CD Reviews: The Beatles Remasters
Let me say this at the outset: if you think that the release of 14 remastered Beatles albums is some sort of marketing gimmick, think again. If you can’t hear the difference in sound quality, you’ve either never heard the original versions or you should be visiting an audiologist soon. This set of stereo remasters instantly takes its place as the holy grail of Beatles music. Nothing that has come before can possibly do for the true fan anymore.
The Popdose staff split up the duties on this project, and I was lucky enough to have first choice of what I wanted to cover. I took the first Beatles album, Please Please Me (Yes, it was the first Beatles album EMI released in England. In the U.S. the album was originally released on VeeJay Records, and was the second one that we got), the last Beatles album, Abbey Road (Yes, it was recorded last despite the fact that Let It Be was released last), and one in the middle, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that remains a landmark recording in the history of pop music.
So let’s start from the beginning. Please Please Me features three songs that are stone cold Beatle classics, the leadoff track “I Saw Her Standing There,” the closing track “Twist and Shout,” and the title track. These are early days for the band, but they’ve put the craziness of the Hamburg days behind them, and the insanity of Beatlemania looms. If anyone tells you the Beatles weren’t really a rock band, this is as good a place to point them as any. Please Please Me finds the band with a lot of their raw energy intact.
The sound of the remastered album is revelatory. The chance to hear George’s Harrison’s guitar playing in all its crystalline beauty alone is worth the price of admission. Add the crisp sound of Ringo Starr’s drums, the rugged chugging of John Lennon’s rhythm guitar, and the vocal interplay between John and Paul McCartney, and you have an album well worth hearing. The key thing about Please Please Me though is that if you want to fully assess the Beatles as a band, charting the development of their songwriting and playing, this is where you have to start. –Ken Shane
The first thing that grabbed me when listening to the newly remastered With the Beatles was how considerably less painful an experience it is now to hear the thing really loud.Â Quite possibly the harshest-sounding of the originalÂ batch of Beatles CDs, With the Beatles seemed, when played at volumes appropriate for rock and roll music of this quality, to come completely apart.Â Instruments bled into one another, vocals sounded shrill, and the hard left/right separation of George Martin’s rather primitive stereo mix made it difficult to listen to on headphones.
Sadly, the left/right separation remains, for the most part, but the overall sound is crisper and cleaner than we had any right to believe it would be.Â The band sounds closer to the listener—not just louder.
The difference is noticeable almost from the first notes.Â The chiming Rickenbackers of “It Won’t Be Long” hit you immediately and the vocals are forceful but warm.Â The added definition struck me, though, when I heard the subtle, almost quiet background vocal lines darting in and out of the second and thirds verses.Â They weren’t a muddy afterthought in the mix anymore.Â I was hooked.
The clarity brought forth more treasures.Â Ringo’s stick hitting the hi-hat in “All I’ve Got to Do.” The slight variations in McCartney’s double-tracked lead vocal in “All My Loving.”Â Â The echo that trails off the left channel in “Don’t Bother Me.”Â The sneaky low piano chords in “Not a Second Time,” or the undefined right-channel echo that might be a bleed-through, or might not.Â I’m not sure what it is—I do know, though, that I’d never heard it before.
Lest we forget the Fab Forebears, it’s worth remembering that virtually all British Invasion bands got their start by covering American rock, R&B, and blues songs, and the Beatles were no exception.Â With the Beatles features six covers among its 14 tracks, and these display some of the band’s best tendencies and greatest limitations.Â Their take on “Roll Over Beethoven,” with Harrison on lead vocals, is an example of the latter.Â Harrison and Lennon combined are no Chuck Berry, vocally or instrumentally, and the remastered sound reveals some particularly egregious flubbed guitar notes and singing that neither quite imitates nor flatters.
The two get it spectacularly right, though, on their version of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” where their dual lead vocal shimmers as much as their guitar tone.Â The harmonies ring and Ringo proves to be the coolest metronome in rock—it’s white boy Motown at its finest.Â Continuing in that vein, the group’s take on the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” is pure pop perfection, exploding into the headphones with crackling drums and scintillating vocal work from Lennon.
