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Inside the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ with Producer Giles Martin (The Interview)
Boasting signature classics like “Back In The USSR,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” “Blackbird,” “Yer Blues,” “Birthday,” “Glass Onion,” “Helter Skelter” and “Julia,” The Beatles, more commonly known as The White Album, is a sprawling and ambitious double-album that chronicles the acceleration of the the Beatles‘ creative powers. Hot on the heels of last year’s Sgt. Pepper’s box set comes a deep dive into The White Album, with various configurations being made available of this seminal 1968 long player (3-CD, 2-LP and Super Deluxe box with 6 CDs, book and ephemera) featuring a newly remixed version of the album with more prominent drums and bass presence, 27 Esher acoustic demos recorded at George Harrison’s home and a whopping 50 studio outtakes).
This complete package is illuminating and immersive, lending a clear window into the band’s record making process. Producer Giles Martin is on board once again, overseeing this important project, and he recently sat down with Rock Cellar after a media event at Capitol Records in Los Angeles to discuss everything about this project and The Fab Four.
Rock Cellar: What story does The White Album tell us about The Beatles?
Giles Martin: Well for me, it cancels out the myth of The White Album being the story of The Beatles breaking up. For me it’s not a cohesive band eroding where you hear them collaborating in the studio. I had heard about them doing it in different rooms while they were recording The White Album, making their own records and compiling it into an album. That just isn’t the case, but in fairness there are a few songs where that does happens on The White Album.
For instance, the song “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” is Paul on his own in the studio. But what is interesting is when Paul came to listen to the outtakes, he was really interested in listening to “Julia” and I was so surprised by that. But he was there on that session with John when he recorded “Julia.” It was that thing where I think they rejected the formal recording techniques that were at Abbey Road with my dad and the engineers and they kind of went off on their own and made things. But they certainly remained as a unit. It was almost like, “we don’t play live anymore, the studio is the place where we play live and we work things out,” and that’s what they used it for.
Rock Cellar: You made an interesting point in the introduction to playing The White Album material for the press, opining that this record is a direct contrast to Sgt. Pepper’s as it’s a completely visceral album experience.
Giles Martin: That’s the challenge of working on it. We live in a perfect world now, where everything is in tune and everything is in time. Kids take Instagram photographs and they filter them, all that sort of stuff.
The beauty of The White Album is its flaws, and its anger, and the fact that you get punched in the face occasionally.
When it came to remixing the album, it was important that we emphasized that. We mixed the entire album and compressed it in the same way that the original album was compressed but it sounded too much like The White Album and not really as good. So it was a matter of peeling back the layers and trying to get into the room with the band, which is what I try and do with most mixes anyway, trying to keep it more organic. Some think a remix is gonna be adding a lot more technology to the mix but it’s not. I’m actually trying to reduce as much technological process as possible..
Rock Cellar: When you dug into the session tapes and were able to examine them more deeply on a forensic level, were there parts or musical moments that made you go, “Wow, I’ve never heard that before?”
Giles Martin: Yeah, it’s things like the remix of “Long, Long, Long.” When you listen to Ringo hitting the drums he’s really hitting the drums and you hear the room sound, whereas on the record you don’t really hear the room sound as much. It’s a little bit squeezed and it has to be squeezed because it has to be contained or else the needle would jump out of the groove. But we don’t have to worry about that today. In fact, we can isolate and compress specific parts now with compression like the chorus bit of the song, which needs to be squeezed, and if you leave that open it doesn’t sound right. But the actual verses we can keep open and that increases the aggression of it, if that makes sense.
So I have a huge respect for The Beatles and I also have a huge sense of humility for the fact that I’m the person who gets to go in and do this. I know that from being my dad’s son it helps open the door to Abbey Road.
Rock Cellar: It’s a big responsibility.
