Written by John Lennon in 1968, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’ was one of The Beatles’ strangest recordings. It was considered for inclusion on the White Album, though remained unreleased until Anthology 3 in 1996.
The lyrical playfulness of the song suggests it was written in India or shortly afterwards. Based on the phrase “What a shame Mary Jane had a pain at the party”, it was, along with ‘Revolution 9’, one of Lennon’s first forays into the world of the avant garde.
This was a thing I wrote half with our electronic genius Alex [Mardas]. It was called ‘What A Shame Mary Jane Had A Pain At The Party’, and it was meant for The Beatles album.
Beginning in a fairly simple nursery rhyme style, of the kind Lennon mined more successfully on ‘Cry Baby Cry’, the song also has the same throwaway air as ‘The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill’. The title could be interpreted as a reference to marijuana, although the surrealistic lyrics give few solid clues.
The Beatles recorded a demo of ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’ as George Harrison’s Esher house prior to the commencement of the White Album sessions. That first recording was performed on acoustic guitars with a cacophony of voices joining in on the free-form chorus.
The Esher demo was released in 2018 on some formats of the White Album’s 50th anniversary reissue, along with take 1 from the EMI studio recordings.
In the studio
At Abbey Road, the song began to take on a quite different shape. John Lennon and George Harrison were the only Beatles to appear on the recording. They taped four takes on 14 August 1968, with assistance from Yoko Ono and Mal Evans.
While the first take was incomplete, the other three lasted 2’35”, 3’45” and 6’12”. Lennon sang and played piano, with Harrison on guitar, both double tracked. Other instruments on the recording included handbell and xylophone, with various effects added to give the impression of a particularly bad acid trip.
The longest version of ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’ was widely bootlegged after The Beatles split up, and was the one chosen for inclusion on Anthology 3. It ends with Lennon saying “Let’s hear it, before we get taken away.” Take 1, meanwhile, was released in 2018 on some formats of the 50th anniversary reissue of the White Album.
Initial mixing of the song took place on 26 September 1968, and again on 14 October. Although Lennon wanted the song to appear on the White Album, it sat uneasily with the other songs and was discarded in October 1968 during the final mixing sessions.
Lennon created three new stereo mixes on 11 September 1969, for a potential release by the Plastic Ono Band. He wanted the song to be issued as the b-side of ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’, which would surely have been one of the most bizarre singles by any mainstream artist in modern musical history.
On 26 November 1969 Lennon made another stereo mix of ‘What’s The New Mary Jane’, simultaneously adding new vocals and sound effects with Ono. He then carried out a number of edits and further mixes.
The single was to have been released on 5 December 1969 with the catalogue number APPLES 1002. The Beatles or EMI may have objected to the move, and the project was shelved, although a press release from Apple did claim that the single would feature John and Yoko with “many of the greatest show business names of today” – a somewhat thinly-veiled reference to The Beatles.
It’s strange that George always spoke of a distaste for experimental music but it seems every weird song the beatles came up with (Revolution 9, What’s the New Mary Jane, Tomorrow Never Knows, and ,solo, Electronic Sound) he had a pretty big part in it adding effects and loops.