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unplugging the white album (beatles ’68 part 3)

WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE MAHARISHI, the won­derful Ma­har­ishi of Oz!” On Feb­ruary 16, 1968, John and Cyn­thia Lennon and George and Pattie Har­rison ar­rived in Delhi, later joined by Ringo and Mau­reen Starr and Paul Mc­Cartney and long­time girl­friend Jane Asher. They were there for a pro­longed stay at the Rishikesh ashram of the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi for spe­cial courses in Tran­scen­dental Med­i­ta­tion.

Other mu­si­cians on hand in­cluded Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, jazz mu­si­cian Paul Horn, and Yannis Alexis Mardas, the elec­tronics wizard hired by the Bea­tles for their Apple Corps, where he was known as “Magic Alex.” Also, there was movie star Mia Farrow and her sister Pru­dence Farrow.

While they were there, Donovan taught John and Paul a new style of guitar playing that di­rectly in­flu­enced their styles and their song­writing. With George, the three Bea­tles com­posed more than thirty new songs while they were sup­posed to be learning and med­i­tating.

On April 12, the last of the Fab Four had left for home with less than pos­i­tive feel­ings about their ex­pe­ri­ence with the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi.

During the last week of May, John and Paul took their acoustic gui­tars and the new com­po­si­tions that they had written at Rishikesh to George’s house in Esher, Surrey. There they recorded more than two-dozen demos on Harrison’s 4-track recorder.

These would pro­vide the foun­da­tion for their next album, The Bea­tles (which I refer to below as The White Album to avoid con­fu­sion). What fol­lows is a look at those record­ings.

 

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March 1968 in Rishikesh, India: Pattie Boyd, John Lennon, Mike Love, the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi, George Har­rison, Mia Farrow, John Farrow, Donovan, Paul Mc­Cartney, Jane Asher, and Cyn­thia Lennon.

Unplugged track by track

These tapes have been cir­cu­lating as bootleg LPs and CDs for decades among col­lec­tors, the best known of these is The Bea­tles Un­plugged. The list of tracks below fol­lows the time-honored tra­di­tion of listing things as by John, then Paul, then George. Each title in­cludes a brief com­ment by me.

Be­cause the Un­plugged album is an unau­tho­rized bootleg, its avail­ability on YouTube may vary from day to day, so I am not in­cluding links to the in­di­vidual tracks. (I in­cluded four tracks that were not in­cluded on the Un­plugged boot.)

 

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Photo of John Lennon in­cluded as a bonus with copies of The White Album.

John Lennon

•  Cry Baby Cry” has a dif­ferent intro and a dif­ferent outro than the of­fi­cial ver­sion. Lennon’s singing on this and sev­eral other songs on the Esher tape is pos­i­tively pas­sive com­pared to the heroin-inspired vo­cals on The White Album.

•  Child of Na­ture” was not in­cluded on The White Album but served as the foun­da­tion for “Jealous Guy” on Lennon’s 1971 solo album Imagine. John’s singing here is so ten­ta­tive that it bor­ders on pre­cious. The mandolin-like guitar strum­ming is sorta silly, given its con­text; all in all, “Jealous Guy” was a much better re­al­iza­tion of the song.

•  The Con­tin­uing Story of Bun­galow Bill” fea­tures Paul and George making silly an­imal noises in the back­ground. There were only sup­posed to be the three at George’s house but it sure sounds like Ringo on the verses.

•  I’m So Tired” is much qui­eter here than the ver­sion on The White Album, which ben­e­fits from John’s harsher vo­cals.

•  Yer Blues” has John singing that he feels “in­se­cure” rather than “sui­cidal” as he does on the ver­sion on The White Album. John’s most un­com­pro­mising vocal on the re­leased ver­sion el­e­vates this song to a level not imag­ined in this ver­sion.

•  Everybody’s Got Some­thing to Hide Ex­cept Me and My Monkey” is pos­i­tively tame com­pared to the of­fi­cial ver­sion! Whereas the re­leased ver­sion is John’s most rau­cous and rolling track on The White Album, here it is more a recita­tion. When he sings “Come on, come on, come on, it’s such a joy” on the re­leased ver­sion, it’s a re­lease; on the Esher tape, it sounds like an in-joke that only Lennon would get.

•  What’s the New Mary Jane?” was (thank­fully) not in­cluded on The White Album but was in­cluded on the 1996 com­pi­la­tion Bea­tles An­thology 3. This song makes “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” seem like pure ge­nius! That this was ever con­sid­ered for re­lease is an ar­gu­ment for just how im­por­tant a role Brian Ep­stein played in the group’s ca­reer.

•  Rev­o­lu­tion 1” is faster than the of­fi­cial slow ver­sion on The White Album and slower and more anemic than the of­fi­cial fast ver­sion as the b-side to “Hey Jude.”

•  Dear Pru­dence” fea­tures double-tracked vo­cals with a spoken ending. An­other nearly fully re­al­ized recording—the re­leased ver­sion on The White Album does not stray too far from this gentle out­line. John’s nar­ra­tion atop the end of the recording is out-of-place. (This is one of my fa­vorite tracks on The White Album and I es­pe­cially love how George Martin’s pro­duc­tion gives the track a hint of psy­che­delia.)

