FROM THE UNRELEASED BEATLES: MUSIC AND FILM:  THE ESHER/KINFAUNS TAPES: The numerous demos the Beatles recorded in May 1968 at George Harrison's home in preparation for The White Album. 

Circa Late May 1968


Kinfauns, Esher

Rocky Raccoon
Back in the U.S.S.R.
**Honey Pie
Mother Nature’s Son
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Dear Prudence
Sexy Sadie
Cry Baby Cry
I’m Just a Child of Nature
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
I’m So Tired
Yer Blues
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
What’s the New Mary Jane
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Sour Milk Sea
Not Guilty
*Happiness Is a Warm Gun
*Mean Mr. Mustard
*Polythene Pam
*Glass Onion

*appears on Anthology 3
**edited version appears on Anthology 3
***remixed version appears on Anthology 3

In late May of 1968, the Beatles gathered at George Harrison’s home, Kinfauns, in the London suburb of Esher, to make rough demos of material under consideration for The White Album. There really isn’t any other parallel in the unreleased Beatles catalog for the 27 known recordings that resulted. At no other time, to our knowledge, did the Beatles so methodically rehearse and make demos for an upcoming album outside of EMI’s studios. And there’s no other set of tapes that show the Beatles, as a group, making demos for a large batch of songs in a mostly acoustic setup. Although it doesn’t include every song that made it onto The White Album (but does include a few songs that didn’t make the cut), this is very much like hearing “The White Album Unplugged,” even if the “unplugged” concept didn’t really exist in those days. While seven of the tracks would eventually find release on Anthology 3, the great majority of them still lie unheard by the mass audience. Aside from their hundreds of hours of unissued rehearsals and studio outtakes from the Get Back/Let It Be sessions in January 1969, it’s the largest body of unreleased work to be recorded by the band in one gulp. It’s far more enjoyable than the Get Back outtakes, though, and it could be argued that these home demos—as rough and imperfect as they are—constitute the most interesting and, yes, fun chapter of all in the unreleased Beatles canon.

    It’s still something of a mystery as to what led the group to be recording this set of demos in the first place. Certainly it was an interesting, exciting, and in many ways tense juncture in the Beatles’ career. They and their wives (and Paul’s fiancée) had just completed their lengthy sojourn in Rishikesh, India, to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi. The plan had been to complete an eight-week course with their new guru, and such was their enthusiasm for TM that there was even thought of staying longer should the spirit move them, release schedules and business pressures be damned. But the trip had ended in disarray. Ringo left after ten days, unhappy about the spicy food and the absence of his children. Paul left after a few weeks, not especially disappointed with the Maharishi or meditation, but not feeling like there was any urgent need to pursue the matter further. John and George departed in mid-April shortly before the course was due to finish under cloudy circumstances, the Maharishi having come under suspicion of making sexual overtures to one of the students.
    Upon their return to the Western world, the Beatles were immediately immersed back in the world of high-powered hype and the very tensions they’d traveled to India to escape. Their Apple Records music and business empire was just rolling up to its serious launch, and in mid-May Lennon and McCartney made a hectic trip to New York to publicize it, with mixed results. Just days after returning to London, Lennon began an affair with Yoko Ono, in turn immediately bringing his marriage to Cynthia Powell to an end. The very day John and Yoko consummated their romantic relationship, they also recorded the first of their avant-garde albums, Two Virgins—beginning an artistic and personal collaboration that would do much to pull Lennon out of the Beatles’ orbit, and much to destroy the internal harmony that had kept the band together. For his part, McCartney (though officially still engaged to Jane Asher) had met with his future wife Linda Eastman in New York. With all the personal and business complications weighing upon them, it’s something of a wonder that they even managed to find the time to demo several dozen songs in late May.
    Yet, as George Harrison told the press at the time, they had about 35 songs in the running already for the next album—which, he mused, might be a double album, or even a triple. (By the time of the press screening of Yellow Submarine on July 8, George’s estimate had risen to 40, ten of them being his own compositions.) For the time spent in Rishikesh had yielded what might have been an unexpected bonus. Free for the first time in years from the distractions of the media and fans, the group had found the weeks in India especially productive for songwriting. Furthermore, as they had only their acoustic guitars with them for instrumentation, much of their compositions had a folkier, less electric base than what they’d usually devised in the past.

