The Recording Sessions

The White Album Record­ing Sessions

Record­ing ses­sions for the White Album started with the song Rev­o­lu­tion on May 30, 1968, and con­cluded with take three of Julia on Octo­ber 13, 1968. Mix­ing was com­pleted five days later on Octo­ber 18, 1968. Recorded mostly at Abbey Road Stu­dios, with some ses­sions at Tri­dent Stu­dios. Although pro­duc­tive, the ses­sions were report­edly undis­ci­plined and some­times frac­tious, and took place at a time when ten­sions were grow­ing within the group.

Con­cur­rent with the record­ing of this album, The Bea­t­les were launch­ing their new mul­ti­me­dia busi­ness cor­po­ra­tion Apple Corps, an enter­prise that proved to be a source of sig­nif­i­cant stress for the band. Also recorded dur­ing the White Album ses­sions were What’s the New Mary Jane and Not Guilty. These two tracks were only avail­able on bootlegs for many years, but were finally released for the first time 28 years after they were recorded on Anthol­ogy 3 in 1996.

The ses­sions for The White Album marked the first appear­ance in the stu­dio of Lennon’s new girl­friend and artis­tic part­ner Yoko Ono, who would there­after be a more or less con­stant pres­ence at all Bea­t­les’ ses­sions. Prior to Ono’s appear­ance on the scene, the indi­vid­ual Bea­t­les had been very insu­lar dur­ing record­ing ses­sions, with influ­ence from out­siders strictly lim­ited. McCartney’s girl­friend at the time, Amer­i­can scriptwriter Fran­cie Schwartz, was also present at some of the sessions.

Author Mark Lewisohn reports that The Bea­t­les held their first and only 24-hour recording/producing ses­sion near the end of the cre­ation of The Bea­t­les, dur­ing which occurred the final mix­ing and sequenc­ing for the album. The ses­sion was attended by John Lennon, Paul McCart­ney, and pro­ducer George Martin.

Divi­sion and Dis­cord in the Studio

Despite the album’s offi­cial title, which empha­sized group iden­tity, stu­dio efforts on The Bea­t­les cap­tured the work of four increas­ingly indi­vid­u­al­ized artists who fre­quently found them­selves at odds. The band’s work pat­tern changed dra­mat­i­cally with this project, and by most accounts the extra­or­di­nary syn­ergy of The Bea­t­les’ pre­vi­ous stu­dio ses­sions was harder to come by dur­ing this period. Some­times McCart­ney would record in one stu­dio for pro­longed peri­ods of time, while Lennon would record in another, each man using dif­fer­ent engi­neers. At one point in the ses­sions, George Mar­tin, whose author­ity over the band in the stu­dio had waned, spon­ta­neously left to go on hol­i­day, leav­ing Chris Thomas in charge of pro­duc­ing. Dur­ing one of these ses­sions, while record­ing Hel­ter Skel­ter, Har­ri­son report­edly ran around the stu­dio while hold­ing a flam­ing ash­tray above his head.

It’s like if you took each track, it was just me and a back­ing group, Paul and a back­ing group, I enjoyed it, but we broke up then…

~ John Lennon

Long after the record­ing of The White Album was com­plete, Mar­tin men­tioned in inter­views that his work­ing rela­tion­ship with The Bea­t­les changed dur­ing this period, and that many of the band’s efforts seemed unfo­cused, often yield­ing pro­longed jam ses­sions that sounded unin­spired. On July 16th record­ing engi­neer Geoff Emer­ick, who had worked with the group since Revolver, announced he was no longer will­ing to work with the group.

ringo68_175The sud­den depar­tures were not lim­ited to EMI per­son­nel. On August 22nd, Starr abruptly left the stu­dio, explain­ing later that he felt his role was min­i­mized com­pared to that of the other mem­bers, and that he was tired of wait­ing through the long and con­tentious record­ing ses­sions. Lennon, McCart­ney and Har­ri­son pleaded with Starr to return, and after two weeks he did. Accord­ing to Lewisohn’s book The Com­plete Bea­t­les Chron­i­cle, McCart­ney played drums on “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

How­ever, accord­ing to Lewisohn, in the case of “Dear Pru­dence” the three remain­ing Bea­t­les each took a shot at bass and drums, with the result that those parts may be com­pos­ite tracks played by Lennon, McCart­ney and/or Har­ri­son. As of 2008, the actual musician/instrument lineup is still undetermined.

