The Beatles’ Revelatory White Album Demos: A Complete Guide
Updated: May 14, 2022
Delve deep into the 1968 home recordings that planted the seeds for the band’s classic self-titled double LP
“We are going in with clear heads and hoping for the best,” an optimistic Paul McCartney announced as sessions for the Beatles‘ new album lurched forward in the late spring of 1968. “We had hoped this time to do a lot of rehearsing before we reached the studios … but, as it happens, all we got was one day.” But the day in question, sometime toward the end of May, would be a remarkable one. Meeting at George Harrison’s psychedelic-painted bungalow, Kinfauns, in the leafy London suburb of Esher, the Fabs culled through a bumper crop of new songs, penned primarily during their time studying Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s secluded retreat in Rishikesh, India, earlier that year. By nightfall, 27 acoustic demos had been committed to tape, forming the bones of what would forever be known as the White Album. It was an unprecedented endeavor for the band – never before had they run through a complete body of work in advance, recording what was effectively an “unplugged” version of their next LP.
Considering their blitzkrieg of activity since returning to the West six weeks earlier, it’s surprising the group managed to find even a single day to work on new music. Any trace of inner serenity cultivated in India had been obliterated as they busied themselves with the launch of their multimedia company, Apple. McCartney and John Lennon jetted to New York in mid-May, where they struggled to present the “Western Communism” ideals of their new organisation to a skeptical world press. The chaotic publicity trip was far from a triumph, but it did give McCartney a chance to get to know a young photographer named Linda Eastman a little better, thus dooming his engagement to actress Jane Asher. Lennon’s personal life was at a similar crossroads; soon after arriving home to England, he consummated a long-simmering romance with Yoko Ono, ending his own marriage in the process.
Personal and business stresses aside, the Beatles were also saddled with intense artistic pressure to top their prior album (Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack EP not withstanding), the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Lennon dealt with the expectations by doing his best to ignore them. “I wasn’t interested in following up Sgt. Pepper,” he later said. “What I was going for was to forget Sgt. Pepper. That was Sgt. Pepper and that’s all right, but it’s over! So let’s get back to basic music and let’s not try and string everything together, and pretend it’s a show.” To move forward they had to look back. Sgt. Pepper had been an elaborate studio production, assembled in a piecemeal fashion with endless overdubs. For their new album, they wanted to play together as a band once again, and to do so required practice.
Why they picked Harrison’s home as the site of their rehearsals is up for debate. The vibes at Chez Lennon were understandably tense as divorce loomed, and McCartney’s Regency townhouse in central London was perhaps too close to the hustle and bustle of city life – to say nothing of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, a five-minute walk away – to inspire calm. So they hunkered down at Kinfauns with some acoustic guitars, light percussive instruments and an Ampex 4-track tape machine and just let it roll. The result was a joyous, stripped-down, warts-and-all peek inside the band’s creative process. Of the 27 songs known to exist from the day, 19 would wind up on the White Album, two would be held over for Abbey Road and six were never issued by the group as an active unit. Lennon contributed a whopping 15 compositions to the proceedings, McCartney seven and Harrison five.
When all was said and done, Harrison made a mono mix of the tape and a presented a copy to each of his bandmates as a reference for the upcoming sessions. Exactly what happened to the recordings afterwards remains a mystery. Although a handful of these takes saw the light of day nearly three decades later on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection, the vast majority remain officially – and tragically – unreleased. Thankfully, audio has leaked in recent years, becoming available to all on YouTube. As a document, the Esher demo tape is both entertaining and historically invaluable, providing a fascinating work-in-progress glimpse of the band’s most varied collection.
Continue on to hear for yourself, and learn more about each of the songs recorded on that day 50 years ago when the Beatles made music just for themselves.
“Cry Baby Cry”
Lennon was clearly enthusiastic about “Cry Baby Cry,” pushing it to the top of the pile as the first song tackled at the Esher summit. He’d been working on it since the previous year, when Beatles’ biographer Hunter Davies observed Lennon at the piano in Kenwood, his rural Surrey estate, toying with lyrics sparked by a rather sadistic advertising slogan: “Cry baby cry, make your mother buy.” The song’s genesis is markedly similar to that of the Sgt. Pepper track “Good Morning, Good Morning” – the title of which was also taken from a commercial – but the words Lennon fleshed out in India are far more surreal, drawing on a fairy-tale cast seemingly inspired by the children’s nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” which includes the lines: “The king was in his counting house counting out his money/The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey/The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes.” (He would reuse the opening when writing the Double Fantasy track “Cleanup Time” a decade later.)
After making some tentative demos at Kenwood, Lennon recorded the nearly finished song at Kinfauns, backing himself on acoustic guitar and double-tracking the vocals on the chorus. As it’s early in the day, the rest of the band are still getting settled; their excited chatter can be heard in the background while Lennon strums the first verse, skipping the chorus that would eventually open the completed version. He repeats the final verse in 3/4 waltz time, a rhythmic flourish that failed to make the final cut.
