepper. The relentless touring of their early years had tired them in every way, their manager Brian Epstein had died from a drug overdose, the psychedelia of ’66 was giving way to a more spiritual outlook, the Magical Mystery Tour film had failed to give them direction and John had allowed Yoko into the Beatles studio sanctum. In these circumstances the White Album seems to signpost the beginning of the end, easy as it is to be preconditioned that such a large collection of songs highlight each Beatles individuality rather than a cohesive band effort. The release of the 50th Anniversary new stereo mix of the album presents the opportunity to not only listen to the album with a new set of ears, but to also consider it as a collective release rather than an album of disparate music recorded in an atmosphere of conflict and enforced toleration.
It is thought by some that the mono version is the way the Beatles intended their albums to be heard as the band directly involved themselves in the mixing. Giving a more “in your face” listening experience I have always mainly listened to the mono albums. The engineers at EMI created the stereo mixes which in most cases suffer from severe channel separation, great for picking out particular musical elements but for me rarely an enjoyable listening experience overall. This is where the White Album becomes distinct from their earlier albums as the Beatles themselves participated in the stereo mix of the White Album and for the first time it was only available in Stereo in the US, mono being phased out and now becoming the novelty. Mixed as its own entity, there are some things that set it apart from the mono version which was also mixed by the Beatles and released in the UK. The extended Helter Skelter and right-speed Don’t Pass Me By make for a better listen than their mono versions but the harsh channel separation has always been too uncomfortable for me, even though there are some tracks that do sound better in the stereo mix. I wanted to hear how good a job they have done with the 50th Anniversary remixes and this provided an opportunity to have a proper listen to the three versions of the album to see how they sounded. To do this I created a playlist featuring the 2009 mono remaster, the 2009 stereo remaster and the new 2018 mix, sequencing each track one after the other.
Immediately I was surprised that the mono sounds really dull in a way I hadn’t noticed before, sounding much less clearer than the original stereo. You can hear different elements of the songs, perhaps aided by the channel separation, but there is a definite clarity there that is missing from the mono. A few of the original stereo mixes are actually pretty good, not having such harsh separation of sound, and for this mono die-hard my appreciation of the original stereo mix has been raised up a notch (although the channel separation is still jarring). However with the new 2018 mix we get the best of both worlds. The stereo separation has been improved across all tracks, centralising vocals and other elements and creating a much wider stereo soundscape. The clarity is further improved from the 2009 stereo remaster with elements like the drums and the bass really standing out without overpowering everything else. In some tracks the vocals have been brought a little more into the foreground and there seems to be something in every track that makes you think you are hearing it for the first time. This new mix provides a far superior listening experience than either the 2009 mono or stereo mixes, replacing the mono version as my go-to listen, although I still enjoy the head-on mono experience. It has also made me think about creating a similar mono-stereo-new stereo playlist for Sgt. Pepper to see if another mono-crown can be usurped.
As for whether I am able to appreciate the White Album as a “proper” Beatles album, well I’m not completely there yet. Certainly the Sessions recordings found in the Super Deluxe edition do elicit the band having a bit more fun than might be expected but it still feels like less of a band creation than previous albums. Perhaps my mindset will shift a little more with every listen and I will certainly be listening to the White Album a bit more often than I have up until now.
One more thing in case your wondering, I didn’t to listen to Revolution 9 three times in a row. It’s an interesting track but i’m not sure that would have helped my appreciation of the album!
Standout track: Too many to pick, but how about Dear Prudence to start with?