Sunday, October 11, 2009

It Was (More Than) 40 Years Ago Today...

Beatles Remasters

How improved are the new Beatles remasters? Enough for us to lament EMI/Capitol’s missed chance that these classic records aren’t in surround-sound Blu-Ray versions.

At least the discs sound better than ever, and far superior to how they sounded 22 years ago when first released on CD. Of course, a lot of Beatles music has come out since 1987: the three Anthology sets, Live at the BBC, the 1 hits compilation, Yellow Submarine Songtrax, the two Capitol Albums sets, Let It Be…Naked and Love. Those releases have only served to whet appetites for a full-scale assault on the original masters.

First, let it be said that these are remasters, not remixes. There is absolutely nothing here that you’ve never heard before—unless you’re listening to the mono discs for the first time, where there are noticeable differences among some songs. Still, what’s always been there can be now heard with a new-found clarity and freshness.

EMI/Capitol has also given these albums the deluxe design treatment. There are stereo and mono boxed sets of 12 and 10 albums, respectively (The White Album was the last Beatles release in mono, so Abbey Road and Let It Be are in stereo only; the Past Masters discs are called Mono Masters in the latter set, short a few stereo-only tracks). Each CD has elegant tri-fold packaging with photos, a booklet and a short video about the recording of each album embedded in each disc that’s playable on computers

My lone quibble aside from a lack of HD Audio releases—which better not be another 22 years away!—is that EMI has greedily separated the stereo and mono music in order to gouge completists out of more money. (Even more annoying is that only the stereo CDs can be bought separately.) With the exception of The White Album—whose two discs are each more than 40 minutes—both versions of each album would fit easily on one CD, which is what Capitol did with their sets of the American releases from ‘64 and ‘65.
To get back to the music: although the Fab Four have no equals in rock, their recordings have sometimes gotten on my nerves, which is why the availability of mono and stereo versions is a good thing. Too often, the stereo versions of songs take that then-newfangled technology to extremes: the wide separation of instruments and voices—particularly when listening on headphones—is most distracting. On “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the drums are in the left channel and Lennon’s voice is in the right channel; “Paperback Writer,” “Hey Bulldog” and “Lady Madonna,” to name a few, do the same, and the remastering puts that stereo separation into further relief. It’s great to hear the specific instruments and voices with newly crystalline clarity, but it also underlines how extreme those mixes really are.

The mono mixes of 185 songs from 1963‘s “Love Me Do” to 1968‘s “Good Night” also have the advantage of high-fidelity sound. But there are losses: there’s no final fade-in on “Helter Skelter,” when the band’s bashing breaks down before Ringo’s scream, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”, and “Got to Get You Into My Life” finds Paul improvising differently on the fade-out. And instruments are buried even further in the mix, a loss particularly egregious on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” as Ringo’s inventive fills are barely noticeable compared to the better-known stereo version.

Overall, these discs have polished the Beatles’ gems to a brilliant shine, letting us hear their sheer innovation, originality and musical genius anew. Correctly, the voices are out front—even when relegated to the left or right channel—whether it’s Paul, John or George on lead vocals, or their tremendous (and unequalled) three-part harmony, like Abbey Road‘s “Because” and “Sun King,” which have never sounded so gorgeous.

In fact, Abbey Road itself—my candidate for greatest rock album, although I occasionally will pick the White Album, that sprawling, messy but utterly compelling masterpiece of varied songcraft—has been sonically boosted so much that it’s literally jaw-dropping to listen to, as it must have been on its original release date, September 26, 1969.

The revamped Abbey Road (even more so than the other albums) also gives listeners another chance to appreciate McCartney’s peerless bass. To give just two examples of many: on “Something,” his melodic playing anchors Harrison’s best love song, while on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” his relentless runs up and down the fretboard propel this seven-and-a-half minute blues-metal masterpiece to its white noise conclusion.

It’s easy to list these remasters’ wonders. From the White Album, there’s McCartney’s lovely acoustic picking on “Mother Nature’s Son” and Lennon’s wall of guitars that give “Dear Prudence” its dramatic momentum; from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (admittedly overrated as a Beatles album yet still towering over rock’s lesser mortals), the cacophony of sound effects, horns and guitars on “Good Morning Good Morning” and the symphonic grandeur of “A Day in the Life”; from Revolver—third-best Beatle record, sorry everybody—there’s the raucous guitar on “She Said She Said” and the string octet on “Eleanor Rigby”; and on and on.

Most intriguing to compare are the mono and stereo versions of “I Am the Walrus.” Already a dense-sounding track, the stereo “Walrus” reveals new layers with every listen, including that infamous “split” at exactly the two-minute mark, when it becomes fake stereo (or wider mono) for the rest of the song. Always noticeable before, that break now brings into ear-splittingly sharp focus how brilliantly the Beatles and producer George Martin experimented in the studio. The mono “Walrus” has its own fascinations, as the many sonic layers are laid on top of each other, so to speak.

The glories of these remasters are not simply that everything sounds so much better. Rather, it’s that the Beatles’ music—all 226 songs’ worth, a body of work that begs comparison with other masterly song composers like Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Fauré—again shows off its greatness and timelessness.
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