Despite his initial hopes for the song, Lennon was apparently dissatisfied by the end result. “Cry Baby Cry” was ultimately relegated to the middle of the White Album’s fourth side – hardly the most distinguished spot on the double disc. Just before his death in 1980, he referred to it as “a piece of rubbish.”
“Child of Nature”
Upon first listening to the breezy demo of “Child of Nature,” it’s tempting to wonder if the rural reverie of Rishikesh had soothed Lennon’s permanently tortured soul. He sounds relaxed, even peaceful, but something about the way he allows his voice to trill with faux folky tremolo on the end of the verses suggests that his country-boy facade is, to some degree, tongue in cheek. He later claimed that it was inspired the same meditation lecture that led McCartney to write “Mother Nature’s Son,” offering a fascinating contrast of their two perspectives. Lennon’s first-person travelogue brims with all the earnestness of the most dewy-eyed flower child as he songs of “mountain ranges,” “desert skies” and dreaming “on the road to Rishikesh.” Whether the song was meant to be satirical or sincere, only he knows for sure – perhaps the goofy vocal affectations were intended to take some of the sweetness out of the syrupy verses after his feelings on the Maharishi had soured.
The Beatles never attempted “Child of Nature” during studio sessions for the White Album, though it remains unclear why. It’s possible that the band felt it too closely resembled “Mother Nature’s Son,” or perhaps, as historian Richie Unterberger points out, Lennon was uncomfortable with the naïve tone of the lyrics. History would suggest that the words were the sticking point and not the elegant tune. When the Beatles resurrected “Child of Nature” for the Get Back project the following year, he switched the opening line to “On the road to Marrakesh,” divorcing the song ever so slightly from its true origin. Lennon would eventually give the lyrics a complete overhaul, finally releasing it on his 1971 solo opus Imagine under the title “Jealous Guy.”
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”
Midway through the Beatles’ stay in India, they were joined by a young Yankee named Richard Cooke III. The crew-cut sporting former college athlete was there to visit his mother Nancy, a longtime follower of the Maharishi who had alienated the other devotees by finagling a private bungalow next to the master. (Fellow TM student Mia Farrow described her as “a self-important middle-aged American woman” in her memoir, though she remained friendly with George Harrison for the remainder of his life.) Richard ran afoul of Lennon when he and his mother decided to hop some elephants one day and go tiger hunting. According to Nancy’s reminiscence in her book, Beyond Gurus, they had been assured that killing these creatures was a “traditional act,” but to Lennon the whole expedition smacked of hypocrisy. “There was a guy who took a short break to go away and shoot a few poor tigers and then came back to commune with God,” he described in 1980.
Richard got his prize, shooting a feline not between the eyes but “right through the ear.” He was disturbed by the bloodshed, and his pride quickly turned to guilt as he returned to the camp. To assuage fears of karmic reprisal, he paid a visit to the Maharishi, who happened to be in the midst of an audience with Lennon and Harrison. “Rik told him that he felt bad about it and said that he didn’t think he’d ever kill an animal again,” Nancy told author Steve Turner in his book, A Hard Day’s Write. “Maharishi said, ‘You had the desire, Rik and now you no longer have the desire?’ Then John asked, ‘Don’t you call that slightly life destructive?’ I said, ‘Well John, it was either the tiger or us. The tiger was jumping right where we were.'”
The incident would be recounted almost in its entirety in a new Lennon composition, barring a few comic book tweaks to the name. “There used to be a character called Jungle Jim and I combined him with Buffalo Bill,” he later explained to journalist David Sheff. “It’s a sort of teenage social-comment song. It’s a bit of a joke.” Musically, the structure follows a blueprint similar to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – meandering verses leading into triple drum hits that usher in a rapid chorus, which in this case bears a passing resemblance to the big-band standard “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Designed as a campfire sing-along, the Esher demo is even more loose and wild than the released version, with the band impersonating various animals on the second verse. Lennon double-tracks his acoustic guitar and vocals, and takes the part of “Mummy” that Yoko handles on record, while unidentified members keep time with bongos and handclaps. As the outro unravels, Lennon cheerily wonders, “What did you kill, Bill? What did Bungalow Bill kill?” ad nauseam.
In reality, “Bungalow Bill” never killed again. Richard Cooke III went on to work for decades as a photographer for National Geographic.
