unplugging the white album (beatles ’68 part 3)

Estimated reading time is 11 minutes.

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. Share on X

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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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