Clubland: Deconstructing The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ - Lifelong passion leads to scholarly pursuits

Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Beatles’ “White Album” can change lives. For me, it was at age 8, when the music maven babysitter brought along her box of cassettes (back then the tape version of “The Beatles” —the album’s official name— wasn’t white and minimalist like its nickname, but black and photo-covered); the 30 wildly diverse songs whirled me around like a weird funhouse ride.

Composer Scott Freiman had his own “White Album” moment at age 10. His Partridge Family-loving mind was blown when an uncle lent him a copy of the Beatles’ self-titled double LP with its stark, unforgettable packaging.

The seeds were sewn for his future as a Beatles scholar who’s put together a growing series of multimedia lectures about different eras of the band’s music — the “Revolver” album, the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single from 1967, the group’s first recording sessions in 1962 and more.

Freiman, a recording engineer with a studio in Irvington, N.Y., returns to the Valley to present “Looking Through a Glass Onion: Deconstructing the Beatles’ White Album” at Amherst Cinema Thursday at 4 and 7 p.m.

The lectures are expected to sell out, as did Freiman’s previous appearance (discussing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) at Amherst Cinema last fall.

“It’s like learning something new about your best friend” is how one jazzed audience member described a just-seen Freiman lecture, which makes use of rare photos/video and especially audio from the original recording sessions (such as early unused takes or song demos) to give a uniquely fresh perspective on familiar songs.

Freiman’s background as an engineer allows him to isolate specific elements of the recordings to fascinating effect while he reveals stories behind little details (like the tapping sound in “Blackbird”).

The warts-and-all “White Album” is perfect for such a study. It’s a raw kind of record, full of strange chatter, random interludes and mood shifts. There was turmoil and tension growing both in the insular recording studio among the band members and beyond those walls in the real world outside.

“When you talk about a great album, you can’t really separate the circumstances in which it was created from the music,” Freiman tells the crowd during the presentation. “You’ll see that this mixture of the fun they had while making the album, and also the tension in which it was made, created this masterpiece.”

“It’s probably my favorite Beatles album and it sits at a very strange place in American History (1968) and in the Beatles recorded history,” said George William Myers, Amherst Cinema’s general manager. “And Scott knows volumes more than I do, which is why he can present for two hours on the subject.”

Which is just what Freiman has done at theaters, museums and college campuses all over the country — and also for employees at Google, Facebook and Pixar. There is no shortage of Beatles fans in this world.

And one of them is Myers, who attended Freiman’s last lecture and will be in the crowd again Thursday. “One of the most impressive parts of Scott’s presentation was his ability to speak to the casual fan and the enthusiast alike,” he said. “A very wide range of people came out and the reaction was very positive.”

Myers is also a serious music fan and DJ (he and Dan Cashman co-host two popular dance nights at the Basement in Northampton, featuring hip-hop/e_SSRq80s dance on Tuesdays and Motown/funk/soul on Saturdays); he’s always on the search for new and obscure sounds.

Though the Beatles are about as un-obscure as music can get (their songs are everywhere — grocery stores, smooth jazz covers in dentist offices, commercials, video games), “Their ubiquity is a part of their appeal,” he said.

“They played a huge role in shaping American popular music,” he added, “so in my hunting for obscure soul 45s I often come across some weird privately pressed record from Chicago in the mid-’60s and one side is some mind-blowing hard soul and the other side is a Beatles cover. They were part of a very large musical conversation that continues to this day.”