Reviewing the White Album is a bit like passing judgement on Michelangelo’s ceiling doodles for the Sistine Chapel or wondering why James Joyce didn’t use shorter sentences in Ulysses.
That’s even with the acknowledgement that on its release 50 years ago, the follow-up to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was regarded as deeply problematic — a sprawl of ideas and influences where Sgt Pepper was, for all its formal wooziness, focused and direct in its ambitions.
A new ‘deluxe’ anniversary reissue pulls back the curtain in the tumult John, Paul, George and Ringo were going through when they assembled at Abbey Road in 1967 (next door to the studio where a fledgling Pink Floyd were putting together Piper at the Gates of Dawn).
What the myriad of outtakes confirm is that, whatever other issues ailed the Beatles as they entered the final stages of their time together, creative stasis was not one of them. Among the assembled outtakes is the great lost Harrison track, ‘Not Guilty’, Macca’s semi-completed ‘Junk’ (which would pop up in more polished form on a solo LP) and Lennon’s ‘Child Of Nature’, the melody which he would recycle for ‘Jealous Guy’.
The big treat for audiophiles, meanwhile, is an overhaul of the original 29 tracks by Giles Martin (son of George). Much as he did with last year’s Sgt Pepper reissue he declutters the existing mix, adding sharpness and contrast without presuming to carry out major reconstructive surgery.
What he can’t do, of course, is bring any order to the bonkers contrast of tones which defined the White Album. This was the Beatles in the kids-in-candy-shop phase of their creative existence, with the record by turns accommodating McCartney’s feral blues workout ‘Helter Skelter’, Lennon’s proto-shoegaze’ Dear Prudence’ and ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ and Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
It’s a work of genius — but a by turns frustrating and scattershot one and the new edition neither diminishes its reckless ambition nor wrestles with its thrilling incoherence.