“I’m So Tired”
Sleep was a recurring theme in the life of John Lennon. The future Bed-In for Peace co-founder paid homage to somnolence with the Revolver track “I’m Only Sleeping,” but the lack of it at Maharishi’s ashram led to “I’m So Tired,” the unhappy follow up. “I couldn’t sleep,” Lennon recalled of the unsettled time in 1980. “I’d been meditating all day and then I couldn’t sleep at night. We were not supposed to leave the room because of this thing about staying in one room for five days. So I was so tired I couldn’t get to sleep.” Meditation probably wasn’t the only thing keeping him up at night. His marriage to wife Cynthia all but over, he found his thoughts returning to Yoko Ono, who fuelled his imagination by sending him a constant stream of poetic postcards. Lennon had briefly considered inviting her along on the sojourn before quickly thinking better of it (“I lost me nerve because I was going to take me wife and Yoko and I didn’t know how to work it,” he admitted to Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner in 1970), but the tortured lyrics to “I’m So Tired” make it fairly obvious that she was never far from his thoughts: “My mind is set on you. I wonder, should I call you, but I know what you would do. You’d say I’m putting you on …”
The version of “I’m So Tired” recorded at Esher is notably longer than the official release. The first verse gets a repeat after the third, before the song downshifts into an instrumental unheard on the final version. Lennon delivers an ad-libbed spoken interlude, channeling his best Elvis Presley to match chords copped from innumerable Fifties ballads. “When I hold you in your arms, when you show each one of your charms,” he croons, “I wonder should I get up and go to the funny farm?” The melody and portions of the words would find their way into another song of the period, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” He signs off with five increasingly desperate howls of “I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind,” before uttering “I’ll give you all I’ve got, Derek!” – possibly a reference to the Beatles’ press officer and friend, Derek Taylor, who may have been in attendance.
The Beatles’ time in India afforded them the opportunity for some much-needed self-reflection, free from the distractions of daily life and the headaches of being international icons. Unfortunately for Lennon, the chance to ruminate on his past traumas and current troubles, both marital and professional, only served to intensify his spiritual malaise. “Although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on Earth,” he admitted several years later. “In ‘Yer Blues,’ when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”
Distinct from the high-voltage electrified track found on the White Album, the Esher demo of “Yer Blues” is more of an undulating slow jam, sung by Lennon in an almost fey falsetto that underscores the sly parody absent on the final. “There was a self-consciousness about singing blues,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “We were all listening to Sleepy John Estes and all that in art school, like everybody else. But to sing it was something else. I’m self-conscious about doing it.” Backing himself on overdubbed acoustic guitar, Harrison joins by tossing off the odd blues lick, while McCartney and possibly Starr keep time on bongos and tambourines. On this early version he sings, “My mother was of the earth, my father was of the sky, but I am of the universe and that’s the reason why.” He would ultimately choose to swap the origin of his parents, but the most striking difference is that he feels “so insecure now, just like Dylan’s ‘Mr. Jones.'” By the time the song was recorded in August, the emotions had intensified to “suicidal.”
A plaintive wail of inner pain, “Yer Blues” clearly resonated with Lennon. When he made his live debut as a solo performer at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in September 1969, it was the only original Beatles song he would sing.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”
The breathless “Come on, it’s such a joy” refrain, known to be a favourite expression of the Maharishi, plus the simian referenced in the chorus – the Beatles often had to guard their food from moneys while in Rishikesh – have led many fans to assume that “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” was a direct result of the India experience. Instead, it seems more likely that Lennon wrote it upon his return to England that spring, as his new love affair began to bloom. “It was about me and Yoko,” Lennon said in 1980. “Everybody seemed to be paranoid except for us two, who were in the glow of love. Everything is clear and open when you’re in love.”
However, his longtime songwriting partner saw a more sinister edge to the track. The phrase “monkey on the back” was well known among musicians as slang for heroin addiction, and McCartney viewed Lennon’s lyrics as a red flag that hinted at his frightening new dalliance with the opioid. “He was getting into harder drugs than we’d been into and so his songs were taking on more references to heroin,” he told author Barry Miles in the authorised biography Many Years From Now. “Until that point we had made rather mild, rather oblique references to pot or LSD. Now John started to be talking about fixes [as he did in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”] and monkeys and it was a harder terminology, which the rest of us weren’t into. We were disappointed that he was getting into heroin because we didn’t really see how we could help him. We just hoped it wouldn’t go too far.”
Whether detailing his growing reliance on heroin or Yoko (or likely both), the song was indicative of the growing estrangement between Lennon and McCartney – not that it could be heard on the demo, which is surprisingly ebullient. Vastly different from the White Album version, this early take features Lennon singing with a humorously detached drawl. The song is also shorn of its stinging electric guitar, and Harrison helps pick up the slack with some searing acoustic runs, while McCartney and Starr shake tambourines and maracas for all they’re worth. Their carefree abandon sometimes careens into brief moments of cacophony, but otherwise it’s a tight performance that winds down with Lennon panting, “Come on, come on, make it, make it, make it, make it” at his lecherous best.
