One morning you wake up and it’s 1968. You’re in the most successful, popular and acclaimed band the world has ever seen (The Beatles). You’ve released what is widely accepted as the best album ever recorded (the seminal psychedelic masterpiece ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’). The conundrum is… what next? How do you climb higher up the mountain of expectation when you already stand at its peak? Where do you go from here?
For the Beatles the answer was to record their eponymous, sprawling and chaotic double-album, dubbed ‘The White Album’ for its plain white sleeve, the polar opposite of Sgt Pepper’s maximalist, rainbowed, heavily populated cover. Rather than try to top expectation, they eschewed it, recording an album littered with almost as many throw-away comedy melodies as iconic songs of unrelenting genius. It’s a smörgåsbord of unedited, wild, tender, nostalgic, electrifying, schmaltzy, incandescent, revelatory and trivial recordings. It’s at once a masterpiece and a curiosity, a true puzzle of modern music: a jumble of doo-wop hits, psychedelic ballads, animal tunes, love ditties, historical pieces, nostalgia jaunts and blistering rock songs; a rambling and majestic album which foresaw genres yet to be even invented. It’s a maddeningly creative snapshot of a band at the peak of their musical powers.
Much of the White Album was written in an ashram deep in the Himalayan foothills. The Summer of Love was over: 1968 saw tanks roll into Prague, Andy Warhol shot in the Factory, Situationist revolutionaries rioting upon the boulevards of Paris, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in L.A. The cloistered, naïve, utopian hippy ideals of ’67 began their spiralled descent into the turbulence, excess and chaos that would characterise the come-down years of the late 60s, and it was in the shadow of these dissolute and unravelling days that ‘The White Album’ was born.
In essence ‘The White Album’ is a studio album, and so to attempt to recreate this wildly diverse album with a full orchestra seems like a wonderfully crackpot idea… No-one in their right mind would even attempt it! Right??
But tonight this is exactly what the Sheffield Beatles Project will do, in the belly of the hulking O2 on the edge of Sheffield City centre. It’s a venue with some legendary gigs in its history. Inside I bump into Steve (We Are Not Devo), who tells me about watching The Jam play here back in the lost, wild depths of time, with mod kids hanging off the balconies and pint pots flying in raucous celebration. Fast-forward to 2018 and a once great venue has faded into a comatose blandness and cultural irrelevance; efficient door staff herd you towards the bar to buy insanely priced and tasteless booze (£4.85 a pint of Carlsberg!), the toilets stink of piss, huge screens dot the walls and the corporate surroundings provide no atmosphere whatsoever. It’s basically a massive hall designed to bleed the dollar from people who generally don’t go to gigs, when they very occasionally do go to gigs.
But tonight when the Sheffield Beatles Project explode into ‘Back in the USSR’ it’s obvious why it had to be here. There are 27 musicians onstage from across the whole spectrum of Sheffield music, and the sound is stupendously epic. No other venue I can think of from the city’s vibrant and diverse scene could even fit all of these musicians on stage at the same time!
Jack Weston’s (Kid Conventional) throaty growl is perfect for the Beach Boy referencing opener, which segues perfectly to the gentle folk of Lennon’s ‘Dear Prudence’.
Nick Cox (Screaming Maldini, Nicholas Alexander production), one of the primary architects of the Sheffield Beatles Project, is tonight the most Beatlesesque of the ensemble. Dressed in black polo shirt and holding a Rickenbacker guitar he flawlessly fingerpicks the unmistakeable first chords of ‘Dear Prudence’. Laura James’ willowed voice is a revelation – distinctly not Lennon but beautifully paired with this tender psychedelic classic. The band power through the first two sides of the White Album with barely a mis-step and it’s a joy to experience: the quality of the interpretations, the nuances and sonic details they capture. Predictably the crowd enjoys the Blue Album ‘classics’ the most (which ironically perhaps & in the humble opinion of PROLE JAZZ are actually the weaker songs on this album). They bounce along to Paul’s cheeseball ditty ‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’ and sway to Harrison’s banal yawnfest ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, and are more subdued for the subversive masterpiece of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ – “The birth of Prog Rock!” announces vocalist Conor Houston, before channeling Lennon with resplendent theatrical verve.