•  Sexy Sadie” is very sim­ilar to the re­leased ver­sion on The White Album, ex­cept for John’s laid-back vo­cals.

•  Julia” is sung in a higher key and with the verses mixed up than on The White Album. Ex­cept for that, what John would achieve on the re­leased version—his vi­sion for the song and the performance—is more or less re­al­ized here.

•  Hap­pi­ness Is a Warm Gun” lacks the intro and the outro. It was not in­cluded on Un­plugged.

•  Mean Mr. Mus­tard” has a sister named Shirley in­stead of Pam. It was not in­cluded on Un­plugged.

•  Poly­thene Pam” is slightly dif­ferent and fea­tures the line “well it’s a little ab­surd but she’s a nice class of bird.” It was not in­cluded on Un­plugged.

•  Glass Onion” is double-tracked gob­bledy­gook from Lennon. It was not in­cluded on Un­plugged.

 

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Photo of Paul Mc­Cartney in­cluded as a bonus with copies of The White Album.

Paul McCartney

•  Black­bird” is in a slightly slower tempo than on The White Album with a double-tracked vocal from Paul. Like “Julia” above, Paul’s vi­sion for this song’s per­for­mance is nearly per­fect here.

•  Rocky Rac­coon” lacks the opening and closing verses of the of­fi­cial ver­sion on The White Album. The Esher tape ver­sion sounds like a sketch: the re­leased ver­sion gains no­tice­ably by the studio touches.

•  Back in the U.S.S.R.” here lacks the final verse so fa­miliar on The White Album and barely hints at the en­ergy and fun of the re­leased ver­sion. John’s back­ground “doo-doo-doo-ing” ala fellow TM-er Mike Love is the first real hint that the fin­ished ver­sion would be an homage to the Beach Boys.

•  Honey Pie” on the Esher tape is a blue­print for the ver­sion The White Album. And just as trite. One of the album’s bring­downs for my taste.

•  Mother Nature’s Son” lacks the guitar intro of the of­fi­cial ver­sion on The White Album. One of Paul’s loveliest songs—and every­thing John Denver ever wanted to be in one recording (and that’s not meant as a put-down)—is near per­fect in this ver­sion.

•  Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” fea­tures a double-tracked lead from Paul rather than the single vocal on The White Album ver­sion. While the of­fi­cial ver­sion can be ar­gued to be charming in a goofy way, the Esher tape ver­sion is em­i­nently re­sistible. (If there is a “Dumb and Dumber” cat­e­gory for ’60s rock songs, this should be in­cluded.)

•  Junk” was not in­cluded on The White Album but was in­cluded on the Bea­tles An­thology 3. A rather nice melody and vocal and the lyrics evoking nos­talgia are nice but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This was one of the stronger tracks on McCartney’s début solo album, which would not have been in­ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled Junk in­stead of Mc­Cartney.

 

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Photo of George Har­rison in­cluded as a bonus with copies of The White Album.

George Harrison

•  While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is an early glimpse of George’s de­sire to adapt Strauss to rock as aptly as he had Shankar. It’s al­most as lovely here as on The White Album and is per­haps George’s best-ever Bea­tles recording.

•  Cir­cles” was not in­cluded on The White Album. The slug­gish pace of the song and the out-of-place organ that dom­i­nate the sound gives this track a fu­ne­real feel. Oddly, it would not have been out-of-place on the Mag­ical Mys­tery Tour sound­track.

•  Sour Milk Sea” was not in­cluded on The White Album. It was foisted off on the newly signed Apple artist Jackie Lomax, whose denser arrange­ment and pro­duc­tion did not hide the song’s weak­ness.

•  Not Guilty” is prob­ably the second best song that George of­fered for the up­coming album ses­sions. It was recorded for but not in­cluded on The White Album. A dif­ferent studio master was in­cluded on the Bea­tles An­thology 3.

•  Pig­gies” has the pig­gies “cut their pork chops” rather than “eat their bacon.” I have a love/hate re­sponse to this song: while it is rather sopho­moric and de­cid­edly nasty, I can’t help agreeing with George’s tar­gets. This ver­sion is fairly close to the one that would be re­leased on The White Album (and I as­sume that the silli­ness in the back­ground is John).

At least one ver­sion of Un­plugged fea­tures a medley of older songs that usu­ally opens with “You Are My Sun­shine” and a seem­ingly spon­ta­neous party-sounding recording called “Spir­i­tual Re­gen­er­a­tion.” This is the Fab Four’s af­fec­tionate nod to the Ma­har­ishi done with Mike Love. Both of these were recorded in India at the Maharishi’s com­pound.

 

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Photo of Ringo Starr in­cluded as a bonus with copies of The White Album.

Other points of view

In 2002, Bruce Eder re­viewed Un­plugged for All Music. The site awards the bootleg 4½ stars out of 5, the same rating awarded it by the site’s readers.