McCartney puts his finest foot forward as a balladeer with “Til There Was You”—the Music Man staple that stands as the only Broadway tune the band ever recorded.Â The clearer sound lets us hear fingers on acoustic guitar frets, and provides a bit of mystery—what is that slight percussion behind Macca’s voice?Â Is it a drum echo?Â A bass string?Â Is he playing an upright?Â Was it George Martin in the grassy knoll with a didgeridoo?Â Let the parlor games begin.
Of course, the album closes with one of the Beatles’ mightiest covers—Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” on which John Lennon proves to anyone who might have doubted it that he could rock, with a capital R.Â To these ears, it’s the finest performance on the record, and also the track on which the remastered sound provides the greatest improvement.Â Possibly the shrillest of theÂ original CD’s tracks, “Money” now features a stunning, full two-channel mix that positively brings it to life—the vocal smack in the center, the instrumentation properly portioned out on the left and right.Â In fact, one can be forgiven for wondering why the rest of With the Beatles was not given similar treatment.
As it stands, though, the newly spiffed-up CD does the same thing it probably did to UK listeners in 1963—it leaves you desperate for more. –Rob Smith
The chord is a Gm7 add 11 – the chord that launched a chart-topping single, a classic and influential film, and an album that took the Beatles over a sonic horizon miles beyond any they’d previously explored. Today, as we listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” and its parent album in their new crystalline clarity, we hear that chord as the herald of a major leap in the band’s craftsmanship; perhaps just as important, we hear it as the epitome (along with that bit of feedback that opens “I Feel Fine”) of George Harrison’s ability to hook the multitudes with a single stroke of his guitar pick.
George’s work throughout A Hard Day’s Night went a long way toward popularizing the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, the first (but hardly the last) time his newest toy would profoundly influence not only the group’s sound, but pop’s in general. Roger McGuinn, for one, was certainly listening. For him and other guitarists the album was a master class of iconic licks and acoustic ambiance; for tunesmiths from Brian Wilson to Bob Dylan, it pointed the way toward the more serious rock songwriting that would evolve over the next couple of years. For American audiences, sadly, A Hard Day’s Night (as we hear it today) didn’t really exist; record-industry money grubbers sliced and diced the U.K. release into an “official soundtrack” (with George Martin instrumentals tacked on) and two dog’s-breakfast compilations.
For the rest of the world, though, A Hard Day’s Night was the first long-player on which Lennon and McCartney wrote all their own songs – and the first on which those songs truly justified the band’s status as world-beaters. The tracks that appeared in the film, in particular, are the quintessence of Beatlemania. “A Hard Day’s Night” captured the moptops’ winning sense of humor and taste for wordplay (a Ringo malapropism provided the title); “I Should Have Known Better” embodied their grand spirits. Meanwhile, “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell” proved that sentimental Paul and insecure John could approach love songs from completely opposite angles and achieve equally exquisite results.
Once they’d chosen the seven tracks to be used in the film, John and Paul – run ragged by their filming and touring schedules throughout the first half of 1964 – might have been tempted to fill the remainder of the Hard Day’s Night album with, well, filler. There is a bit of that (“Any Time at All,” “When I Get Home”), but otherwise the LP’s second side reflected, perhaps even more than Side One, a level of maturity and daring unexpected from a pair of tunesmiths who had been using “yeah” and “woo” as regular songwriting crutches just six months before. “I’ll Cry Instead” and “You Can’t Do That” offer a glimpse of a Lennon decidedly less lovable than previously thought, though he redeems himself on the gorgeous, minor-key “I’ll Be Back.” Paul’s lone contribution is the contemplative (and also minor-key) “Things We Said Today,” probably the first truly great song in his catalog.
