Back in 2017 I did a review of the 50th anniversary deluxe box set of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. This is a follow-up to that, as I now have the 50th anniversary box set for The White Album as well. The album is actually called The Beatles, but it’s commonly called The White Album given its design, and I like referring to it in that way.
It’s another great box set by the legendary band, through which I’ve been able to learn more about them and gain a further appreciation for the quality of their music. Given that I wasn’t born when the Beatles albums were released, and I haven’t studied the band in depth before, I’m not familiar with the finer details and history of their work than die-more obsessive fans may well be. So I’m finding these sets to be a real treasure trove of music and information. But hardcore fans will find plenty to enjoy here as well, given that a lot of the extra material has never been released before.
I treated myself to the Super Deluxe edition for £99.99 from Amazon, which contains the album (2 CDs), Esher Demos (1 CD), sessions material (3 CDs) and high-definition audio (1 Blu-Ray), all encased in a huge 164-page hardback book.
But you can also buy a smaller Deluxe edition, which has just the album and Esher demos, on 3 CDs or 4 vinyl LPs or digital download. Or you can buy the remastered album on vinyl, which is just 4 LPs and doesn’t have any extras.
So here I’m going to review the Super Deluxe Edition, and I’ve also made an unboxing video to show you what’s inside.
Please note that I bought this set with my own money, and I’m not sponsored by or affiliated with anybody connected with the product. I just wanted to tell you about it because I’ve enjoyed going through it. So all opinions are my own.
The set consists of a huge white book, encased in a big transparent sleeve that slides off. The sleeve has portrait photos of the 4 Beatles on the front, and the full track listing on the back. It can therefore only be read when the sleeve is over the book, so the text shows up against the plain white back cover.
The cover of the book itself only has 2 elements on the front, both of which were features of the album sleeve on its original release. Firstly, it has the band’s name in embossed white text near the bottom, which I can just about see if I hold it to the light correctly, but it’s also tactile as well. And secondly, there’s a unique number stamped in the bottom right corner (142,005 in my case). I hadn’t got around to buying it when it was first released, because I had enough to buy for Christmas as it was. So I waited and made it a new year treat instead, hence the higher number. When the album first came out, the unique number was printed on the “first few million or so copies”, according to the text in the book. So it’s nice that they’ve replicated the embossed text and numbering here.
Pockets in the front cover hold the 2 album CDs and the Blu-ray disc, while the 4 discs of demos and session material are in the back. All of the cardboard CD sleeves again mirror the design of the original album, again with the embossed white text, and the number in the corner is the CD number. There’s also a track listing in very small black text on the back.
The artworks on the discs themselves are either a whole apple or one that has been cut in half, with the track listing in black text on top. Unfortunately, where the image is a whole apple with a shadow at the bottom, this causes the text to pretty much disappear and become unreadable in that shadowy area. Still, I don’t need to read the text there anyway, as I have all the CDs copied to my computer, so the track titles are on screen. Those titles were automatically retrieved from the internet too, which is good. You can also read the track listings on the back of the disc sleeves (though it’s very small), or later in the book, or on the back of the set when the transparent sleeve is over the cover..
As noted earlier, everything is contained within a 164-page hardback book, which contains loads of photos and text on its glossy pages. And it’s a big book, larger than A4. Its dimensions (height x width x depth) are 32 x 26 x 3 cm, or approximately 12½ x 10¼ x 1¼ inches if you prefer.
The text is quite small, so it was easier for me to read it using a magnifier. But it’s really interesting, especially as most of it is new to me, so it was worth making the effort to go through it all bit by bit, which I spread out over a couple of weeks. Many of the photos are black and white, but there are some in colour too. And there are many colour photocopies of handwritten lyrics and notes – though I’m rubbish at reading squiggly handwriting, so I didn’t bother reading most of that.
The contents of the book are as follows…
We, The Beatles by Paul McCartney
This is a half-page foreword, so it doesn’t tell you much. But it indicates where the band were in their development, and tells a surprising story about an accident they had a lucky escape from. And it is nice to have something written by one of the band members in the book, though a longer interview with Paul could have been nice. That said, there are extensive quotes from all the band members throughout the various chapters, taken from various interviews over the years, so they do contribute a lot in that sense.