Just when you thought that every­thing that could be said that was new, fresh, or un­usual about the Bea­tles’ later his­tory was al­ready out there, along comes Un­plugged, a bootleg CD so good that the folks at Apple and EMI ought to be kicking them­selves for not thinking of it first. The pro­duc­tion here is a match for any le­git­i­mate re­lease, not just in sound quality but also the care that went into the se­lec­tion, order, and editing of the tapes.”

An ar­ticle ti­tled “The Bea­tles: Un­plugged Col­lects Acoustic Demos Of White Album Songs” by Josh Jones on the Open Cul­ture web­site re­viewed the bootleg:

Here are some of the Bea­tles’ most poignant, pointed, and vaude­vil­lian songs live and di­rect, without any studio tricks what­so­ever. Of course these were recorded as demos, and not meant for a re­lease of any kind, but even so, they’re fairly high-quality, in a lo-fi kind of way. Given the rapid pop-culture re­cy­cling that is the hall­mark of the early 21st cen­tury, Un­plugged sounds strangely modern.”

 

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Rishikesh, India, in March 1968: two Bea­tles and a Beach Boy on their way to class.

They’re all geniuses

An ar­ticle ti­tled “Donovan and the Bea­tles in India 1968” by David M. Ross for the Se­crets of the List web­site fea­tures a brief in­ter­view with Donovan (Oc­tober 22, 2012). In it, he dis­cusses his stay with the Fab Four in India and his ef­fect on John and Paul’s guitar playing and sub­se­quently, their song­writing. Here are por­tions of that in­ter­view:

The Bea­tles and I got on very well and found our­selves sharing the same in­ter­ests and humor. We also found our­selves to­gether in India in Feb­ruary 1968. The only in­stru­ments we had were acoustic gui­tars. When we ar­rived George or­dered tablas for Ringo, a sitar, and a tam­boura.

We med­i­tated, ate health food and were healthier than we’d been in years. After long days of med­i­ta­tion, we’d sit around in the evening and make music. What fas­ci­nated the Bea­tles was that I was playing all these country blues, flamingo and finger styles which they hadn’t done.

One day John leaned over and asked, ‘How do you do that finger-style stuff?’ So I sat down and taught him the basic Carter Family claw-hammer. And John started writing a com­pletely dif­ferent kind of song.

Paul was in­ter­ested too, but of course he’s so smart he was just walking around us while I was teaching John and he picked it up anyway, cause you know he was a ge­nius. They’re all ge­niuses in that band!

What I was teaching John was the com­plete finger-style which I un­der­stand Ma Carter trans­posed from banjo picking to guitar in 1928. So what I did nat­u­rally be­came for the Bea­tles in India a door to a whole new range of song­writing and I’m so pleased that hap­pened.

I didn’t in­vent these things, but I played them so much, it opened doors. The Bea­tles at that point were at a big wa­ter­shed in their life. They’d lost their man­ager, Brian Ep­stein, dis­cov­ered med­i­ta­tion and were searching for some­thing dif­ferent.

Well, they cer­tainly got some­thing dif­ferent from [me]: a guitar style and a set of chords that opened up an enor­mous amount of new ways of doing things. And that’s what we mu­si­cians do, we pass on styles from one to an­other.”

Donovan’s in­flu­ence on the Bea­tles was not at all ap­parent to most fans or critics over the years but seems ob­vious in hind­sight. It’s some­what numbing to re­alize that so few his­to­rians and afi­cionados paid so little at­ten­tion to it.

As George Har­rison said in the doc­u­men­tary film The Bea­tles An­thology in 1995, “Donovan’s all over The White Album.”

Tapes of the John, Paul, and George re­hearsing songs for THE WHITE ALBUM can be found on THE BEATLES UNPLUGGED booteg CD. Click To Tweet

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FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken from the ar­ticle “The Bea­tles — Their Ashram and Their Cathe­dral” on the Tra­vails and Travel blog (March 23, 2015). The cor­re­spon­dent Sajish GP re­marked, “I had four days to kill in Rishikesh be­fore the start of a trek up in the snowy hills. On that par­tic­ular day, I de­cided to roam around a bit on foot and ex­plore Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi’s aban­doned ashram more pop­u­larly known as the Bea­tles’ Ashram be­cause of its one-time res­i­dents who were here in the late ’60s.”

The units that the Bea­tles, their en­tourage, and other celebri­ties oc­cu­pied in 1968 have been left to the rav­ages of time and tourists, who have cov­ered the ex­te­rior and in­te­rior walls in mes­sages and art. Sajish posted more than 80 photos of the ashram and the graf­fiti within and without. To see these photos, click on over to “The Bea­tles – Their Ashram and Their Cathe­dral.

The Beatles ’68 (Tetralogy)

Here are the four parts of this not-particularly-deep look at the Bea­tles and The White Album:

•  Sgt. Pepper on Blue Jay Way (Bea­tles ’68, Part 1)
•  In Search of the Lost Mentor (Bea­tles ’68, Part 2)
•  Un­plug­ging the White Album (Bea­tles ’68, Part 3)
•  We’re All Get­ting Back to Our Roots (Bea­tles ’68, Part 4)

 

 

 

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