The Beatles remasters have finally hit the street and all across the world, music fans are gorging themselves on the most fabled and revered repertoire in pop music history. This may well prove to be the last hurrah of the CD age and certainly the marketing gurus at Capital have been working overtime to make sure we’ve all very aware of the Beatles as we approach this holiday season. It’s highly likely that the Fab Four will prove to be the best selling artists of this decade, an incredible feat for a group that disbanded nearly 40 years ago. So the question—the only question, for the Beatles are hardly an unknown quantity—is simply are these new versions worth it? Are they that much different? Should people who’ve already bought these albums umpteen times buy them again? I’ll try to answer that question here for those of you who still might be on the fence.
A lot of audiophile types bitch and moan about the old Beatles CDs but I never thought they sounded that terrible. Originally released on CD in 1987, the old crop of Beatles CDs were, however, starting to show their vintage. The audio gear they used to digitally remaster the Beatles catalog in 1987 was surely the state of the art at the time, but has been greatly surpassed since then. Given the advances in audio production techniques, the time was more than ripe for the Beatles to get a sonic make-over. There are no extra tracks, so the lure here is clearly just the audio quality. If you already own these albums—and what serious music fan doesn’t—is it worth buying them again? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding YES. George Martin and the team behind these remastered albums have done a fantastic job. The packaging is first rate. The entire production has such a “classy” sheen to it that it would be a shame to download them off the Internet with homemade art by Sharpie. This is the fucking Beatles. This music deserves more respect than that. It’s not that they need your money, that’s not the point, it’s that you—if you are a serious music fan and if not why are you reading this—need the Beatles albums in the best possible sonic configuration you can possibly get them in. This is the greatest music of our age. This isn’t music for ear buds, it’s music to listen to, to savor, smoke a joint, sink into and let it overwhelm you with its magnificent greatness. Which is funnily enough exactly what I did in one marathon listening session…
I should qualify my remarks, a bit. I’m an unashamed audiophile. I do not listen to MP3s on my computer, I listen to music on a proper “hi fidelity stereo” (one that I bought used, so no charges of elitism, please) with good speakers. When I listen to music, I listen to music. It’s not something on in the background, it’s the main event, cranked loud via a powerful stereo amplifier. I don’t understand how people can be satisfied with crappy sounding MP3s that have one tenth of the digital information that a CD or lossless format has. I want to hear the best reproduction of the music possible, as close to what the musicians heard in the control room when they pronounced it finished, as you can get. Look at the painting directly or reproduced as a black and white Xerox copy, you do have a choice…
In recent years the Rolling Stones ABKCO years remastering job removed so much sonic muck that entirely new instruments started showing up in familiar songs. You could hear the buzz in Keith’s amp, the crack rhythm section of Wyman and Watts, the ambiance of the room they were recording in and Brian Jones’ unique contribution to the Stones sound. It was remarkable to hear them sound so clear, raw and so ferocious. The Bob Dylan catalog, when it was released on SACD a few years back was remastered so beautifully that it sounded like Dylan was singing and playing in the room with you. You could hear his finger pads moving against the ridges of the guitar strings and feel his breath going through his harmonica. With the remastered Goodbye Yellow Brick Road you could hear Sir Elton’s foot pedals on the piano for Christ’s sake! And don’t get me started on the Kinks remasters or Bitches Brew… and blah blah blah, you take my point. I’m one of those guys.
At first I set myself the task of comparing the limited edition Beatles Mono Box set vs the stereo mixes. Many audiophile reviewers have shown a stated preference for the mono versions, the argument tending to be—and this is true—that the mono was more important than stereo to both the group and producer George Martin and that the stereo mixes were often done almost as an afterthought, with all four Beatles not always present. The mono mixes, the argument goes, are supposedly the “purest” versions, the versions closest to the Beatles’ vision in the recording studio. I’m know I’m committing an audiophile heresy here, but the mono Beatles remasters kinda sound flat to me. What these remasters essentially are, is by and large, simply an expert re-EQing of master tapes. How much can you do with a single channel of audio?