Introduction by Giles Martin
Another half-page piece, this time by George Martin’s son, who has worked on remastering this set. It basically summarises how different the creation of this album was from Sgt Pepper. Whereas Sgt Pepper was a very precise, tightly organised and elaborate creation, the White Album was the result of much looser experimentation and development, though it was still complex in some ways. So they are very different albums, yet both are great in my opinion.
The Way To White by Kevin Howlett
Kevin is a producer and author who has written many books about The Beatles, along with liner notes for their remastered albums, and as such has been entrusted with writing 4 chapters here. And this first chapter explores the period from the release of Sgt Pepper to the creation of the White Album, to show how it came about.
The band’s introduction to spiritualism and their trip to India is clearly very significant and pivotal to the whole story. There’s even a gallery of lyrics from the notebooks that were written during their stay. But various other details are also covered, including a worldwide programme the BBC asked them to be a part of, the impact caused by the death of manager Brian Epstein, the poor response to the Magical Mystery Tour film, and the developing relationship with Apple Records, among various other things.
Can You Take Me Back, Where I Came From? by John Harris
John Harris is a music journalist and critic, and this chapter is a retrospective view of the album’s development, placing it in context with other music and world events that were prevalent at the time. He also discusses his initial reactions to hearing the album as a child compared to his current thoughts, and the importance of the Esher Demos that are included in the set. He also notes the impact of Yoko Ono’s presence and other tensions that occasionally arose in the studio, while also clarifying how The Beatles were still a close unit at that point.
He also reminds us just how much work the band put into each of the tracks in their pursuit of perfection, a case in point being the track Not Guilty, which went up to take 102 (included in this set)! But many other tracks took many takes to get right too. John concludes the chapter by assessing the reactions to the album’s release and its enduring influence. sharing memories of the album by the band members themselves, and highlighting some of the elements to listen out for on the remastered album and session tracks.
There is then a lengthy section of pages that are slightly rougher and thicker, with the spine printed to make it look like a binder, all containing images of the original handwritten lyrics. I can make out little bits and pieces here and there, and in one or two cases the lyrics are written in capitals which makes it easier. But overall it’s too difficult for me to read it all. But those with better sight than me will find it very interesting to go through all of that in depth I’m sure. And I hear the lyrics when listening to the songs anyway of course.
Track By Track by Kevin Howlett
This chapter goes through every single song in the set, outlining the stories behind their creation and sharing quotes from the band members about the tracks. There is also in-depth information about the recording sessions, right down to the recording dates, a list of each band member’s contributions to the tracks, and details of how the various elements were arranged and mixed on the multitrack tapes. It also refers to the various session tracks included in the set to put them in context, and refers to some of the session tracks on the Anthology albums (which I clearly need to download as I don’t actually own those yet). Some notable cover versions by other artists are mentioned too. So this chapter is a great accompaniment to the music as you’re listening to it, as you get a deep insight into how each track was developed.
I did spot a typo in this chapter though, with one paragraph referring to “I Am The Warus” rather than “Walrus!”
It is the only error I’ve noticed in the entire set to be fair. There could be others, but the set is very well edited as far as I can tell.
The Mad Day Out by Kevin Howlett
This chapter is about the day of 28 July 1968, when The Beatles hired professional photographers to take promotional pictures of them in random places all over London. After a short introduction from Kevin, the subsequent pages show many of these photos, and they look very cool.
It’s amazing to think that they went around the city to do this without any security, they were just hanging out together. Today they would have needed a lot of security I expect, whether they wanted it or not. And from the images it does look like they’re very relaxed and enjoying themselves. There’s a definite informality about them, rather than things being too staged or perfected. In one case they’re even joined by members of the public, so that must have been very special. Whoever the children in that latter photo have grown up to be, I would hope they have very fond memories of that day. I doubt many people can say they’ve been in a photo with the Fab Four like that!
Kevin’s writing here has also introduced me to a lovely new word that I’d never heard before – peripatetic. This is an adjective meaning “Travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short periods.” So there is the peripatetic nature of military life, or you could be a peripatetic teacher working in more than one school or college. Maybe you knew that word already, but I didn’t.