Fortunately for Paul, the new remastering allows a fresh hearing of his typically melodic bass line on that track – a part that (along with the dramatic, sparingly deployed acoustic guitar fills) propels the track along. Unfortunately for Paul, the newly opened-up sonic landscape exacerbates every flaw in his vocal on a song that is spectacularly difficult to sing. Elsewhere, the listener is smacked (wonderfully) upside the ears by every tambourine hit on “I’ll Cry Instead,” can’t help but notice the interplay of guitars and piano on the bridge of “Any Time at All” – and is reminded anew of Ringo’s regrettable obsession with the high-hat on that song and others. Perhaps the most revelatory addition, though, is the ability to hear each string individually, and with astounding clarity, when George strums that Rickenbacker on “I Should Have Known Better.” It’s the sound of the mid-’60s, of folk-rock itself, being born – a sound the Beatles would pursue to great effect on their next several albums. –Jon Cummings
My good friend and Popdose colleague Ed Murray, with whom I share a compulsive disorder for collecting and enjoying obscure garage-rock, remarked over the instant messenger the other day that he’s convinced we’ve entered a new singles era of pop music driven by iTunes and the general downloading culture. It harks back to the 1950s and 1960s, when albums weren’t albums but singles compilations. Most of the garage-rock stuff, it seems, comes packaged as multi-band singles compilations because few of these no-hit wonders stayed together long enough to put out a whole album. When you miracle-of-miracles find one, it’s three blues standards played Yardbirds-style and five originals. And we rejoice.
A lot of Beatles fans have a hard time getting into pre-Revolver Beatles albums because they don’t share our compulsion. They just don’t feel like albums in the same way that Abbey Road does. That, and the early material’s simplistic song structure, chords and melodies don’t really jibe with the more spiritual, political, and advanced production of the Fab Four’s later catalog. And as far as a hits compilation goes, Beatles For Sale was little more than “Eight Days A Week” and a couple lesser hits like “No Reply” and “I’m A Loser.”
But to my ears, Beatles for Sale—released this week in stereo on CD for the first time—captures the spirit of those garage rockers perfectly: Covers of rockers like Little Richard (“Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey”), Carl Perkins (“Honey Don’t,” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”) and Chuck Berry (“Rock and Roll Music”) showed a joy and reverence for rock’s original masters, and gave a million bands pounding out the same songs and ones in the same vein by the likes of Elvis, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf (how great would it have been for a version of “Smokestack Lightning” to have appeared on Beatles For Sale?) license to plug in and just…play.
The cover tunes came about because the group, constantly touring before and during the making of the record, couldn’t write enough material. But the message was clear: If the Beatles weren’t too cool to do it, we all could strap on the blue suede shoes and play us some Carl Perkins—and have a blast. This record was garage rock’s Helen of Troy. It’s the Beatles; even frazzled and ground down by their rat-race of promotion, the wonderful harmonies and party-rockin’ back beats come through. They could literally sleepwalk through a record and it would sound better than the peak of most other bands, and this record is the audio proof.
Beatles for Sale, the Beatles’ fourth in England and only available stateside as an import until 1987, was a transition record from the “Love Me Do” days to Sgt. Pepper: Recorded at Abbey Road, the album features the group’s first foray into overdubbing. The music diverts from the rockin’ side to folk in “I’ll Follow the Sun” and the positively Dylanesque “I’m A Loser.” With one foot in Beatlemania and the other headed into the trippy era to come, Beatles For Sale doesn’t really belong to either epoch.
Because of its peculiar release history—released in the U.K. in 1964 in stereo and mono, and in the U.S. as Beatles ’65 and the companion record Beatles VI, then on CD (mono) in 1987 in both countries—this week’s stereo reissue of Beatles for Sale is less of a remaster and more of a restoration. The mids sound crisper where they were less audible and the stereo separation does make for a huge step up in sound quality, like going from AM to FM. Listening to the old mono vs. the new stereo mixes, the new versions sound much more live and less canned. The cover of Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” might be the biggest beneficiary; the track crackles and pops with even more over-the-top energy than can be heard in the mono mix. You hear weird things, though, for the first time (such as how the pounding piano rhythm just drops out for seven seconds at 1:46, it’s creepy and much more noticeable than in its tinny, more rattly mono counterpart).