“What’s the New Mary Jane”
Fans perplexed by “Revolution 9” in 1968 would have undoubtedly been left scratching their heads by another Lennon soundscape that fell at the final hurdle before the White Album was issued that November. One part nursery rhyme, one part musique concrète, and (presumably) several parts hallucinogens, “What’s the New Mary Jane” began as little more than a chant when it was first captured on tape at Harrison’s house. Lennon leads the charge, guiding his bandmates through the anarchic chorus, written with infamous Beatles associate “Magic” Alex Madras, bemoaning the pain Mary Jane endured at a party. He handles the surreal verses on his own, singing in a childlike falsetto that’s a full octave higher than the key he would later use in the studio. The lyrics, which amount to a list of vaguely Indian references – “12 chapattis and cream,” “Mongolian lamb,” “Patagonian pancake” – are mostly in place, except the line “he cooking such groovy spaghetti” would later morph into the even less coherent “he grooving such cookie spaghetti.” While not technically atonal, the simple melody is discordant, like a demonic rope skipping song. The track is at times frightening, but the band’s fundamental humour does comes through as they offer Goonish shrieks of “What’s the new Mary Jane? Oh, my goodness,” just before the half-song sputters to a merciful stop.
Unlike the refined “Child of Nature,” which didn’t make it into the studio during sessions for the White Album, Lennon put significant effort into “What’s the New Mary Jane.” As with “Revolution 9,” it bears the avant-garde fingerprints of Yoko Ono, whose artistic union with Lennon began to solidify in tandem with their romantic one. Also as with “Revolution 9,” George Harrison was the only other Beatle to contribute to the maelstrom of shouts, tape loops, percussive rattles, creaks, plinks and plonks that stretched the two-and-a-half minute demo to more than six minutes. “That was me, Yoko and George sitting on the floor at EMI fooling around,” a pleased Lennon said later. “Pretty good, huh?” He remained fond of the song even after it was cut from the double album, ostensibly due to space limitations, and attempted to release it in December 1969 as a Plastic Ono Band track coupled with the equally eccentric “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” The single was given a catalogue number, APPLE S1002, before the other Beatles halted the release. It remained locked away until finally getting its moment 38 years later on the Anthology 3 collection.
Anti–Vietnam War demonstrations, Prague Spring, the assassination of Martin Luther King – John Lennon pondered the tumultuous events of early 1968 from his bucolic hideaway in the shadow of the Himalayas. “I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I still had this ‘God will save us’ feeling about it: ‘It’s going to be all right.'” The sentiment would because a positive mantra in one of Lennon’s most enduring songs; one he hoped would shake the youth out of the dreamily complacent Summer of Love era. “I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution. I thought it was time we fucking spoke about it.” In the band’s early days, he felt gagged by the unofficial code of silence that prohibited celebrities from speaking out about political matters for fear of antagonizing their audience. “For years, on the Beatles’ tours, [manager] Brian Epstein had stopped us from saying anything about Vietnam or the war. And he wouldn’t allow questions about it. But on one of the last tours, I said, ‘I am going to answer about the war. We can’t ignore it.’ I absolutely wanted the Beatles to say something about the war.” Putting pen to paper, “Revolution” was an outlet for Lennon to finally say his piece.
It would be the first song recorded as the White Album sessions commenced on May 30th. Listening to the demo taped just days earlier at Kinfauns, it’s clear that the majority of the lyrics are already assembled, save for the verse concerning Chairman Mao – a slam he came to regret. (“I should never have put that in about Chairman Mao … I was just finishing off in the studio when I did that.”) At this stage, Lennon makes it clear that you can count him “out” for destruction, a choice he hedged by singing “out … in” when it came time to record the song.
Despite the life-or-death seriousness of the subject matter, the track is perhaps the most uplifting on the demo tape, featuring a neat introductory guitar figure, enthusiastic clap-alongs, and a scatted solo trimmed from the final version. With his buoyant double tracked vocals, it’s easy to see this as the single that Lennon wanted it to be. When the other Beatles complained that the completed midtempo rocker was too slow to be a commercial standalone, he submitted to recording a faster take, boasting a crunchy guitar intro cribbed from bluesman Pee Wee Crayton’s 1954 song “Do Unto Others.” It narrowly missed out on becoming Apple Records’ inaugural release in August, serving instead as the B side to McCartney’s 7-minute epic, “Hey Jude.” The initial version, titled “Revolution 1” to differentiate it from its amped-up sibling, would become a peak of the White Album.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
George Harrison’s soaring guitar showdown with Eric Clapton began as a comparatively gentle meditation drawn from his reading of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. “In the West we think of coincidence as being something that just happens … but the Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be, and that there’s no such thing as coincidence – every little item that’s going down has a purpose,” he explained in the Beatles Anthology documentary project.
Harrison sought to test the theory while visiting his parents’ Cheshire home in the spring of 1968 by using a melody written during the India sojourn. “I decided to write a song based on the first thing I saw upon opening any book, as it would be relative to that moment, at that time,” he recalled. Grabbing a volume off the shelf at random, he likely opened up to Coates Kinney’s 1849 poem “Rain on the Roof,” which contains the couplet: “And the melancholy darkness/Gently weeps in rainy tears.”
