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Back To Pure White: The Beatles’ White Album At 50

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Four old friends made a welcome return over the festive season.

Fifty years having passed since The Beatles left Sgt. Pepper’s tutelage and swapped life in the Lonely Hearts Club Band for India and crafted the White Album between studies in Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi. The musical impetus was there as early as “Norwegian Wood” on Rubber Soul, with George Harrison taking up sitar under tuition from Ravi Shankar as part of his gradual move towards swapping the Mersey for the Ganges.

“Love You To” from Revolver and Pepper’s own “Within You Without You” would also benefit from its distinctive twang before it bowed out with “The Inner Light”–the space between its four beacons eventually proving too great. The flame would of course peter out somewhere down Abbey Road, but where the repainted universally accepted shorthand for “double” arguably excels is in the place it had rekindled…

Skip straight to the Esher Demos disc and you’ll find stripped back acoustic sketches of and “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” amongst embryonic versions of almost everything fromBack In The USSR” to “Cry Baby Cry.” Something of a prelude to the final dissolution, though there’s not even the merest hint of anything disrupting harmony as they get down to business.

There’s even time for trial runs at later solo efforts, the inclusion herein of “Child Of Nature” (later tweaked before eventual release as “Jealous Guy” touched up for inclusion on Imagine), “Junk,” (exhumed for McCartney) and a Harrison hat-trick—“Circles,” “Not Guilty,” and “Sour Milk Sea,” later surfacing for Gone Troppo and gifting to Jackie Lomax respectively, his take on it serving as one of the first offerings from the Apple label.

Proof, if any were needed, that business and pleasure can indeed at times be uneasy bedfellows? A fact not lost on George, whose most acerbic contribution to the finished product, “Piggies” follows “Taxman” in savaging greed and materialism.

The fruit, however rotten it turned in the end, is there for all to see in a cosmetic sense across the two discs of the album.

Realistically, though, we’re all here for the juice.

And how sweet it is in places.

Giles Martin (son of George, professor emeritus of the mixing desk and probably the nearest candidate to Fifth Beatle status) helms the project, bringing up the bass and drums in conjunction with the two survivors of the Fab Four. Having previously handled the Love mashup soundtrack to a Cirque Du Soleil show and dusting down of those old band uniforms (two sets, moptops and suits traded in for longer hair and a splash of colour) Martin retreads old ground in much a similar fashion as here.

Yet we still can’t quite bring ourselves to lay the old soldiers to rest, can we?

Even pinning such military badges to their lapels feels a little wrong, in all honesty. After all, they strove for peace at least outwardly, and told us all we needed was love. That we do and always will has probably been said several times in several different ways by various interpreters of their canon down the years. Therein lies the inherent difficulty of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, in consideration of any appreciation of their legacy.

Anything that can be said about it most likely already has been.

Little wonder even they themselves felt compelled to take on another guise for a time, struggling under the weight of what they’d become. Yet, unable to find their own collective nirvana back they came stripped of all artifice, Rishikesh possibly showed them exactly what they travelled so far to find.

Which was simple, in practice. Themselves. No time for white noise in its literal sense, a liberal serving of the old Hamburg magic apparent in the playful opening ode to Soviet Russia, tipping its hat to a guru and dispensing wisdom through transcendence of a different kind as Mother Nature’s son reaped his fruit.

Hail, hail rock & roll!

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today, We touched ground on an international runwayJet propelled back home, from over the seas to the U. S. A.New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for youDetroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton RougeLet alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou…

The plane, which we actually hear by way of a field recording, soon takes a detour via accusations of Communist sympathies.

McCartney against McCarthy, so to speak.

Oh, flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.Didn’t get to bed last nightOn the way the paper bag was on my kneeMan I had a dreadful flightI’m back in the U.S.S.R.

The implication that the Commies didn’t know how good they had it quickly proved enough to draw scorn even from them and was sniffily dismissed as the “belch of Western culture.” The pre-knighthood and national treasure status of Paul would at least metaphorically also be scrubbing blood from his hands in the wake of Helter Skelter (now said to be available in extended form as part of the expanded reissue box set) after Charles Manson adopted it as a central part of his prediction and attempted incitement of racial war. Manson, hearing coded messages which he believed meant there were at least another four members of his Family, was a grim inversion of the special connection I daresay a good proportion of the world’s population feels with the Beatles even this long after they ceased as a unit.

Including myself.

After all, I was the boy who first heard them when all he needed to be happy was the three people who introduced them to him–my dad’s collection actually coming his way via my uncle who subsequently replaced it with his own copies, some of which in turn I made copies of…

And so they go on and on across the universe at a guess, not yet fully at rest.

Maybe on the day the world finally accomplishes the peace they enlisted with the Sgt. to bring before retreat to the ashram they will finally be granted that Last Post, beyond the reach of clichéd, repetitive analysis and outside the cycle of reissue and rebirth. Back to pure white, if you will–the music finally allowed to speak for itself without we who somehow manage to overcomplicate what should be simple, going on within and without us, much like life itself.