Giles Martin: Yeah, but I also have the trust of The Beatles and they know that I’m not doing it to further my career, if that makes sense. I don’t run around Hollywood going, “Guess which Beatles project I’m working on now?!” It’s very different.
I’m completely loyal to them, as I should be, and I love them dearly and they’ve always been good to me. I realize I have this position but then I think, “there are others than can do a much better job of this than me, so what can I do?” And what I can do is get other people to hear what I’m hearing in a controlled way but as open as I can. So that’s why when people came up to me after the Sgt. Pepper project and told me they heard all these things that they’d never heard before, I’m not adding these things to the tapes, they’re there. I just want you to be able to hear them; it’s as simple as that.
Rock Cellar: How did your father’s role as producer with The Beatles change by the time The White Album sessions commenced?
Giles Martin: Lest we forget that my dad was their producer, he was also their A&R guy. He and Brian Epstein would have a plan about what they were gonna record by The Beatles and what they were gonna release. He said one of his biggest regrets was doing the double A-side single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” because it didn’t go all the way to number one, the attention to both records was split two ways.
It was the first time The Beatles didn’t have a number one single since “Love Me Do.” So my dad had an idea of how The Beatles should develop and how the Beatles should progress as a band. Because of his roots, I think he was going down the more symphonic route. For instance, when I was a kid he told me he always wanted to make a symphony with Eric Clapton; that was one of the things he wanted to do.
So when it came to The White Album, he thought it would be a progression from what The Beatles did on Sgt. Pepper. But it wasn’t. In essence the band didn’t want an architect at all. They had a number of songs they wanted to record, a number of songs that sounded like they’d been written around a campfire in Rishikesh. Their attitude was, “Be involved if you want, George, or don’t be involved, but this is what we want to do.” So that was their attitude as opposed to allowing him to produce like he had on previous albums. Brian Epstein had died a year before, the band was no longer touring so therefore they didn’t have that system of playing live for a long time.
With The White Album, what they did was play live for a long time in the studio, which was exhausting for my father. He’d sit in a control room and they’d have done numerous takes of a song like “Sexy Sadie” and it’s three in the morning and they’d still be playing and he’d be going, “What am I doing here?” He had an ego as well, and rightfully so, as he was bloody good at what he did. But he was thinking, we’ve made these great records in the past and now I’m just sitting here in the back of the room. But he certainly had a role to play.
If you listen to John singing “Julia,” he wanted to know from my dad what he thinks is good but John is also suggesting what he does himself. When you hear an outtake of “Blackbird” on this, you’ll hear Paul saying, “I’ll know when I get the song right” as opposed to him telling my dad, “Just tell me when you think I got it right.” At the end of “Helter Skelter,” you hear Paul go, “Keep that one and mark it fab, that’s the take I like.” So the roles had changed. But then listen to “Mother Nature’s Son,” which has my dad’s great horn arrangement and the same goes for his work on “Martha My Dear” or “Honey Pie,” he did create sound context on The White Album but just less so.
And he couldn’t possibly keep up; no one could with the sheer pace The Beatles were recording at during The White Album.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about the Esher demos, which were recorded at George Harrison’s house. These have circulated in lesser quality on bootlegs for years.
Giles Martin: You’re right. The Esher tapes are remarkable. In many ways they’re akin to The Beatles doing MTV Unplugged. As you’ve said, they’ve been out on bootleg in the past but in terrible quality; the quality on these are superb and taken straight from George’s master tapes. Funnily enough, I wasn’t aware of the Esher demos but when I was working on the Living In the Material World film by Martin Scorcese I spent a year out at George’s house, Friar Park, going through tapes and there were many reels marked Beatles and I had listened to those and made notes; those turned out to be the Esher tapes.
Rock Cellar: The Beatles did over 100 takes of “Not Guilty” during The White Album sessions, what were the main issues of a track like that coming together?