The lines provided a lyrical starting point, but Harrison still had some tinkering to do when he presented the song to his mates during the Esher session. The first verse contains the soon-to-be-deleted line, “Problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping,” while the final verse is completely different from the White Album version: “I look at the trouble and hate that is raging/While my guitar gently weeps/As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging/While my guitar gently weeps.” As Harrison backs himself on a double-tracked acoustic guitar, the ferociously scrubbed descending figure gives the song a flamenco air in this early state, despite the somber B-3 organ hits on the bridge – played by McCartney, who can be heard emitting an enthusiastic “Cool!” as the song wraps at just two-and-a-half-minutes.
An early version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” recorded at EMI Studios on July 25th retained the acoustic sensibilities of the Esher demo. While this rendition would have fit nicely alongside “Julia” and “Blackbird” as one of the delicate “unplugged” gems of the White Album, Harrison later opted for the well-known hard-driving arrangement featuring the full band plus Clapton.
As Harrison’s interest in Indian modes and melodies intensified prior to sessions for Revolver in 1966, he began using the organ as his primary compositional instrument. Songs like “Within You Without You,” “Blue Jay Way” and “The Inner Light” all show hallmarks of this approach, with baroque bass passages and sustained chordal structures. “Circles” is among the last of these of these types of songs before Harrison returned the guitar, mostly out of necessity, during his time in India.
Though the track stands out as one of the few Esher demos the Beatles never recorded as a unit (it would surface on Harrison’s 1982 solo album Gone Troppo), it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it is an exceptionally dreary affair. Dissimilar from the lively acoustic numbers found elsewhere on the tape, “Circles” utilizes what Richie Unterberger evocatively describes as “an eerie organ that seems to have been dragged out of a dusty, disused church closet.” Harrison taped two tracks on the instrument – likely a harmonium – sketching a sparse, almost ghostly arrangement. The mood isn’t brightened by the solemn lyrics, which find Harrison contemplating the cyclical nature of humanity and the Hindi concept of reincarnation in a voice that barely raises above a whisper. He quotes the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze, whose teachings also inspired “The Inner Light,” suggesting that the pair of songs were written around the same period in late 1967.
It’s not known for certain why the Beatles decided to leave the track off the White Album. It’s possible that “Circles” was deemed too similar to another sleepy-toned, organ-centric Harrison piece, “Long, Long, Long,” which was far more developed.
Or maybe the band’s primary songwriters were simply unwilling to cede too much album real estate to their lead guitarist.
“Sour Milk Sea”
Preferring to pursue his serious study of the sitar, Harrison rarely played guitar outside of Beatle business during the Sgt. Pepper era. Ironically, the time at Maharishi’s camp-like retreat forced him to reengage with the more portable acoustic six-string and reignited his interest in the music that inspired him as a teenager. Among the first fruits of this rock renaissance was “Sour Milk Sea,” a tune he wrote “in 10 minutes” on a guitar borrowed from Lennon. “Even though I was in India, I always imagined the song as rock & roll,” he said later in 1968. Though he’s embracing Western sounds once again, the words are still rooted in the East, reading almost like a jingle for the restorative properties of Transcendental Meditation. “It’s based on Vishvasara Tantra, from Tantric art,” he said in his 1980 memoir, I Me Mine. “‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’ It’s a picture, and the picture is called Sour Milk Sea – Kalladadi Samudra in Sanskrit. I used Sour Milk Sea as the idea of – if you’re in the shit, don’t go around moaning about it: do something about it.”
“Sour Milk Sea” is easily the most energetic of Harrison’s contributions to the Kinfauns demos, featuring a strong falsetto lead vocal over a strutting rhythm on acoustic guitar. A rudimentary bass line can also be heard, plucked out on a low E string, in addition to a soft electric guitar part – a rarity for the session. Even though it ranks among the most fully formed arrangements to be unveiled that day, the song was never attempted by the band in the studio. Instead, Harrison offered it to Jackie Lomax, an old friend from the Liverpool club circuit who became one of the first artists signed to Apple Records. Assuming the role of producer, Harrison assembled an impressive lineup: McCartney on bass, Starr on drums, himself and Eric Clapton on guitar, and session virtuoso Nicky Hopkins on piano.
Despite having more Beatles playing on it than on some White Album tracks, “Sour Milk Sea” received a tepid response when it was issued in August 1968 as part of Apple’s “Our First Four” campaign, a quadruple release to announce the official launch of the label. To Harrison’s certain chagrin, the glory went to the McCartney, who scored twin smashes with “Those Were the Days,” an old gypsy cabaret number he produced for the folk singer Mary Hopkin, and the Beatles’ own “Hey Jude.”