‘Blackbird’ is stunning, a duo between multi-instrumentalist Howard (Early Cartographers) and Jack on vocals, and ‘Martha My Dear’ is an fantastic orchestral accomplishment, note-perfect in its jaunty nostalgia. McCartney’s ode to a much-loved sheepdog is rendered tonight into a profoundly moving performance under the aegis of orchestra maestro Ben Eckersely (Captives on the Carousel) and the soaring string section.
At the interval I make my way to the bar to order another pint of watery, tasteless lager. The crowd is wonderfully amiable; I speak briefly with Lorraine who cheerfully tells me she was “alive in the original era”. Nina and Anka chat excitedly about their favourite Beatle (Anka’s is Lennon, Nina’s Harrison). At the bar I meet Fuzz, a moustachioed Beatles aficionado of great warmth and energy. We compare notes on our favourite Beatles albums and other matters of great social and political import…
Oliver: So Fuzz! How are you enjoying the gig so far?
Fuzz: It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen! That these people have put this much time and effort, and capture all the little eccentricities
Oliver: What’s your favourite song on the White Album?
Fuzz: I would say, it’s hard to pick… ‘Cry Baby Cry’, that and ‘Sexy Sadie’, the more acoustic, simple ones… And ‘Bungalow Bill’, as daft as it is, to hear them play it, it’s incredible! I don’t like all the twee, Paul McCartney ones, they’re me planned fag breaks…
He gives me a massive hug, which pretty much sums up the camaraderie and good cheer which emanate around the O2 this evening. The Beatles are so deeply loved, for die-hard fans like Fuzz (and me) tonight’s show is astonishing, an experience of a lifetime, like coming home and popping down to the boozer you used to drink at as a kid and finding all your old mates there to welcome you. ‘The White Album’ is entwined with the personal histories of so many of us here tonight, so fondly embedded into the warp of our lives: those who experienced it in the hippy whirlwind of the ’60s and those of us who discovered it anew in the meantime. It’s perhaps even more momentous for those of us that fell in love with this idiosyncratic masterpiece in our bedrooms and kitchens, on our car stereos and phones, because here it is, summoned like a ghost taken flesh, tangible and alive. The energy, effort and love that Nick Cox and Ben Eckersley (the twin curators of the Sheffield Beatles Project) have invested into this gig is mind-boggling. “They really understand the significance of the Beatles” Lukke (Dead Slow Hoot) tells me, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s an incomparable achievement, as much an act of love as a musical performance.
Somehow the second half tops the first. The singers have changed garb – Laura is all of a sudden sparkly, Conor has donned a spaceman jacket – and the energy and confidence of the front line has grown, the show(wo)manship turned up a notch, the nerves banished, the spirits of John, Paul, George and Ringo (and George Martin, the oft-forgotten 5th Beatle) conjured and pacified, the appetites of the audience whetted.
‘Birthday’ is raucous and energetic and full of wild life, and ‘Yer Blues’ is a primal, screaming juggernaut of painful catharsis. “More foot on monitor!” Ed (inFictions / Early Cartographers) shouts from the crowd at Howard as his guitar howls and wheels. ‘Long Long Long’ is one of the White Album’s hidden gems. Tonight it is resurrected by Laura James’ spectral and haunting voice into something new. It’s a brittle and beautiful rendition; the mesmerising power of James’ voice is such that it can reshape such wonderful and idiosyncratic songs into completely novel objects to gaze and wonder upon anew.