White On White by Andrew Wilson (plus inserts)
This chapter examines the physical design of the album itself and the reactions it received. Given that the Sgt Pepper cover was incredibly detailed and had lots of psychedelic colours, the plain white sleeve of the White Album was a complete and surprising contrast, yet served its purpose perfectly. You wouldn’t think there was much to say about having an almost blank cover, but the insights into the design process are very interesting, revealing alternative ideas for the album name and cover artwork along the way. Its artistic merits and later influence are also analysed here, including the use of multiple annotated copies of the album cover by one modern artist in a display.
The discussion also goes into detail about the extras included within the album – the 4 colour portrait photos of the band members, plus a very large poster featuring a colourful collage of photos on the front and the lyrics to all the songs on the back. These in itself act as a contrast, offsetting the minimalist nature of the album cover.
Those inserts are included in this box set as well. Just before you get to the sessions discs on the inside back cover, there is a large pocket containing the photos and the poster for you to pull out and examine. It’s great to have those, they look really nice.
It’s Here! by Kevin Howlett
This final chapter discusses the manufacturing process and ultimate release of the album, including the hurdles that had to be overcome to get it out on time. It also briefly looks at how it performed in the charts, the reaction in the press and the rapidly released cover versions produced by other artists.
All in all, the book is an extremely comprehensive and fascinating look at everything involved with the album. Even though I had to use my magnifier to read it, it wasn’t laborious to get through, I actually enjoyed learning all about it. And the many photos and other images are wonderful to look at. So it’s really nicely put together.
CDs 1 & 2 – The Album
This has been remastered by Giles Martin (George’s son) and it sounds delightfully clear and powerful. The songs grab your attention and you’re able to pick out a lot of detail (and there is quite a lot sometimes, as explained in the Track By Track chapter).
I’m not going to write about every single song as there’s so many. But I really like the start of the album, as the opening 4 tracks are all very upbeat. Back In The USSR is a great rocking opener, Dear Prudence is both catchy and sweet, Glass Onion has some nice references to previous Beatles songs, and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a really fun and well-known song that I defy anyone not to tap along to. And later in the album, Birthday and Helter Skelter are heavy, lively and fun. while Honey Pie has a lovely, catchy 20s vibe to it.
As for the slower numbers, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of my favourite Beatles tracks of all time, and sounds wonderful in its remastered form here, and Blackbird is another favourite as well. I also really like the love songs I Will and Julia, the blues track Yer Blues, and the song Revolution 1.
Of course, the latter is completely different to Revolution 9, the bizarre collage of random sounds that isn’t to everyone’s taste. But it’s oddly fascinating, especially when you listen through headphones for the full stereo effect. I wouldn’t say it was awful, but I wouldn’t say it was great either. It’s just a weird experiment really, and the fact that it has such a variety of sounds kind of reflects the fact that the whole album is a variety of styles. And when you get through that, you’re rewarded by the gorgeous Good Night that closes the album, with its luscious orchestral backing.
Altogether, I think it’s a wonderful album, because there’s such a variety on it, from deep and meaningful to catchy and playful, from slow and sentimental to fast and rocking. It’s got something for everyone, and I find it very satisfying and enjoyable.
CD 3 – Esher Demos
These are demos recorded at George Martin’s house in Esher, Surrey, and are fascinating to listen to. Most tracks from the album have a demo version here, and are presented in the same order. The fact that these are acoustic performances mean they have a very different feel to the final versions, and they sound really nice, The sound quality is pretty good too, considering they are only demos. They often include alternative lyrics and other abandoned ideas too, which makes them all the more interesting.
There are also a few demos of songs that didn’t end up on the album, though a few did eventually appear elsewhere as the book explains. Most interesting to me out of those is Child Of Nature, which never became a finished song, but John later used the tune for his hit Jealous Guy, with completely different lyrics.
So it’s a real delight to have all of this material, and it works as an acoustic version of the album in its own right really. These demos are also included in the smaller Deluxe Edition, so if you can’t stretch to the Super Deluxe set, you don’t need to worry about missing out on these.