Giles Martin: The truth of the matter is there are a lot of breakdowns. Don’t forget, those 100 takes are not done all in a row, those could be takes spread out over many days of sessions or different weeks, even. So that’s worth bearing in mind. It’s funny being in the studio, if you’ve ever recorded you can go through a number of takes without realizing you’ve gone through a number of takes. When you hear the early Beatles stuff engineered by Norman Smith and there’d be a breakdown, he’s shout out the next take, “Seven!” So in the studio you can go through takes pretty quickly.
Because of the nature of the way they were recording on The White Album with not many overdubs, it’s kind of like the Let It Be album in a way. For example, a song like “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is an incredibly complicated thing to play and actually they’d find it quite funny. They’d get through the end of a take and John would go, “It’s getting better but it’s not getting more fun.” But George would go, “It’s getting better and it’s getting more fun.” John would say, “Is it? Maybe for you but it’s hard. It’s very hard to sing this.” But they wanted to capture that, and they weren’t playing live concerts anymore so this was the moment they did it.
Rock Cellar: There are 50 studio outtakes included the super deluxe edition. As a steward of The Beatles’ recorded legacy, what goes into your determination as to the artistic worthiness of including a specific outtake, balancing satisfying the hardcore collectors who want to hear the 27-minute version of “Helter Skelter” to reaching fans that are less discerning of the cache of deep rare material in the vaults?
Giles Martin: That’s a really good question, I suppose the answer is you don’t mix and make music so people can collect it; you mix and make music so people can listen to it. And that’s the answer.
I’ve said to folks wanting to hear the extended version of “Helter Skelter,” listen to the 13-minute version on this set and then you can ask me whether you want 14 minutes more. I think there are two 13 or 14-minute versions of “Helter Skelter,” I’ll have to double check. Collectors want it because it’s like buying baseball cards, it’s that sort of thing, but it’s not my motivation to do that.
My motivation is more for the generations that have never heard The Beatles. We live in a global jukebox with streaming where everything is out there and people may hear a take of “Sexy Sadie” that isn’t very good and go, “Well, The Beatles weren’t very good, were they?”
I don’t think I’m being overprotective, I think it’s really important to showcase the beauty of The White Album, which is the warts-and-all process of it. I think that’s what the album is. The counterargument is we live in a society of Instagram people taking their photographs and making sure they look good all the time and that’s not right either so I think you have to have a balance. So that’s the thing I strike, it’s like I go, “Well, OK, I’ll argue with Mike Healey and Kevin Howlett, who are the research group on this and someone will say, “there’s a different fade at the end of this demo but you’ve got to get to two and half minutes of a track to hear a different fade,” but I’m not interested in that.
Rock Cellar: Were there any outtakes that you heard that you felt rivaled the finished recordings that appear on the studio album?
Giles Martin: Yeah, I like the Esher demo version of “Yer Blues,” which is John just double-tracking himself and it sounds like Robert Johnson. It’s super cool; it’s really really good so that’s one. If I go back to “Yer Blues,” there’s another studio take, which is really good and it’s got great energy. It’s the Beatles recording live in a small room as a band. Generally, The Beatles did choose the right takes, but there are different versions that are really good and fascinating to listen to.
The studio outtake of “Goodnight,” which doesn’t have the strings like the finished version, features John, Paul, and George singing background vocals and backing Ringo. It’s funny, the guitar John plays on that is a guitar pattern he learned from Donovan; I think it’s called ‘claw picking’ and that same pattern can be heard on “Dear Prudence,” “Julia” and the outtake of “Goodnight.”
It’s the exact same guitar pattern; it’s funny. People have heard the version of “Goodnight’ and have said, “Isn’t that better than the version of that song on The White Album with strings and choir on it?” I think John wanted that; it has the same vibe as the strings on “The Long And Winding Road” in a bizarre way. I think if the guitar version of “Goodnight” was on the album and I played you the version with the strings and choir you’d say, “Well, it’s not as good as the one on the album” ‘cause that’s the one you’re so used to hearing.
