In the liner notes for a Beatles record released in 1963, publicist Tony Barrow challenged the reader to check back with him in a decade:
“Exhume it from your collection somewhere around the middle of 1973, and write me a very nasty letter if the pop people of the’70s aren’t talking with respect about at least two of these titles as early examples of modern beat standards taken from The Lennon & McCartney Songbook.”
Of course, the Beatles went on until the early days of 1970, making increasingly more sophisticated recordings, and all these years later the songs written and recorded by John Lennon and Paul McCartney – with, of course, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – are beloved and considered the foundation and firmament of popular music.
This week, EMI Records is re-releasing all 12 of the original Beatles albums on CD, plus the compilations Magical Mystery Tour and Past Masters – in re-mastered audio (downloading of the music is still in the future, apparently).
The process of re-mastering involves going back to the first-generation tapes – not the original, multi-track tapes from Abbey Road Studios, but the mixed and sequenced ones used to press LPs and later, CDs – and sending them through sophisticated equipment that reproduces the recorded music extremely faithfully.
This Beatles catalog first appeared on compact disc in 1987, when the format was young and the mastering process not nearly as exact, or detailed, as it exists in 2009.
For the better part of two decades, fans have complained that the ’87 Beatles CDs were flat and somewhat lifeless when compared to their vinyl counterparts from the 1960s.
Add to that the fact that the catalogs of the other key artists from that pivotal decade – Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones – had undergone extensive re-mastering as the technology was invented to make better-sounding CDs (the Stones’ albums have been re-mastered four separate times, for example).
A team of Abbey Road engineers spent four years on the re-mastering project. The “restoration” was limited to repairing electrical clicks, microphone vocal pops, tape noise and bad edits – wherever possible – as long as it didn’t interfere with the original integrity of the songs.
The new CDs come in fold-out “eco-friendly” (meaning laminated cardboard) sleeves, with extensive use of period photographs, thick booklets with historical and recording notes, and a five-minute QuickTime documentary about the album in question. You can buy them as separate CDs, or together in a big, black box.
And then there’s the sound …
Imagine the Sistine Chapel, slowly faded by the sun, with eons of dust and grime all but obscuring Michaelangelo’s original brushstrokes. It still looks like the Sistine Chapel, but take the right kind of scrub brush … and suddenly the color is more vibrant, the faces come alive, and you get that indescribable shiver when you realize you’re seeing the masterwork the same way the master saw it.
That’s exactly what experiencing the Beatles re-masters is like. It’s still A Hard Day’s Night, it’s still the White Album, but a velvet power-wash has been carefully applied.
They don’t sound different … just better.
The most obvious change is a wider palette of sound, as if there’s more space between the guitars, bass, drums, pianos and whatever else is on the record.
As the songs go by, those who know and love them will marvel at little things. I noticed, for example, that there’s an organ on “Sexy Sadie,” bongos on “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” and a sweet little McCartney high note as “Chains” fades out. I had never detected these elements, in 40-some years of listening.
The horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” jump out of the speakers and demand your attention;
The acoustic guitars and plaintive vocals on “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Long Long Long” make you feel as if McCartney and Harrison are right there in your living room;
Lennon’s throat-shredding vocals on “When I Get Home,” “Money,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Twist and Shout” and “Yer Blues” are astonishingly raw and in-your-face.
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “I Am the Walrus” are somehow more complex and more accessible, at the very same time.
Starr’s drumming gets its focus here, especially on the mid-period stuff (Rubber Soul, Revolver); you’ll come to understand that he was every much a key to that tight, precise Beatles sound as the others. Likewise, McCartney’s sturdy, innovative bass work is much more defined in the aural picture.
There’s a fresh presence in these CDs that wasn’t even in the grooves of the old vinyl. We always knew how great Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were at singing harmony, but this time – from “Hold Me Tight” to “Because” – the effect is staggering, up-front, like you were sitting there in the studio listening to them sing for you.
As each new generation discovers the Beatles and their music, this body of work becomes more and more important. For new listeners, these songs – just under 300 of them, in total – are new, and vivid, and just as powerful as they were when they were recorded.
For the rest of us, the re-masters are only the latest reminder of just how good these guys were, and how much they meant to us.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I sell or trade off my old Beatles CDs and get these?
With any upgrade, the new pretty much trumps the old, but as always it’s in the eye (and ear) of the beholder. If you don’t care about greatly improved sound, and packaging that goes way beyond the bare-bones, hang onto your old CDs. They still play, don’t they?
Did they change anything?
This isn’t a re-mix, like Yellow Submarine Songtrack or Let it Be … Naked, nor is it a “re-imagining” like Love, where individual songs were taken apart and stitched together with pieces of other songs to create the soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s stage show. The engineers utilized a very small amount of noise reduction, and limiting, but the Beatles’ music – the way it was recorded and mixed in the 1960s – is untouched.
Will I be bowled over by the sound?
That depends on how familiar you are with the catalog. If you’re a die-hard and have worn out your 1987 Rubber Soul CD yes, you’ll notice the increased presence in the bass, the crispness of the acoustic guitars, the warmth of the vocals. For the most part, though, it’s a matter of subtle differences. The casual Beatles fan won’t notice a thing, and these songs will sound pretty much the same on the radio.
Any bonus tracks?
No. The idea seems to be that the “core catalog,” as Apple calls it, is sacrosanct. So even though the earlier albums are pretty short – the CDs could fit quite a few more tracks – they start and end as the original albums start and end.
Many of the early recordings were mixed into stereo with vocals on one side, instruments on the other. Surely these have been re-mixed to bring things into the center?
Nope. It’s still good, old-fashioned 1960s stereo. By Revolver (1966), the stereo mixes were becoming more sophisticated, and the separation isn’t as jarring. On the early ones (especially Please Please Me and With the Beatles), it takes a little getting used to.
The re-masters are in stereo. Should I check out the Beatles in Mono box set that’s coming out at the same time?
For all the group’s records before Abbey Road, stereo was an afterthought – the songs were mixed into mono, to come out of a single car (or record player) speaker. Truthfully, some of the singles – “Day Tripper,” “I Feel Fine” and “Paperback Writer," to name a few – have more muscle in mono, and that left channel/right channel thing (see previous question) isn’t an issue. Both Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album have subtle (but noticeable) differences in their mono mixes. However, stereo gives you a much wider audio picture. If you’re into minutiae, the mono box might be the way to go. It'll keep you busy.
Why do I keep seeing flea market and Craigslist vendors asking exorbitant amounts for old Beatles records? Are they really that valuable?
In 99 percent of the cases, no. They’re essentially worthless. There are a few rare – and thus, extremely valued by collectors – original Beatles albums out there. But they’re scarcer than hen’s teeth. Meet the Beatles, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road – all the common Beatles albums, in fact – sold millions of copies in the 1960s. If you’re really interested in the vinyl, you can find good copies on eBay and the like for a couple of bucks. Still-sealed copies (i.e. in the best possible condition) might fetch decent bucks from collectors. But a beat-up Beatles 65 with an asking price of $50? Some people see the B-word and think it must be rare, and therefore worth big bucks. Don’t be taken in.