    “While the Beatles and I were in India they wrote the White Album songs,” recalled Donovan, who was also on the Maharishi’s meditation course in Rishikesh, in an interview with the author. “It was obvious The White Album would have a distinctive acoustic and lyrical vibe. Paul, John, George, and I all had our acoustic guitars with us. George would later say that my music greatly influenced The White Album. I played all my styles, and the Beatles were exposed to weeks of Donovan. John was influenced to write romantic fantasy lyrics on the two songs he wrote, ‘Julia’ and ‘Dear Prudence,’ after my teaching him my finger-style guitar method. He was a fast learner.” Jazz and new age musician Paul Horn, also in Rishikesh on the meditation course, has theorized that the meditation study itself helped spur and shape the group’s songwriting in India. “You find out more about yourself on deeper levels, when you’re meditating,” he said in Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles’ Song. “Look how prolific they were in such a relatively short time. They were in the Himalayas away from the pressures and away from the telephone. When you get too involved with life, it suppresses your creativity. When you’re able to be quiet, it starts coming up.”

    It’s worth recounting this backdrop to the White Album demos in some detail, as it might explain to some degree both why the Beatles decided to record them, and why they recorded them the way they did. It could be that, for all their staggering productivity between 1962 and 1967, at no other time did they have such a backlog of material ready for recording, especially now that Harrison was writing more than ever. It may also be that, having written much if not all of the material in informal, acoustic circumstances in India, they felt most comfortable doing “work-in-progress” versions outside of EMI’s studios, in a low-pressure home environment, using mostly acoustic instruments. Why George’s home was chosen isn’t clear; more Beatles-business-related meetings tended to take place at Paul McCartney’s house than anywhere else, as Paul (unlike the others) lived in London itself, just a few minutes’ walk from Abbey Road Studios. Perhaps it was felt that meeting in a busy area of London wouldn’t have the mellow atmosphere the songs seemed to call for. John’s house (where he and Paul had often met to work on songs) might have been off-limits given the breakup of his marriage at the time. Cynthia Lennon had just returned from a trip to discover John and Yoko together a few days before, and having the Beatles over on top of that might have been too much to even consider. Or it might have been as simple a matter as Harrison having the best home taping equipment.

    Whatever the state of the Beatles’ nerves when they recorded their demos on Harrison’s Ampex 4-track machine, they certainly don’t sound anxious or distracted. In fact, the performances have a remarkably carefree, jolly quality, almost as if it’s a campfire sing-along and song- swapping session rather than the initial work on the most eagerly anticipated  album of 1968. Unpredictable, joyous whoops punctuate the proceedings, as well as ensemble backup vocals and all manner of crack-up asides and spontaneous scatting, often but not always from the mouth of John Lennon. Far from just laying down the tapes as a work aid, the Beatles are quite obviously having fun—having a blast, actually. Maybe the group, and particularly Lennon, welcomed these quasi-sessions as a safe haven of sorts from the hassles of the outside world, their music being the one thing they always guarded as inviolable.
    It is possible that these songs weren’t entirely, or even mostly, recorded at George’s house at all, or recorded as a group in some or many instances. Though the seven tracks that appear on Anthology 3 are all noted as originating from Esher in the liner notes, some feel it unlikely that all of the recording for the nearly 30 demos was done at George’s home. It’s been theorized, not without reason, that some or many of the songs could have been recorded by Lennon, McCartney, and  Harrison individually. As another possibility, the songs could have been largely recorded as solo works, and then brought to George’s house for both the songwriter of a specific tune and other members to add overdubs (which would have been easily done on a 4-track recorder). As these recordings weren’t subject to EMI’s usual detailed record keeping, however, it’s unlikely it will ever be definitely sorted out what was recorded when and where.
    Ultimately, “only” 19 of the 27 songs known to exist from these sessions found a place on The White Album in a re-recorded studio version. For all their wealth of available titles, the Beatles weren’t quite yet done with the writing for the upcoming album. Eleven of the tracks on The White Album have no Kinfauns counterparts, including “Helter Skelter,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Martha My Dear,” “Birthday,” “Savoy Truffle,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Revolution 9,” “Good Night,” “I Will,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” and “Don’t Pass Me By”—several of which are among The White Album’s more popular numbers. On the other hand, the tapes do give us the chance to hear no fewer than eight songs that did not find a place on The White Album and half a dozen that the Beatles would not release at all before breaking up, though all of them except one (“Sour Milk Sea”) would appear on some post-Beatles compilation or solo Beatle release. The fidelity is on the crude side (though it’s way better on the seven tracks included on Anthology 3), the arrangements rudimentary, and the timing of the voices and the instruments sometimes slightly off, especially when some of the overdubbed tracks get out of sync with each other. The tapes are also rather skewed toward songs for which John Lennon was the primary or sole composer; he was the force behind 15 of the tunes (with Paul McCartney tallying a mere seven, and George Harrison five). Yet they’re a hugely enjoyable listen and quite different in tone than The White Album, though it would be a mistake to say they’re just as good as that finished product.

