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.”