Upon Starr’s return, he found his drum kit dec­o­rated with red, white and blue flow­ers, a welcome-back ges­ture from Har­ri­son. The rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was, how­ever, only tem­po­rary, and Starr’s exit served as a pre­cur­sor of future “months and years of mis­ery,” in Starr’s words. Indeed, after The White Album was com­pleted, both Har­ri­son and Lennon would stage sim­i­lar unpub­li­cized depar­tures from the band. McCart­ney, whose pub­lic depar­ture in 1970 would mark the for­mal end of the band’s ensem­ble, described the ses­sions for The Bea­t­les as a turn­ing point for the group. Up to this point, he observed, “the world was a prob­lem, but we weren’t. You know, that was the best thing about The Bea­t­les, until we started to break up, like dur­ing the White Album and stuff. Even the stu­dio got a bit tense then.”

Other Musi­cians

Har­ri­son asked Eric Clap­ton to play lead gui­tar on While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps. George soon rec­i­p­ro­cated by col­lab­o­rat­ing on the song Badge for Cream’s last album Good­bye. Har­ri­son explains in The Bea­t­les Anthol­ogy that Clapton’s pres­ence tem­porar­ily alle­vi­ated the stu­dio ten­sion and that all band mem­bers were on their best behav­ior dur­ing his time with the band in the studio.

Clap­ton was not the only out­side musi­cian to sit in on the ses­sions. Nicky Hop­kins pro­vided elec­tric piano for the sin­gle cut of Rev­o­lu­tion, (recorded dur­ing these ses­sions) as well as acoustic piano for a few oth­ers; sev­eral horns were also recorded on the album ver­sion of Rev­o­lu­tion. Savoy Truf­fle also fea­tures the horn sec­tion. Jack Fal­lon, a blue­grass fid­dler was recruited for Don’t Pass Me By, and a team of orches­tral play­ers and sooth­ing back­ground singers ended up being impor­tant con­trib­u­tors to Good Night.

Tech­ni­cal Advances

The ses­sions for The Bea­t­les were notable for the band’s for­mal tran­si­tion from 4-track to 8-track record­ing. As work on this album began, Abbey Road Stu­dios pos­sessed, but had yet to install, an 8-track machine that had sup­pos­edly been sit­ting in a stor­age room for months. This was in accor­dance with EMI’s pol­icy of test­ing and cus­tomiz­ing new gear, some­times for months, before putting it into use in the stu­dios. The Bea­t­les recorded Hey Jude and Dear Pru­dence at Tri­dent Stu­dios in cen­tral Lon­don, which had an 8-track recorder. When they found out about EMI’s 8-track recorder they insisted on using it, and engi­neers Ken Scott and Dave Har­ries took the machine (with­out autho­riza­tion from the stu­dio chiefs) into the Num­ber 2 record­ing stu­dio for the group to use.

EMI8-trackrecorderThe result­ing tracks did not have the same sound as pre­vi­ous Bea­t­les albums had. Think­ing that some­thing was wrong with the sound of EMI’s new 3M 8-Track machine (see left), they asked to have a tech­ni­cian check the fac­tory cal­i­bra­tion of the machine. The tech­ni­cian using a cal­i­bra­tion tape showed the record­ing engi­neers that noth­ing was wrong with the machine, that it was cal­i­brated per­fectly to fac­tory stan­dards. The record­ing engi­neers were stymied — until they were told by indus­try pro­fes­sion­als that the pre­vi­ous mix­ing boards at EMI had been valve (US Eng­lish: tube) pow­ered boards mak­ing the ear­lier Bea­t­les albums sound dif­fer­ent. The new mix­ing boards were the cul­prit — not the new 3M 8-Track record­ing machine. It, there­fore, took some time before the EMI engi­neers were able to get the qual­ity of sound they wanted using these tran­sis­tor­ized mix­ing con­soles. The EMI engi­neers were finally able to get the same qual­ity of sound of eariler Bea­t­les albums on Abbey Road.

”…one can sense the pres­ence of the great engi­neers and pro­duc­ers of the past, long since gone. Names which may mean lit­tle to the aver­age man, but great peo­ple such as Arthur Clarke, Dougie Larter, Bob Beck­ett, Char­lie Ander­son, Wal­ter Legge, Char­lie Thomas and my dear own men­tor, Oscar Preuss, who taught me so much. These men flew the record indus­try in open cock­pits by the seat of their pants, and paved the way for the mod­ern, jet­stream, com­put­erised machine that today’s young tal­ents have to guide.”