The Beatles are finally given the treatment they deserve
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
9.9.09 was a notable day, as you might remember.
On that seemingly random Wednesday in September, the Beatles re-released their back catalogue, remastered from the original studio tapes after having settled for an inferior dub of their music to CD in the late 1980s.
If you're not hip to all things Fab, it might not seem like a big deal, but after watching remasters emerge from the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, the Kinks, Bob Dylan, T. Rex, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, the Clash, the Ramones, Yes, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Supertramp, Boston ... do you see where this is going? The music of the Beatles had been poorly represented in the digital age for more than 20 years. The hype surrounding these releases was, understandably, huge. And the early reviews ranged from positive to ecstatic across the board.
Beatles fans had a taste of what a remastered project could sound like when Love was released in 2006. The sound on that project was simply stunning, with the clarity of songs like "Because," "I Am the Walrus" and "Get Back" knocking listeners out, not to mention the effect of the crazy mashups on that collection.
Now, I'm a Beatles fan. No surprise there. So while I was curious, I wasn't quite ready to make the financial leap into either the Stereo or Mono Box Set without at least hearing what these sounded like. So on that afternoon during lunch, I picked up Abbey Road, long my favorite record of theirs. I got in the car, put in the disc, and was immediately shocked by what came out of my speakers. The first song I heard, "Come Together," was a revelation. The drums smacked and rippled as if Ringo Starr were in my back seat, and the warm buzzing of Paul McCartney's bass amp was present under John Lennon's vocals. And George Harrison's guitar? Biting, mean and razor sharp.
I've listened to that album hundreds of times, but it honestly felt like I was hearing it for the first time. A number of subtleties were revealed on that listen, but moreso, the pure power of the music came across stronger than it ever had before. Simply, it was stunning.
I had to get the whole set. But, as you may already know, the box sets sold out immediately that day across the country. In talking to the nice fella at Newbury Comics who helped me, I found out that they had sold out of their box sets within five minutes of opening, and that the first customer bought both sets and a couple of t-shirts, bringing his total bill well beyond $500.
This past weekend, that wait ended. I walked out of the store with a copy of their catalog, in stereo, under my arm. But even with that Abbey Road tease, I still didn't quite realize what laid in wait within that box.
As you’ve surely read and heard at this point, the clarity on these albums are incredible. The jump in sound quality is so drastic that I literally can’t bear listening to the 1980s-mastered CDs anymore. The crystal-clear bass lines and perfectly defined drums bring so much life to these songs. It’s the closest to being on the other side of the glass at Abbey Road Studios as any of us will ever get in our lifetimes.
Best of all? This re-release gives all of us a chance to once again dedicate the time to appreciate what the Beatles accomplished in eight short years of recording.
The early albums aren’t necessarily jam-packed with revelatory playing. What they do reveal is the intensity and tight playing the band displayed at this time (after all, they were already far and away the best group in England), the soaring, interlocking vocals, and the near-perfect production methods of that veteran of the console, George Martin. On Please Please Me and With the Beatles, the band is separated with the vocals in one channel and the instruments in the other, which leads to an interesting experience. It certainly helped this listener appreciate just how gifted they were as vocalists, and you can hear in the playing the flawless and creative rhythm of McCartney and Ringo, while Harrison’s leads are already crisp and classy. The clarity is so much that you feel as if you could just reach out, press the intercom button, and tell them, “that was great, I think we got it.”
With A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale and Help!, the mixing becomes a little more creative, and some of the standouts among a sea of standouts include the ringing guitars of “Ticket to Ride,” the strings on “Yesterday,” and, of course, that opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” It’s all so immediate and commanding, and it just instantly plaster’s a smile on your face. It did for this listener, anyway.
By the time I had reached Rubber Soul in the set, I was floored by just how sophisticated their writing had become in the three years since “Love Me Do” and their debut LP. Complex topics and emotions had replaced the direct-but-effective love songs of their early recordings. This draw shows its hand gradually, with “If I Fell,” “What You’re Doing” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” displaying the maturity and daring of that Lennon-McCartney songwriting team you might’ve heard of. By Rubber Soul, the writing is just leaps and bounds beyond everyone save for Dylan. “Norwegian Wood,” “I’m Looking Through You” and “Nowhere Man,” among those 14 songs, just kill me every time. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to pluck this one off the racks in some record store in London 44 years ago.
And if Rubber Soul was a Howitzer on pop music, Revolver might as well have been the A-Bomb. “Taxman,” “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were without peer or precedent, and with the remaster work done, the music shines brighter and reveals every detail. As you can imagine, the revelations don’t stop here. “A Day in the Life” is somehow more epic than ever, that final piano chord lasting forever. The warmth of the guitar and additional backing voices make their long-delayed debut on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” The newly uncovered bass and keyboard sounds on “Cry, Baby, Cry” give that song an entirely new texture and feeling. The white noise of the Moog synthesizer on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” now brings more power and adds an added layer of doom and suspense. "Dig a Pony" just blasts out of the speakers. And do I really need to go into how amazing “Strawberry Fields Forever” sounds now? My recommendation: play that track late at night, with your eyes closed, and no light seeping into the room. You won’t be quite the same.