    Naturally, the most intriguing items are those the Beatles didn’t see fit to record for a release while an active unit. The best of them is “I’m Just a Child of Nature,” which Lennon would rework for “Jealous Guy” on his second proper solo album, 1971’s Imagine. In this early state, the lyrics are quite different, and quite a bit more influenced by Rishikesh than Yoko, as the opening line about the road to Rishikesh makes clear. It’s something of a Lennon counterpart to McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son,” John sounding at his most pastoral and peaceful, though he typically punctures the mood by drawing out the last line of the second verse with a jokey vibrato that makes one question just how sincere his back-to-nature crusade might have been. As to why it didn’t make it onto The White Album, maybe it was felt to be too lyrically close to “Mother Nature’s Son,” or maybe John thought it was too naive, particularly in the company of such Lennonesque, realist screeds as “Yer Blues” and “Revolution.” As to why it didn’t make it onto Anthology 3, maybe there would have been a squabble over the songwriting credits—should it have been considered a Lennon solo composition, a joint Lennon-McCartney credit, or had the parties concerned forgotten exactly where the credit should go? Anyway, Lennon at least knew not to let a good melody go to waste, even if it took him three years to resuscitate it for “Jealous Guy.” (Note that while this number is usually titled “Child of Nature” on bootlegs, John himself referred to it as “I’m Just a Child of Nature” in his 1980 Playboy interview.)

    The other Lennon song never to make it onto a pre-breakup Beatles album, “What’s the New Mary Jane,” is the source of much controversy among fans. Certainly it’s one of the most minimal and discordant songs in the Lennon-McCartney catalog, and one of the most inscrutably eccentric. It would indeed be recorded in a studio version for The White Album, with a whole gallery of rattling percussion and echo effects, though the track was omitted from the running order at the last minute. It’s sometimes thought to be the Beatles song (other than “Revolution 9”) that most strongly bears Yoko Ono’s avant-garde influence. But if that’s true, Ono’s influence must have been immediately ingested, as this gentler, less elaborate version from (at the latest) just a few days after they became a couple proves. Many will find this surreal tune—with its singalong (if not terribly catchy) series of faux Indian-Anglo non sequiturs in the verses, leading to the even more nonsensical non sequitur of the chorus, lamenting what a shame Mary Jane had a pain at the party—more palatable in this arrangement than in the studio outtake that surfaced on Anthology 3. It’s still not much of a song, however, even if it’s a kinda cool example of Lennon’s Goonish humor coming stronger to the fore than it did on almost any other Beatles recording. The Beatles certainly sound like they’re taking the mickey out of themselves on the near-falsettos of the chorus, especially when the song dissolves into a near-anarchic mix of voices on the fade. It is, incidentally, the only version in which you’ll hear the title actually mentioned, as John does in the  improvised-sounding spoken parts at the end.

