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With ‘The White Album,’ the Beatles come back to life, 50 years later

The Fab Four's unreleased 'Esher Demos' mark the Golden Anniversary collection as a must-hear for fans.

The Beatles.
The Beatles.Read moreApple Corps Ltd

John Lennon famously told an interviewer in 1966 that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus."

More than 50 years later, baby boomer acts of the 1960s are still treated with a reverence that no subsequent generation has been accorded. And among icons of the era, none created a body of work considered so sacrosanct as that of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

That's partly because, for the Fab Four, it all happened so quickly. The entirety of the band's recorded output — all 13 studio albums — was released in only seven years. By 1970, the dream was over and the concentrated brilliance of the band's output was sealed off, like a perfect, incorruptible time capsule.

Contemporaries such as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones lived beyond the heightened cultural moment and were able to prove themselves all too fallible, as were the individual Beatles themselves. And when Lennon was gunned down in 1980, any hoped-for reunion of the greatest pop band ever became impossible.

What's been remarkable about the band's afterlife is how their creative output has been continually embraced over the decades.

The band's greatest-hits package, 1's, was the biggest selling-album of the '00s. When the band first made their music available on streaming services in 2015, it was treated as a cultural event, a key development for the new music-delivery system. And throughout this decade, the golden anniversaries of the watershed moments of their career have been celebrated with loving reexaminations of their accomplishments.

So if this is 2018, that means it's time for The Beatles  (Capitol ****), known to all as the White Album, whose minimalist packaging was created by British pop art painter Richard Hamilton.

There's a super-deluxe version that includes six CDs, plus a Blu Ray and hardback book. But there's also a cheaper three-disc package with the remastered album plus the Esher sessions. And all the 100-plus tracks on the big box are available on streaming music services.

The original White Album, a two-LP set, arrived at a pivotal point in the history of the '60s, and of the band.

1968 was the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and American athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists in black power protest at the Olympics in Mexico City.

It was the year of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)." And, from the most popular band on earth, an album released the same month Richard Nixon was elected president.

The White Album was also the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

It was their first album recorded after the death of manager Brian Epstein. Fissures were opening up among the members, and although songs were still credited to Lennon-McCartney, the two were pretty much done collaborating.

"Back in the U.S.S.R.," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" and "Blackbird" were Paul songs; "Glass Onion," "Julia," and "I'm So Tired" belonged to John. George Harrison stepped up with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and Ringo sang "Don't Pass Me By," the first Beatles song he ever wrote.

But the White Album was also a throwback to the band's beginnings. It followed on the heels of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, long touted as the band's supreme masterwork, until many recent reconsiderers came to the correct conclusion that Rubber Soul, Revolver, and, yes, the White Album, are actually superior collections of songs.

With its layered recording approach, Sgt. Pepper is the zenith of the Beatles' use of the studio as a creative asset. But the White Album was a more rawboned reaction against that, with the band playing live in the studio. Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, who remastered both last year's Pepper reissue and the White Album, says: "Sgt. Pepper was trying to paint pictures with sound. The White Album is a much more visceral blank canvas of the band."

The 2018 White Album is well worth hearing for Martin's fresh mixes, which bring new clarity to the recordings without losing punch. But what makes it an exemplary model of what fans seek in reissue treatments are the 27 cuts known as the Esher Demos.

It's a rich season for in-depth, previously unheard explorations of beloved artists. Besides the Beatles, there's Bob Dylan's More Blood, More Tracks, Tom Petty's American Treasure, and Prince's Piano & a Microphone 1983. (Another long sought-after gem is the Aretha Franklin 1972 gospel concert film Amazing Grace, finally being screened this month.)

As fans, we obsess over such unearthed treasures to get a little closer to the artists who speak to us, hoping there are personal details or creative could-have-beens to be found in material locked up a vault for decades.

The Esher Demos satisfy that craving. Most of the White Album was written when the Beatles were studying transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahest Yogi in Rishikesh, India, in spring 1968.

Lennon got the most songs out of the experience. His tunes included "Dear Prudence," written for Prudence Farrow, who was with her sister Mia on the trip; and "Sexy Sadie," whose original title was "Maharishi" and whose lyrics ("Look what you've done / You've made a fool of everyone") reflected his skepticism about the endeavor.

(That song and McCartney's raucous proto-metal "Helter Skelter" were to be taken to heart by California killer Charles Manson, who believed the latter was about the apocalyptic race war he hoped to bring about.)

When the Beatles got back to England, they took an unusual step. Before going into Abbey Road Studios, they gathered at Harrison's house in the London suburb of Esher to rehearse and record rough versions of their songs.

A few of these loosey-goosey recordings were released on the Beatles Anthology series in the 1980s, but I was unaware of them until this White Album reissue. Sometimes it pays not to be too obsessive. That way, you can still be surprised.

Heard here in their entirety, the Esher Demos — impress friends by pronouncing it correctly: It's EESH-er — are delightful. Things would get frustrating and exhausting for the band during the five-month recording of White Album sessions to come, during which Lennon brought his new lover, Yoko Ono, to work with him, upsetting the gang-of-boys balance of the band.

But in the rehearsals, the Beatles sound like a true communal enterprise, hearing one another's new songs for the first time, and having a great time doing it. McCartney's "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" turned out just fine in its finished version, but it took 47 takes for it to meet the band's demanding standards. The Esher version is carefree and joyous, with a casual charm akin to the music Dylan was making with the Band around the same time that would be released as The Basement Tapes.

In addition to songs that made it onto the White Album as finished versions, there are gems that would show up on future solo albums, including McCartney's sweetly melodic "Junk," Harrison's philosophic "Circles," and Lennon's "Child of Nature," which would be vastly improved, with new lyrics, as "Jealous Guy."

The White Album is the most all-over-the-place Beatles release, ranging from the howl of pain in Lennon's "Yer Blues" to the acoustic whimsy of McCartney's "Rocky Raccoon" to the elegiac beauty of Harrison's "Guitar" — not to mention the experimental noise collage of "Revolution 9."

But somehow, it holds together in its essential Beatles-ness, even as it captures a band beginning to fall apart. In the reissue notes, McCartney sums it up like this: "The tension in the world around us — and in our own world — had their effect on the music. But the moment we sat down to play, all that vanished, and the magic circle in the square that was the Beatles was created."