CDs 4, 5 & 6 – Sessions
Here you get a whopping 50 tracks of material from the recording sessions, nearly all of which has never been released, and certainly all of it was completely new to me. So it’s brilliant to get it all here.
It’s really interesting to get an insight into the development of the songs in this way. Because these are the actual takes without all the overdubs that were added later, and in a few cases are even instrumental versions, you will sometimes hear elements that you won’t have noticed before. Plus there are variations in things like lyrics, instrumentation, rhythm, tempo, etc that weren’t part of the final tracks at all. Indeed, some takes are surprisingly different to the finished product, illustrating how much they were experimenting to get the sound just right.
As with the Esher demos, there are many songs included from the sessions that didn’t make it on to the album. There’s a fascinating early rehearsal of Let It Be, which sounds very different to the version we know, yet lyrically it’s starting to take shape. There’s also great session material for Lady Madonna, Across The Universe and Hey Jude, and some lesser known tracks as well, along with fun jamming sessions where they improvise both cover songs and original material. So there’s a lot to explore here. I’m also glad they’ve retained some of the studio chatter and outtakes, giving you a nice sense of what the atmosphere was like. It’s great to hear them enjoying themselves.
So all in all these sessions discs are a fantastic behind-the-scenes collection, full of great performances and enjoyable surprises. I personally think they’re well worth the extra expense of the Super Deluxe set if you can afford it.
The Blu-ray disc contains the album in various high definition audio formats – a stereo mix, a DTS 5.1 mix and a Dolby True 5.1 mix, There’s also the original 1968 mono mix as well.
I don’t have the equipment to test the 5.1 mixes, and I’m not an audio quality expert, but the stereo mix sounds great through my sound bar. And even the mono mix sounds good, although having heard the remastered stereo version, the mono mix does sound inferior. But it’s great that they’ve retained the mono mix for those who enjoy the original sound, as I know there are those who prefer it, which is understandable..
The menu system is as minimalistic as the album artwork, with a very simple menu. When you’re playing the album, the 4 photos of the Beatles move around, going from black and white to colour and scrolling across, so the screen isn’t completely static. And the track listing is to the left of that.
My big gripe with the menu interface is that it’s nigh on impossible to see what option you’re on when you’re moving around. The text is black, and as you move around, the relevant option gets just a tiny bit blacker. It doesn’t even get bolder, it just goes a lightly darker shade of black as far as I can tell. And that’s pretty much impossible for me to distinguish. So I had to count my way around the menu and hope I was hitting the right thing. When a song is playing, there is a little speaker icon next to it, which is better, but that doesn’t tell you what option you’re on elsewhere if you move around. But apart from the awkward menus, the music sounds awesome, which is the main thing.
Full Track Listing
CD 1 & Blu-Ray – Main Album (New Stereo Mix):
- Back In The USSR – 02:45
- Dear Prudence – 03:55
- Glass Onion – 02:18
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – 03:09
- Wild Honey Pie – 00:53
- The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill – 03:14
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps – 04:45
- Happiness Is A Warm Gun – 02:45
- Martha My Dear – 02:29
- I’m So Tired – 02:03
- Blackbird – 02:18
- Piggies – 02:04
- Rocky Raccoon – 03:33
- Don’t Pass Me By – 03:50
- Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? – 01:42
- I Will – 01:46
- Julia – 03:01
CD 2 & Blu-Ray – Main Album (New Stereo Mix):
- Birthday – 02:43
- Yer Blues – 04:01