Few songs capture the growing rancor within the Beatles quite like this song from Harrison, written in the unhappy aftermath of their trip to India. He had spent the previous two years using his allotted album slots to essentially preach philosophy, but “Not Guilty” marks his return to the secular realm in a gloriously irate fashion. On the surface his lyrics are a defense of the increasingly far-out counterculture mentality, but they hint strongly at his own feelings of persecution within the band. “It was me getting pissed off at Lennon and McCartney for the grief I was catching during the making of the White Album,” he explained to Musician in 1987. “I said I wasn’t guilty of getting in the way of their career. I said I wasn’t guilty of leading them astray in our going to Rishikesh to see the Maharishi. I was sticking up for myself.”
“Not Guilty” is loaded with idiosyncratic chord clusters, off-kilter time signatures, and syncopated stops and starts, and Harrison can be heard on the Esher tape introducing the song, not inaccurately, as “a jazz number” that would “make a good rocker.” Even in this early form, it’s an extremely complex song, one that would trip up the band when they recorded it at Abbey Road that August. “Not Guilty” would have the dubious distinction of being the first Beatles track that required over 100 takes. Just two weeks before, Geoff Emerick, their longtime engineer, had quit in disgust over the band’s repeated sniping in the studio, but the “Not Guilty” sessions became even more tense as Lennon and McCartney – who had trouble mustering enthusiasm for Harrison’s work on the best occasions – struggled through four torturous days.
Arguably Lennon’s most nakedly vulnerable moment with the Beatles, “Julia” takes its name from his late mother, whose death in a traffic accident when he was 17 inflicted a wound on his psyche that never fully healed. The song is at once an exorcism of this past trauma and also a welcome to a new female force, “ocean child” Yoko Ono, whose name literally means “child of the sea” in Japanese. “The song was actually a combination of imagery of Yoko and my mother blended into one, you see,” he told Playboy in 1980. In many ways, the same would occur in his real life: throughout their marriage he would retain the archaic Northern habit of referring to his wife playfully as “Mother.” Other lyrical imagery was drawn from poet Kahlil Gibran’s 1926 piece “Sand and Foam,” which contained a version of Lennon’s memorable opener, “Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”
Musically, “Julia” showcases Lennon’s most advanced “Travis-picking” guitar work to date, learned from singer Donovan while both were students at the Maharishi’s ashram. “I used to play acoustic guitar all the time,” Donovan remembered in 2012. “In fact, Ringo used to say, ‘Don, you never stop playing guitar.’ In that nonstop playing, after we meditated, after we ate our health food, after we chased the monkeys off the table, we would play, and as I picked, one day John said, ‘How do you do that?'”
Lennon pretty much had it down by the time he shared “Julia” with his mates at Harrison’s house. He’d been practicing in his music room at Kenwood (a handful of demos exist of these trial runs), but the Kinfauns tape reveals a few moments when he struggles with the tricky fingering. Singing in a higher key than on the official version, he murmurs like a child in a trance, much as he did when he returned to the loss two years later on the stark solo track “My Mummy’s Dead.” The bridge contains an instrumental extension in this early take, but it’s possible he simply repeated the figure after hitting some clams the first time around. Nearly a full minute longer than the song found on the White Album, the Esher demo ends with a brief whistling solo. Whether it was intended to undercut the intensity of his emotion is unclear, but it remains a goofy sendoff from a man just beginning to mend. Completed in the studio that October, the song would be the only solo recording he ever made with the Beatles.
Of all the songs recorded for the White Album, “Blackbird” dates back the furthest. The seeds were sewn in the late Fifties when a 16-year-old McCartney learned the introduction of Bach’s “Bourree in E Minor” on guitar in a somewhat misguided effort to impress girls. “You often did things just as party pieces, things to show off, literally, at a party,” McCartney recalled during a seminar at Rollins College in 2014. “You know, ‘Hey girls …’ You would do that. Unfortunately, none of them bothered.” The budding musician’s rudimentary classical guitar skills rendered the rest of the movement prohibitively difficult, so he improvised an abbreviated ending – one he never forgot. “Part of its structure is a particular harmonic thing between the melody and the bass line which intrigued me,” he explained to Barry Miles.
McCartney expanded on the guitar figure while visiting his Scottish farm shortly after returning from India in the spring of 1968. “I developed the melody on guitar based on the Bach piece and took it somewhere else, took it to another level, then I just fitted words to it,” he told Miles. “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States.”
The words were fully in place by the time he debuted the song at Kinfauns, but the musical structure needed work. The opening line is played only once, rather than repeated, and the wordless mid-song guitar wind-down present on the White Album is absent. But given the stripped down nature of the final recorded version, the demo sounds fairly similar. The demo is primarily a solo venture, but McCartney’s double-tracked vocals and acoustic guitar picking get some help from Lennon, who enthusiastically contributes bird sounds.