There are string things like “The Beginning,” which we put on Anthology, and we put that on the front of “Don’t Pass Me By” on this package. I joined those two things together for the extras. It’s hard to judge that stuff with The Beatles because the take that was the take becomes so iconic. But in general I think they chose the right takes. But I think the beauty of this project is that all the other takes we have are valid and worth listening to and stand up on their own, as opposed to being novelty tracks.
Rock Cellar: While working on this project and running this material by Paul and Ringo, was there any significant feedback/direction you received from them?
Giles Martin: They’re incredible to me. I like to see them at the beginning, middle and end of a project because they inspire me. I saw Ringo in L.A. halfway through and played him some mixes we were doing, and he talked to me about them and talked to me about what he was doing. He’d say things like, “We did this and it was great,” or “I was in the room with George doing ‘Long, Long, Long’ and this happened …” I’d go back and listen to the mix we did and go, “Do we have that? If I close my eyes, do I hear that conversation?”
And I need to make sure I do hear that conversation. That’s so important. If I’m having these private and personal conversations with Ringo, who is a fundamental part of the band, he’s a Beatle, then I need to carry that through in my work. Then I’ll get together with Paul and it was interesting because he really wanted to hear “Julia.” He wanted to hear that more than he wanted to hear “Blackbird,” for instance, which I thought was amazing.
I thought, “this is The White Album, I thought you hated each other?” But that was not the case. Listening back to these tapes I didn’t hear the fractiousness and tension you’ve all heard about, I didn’t hear the sound of a band breaking up.
Listen, they did have some bitter arguments. I grew up with my father in the ‘70s and The Beatles were kind of a dirty word in the house. It was something that he did. It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend and when you’re with your next girlfriend or your wife, you’re not gonna talk that fondly about the experience you had three years ago unless you want to get into real trouble. But there’s a perpetuating thing with artists where they have to go, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done.” There was element of that with John and George about the Beatles in the ‘70s saying they were shit.
My dad got together with John in 1980, they hadn’t seen each other for many years, and he said to him, “John, why do you say these things?” And he said, “I was high, George.”
But then there are people who will ask about when my father once said The White Album would have been better if it was a single album. But he only said it once that it should be a single album. The Beatles wanted to be the biggest pop band in the world, the most successful pop band in the world, and they did that — but at what cost, at the fact that people couldn’t hear them in concert and they weren’t able to get better at playing their instruments when they were playing those shows in the ‘60s during the “Beatlemania” years?
You know the part where The Beatles wave in the “Hello Goodbye” promo film, they’re basically saying goodbye and that “we are not those people” and after that like a snapshot you had them all looking different, almost deliberately looking different? They went off in their own direction, but they were still The Beatles.
They were The Beatles on the rooftop. So there was this kind of myth that they must hate each other, so let’s invent The Monkees. So I think, wrongly, the antagonism has been emphasized and certainly regarding The White Album, because what I could hear on tape, it wasn’t there and I’m not making this up and going, “let’s just put the good bits on it.” The bad bits are more interesting, but I couldn’t find them.
Rock Cellar: Now that you have deluxe editions of Sgt. Pepper and The White Album under your belt, the next logical step is tackling Abbey Road. But would you consider going backwards and tackling Revolver, which is my opinion is the greatest Beatles album?
Giles Martin: But does that mean you want me to remix it?
Rock Cellar: Yes, but also present a bevy of outtakes and demos if they exist as well, and tap into modern technology to improve the overall sound.
Giles Martin: Right now, in all honesty, I don’t know. It’s not as if we have some sort of road map or plan. We’re not Apple, we are Apple but we’re not Apple, if that makes sense. So in all honesty I don’t know. But I’d always be open to it. Who wouldn’t be? (laughs) I think Abbey Road would be quite tricky because I think Abbey Road is a really good sounding record.
They’re all good sounding records, but I think Abbey Road is a modern sounding record.