While I’m thinking of the playing, I never thought I’d ever think that anyone was a better bass player than the Who’s John Entwistle, but this set has me rethinking that stance in favor of Paul. Listen to everything he’s doing on “Taxman,” for example, just below the surface, previously undetectable on prior versions. The subtle, creative fills that weave their way in and out of the chords and vocal lines add such a fluid, complex texture to everything. It’s not just “Paperback Writer,” “Dear Prudence” and “Come Together” that benefit from this. It’s “I Want to Tell You,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Something,” and ... well, I’d carry on, but the Beatles had a lot of songs. I’ll let John finish my thought on this matter, from a 1980 interview in Playboy:
“Paul was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played bass, and half the stuff that’s going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period. He was coy about his bass playing. He’s an egomaniac about everything else, but his bass playing he was always a bit coy about. He is a great musician who plays the bass like few other people could play it.”
If you’d like to hear what he’s talking about, flip a coin and pick up any one of these remasters. Or, you know, just get the whole thing. I recommend the latter.
The technical notes packaged within each album are direct, to the point, and just detailed enough to be a revelation. They reveal how far the Beatles had moved beyond the constraints of recording technology. Simple four-track machines weren’t enough; they had to mix and “bounce down” (as the notes state) into another four-track machine in order to capture all of the desired sounds. By the time of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they were bouncing down three and four times per track, long after having decided that live performance was a futile exercise and focusing instead on crafting songs and sounds that could never be replicated live.
With the White Album, the band began to work on the first eight-track tape machines available, and by the time of Abbey Road, they had moved onto 16-track. And, sometimes, that still wasn’t enough. The four of them, with the help of George Martin and a few enthusiastic engineers, were pushing the three-minute single into bizarre and wonderful directions. I remember talking to Matt Berry once over a year ago, and he mentioned that he couldn’t fathom having been a Beatles fan in 1968 and hearing “Helter Skelter” for the first time. The closest point of comparison, Led Zeppelin’s debut album, was a month away still. It was just more proof that, musically, they felt no limits. They were operating without a playbook, making up the rules as they went along and blazing a path so brilliant and bright that all of popular music has had no choice but to follow.
But then, that’s just stating the obvious again, isn’t it?
I’m a sucker for packaging, I really am. And some folks have quibbled about the layout of the Stereo box specifically, but I don’t see an issue with it. Protected by an outer cardboard slipcase, the box is held together magnetically and folds out, with the albums stored and individually wrapped in two piles to be lifted by a ribbon. Sleek, black and understated, the expanded polar cousin to that wild White double set.
Now, if you’re curious, the Mono Box Set seems to have nailed what many Beatles fans were looking for, in that they have, to scale, completely replicated the original packaging of each album, right down to the kind of glue used to seal the cardboard. The discs for each album are protected by a plastic sheath, and each album includes a re-sealable plastic sleeve, and from there can be stored upright in the disc-sized box.
Anyway, because I am who I am, I unwrapped each one individually as I worked my way through the set. The Stereo box’s discs are presented in tri-fold sleeves with expanded photography, historical notes on the album’s release with context, and the previously mentioned technical notes. Perhaps there could have been a bonus book, but unless it was for more photography, it wouldn’t be entirely necessary. I wasn’t expecting a revelatory essay to be included here because, more than any other band, the music is more than capable of speaking for itself.
Which makes this entire review, zooming past 2,000 words now, slightly ironic, but I really can’t help myself. And if you’re reading this, you’ve probably read plenty more on this set, hungry for information and insight on how the music of the Beatles has finally been given the digital treatment it has always deserved.
It truly is the most beautiful music made in the 20th century, and I’m not holding my breath for it to be topped in my lifetime. Of course, I listen to and love music made by a number of artists. Plenty of musicians have made fantastic, life-changing music that have impacted me for the better. I’ll never stop going to shows and looking for another great discovery. Just the same, I don’t stop fumbling around on a guitar for my own enjoyment. But, this is the genesis of all that. From this point on, the creation of this music, nothing could ever be the same. And for as many incredible sounds as have been produced since May, 1970, there is yet to be anything to approach the sheer brilliance and effect of the 217 songs included here. This box is the top of the mountain. Every single musician working in the rock and pop mediums are trying to topple this intimidating behemoth.
As a reminder to them, it now sits with my other Beatles CDs, apart from my other discs and box sets, purposefully and proudly on display. It’s a reminder that we have yet to see any musician, whether solo or in tandem, approach this feat of cultural, musical and artistic impact. I’m not convinced that anyone will ever reach it — you can successfully argue that the other Beatles only occasionally approached it, themselves — but I certainly look forward to watching generation after generation try. And, while they do, they’ll finally have the proper treatment of this music to shoot for.
Know thy friend, know thy enemy, right?