Once characterised by McCartney as “a Mack Sennett movie set to music,” the Beatles’ “talking-blues” pastiche came together in a sing-along setting in Rishikesh. “I was sitting on the roof in India with a guitar,” he relayed in 1968. “John and I were sitting ’round playing guitar, and we were with Donovan. And we were just sitting around enjoying ourselves, and I started playing the chords of ‘Rocky Raccoon,’ you know, just messing around. … It was ‘Rocky Sassoon,’ and we just started making up the words. They came very quickly. And eventually I changed it from Sassoon to Raccoon, because it sounded more like a cowboy.” It’s been theorized that the love-triangle plot line of this “little one-act play” was inspired at least in part by Robert W. Service’s 1907 poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” which includes a gunfight, a man named Dan, and a woman of questionable identity “that’s known as Lou.“
The Esher demo lacks the rambling spoken introduction, which seemed to vary with each performance to match McCartney’s mood (earlier studio takes have Rocky hailing from “a little town in Minnesota”), and also the verses detailing the drunken doctor – which potentially stemmed from a real incident in December 1965 when a tipsy off-duty physician performed an emergency stitch job on McCartney’s lip following a moped wipeout. Anticipating the honky-tonk tack piano that would be added latter, Harrison echoes each line of the verse with country-ish guitar flourishes that were sadly edited out of the final recording. Without any percussive elements beyond tambourines to signal the rhythm changeups, the early version of “Rocky Raccoon” can border on the monotonous at times, but the rockabilly fake-out on the ending definitely warrants special attention.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.”
A tongue-in-cheek sendup of Chuck Berry’s barnstorming “Back in the U.S.A.,” the future White Album opener took root in McCartney’s mind after he heard the slogan for Prime Minster Harold Wilson’s pro-English industry campaign “I’m Backing Britain” in early 1968. Initially taking the title “I’m Backing the U.K.,” it morphed into the espionage-tinged “I’m Backing the U.S.S.R.,” before taking its final form. “It’s a typical American thing to say when they’re away: ‘I miss my doughnuts and my Howard Johnson’s and my launderettes and I miss the convenience of the Hyatt Hilton and it’s just so much better back home and the TV’s got more channels,'” McCartney later explained. “So I thought, ‘Great, I’ll do a spoof on that. This’ll be someone who hasn’t got a lot but they’ll still be every bit as proud as an American would be.'” It’s likely the homesickness wasn’t purely fiction – McCartney composed the song in the midst of the Indian TM course, which he departed prematurely, nearly a month early. Prior to leaving, he played the song for a fellow pupil, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who encouraged him to include a sort of Russian-style “California Girls” section on the bridge. McCartney went along with the idea, incorporating some Beach Boys–esque harmonies to boot.
The White Album’s raucous kickoff is electrifying even as an acoustic vamp on the Esher tape. Slower than the final version and performed in a lower key, the early version chugs along in a bluesy groove as a chorus of McCartney vocal overdubs attack the lyrics with panache, overemphasising the “R” sounds on “U.S.S.R.” in nasal American tones. The flight from Miami Beach is just “awful” at this stage (rather than “dreadful”) but overall the words are largely the same. The “Show me around your snow-peaked mountains …” stanza has yet to be written, so McCartney repeats the first and second verses before leading into a sung guitar break. The full-throated doo-wop on the bridges makes this quite possibly the most fun of all the Kinfauns demos.
“Mother Nature’s Son”
The tranquil setting of the Maharishi’s ashram by the banks of the Ganges led the band to pen several pastoral odes. As Lennon was moved to write “Child of Nature,” McCartney countered with “Mother Nature’s Son.” Initially inspired by a lecture given by the master, the lyrical theme fully materialised after he had returned to England, when a visit to his father’s home in Liverpool unleashed memories of happy days exploring the natural world as a boy. “I was always able to take my bike and in five minutes I’d be in quite deep countryside. This is where my love of the country came from,” he says in Many Years From Now. “I remember the Dam Wood, which had millions of rhododendron bushes. … This is what I was writing about in ‘Mother Nature’s Son,’ it was basically a heart-felt song about my child-of-nature leanings.” Remembrances of these idyllic summers, coupled with his recent experiences in India, coalesced into a deeply affecting Earth Mother lullaby.
As with most of McCartney’s acoustic tracks on the White Album, the demo doesn’t stray too far from the final product, with the lyrics and much of the final structure of the song already solidified. Ironically, the vocals on the Esher tape are actually more complex than the official version, with McCartney overdubbing an exquisite harmony line on the wordless outro. This countermelody would be approximated, though not quite bettered, with a guitar on the official release.
Given McCartney’s predilection for upbeat melodies, it’s only natural that the sunny island sounds of early reggae and ska made a major impact on him in 1968. He decided to try his hand at the style, noodling on a bouncy tune during the Beatles’ meditation studies in Rishikesh. “I remember walking down a little jungle path with my guitar to get to the village from the camp,” he recalled during an interview for the Anthology. “I was playing ‘Desmond has a barrow in the market place …'” It’s unknown whether the Desmond name checked was in fact reggae pioneer Desmond Dekker, but the song’s title has a definitive inspiration – the Nigerian conga player known as Jimmy Scott, famous in the London R&B scene for backing Georgie Fame and visiting stars like Stevie Wonder. “He was a great friend of mine,” McCartney remembered in 1986. “In the Sixties we used to meet in a lot of clubs and spent many a happy hour chatting until closing time. He had a great positive attitude to life.” One of Scott’s favourite phrases was “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da,” a Yoruba expression meaning, “Life goes on.” McCartney borrowed the saying, writing Scott a check for his troubles.