    The only McCartney song from the demos not to make it onto a regular Beatles album was “Junk” (titled “Sing-along Junk” on some bootlegs), which Paul would redo for his first solo album, 1970’s  McCartney. He and the Beatles made the right decision in passing it over—it’s a pleasant, slight, and inconsequential folky song about nothing in particular, more like an off-the-cuff lullaby than a fully baked tune. Note, incidentally, that the remix included on Anthology 3 is actually missing some vocal parts heard on the bootlegged version that were probably ironed out for some unknown reason when Anthology 3 was prepared for release. As another oddity, on Anthology 3 the songwriting credit reads “McCartney” rather than “Lennon-McCartney,” probably since it had already been copyrighted to Paul alone when it appeared on McCartney.

    Harrison fared far worse than Lennon or McCartney in the leftover department, as no fewer than three of the five songs he offered for consideration failed to find a place on The White Album—in spite of his seeming generosity in letting the Beatles use his home and tape machine for the sessions in the first place. The strongest of the three was “Not Guilty,” his defensive rebuttal to criticisms of his own brand of counterculture, here presented in a much less tense arrangement than the more forceful one he’d devise when it was cut (in numerous different takes) at the White Album sessions. While “Circles” isn’t as good a song, it’s a pretty neat, if droning, reflection of Harrison’s more somber spiritual sensibilities. Its instrumentation is supplied not by guitar, but by an eerie organ that seems to have been dragged out of a dusty, disused church closet. Harrison would re-record it much, much later for his 1982 solo album Gone Troppo, though it’s this earlier arrangement, for all its primitivism, that exerts by far the greater fascination. While the last of these Harrisongs, “Sour Milk Sea,” is far more uplifting and uptempo in mood than either of the other two (and a rare showcase for extended falsetto in a lead Harrison vocal), in all honesty it’s a pretty insignificant, easygoing, slightly bluesy rock song, the lyrics unfortunately delivered in muffled fidelity on the available recording. George himself later admitted the song only took about ten minutes to write. This tune too would eventually find a home, not on a Beatles or Harrison solo album, but on Jackie Lomax’s 1968 solo debut single, released on Apple and produced by George, with Paul on bass and Ringo on drums.

    The only two other home White Album demos not to make the grade for the 1968 double LP were “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” both of which were of course revived in 1969 for the side two Abbey Road medley. It wasn’t until Anthology 3 that these were even known to exist, and it came as quite a shock to even Beatles experts to find that these songs had been written and demoed as far back as May 1968, over a year before Abbey Road’s release (though George had specifically remembered them being penned in India in a late-1969 interview). They’re pretty close in feel to the Abbey Road versions too, other than being acoustic, though “Mean Mr. Mustard” does leap into a brief, basic blues-rock bridge that was wisely excised when it was redone the following year, and refers to Mustard’s sister as “Shirley,” not “Pam.” “Polythene Pam,” too, has a very slightly different, more sour chord progression at the end of its verses, as well as some different lyrics.
So that leaves 19 tracks that are in essence early home acoustic demo versions of songs that actually made it onto The White Album. Only four of these—“Glass Onion,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Piggies,” and “Honey Pie”—would be rescued for Anthology 3, the rest only surfacing on bootleg thus far. Are they much different from the White Album versions, and are they worth hearing?

    The answer is an emphatic yes, even if you’re not a nutty completist for this sort of thing. True, some of the songs—particularly the slower and folkier ones, like “Blackbird,” “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Julia,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”—are pretty close to The White Album save for the absence of fuller arrangements. Yet others are noticeably to radically different. Lyric changes abound, from the almost invisibly minor to the nearly extensive. Starting with the most amusing major lyric change, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the fadeout on “Dear Prudence,” which follows the recorded version pretty closely until Lennon launches into a satirical spoken mini-monologue: “Who was to know that [suppressed giggle] sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane. So we sang to her.” So there you have a more direct explanation of what exactly “Dear Prudence” is about than you’ll find in the song itself, though the Beatles were wise to make the lyrics more universal by excising this literal explanation. Running a close second is another spoken bit near the end of “I’m So Tired,” where John slowly and rhythmically deadpans, “When I hold you in your [sic] arms, when you show each one of your charms, I wonder should I get up and go to the funny farm?” Some particularly great background whooping graces that track, where it’s hard to believe the guys aren’t having a whale of a time.