Some songs are incredibly loyal in their orchestration, such as ‘Martha My Dear’ and ‘Goodnight’, and are absolute joys to experience live backed with the note-perfect string section. And yet the Sheffield Beatles Project is successful partly because it moves beyond flawless, authentic renditions into new and brave territory. In many Beatles cover bands the singers ape the Fab Four, in their dress and mannerisms and accent. Whereas tonight the vocalists skip this and retain their own identities and unique voices, from the throaty growl of Kid Conventional’s Jack Weston to the vocal acrobatics of Conor Houston to the willowed and smoky voice of Laura James to Adam Follett’s bluesy howl. It’s like a collaboration between the finest musicians and singers in Sheffield and the writhing ghosts of 1960s psychedelia.
Crucial to this feat is that Ben Eckersley isn’t afraid to embellish the Beatles’ orchestration in places where necessary and suitable. Arguably the best performance of the whole night is ‘Helter Skelter’, Paul’s response to the Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’. McCartney famously said he wanted to record the heaviest song ever (he succeeded!), and on record ‘Helter Skelter’ is a banshee wail of distorted guitars and Paul’s torn, wild vocal. Ben Eckersely’s deft and gutsy orchestration amplifies McCartney’s desires, adding brass and strings to make ‘Helter Skelter’ live an awe-inspiring wall of sound. Music and noise and feeling pulsate joyously through every particle of my being as I experience this sonic obelisk, this wailing howling beautiful monstrosity. What a song!!
And this is precisely why the Sheffield Beatles Project is such an incomparable triumph. Songs are reimagined but so lovingly, with such care and delicacy and humility that they pay great homage to this incredible and ground-breaking album. In places they sound even better live than on record, which is testament to the alchemy of tonight. With the exception of ‘Let it Be’, ‘The White Album’ is arguably the only late Beatles album with weak, throwaway songs on it. ‘Savoy Truffle’ is at best an oddity on record, but live it is incredibly full and chunky, a big-bellied groove beast on the rampage in a sweet shop. In particular the booming brass, underpinned by an earth-shattering bari sax (wielded by Hannah Beezer of Mango Rescue Team & Cosmic Triceratops) lends this fairly pedestrian song a potency and danger that Harrison and his boys never captured on record. It’s brought to life live here tonight in Sheffield.
For ‘Revolution 9’, Lennon’s legendary avant-garde, tape-splicing, oddball soundscape, bandleader Ben Eckersley takes centre stage. Samples of voice and everyday noise drift in and out of earshot whilst Ben raises his arms above his head like a sorcerer, using coded signals to conduct the assembled musicians. Snatches of staccato strings, pulses of brass and ethereal woodwind dance and vanish as samples swirl and jump at the edge of our hearing. It’s compelling to watch and listen to, a stunning achievement and a surprise highlight of the night.
It’s very difficult to find fault with any of the musicians here: the vocal performances are dynamite, the harmonies transcendent, the strings sublime, the brass and wind soaring; Nick Cox and Howard are crazily skilled multi-instrumentalists, industriously hopping between guitar and keys and vocals… it really is a celebration of the incredible music and talents of the Beatles and of George Martin, the unsung hero of ‘The White Album’.
The band exit the stage to hoots and applause and calls for ‘Mo-o-o-ore!’. The predictable but welcome encore begins with ‘Lady Madonna’, a 1968 single not even included on ‘The White Album’. The audience sways and cheers and when the brass kicks in Hannah Beezer unleashes a note-perfect, electrifying Ronnie Scott sax solo. To play such an incredibly complex solo which will have taken many recording takes to capture, and to play it live in front of perhaps 1,000 people is nothing less than virtuosic. And she is not alone! There are many examples of this level of performance from the brass and woodwind tonight. You get the feeling that there are not many times in a life that this level of musicianship will occur in one band, in one room, under one roof, in one night.
The band finish by breaking their 50-year rule, with Lennon’s song-prayer for Peace this Christmas. Where to go from here? To Abbey Road, of course!
The Sheffield Beatles Project will perform ‘Abbey Road’ in full on 14th December 2019 at the O2 in Sheffield. Get your tickets early, here!
Listen to ‘The White Album’ remastered on Spotify here
Thanks to Calvin Merry for the amazing photography!