The demo of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” cut at Kinfauns retains more reggae flavour than the pub piano sing-along that made it to record. Despite the acoustic instrumentation, McCartney brings the percussive elements to the fore, beating the back of his guitar like a makeshift bongo, rattling a tambourine, and vocalising a hearty “chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom” on the bridge. He throws himself headlong into the lyrics, laying on a thick Jamaican accent that had faded by the final recording. The “If you want some fun, sing ‘Ob-la-di bla-da'” outro has yet to be added to the mix, and the song tumbles to a halt with descending nonsense syllables. For all of McCartney’s vitality, the double-tracked vocals occasionally veer badly out of sync, creating brief moments of “Revolution 9″–like aural chaos, but overall the early sketch is sincerely charming.
It’s well known in Beatle lore that the Prudence addressed in the song is Mia Farrow’s sister, the band’s classmate at the Maharishi’s retreat. The young woman threw herself into meditation with a pathological intensity that frightened others at the course. “Being on that course was more important to me than anything in the world,” she later told Steve Turner. “I was very focused on getting in as much meditation as possible, so that I could gain enough experience to teach it myself. I knew that I must have stuck out because I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so that I could meditate.” Lennon and Harrison were enlisted to help coax her out of seclusion, and together they strummed a tune intended to soothe.
Lennon can be heard giving his own (less-than-charitable) depiction of Prudence in a brief narration at the end of the Kinfauns demo. “No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” he says, barely stifling a chuckle. “All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane. So we sang to her.” The monologue is certainly the highlight of this early version of “Dear Prudence,” fingerpicked and double-tracked seemingly by Lennon alone. In the third verse he sings of a “sleeping child” rather than the more familiar “little child.” He also sneaks in an additional “look around, round” bridge just before the final verse, which shifts into a hard-strummed double time – complete with lyrical flub, resulting in a hilarious “Whoops!”
Lennon and Harrison’s stay in Rishikesh came to an abrupt end in mid-April after a rumour swept through the ashram that the Maharishi had made sexual advances towards a blonde American woman who, depending on who’s telling the story, may or may not have been Mia Farrow. The nasty tale has never been verified, and it seems likely that it was concocted by the infamous “Magic” Alex Madras, who felt the spiritual master challenged his own influence on the Fabs. In later years the band expressed serious doubts that the Maharishi ever acted in an untoward manner (Harrison dismissed the rumour as “total bullshit … just ask Mia Farrow!” in the Anthology, while McCartney expressed his own belief that the story “was completely untrue” in Many Years From Now), but at time Lennon was particularly scandalised by the episode. He led the exodus of their remaining party, leaving a baffled Maharishi desperately asking why. “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why,” Lennon hissed back.
While waiting for his ride out of the camp, a disillusioned Lennon mulled over a song in his head. The words and melody bore traces of one of his favorite Motown tunes, 1961’s “I’ve Been Good to You” by the Miracles, which opens with the lines, “Look what you’ve done, you’ve made a fool out of someone.” Consciously or not, Lennon adapted the lyrics to address his former guru: “Maharishi, what have you done/You’ve made a fool of everyone.” “I wrote it when we had our bags packed and were leaving. It was the last piece I wrote before I left India,” he remembered in 1980. “I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt. I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste. You know, it seems that my partings are always not as nice as I’d like them to be …” However, Harrison, the Beatle most taken with Eastern thought, blanched at Lennon’s dressing down of the yogi. “I said, ‘You can’t say that, it’s ridiculous,'” he recalled in the Anthology. “I came up with the title of ‘Sexy Sadie’ and John changed ‘Maharishi’ to ‘Sexy Sadie.'” (Lennon did vent his spleen in private several weeks later, taping a venomous and widely discursive blues ballad, dubbed “The Maharishi Song” by bootleggers, in the music room of his Surrey estate.)
Any libellous references had been successfully excised from “Sexy Sadie” by the time the track was demoed at Kinfauns several weeks later. Lennon took the lead on double-tracked guitar and vocals, backed by McCartney and possibly Starr, who added a soft percussive bed of maracas and bongos. Lyrically complete, the song is structurally a bit of a dirge at this early stage, meandering between verse and chorus without any dynamic shifts before finally petering out. A lengthy instrumental coda was added when the group tackled the song in the studio that July, during which time Lennon shared a verse that revealed the fury that forged the song: “You little twat/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Who the fuck do you think you are?/Oh, you cunt.”