I offer the opinion—and it’s only an opinion—that the mono versions sound a bit more sonically crammed and congested than the stereo masters, which having an extra audio channel for the music to “breathe” offers a far more nuanced listening experience. Is the point to recreate them as they were originally heard in the Sixties (on AM radio or teenager’s record players) or to hear them the best they can be heard for today’s audiophile expectations? The stereo versions, even as early back as Please, Please Me, sound far more alive and vital. Tighter. Rawer. For me at least, it’s not an issue of authenticity, but much more the matter of what sounds the best and I give the stereo versions —by far— the upper hand nearly every time. The knee jerk pro-mono reaction of the vast audiophile majority seems based on wanting to like the mono mixes more because it seems cooler to espouse that opinion than based on the actual listening experience in 2009.
Whether or not you opt for the Beatles Mono box or the stereo versions, a few things are not in dispute: They’ve managed to bring McCartney’s bass out in a manner never before revealed. His bass patterns were far more intricate than we’ve ever been able to hear before and there is a noticeable fullness in the mid-range that was lacking on the 1987 versions. His prodigious musical genius seems even more dazzling when seen in this new light. Ringo’s drums, uniformly throughout all the records, sound as crisp as can be: you don’t just hear his drums, you hear the sound of the stick hitting the drum and how hard it is being hit. Nuanced is the word I keep using to describe them to friends and it’s the right one. The layered backing vocals, hand claps, tambourines, all the exotic instrumentation, orchestrations and tape manipulations have a wide-screen presence as never before. The group sounds “friskier” throughout. When the piano keys are pounded, you can tell how hard they were being pounded. The Beatles remasters—continuously—reveal things we’ve never heard before until now.
This is the great gift of the remastered Beatles catalog: getting to hear the most over-familiar music in all of (audio)recorded history with fresh ears! I listened to the albums all the way through, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road and I was literally overwhelmed by the experience. Throughout the majestic sweep of those records you hear not only the development of the recording studio (George Martin and the Beatles were—along with Frank Zappa—probably the most innovative audio technicians of the decade) but the rapid development of the Rock art form. As the Beatles progress from their showbiz roots playing Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers to their mature musical genius, I remind you, this took but six and a half years. If they broke up today, this would mean Please, Please Me would have come out when Bush was seeking re-election. Yup. Think about that. None of them were even thirty at the time!
Eventually these albums will come out on Blu-ray or they’ll do surround mixes of the later recordings. I’ll admit that I’ll probably buy those too. I know it’s a pipe dream, but maybe, just maybe, these sparkling new hi-fidelity Beatles remasters will educate the younger generation, so used to the way MP3s sound on their laptop speakers and iPods, in the joys of great sound. I hope so.
Some of the highlights:
Please Please Me: The harmonica on “Chains” and Ringo’s crystal clear, he’s-in-the-room-with-you singing on “Boys.” John Lennon’s sore throat take on “Twist and Shout.”
A Hard Day’s Night: George Harrison’s opening chord is one of the most famous sounds ever made, but you’ve never heard it sound like this. I was grinning from ear to ear as I listened.
Sgt. Pepper’s: Never a fan of this one, not a single one of my favorite Beatles songs is on it, but as a audio immersion experience, it’s utterly astonishing. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a swirling mind-blower. “Lovely Rita” a shimmering stunner.
Magical Mystery Tour: John Lennon spitting out the words “pretty little policemen in a row” with unheard before vehemence in “I Am the Walrus.” On a good stereo it’s like he’s spitting in your face. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a wow, too.
The White Album: Too many great moments here, it’s an absolute must-have, but “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Blackbird” and “Birthday” blew my doors off. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is amazing. Eric Clapton’s solo sounds phenomenal with that much space around it. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is great in both stereo and mono versions, but a lot of audiophile purists are voting for the mono White Album over the stereo version. Do not believe them.
Abbey Road: By the time I got to Abbey Road—which sounds absolutely incredible—I was so invested in the drama of the Beatles musical tale that I wept tears of joy as the album ended. This of course, is another must have album and the overwhelming sense of the Beatles historical greatness—for all the ages, for all humankind from now to the end of time—is hammered home with definitive force here.