    As for some more interesting remaining cuts, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” has a gloriously funky, down-home feel, McCartney referring here to an “awful” flight rather than a “dreadful” one—a minor variation to be sure, but an example of how no detail is too small to escape the masters as they finish their work. Paul also leans really hard into some of his “R”s when singing “U.S.S.R.,” almost as if he’s making fun of an American accent; the bridge has more jovial doo wopisms than the studio take; and the fade benefits from some delightful high scatting. “Revolution,” too, is a real highlight of the entire Beatles unreleased discography, where the “party” or “campfire” feel reaches its peak, with a clap-along beat, sing-along harmonies, scatted high-harmony verse, and overall giddiness that’s far lighter and more joyous than the (itself highly estimable) down ’n’ dirty version that ended up on the flip side of “Hey Jude.” Like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” it’s another recording where a slight Beach Boys influence can be detected, even if that would all but vanish by the time the two different Beatles versions of the song were released (on The White Album and the B-side of “Hey Jude”). “Piggies,” too, is very different from the White Album version, soaked in gentleness and played entirely on guitars (with whistling rather than sung words taking up one obviously incomplete verse), as opposed to the far more acerbic studio arrangement, where strings and harpsichord gave it a hard kick in the backside. And here the piggies clutch their forks and knives to cut their pork chops, instead of eating their bacon—another wise lyric substitution, when it finally came time to record it at EMI down the road.

    “Honey Pie” is not so much different as incomplete, some wordless humming and scatting taking the place of words that McCartney would fill in by the time it was recorded for real. (The Anthology 3 version, incidentally, is severely edited, cutting out about 35 seconds from the song’s middle.) In an even sketchier state is “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” afflicted by false starts and stops, missing the final doo woppy section, and obviously not really ready for consumption, Lennon getting stuck in repetitions of the phrase about Mother Superior jumping the gun. The lyrics to “Glass Onion” aren’t in final form either, though it’s entertaining to hear John plugging some nonsense syllables into some of the lines, and dramatically dragging the rhythm in the final verse. Considering the unfinished state of all three of these songs, it’s odd indeed that they were all chosen for Anthology 3, when so many other far more polished numbers for the session were presumably available. Of course, several of the other songs were still in an unfinished state as well—“Cry Baby Cry” lacks its intro, “Rocky Raccoon” its opening and closing verses, and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” its final verse, while “Julia” changes the order of the lyrics, goes into some whistling at the end, and is played in a higher key to boot.

