The Beatles’ New White Album: Why ‘Good Night’ Is a Gloriously Weird Revelation
There’s a moment on the Beatles’ new “Super Deluxe” edition of the White Album that sums up all the glories of their 1968 masterpiece. And weirdly, that moment is “Good Night.” There’s always been something mysterious about “Good Night” — the album’s orchestral finale. It’s a tender ballad from John, one he always meant for Ringo Starr to sing, without ever explaining to Ringo (or anyone else) why. Many fans dismissed it as a coy joke. But it nearly steals the show on the new box set, in a previously unheard outtake where all four Beatles sing it together. John, Paul, George and Ringo harmonize the “good night, sleep tight” refrain, over John’s folkie finger-picking. It’s hard to believe this great version sat in the vaults all these years, gathering dust. But after you hear John play “Good Night” on guitar, the song is no joke at all — it feels instead like a cry from the heart, cleverly disguised, waiting for the world to notice 50 years later.
The alternate “Good Night” shows off everything that makes the new “Super Deluxe” edition essential. Even for those of us who’ve loved the White Album our whole lives, the new box reveals there’s more to this music — and to the Beatles — than we even dreamed. It’s crammed with lost treasures: the acoustic Esher demos, the Abbey Road outtakes, the superior new mixes. If you’re a “Julia” fanatic, it can knock you sideways to hear the demo where John’s solitary voice gets joined by Paul. If you love “Long, Long, Long,” you can finally hear George’s heart-tugging acoustic strums, badly muffled in the original mix. Paul/Yoko shippers can enjoy them jamming together on “Revolution 1.” But “Good Night” is the most surprising discovery here, as it evolves through three drastically different versions. In a way, it’s the whole White Album saga in one song.
It’s safe to say “Good Night” has never been anybody’s favorite on the White Album. It always seemed like a lovingly tongue-in-cheek lullaby, with producer George Martin orchestrating the lush Old Hollywood strings, after four sides of chaos and conflict. There’s a harp, even a choir — the Mike Sammes Singers, who also sang the “ooompah ooompah” at the end of “I Am the Walrus.” Structurally, it’s a brilliant way to bring the album in for a landing — Ringo sends us all home with a peace-and-love benediction, whispering, “Good night, everybody. Everybody, everywhere.” Only he could make it sound so sincere, which might be why John never considered singing it himself. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker did it on the BBC’s Wireless Nights Prom in 2015 — probably the sole rock star on earth besides Ringo who could get the spirit right.
It’s a song that’s easy to overlook — even by the guy who crooned it. It’s one of the few Ringo showcases he doesn’t perform on his long-running tour with the All-Starr Band — a surprising omission, considering he makes room for “What Goes On” and “Act Naturally.” As the box’s producer Giles Martin (son of George) says, with his customary diplomatic tact, “I don’t know how Ringo feels about it. When we did the Love show, I had a track of ‘Good Night’ with Ringo by himself. Ringo came in to hear it and said, ‘Oh God, you’re bloody playing “Good Night” to me.’ I think he loves it now, but he preferred the band stuff — ‘Yer Blues’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’ and things like that.”
But it’s a totally different song with all four Beatles harmonizing. Their voices radiate camaraderie. This is a band, unmistakably together. Ringo hums along with the guitar break. John puzzles at the end: “I think I held a funny note?” As much as you might love the orchestral rendition, this one has to make you at least wonder if these guys blew it by leaving it off the White Album. It’s a more emotionally direct moment — the guitar so wistful and pained, the vocals so warm. (The Beatles weren’t doing too much harmonizing in 1968, in any sense of the word.) Even Giles Martin admits, “I do prefer this version to the record.”
John plays guitar in the clawhammer style of British folkies like Bert Jansch and Davy Graham — he picked up the technique from Donovan while on retreat in India, while he was on a career-peak roll writing songs for the White Album. “It’s the same double-thumbing guitar pattern in ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Julia,’” Martin says. “Donovan taught him this guitar part. John was like ‘great!’ and then in classic Beatle style, went and wrote three songs with the same guitar part — three completely different songs. It wasn’t enough to learn the guitar part.”