- Mother Nature’s Son – 02:48
- Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey – 02:25
- Sexy Sadie – 03:16
- Helter Skelter – 04:30
- Long, Long, Long – 03:06
- Revolution 1 – 04:16
- Honey Pie – 02:41
- Savoy Truffle – 02:54
- Cry Baby Cry – 03:02
- Revolution 9 – 08:21
- Good Night – 03:17
CD 3 – Esher Demos:
- Back In The USSR – 03:01
- Dear Prudence – 04:47
- Glass Onion – 01:56
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – 03:11
- The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill – 02:41
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps – 02:42
- Happiness Is A Warm Gun – 01:55
- I’m So Tired – 03:11
- Blackbird – 02:35
- Piggies – 02:06
- Rocky Raccoon – 02:44
- Julia – 03:57
- Yer Blues – 03:31
- Mother Nature’s Son – 02:24
- Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey – 03:04
- Sexy Sadie – 02:27
- Revolution – 04:07
- Honey Pie – 02:00
- Cry Baby Cry – 02:28
- Sour Milk Sea – 03:44
- Junk – 02:37
- Child Of Nature – 02:38
- Circles – 02:17
- Mean Mr Mustard – 02:06
- Polythene Pam – 01:26
- Not Guilty – 03:05
- What’s The New Mary Jane – 02:45
CD 4 – Sessions:
- Revolution 1 [Take 18] – 10:29
- A Beginning [Take 4] / Don’t Pass Me By [Take 7] – 05:06
- Blackbird [Take 28] – 02:16
- Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey [Unnumbered Rehearsal] – 02:43
- Good Night [Unnumbered Rehearsal] – 00:39
- Good Night [Take 10 With A Guitar Part From Take 5] – 02:31
- Good Night [Take 22] – 03:46
- Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da [Take 3] – 02:54
- Revolution [Unnumbered Rehearsal] – 02:16
- Revolution [Take 14 – Instrumental Backing Track] – 03:25
- Cry Baby Cry [Unnumbered Rehearsal] – 03:03
- Helter Skelter [1st Version – Take 2] – 12:54
CD 5 – Sessions:
- Sexy Sadie [Take 3] – 03:08
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps [Acoustic Version – Take 2] – 03:03
- Hey Jude [Take 1] – 06:45
- St. Louis Blues [Studio Jam] – 00:52
- Not Guilty [Take 102] – 04:29
- Mother Nature’s Son [Take 15] – 03:12
- Yer Blues [Take 5 With Guide Vocal] – 03:58
- What’s The New Mary Jane [Take 1] – 02:07
- Rocky Raccoon [Take 8] – 04:57
- Back In The USSR [Take 5 – Instrumental Backing Track] – 03:10
- Dear Prudence [Vocal, Guitar & Drums] – 04:00
- Let It Be [Unnumbered Rehearsal] – 01:18
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps [3rd Version – Take 27] – 03:17
- (You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care [Studio Jam] – 00:43
- Helter Skelter [2nd Version – Take 17] – 03:39
- Glass Onion [Take 10] – 02:12
CD 6 – Sessions:
- I Will [Take 13] – 02:21
- Blue Moon [Studio Jam] – 01:11
- I Will [Take 29] – 00:27
- Step Inside Love [Studio Jam] – 01:35
- Los Paranoias [Studio Jam] – 03:58
- Can You Take Me Back? [Take 1] – 02:22
- Birthday [Take 2 – Instrumental Backing Track] – 02:40
- Piggies [Take 12 – Instrumental Backing Track] – 02:10
- Happiness Is A Warm Gun [Take 19] – 03:09
- Honey Pie [Instrumental Backing Track] – 02:43
- Savoy Truffle [Instrumental Backing Track] – 02:57
- Martha My Dear [Without Brass And Strings] – 02:29
- Long, Long, Long [Take 44] – 02:55
- I’m So Tired [Take 7] – 02:30
- I’m So Tired [Take 14] – 02:17
- The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill [Take 2] – 03:13
- Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? [Take 5] – 02:03
- Julia [2 Rehearsals] – 04:31
- The Inner Light [Take 6 – Instrumental Backing Track] – 02:48
- Lady Madonna [Take 2 – Piano And Drums] – 02:25
- Lady Madonna [Backing Vocals From Take 3] – 00:54
- Across The Universe [Take 6] – 03:53
Total Duration: 5 hours 27 minutes
I’m really glad I bought this set. The book is really interesting and very well made, the wonderfully remastered album is a joy to listen to, and the demos and sessions material are fascinating to go through. It’s only slightly let down by the awkward menus on the Blu-ray and the one spelling mistake I spotted, but in the grand scheme of things they’re minor points. So I can highly recommend it if you’re a Beatles fan.