    “Gentleness” is an almost unavoidable byword when discussing these demos, and “Yer Blues” is another instance where the approach is more laidback, easygoing, and rootsy than the one employed for The White Album. It’s not necessarily a better approach, but it’s a very refreshing and different one, particularly after you’ve heard The White Album a thousand times. (Note also how at this stage John is merely “insecure” rather than “suicidal.”) This is also true of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” which sounds friendlier and less vicious here, though the verse has a more skeletal melody that would be improved upon by the time the Beatles got down to work on it at EMI a month later. Dig also how Lennon repeats “take it easy” on the long, long outro ad infinitum before lapsing into lascivious “make it, make it, make it” as the track collapses to a halt. Speaking of collapsing, “Sexy Sadie” almost seems to run out of gas when it comes to the fade, lacking the long instrumental coda that would finish it off on The White Album. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the only Harrison song here other than “Piggies” to get a hearing on The White Album, is suffused with the same ghostly organ as the one heard on “Circles,” giving it an almost funereal quality. The lyrics would undergo some revision by the time the final version was recorded at EMI—at this point, most noticeably, it declares “the problems you sow are the troubles you’re reaping” in the first verse.
    And what was Ringo’s role in these sessions? There’s certainly no full drum set in evidence, and no percussion at all on some tracks. What percussion there is tends to be handclaps, thumps (on guitars and furniture, perhaps), and the odd tambourine and miscellaneous rattle. What’s more, there was no demo made of “Don’t Pass Me By,” his sole composition on The White Album (and, in fact, the first song wholly written by Starr to be recorded by the Beatles). Is it possible he didn’t attend these sessions, leaving the work to principal songwriters John, Paul, or George? One also wonders whether Yoko Ono was in attendance, as she certainly was at almost all of the Beatles’ official Abbey Road sessions from this point onward, occasionally even contributing an eccentric vocal snippet (as she did on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “What’s the New Mary Jane,” and “Revolution 9”). Certainly one of the distant background voices on some of the more fully harmonized Kinfauns demos, like “Revolution,” could be Yoko’s, or, for that matter, another non-Beatle who was part of the group’s inner circle, like George’s wife, Patti. Both roadie/personal assistant Mal Evans and publicist Derek Taylor are addressed at various points, and it’s possible they added to the clamor in low-key fashions as well.
    After they were completed, the tracks were mixed to mono by George, with John, Paul, and Ringo each getting copies of this reduction tape. Their existence remained unsuspected by Beatles fans until some of the demos first found radio broadcast in the late ’80s as part of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” series, John’s copy of a tape with much of the material having been found in his archives. These Lennon-dominated tracks and a few others quickly found their way onto bootleg, and as welcome as those were, the focus on Lennon songs exclusively gave listeners an unbalanced portrait of those sessions, which included so many additional compositions from McCartney and Harrison. Twenty-two of the tracks finally circulated in the early ’90s as part of the Unsurpassed Demos bootleg, with other subsequent bootlegs offering slightly longer versions.

    That seemed to be the last word on the matter, except that in 1996, seven Kinfauns recordings—four of them never previously bootlegged— appeared on Anthology 3. As these had far better sound than anything heard on illegitimate CDs, that naturally led to speculation that the entire body of 27 tracks existed in much better fidelity than what had been previously available on bootleg. And, naturally, it engendered speculation that if four Kinfauns demos suddenly popped up out of nowhere, there might be yet more where those came from. Some even wondered if Apple were deliberately taunting the bootleggers by selecting material that had never made it out in any form, when there were so many other, previously circulated Kinfauns recordings they could have chosen instead.

    Following that line of investigation, it’s known that the tape of Kinfauns material found in John Lennon’s archives contains the songs from the Unsurpassed Demos bootleg on side A, and versions (identified as “White Album demos”) of “Cry Baby Cry,” “I’m Just a Child of Nature,” “Yer Blues,” Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” “What’s the New Mary Jane,” “Revolution,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Piggies” on side B. These could just be the same versions as the much-bootlegged ones heard on side A—or they could be yet different versions of the same numbers, also recorded as part of the Kinfauns sessions (or even from an entirely different source).
The absence of the four previously unbooted tracks that surfaced on Anthology 3 (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” and “Glass Onion”) from this Lennon archive tape in turn adds ammunition to the speculation that those four recordings might not have been part of the Kinfauns batch at all.

    Several years before the Anthology series got on track, Harrison told Musician magazine, “I just realized that I’ve got a really good bootleg tape—demos we made at my house on an Ampex 4-track during The White Album.” Harrison’s tacit stamp of approval raised hopes that the entire set might find official release, particularly as it was George, and not EMI or the other Beatles, who owned the copyright on these recordings; when seven were used on Anthology 3, the small print noted that all of them had been licensed to Apple from Harrison. George’s death in 2001 perhaps complicates the matter, however, and though his estate presumably still controls the material, as of 2006 its appearance seems as far away as ever. That’s unfortunate, because a thorough compilation of all 27 (or more, if they exist) Kinfauns demos, with the best available fidelity and cleaned-up sound, would be a solid contender for the best collection of (largely) unreleased Beatles material that could be envisioned at this point.

There's much more on the unreleased music of the Beatles, from all phases of their career, in The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.


contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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