The box includes a rehearsal where Ringo plays up the cornball charm, with a spoken intro. “Come along now, put all those toys away — it’s time to jump into bed. Go off into dreamland. Yes, Daddy will sing a song for you. Are you ready?” Judging by the chuckles in the studio, it sounds like a refreshment or two may have been served, until the take breaks up in a fit of laughter. As he quips, “Daddy went a bit crazy.” It shows why Ringo has always been the kiddies’ choice — as Paul put it, “a knockabout uncle.” In Take 22, George Martin plays piano, trying out the harmonic counterpoint he went on to orchestrate, while George Harrison keeps time with a shaker. Martin’s piano playing is distinctively beautiful, as it is on so many Beatle records — most famously, his solo in “In My Life,” which he sped up to resemble a harpsichord. As Giles Martin says, “My dad had huge hands, and he played piano in a very languid style.”
John never let on why he wrote it, or why he felt so strongly Ringo should sing it. Speaking shortly before his death, he claimed it was a lullaby for his five-year-old son Julian, “but given to Ringo and possibly overlush.” Yet it also evokes his own troubled childhood — especially when you hear him play it on guitar, in the style of his bittersweet childhood reveries “Dear Prudence” and “Julia.” He wrote it right when he was leaving his wife and son to begin a new life with Yoko Ono, the abrupt divorce that inspired Paul McCartney to write “Hey Jude” for the same little boy. Like “Hey Jude,” it’s a song written to console a child going through a terrible trauma, the kind of trauma John knew well. You can hear that pain in John’s guitar — which might be the reason he didn’t want his guitar on the album version.
“Good Night” expresses the naked vulnerability John was afraid to show — it was easier for him to hide behind Ringo. Yet it’s a song clearly influenced by Paul, the way Paul’s “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” was influenced by John — these two weren’t finished learning from each other, or straight-up copying each other, though neither would admit it. That might be part of why “Good Night” meant so much to John — a secret tribute to his partner. As Paul says in the bio Many Years From Now, “You could almost be forgiven for thinking ‘Good Night’ was mine, because it’s so soft and melodic and un-John.” He loved complaining about Paul’s “granny music,” but he’s the one who goes full granny here. As Paul recalled, “I think John felt it might not be good for his image for him to sing it but it was fabulous to hear him do it, he sang it great. We heard him sing it in order to reach it to Ringo and he sang it very tenderly. John rarely showed his tender side, but my key memories of John are when he was tender, that’s what has remained with me.”
One of the tired clichés about the White Album is that it’s where the Beatles fragmented into four solo artists, no longer collaborating as a team. But that’s a cliché that will never walk again after the Super Deluxe edition. As it shows, even a song as seemingly simple as “Good Night” came out of restless band experimentation — the lads were hungry to show off for each other, outdo each other, compete with each other. Even Sgt. Pepper was a relatively tidy affair compared to this one. (Hardly any Pepper songs required a dozen takes; hardly any White Album tracks took fewer.) As Ringo says in Anthology, “While we were recording the White Album, we ended up being more of a band again, and that’s what I always love. I love being in a band.”
Giles Martin points out that “Sexy Sadie” and “Cry Baby Cry” are the only tracks on the album with the same four-man line-up. “That’s why you get such variation on the White Album — it changes all the time. There was no intention to play these songs live. They had so many flavors they could choose from, within the four of them. They changed instruments. They were not bound by previous conceptions of themselves. John would play bass. And Paul would try and play everything.”
And that’s also how they ended up closing the album with “Good Night” — a song so delicate, John didn’t even want to let his bandmates hear him sing it, much less the outside world. Ringo is the only Beatle to appear on the finished version — but the song couldn’t have reached that point without all four messing with it. For an album made in five months of grueling all-nighters, as if they were reviving their early Hamburg bar-band days in the studio, “Good Night” is a fitting farewell. (The sessions rarely started before 10 p.m. — as Martin says, “every year was another two hours later in the studio.”) Like the rest of the White Album box, it’s the sound of four lifelong friends tangled up together both musically and emotionally, too obsessive about their art to give each other a moment’s peace, goading each other to keep experimenting, deep in the heart of their wildest creative quest. Listening means joining the Beatles on this grand — and continuing — adventure.
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