Andy Welch gives his verdict on the newly remastered albums that are set to earn the Beatles €1.13bn
MORE than 40 years since The Beatles first topped the charts, we’re going Fab’ Four crazy all over again.
After a painstaking four-year process, the legendary beat combo’s complete back-catalogue is available for the first time in all its digitally-remastered glory.
Music is constantly recycled, remastered and re-issued – but when it’s on this grand scale, the world can’t help but take notice.
All 12 of the Liverpool band’s studio albums, along with film soundtrack Magical Mystery Tour and the Past Masters compilation of non-album tracks, are finally ready for the shops.
The CDs can be bought individually, or, for the completists out there – and there are many when it comes to The Beatles – in a luxurious box set with an extra DVD thrown in for good measure. That’s just the stereo versions of the albums.
A second mono box set will also be in the shops, but that features only the first 10 albums: everything from their 1963 debut Please Please Me, up to and including the eponymous 1968 double disc The Beatles, also known as The White Album, as well as Past Masters and Magical Mystery Tour.
Each of the albums has been lovingly restored, featuring new, beefed-up sleeve notes, rare photographs and, for a limited time only, a documentary about the making of each album that you can watch on your computer.
So what’s so different about the new albums? The quartet’s music has been available on CD since 1987 – surely there’s no need to buy these?
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The head honchos at Apple are keen to stress that there are no new tracks, remixes, remodels or alternate takes here. If that’s what you’re after, pick up 1995’s exhaustive Anthology series.
Instead, what we have are digitally remastered versions of the original albums, offering a vast improvement on the, in all honesty, quite shoddy sound quality of the 1987 versions – which have long been derided by Beatles aficionados as tinny and lacking in dynamics.
After transferring the band’s music, track by track, to a state-of-the-art digital system from the original analogue masters, a team of engineers headed up by Allan Rouse set about the mammoth task of cleaning up some of the most famous songs of all-time.
Using subtle – if laborious – processes, they’ve made the almost-half-century-old recordings sound brighter, clearer and, ultimately, better than ever before. They decided not to play with the character of the songs too much, eradicating only glaring technical errors, such as on Day Tripper, when the rhythm guitar drops out completely around the 1.58 mark.
The boffins have also taken away some of the ‘noise’ – tape hiss caused by overdubbing so many extra tracks – although this was done sparingly to preserve the integrity of the original recordings. Of the 525 minutes of music remastered, only around five minutes were given this special treatment.
The two versions of the box sets, the mono and stereo remasters, are available to appease different sets of fans.
The Beatles released all their early albums in mono, where all music appears in one channel. Although stereo technology – where music appears in two channels, left and right – was available back then, Paul McCartney now says that he, John, George and Ringo were more interested in the quality of their music than which instruments were assigned to which channel. “We just weren’t that interested in stereo,” he told MOJO magazine this month. “It wasn’t where we were from.”
And, seeing as most fans listened to their prized singles and albums on primitive record players or single speaker radios, it seemed the right choice. It’s argued that these mono remasters, while otherwise no different to their new stereo counterparts, are truer representations of The Beatles’ original intentions.
On subsequent vinyl repressings of the group’s records, and on the 1987 CDs, you will find a crude stereo which pushed two instruments, say bass and vocals, out to the right channel, while guitar and drums occupied the left. It made for an unbalanced listen, at times infuriating on headphones. The new stereo remasters sound much more evenly balanced, subtle and contemporary.
When the remasters were first announced, cynics scoffed, thinking it was merely another money-spinning opportunity by The Beatles’ estate.
Of course, the financial aspect won’t have slipped their minds – the rumours are The Beatles could net another £1 billion (€1.13bn) by Christmas from these reissues and the Rock Band video game – but just listen to the new albums, and even on the most basic hi-fi you’ll notice the difference. Even on an iPod playing compressed sound-files, there are noticeable improvements.
The early recordings perhaps benefit the most, with each cymbal clash and guitar strum sounding clearer, more precise. There’s an added bass thud throughout, while the band’s famous harmonies are tighter and sweeter than ever before.
From the moment I Saw Her Standing There, the opening track from the Fab Four’s first album, kicks in, you’re transported to back their heady days performing in Hamburg bier kellars, while those “yeah, yeah, yeahs” from She Loves You once again sound like the most thrilling three syllables in pop history.
Later material, from their most experimental mid-1960s trio of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper, now gets the treatment it deserves. Around this time, they latched on to the idea of using the studio as an instrument, rather than just a vessel for recording their songs, and it shows here.
The mature retrospection of John’s In My Life has never sounded more poignant, the backwards pop of Taxman never more vital, while Sgt Pepper’s highpoint A Day In The Life sees the opposing styles of Lennon and McCartney marrying more beautifully than ever.
Of course, these remasters are all well and good, but if the music wasn’t there in first place, they’d be nothing. You can have all the technical wizardry, fancy packaging and unseen images in the world, but without the magic of John, Paul, George and Ringo, the most influential foursome of all-time, these new albums would amount to nothing more than plastic and paper.
Whether you buy them or not is another matter. The stereo box set retails at £169.99 (€193.19), while the mono remasters come in at a shade under £200 (€227.28). So it’s expensive, but are they worth it?
If you choose to buy the new albums or Rock Band, or both, you’re in for a truly special experience.
If you already own all The Beatles you need and decide to ignore the new products entirely, at least dust down your old copies, listen to the glorious music and remember why a band who split up 40 years ago are still capable of causing such a fuss.
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