Not only is Beatles for Sale a more obscure relic—at least as far as Beatles albums go—but it also stood the most to gain from this week’s reissue. And let’s face it, we’ve had Sgt. Pepper pounded into our skulls so much that, at least for me, it’s hard to play “A Day In The Life” or “Within You Without You” and not get bored after 20 bars or so. But Beatles for Sale is different. A garagey little singles compilation, perfect for the iTunes age, unavailable in the U.S. for 23 years, now restored to its original glory for digital playback. Totally late, but totally worth it, in my book. –Mojo Flucke
Like the album that accompanied (everywhere but the U.S.) the Beatles’ previous film, Help! is half soundtrack, half … not soundtrack. This time, though, the soundtrack songs largely fail to capture the spirit of the hijinks playing out onscreen – and the non-soundtrack tunes too often sound like a massively successful rock band spinning its wheels. The result is an extension of the creative lethargy that had set in on Beatles for Sale – with the exception of four or five moments of extraordinary inspiration that boost Help! to “essential” status, at least until a remastered version of Beatles 1962-1966 emerges.
Those songs include a pair of none-too-subtle hints that John Lennon was quickly tiring of the Beatlemania roller-coaster. “Help!”, with its energetic chorus and squeal-worthy “please, please” falsettos, may have seemed like a fresh dose of Fabdom in the summer of ’65, but – as John later noted – it’s really a thinly disguised cri de coeur, a man screaming from the top of the charts, “I’m a Beatle – get me out of here!” Similar sentiments pervade “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” which offers to contemporary ears a glimpse into the tortured psyche that could produce art as frivolous as the comedy of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, or as dark as “I’m So Tired” and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
Even as John deepened the public indulgence of his inner demons, Paul used the Help! sessions to broaden the Beatles’ stylistic horizons. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a folk-revival classic that missed its moment by half a decade at least; still, its tune is so irresistible that it could easily have dominated pop radio anyway … if not for a little ditty called “Yesterday” that was born to top the charts and become, perhaps, the most ubiquitous song of the last half-century. (Ironically, “Yesterday” wasn’t released as a single anywhere but the U.S. until 1976.) George Martin, who always had one foot back in the classical music on which the Parlophone label had been built, introduced a string quartet onto the track, and launched the Beatles (or Paul, at least) in a direction he would continue to explore for a couple of years.
Elsewhere on Help!, though, Paul was stuck tinkering with the formulas that had brought the band to this point. “The Night Before” and “Another Girl,” with their juxtaposition of acoustic-guitar propulsion and meandering electric-guitar runs, refined the beat-group sound into an instrumental palette that would be copied by mid-’60s sound-alikes from the Monkees to the Mindbenders. (Shorn of vocals, the same template would put a time stamp on films ranging from To Sir with Love to Valley of the Dolls.) John, meanwhile, contributed a couple of lackadaisical songs that might have sounded fresh on With the Beatles (“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “It’s Only Love”), and closed the album with an impressively larynx-shredding take on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” that nevertheless reflected a band at a loss for enough ideas to fill an LP.
John did, however, have one other rabbit in his ever-present beret during the spring of ’65. “Ticket to Ride,” released as a single three months in advance of the film, was a monumental leap out of the carefree Fabolity that had characterized every Beatles chart-topper up through “I Feel Fine” and “Eight Days a Week.” The new remaster only builds upon the track’s emotional (and sonic) depth, skimming off the surface noise and enabling every slam of Ringo’s bass drum to reverberate through the listener’s cranium. Indeed, removing that layer of surface noise has revealed the stylistic variations of Help! as never before. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” emerges as a full-blown folk-rock classic, while “Act Naturally” now sounds like an actual country song, not like a contentedly cowboy-booted Ringo leading an uncomfortable rock combo through Nashvillean paces. But though the remastered version unearths some heretofore hidden charms, Help!, for the most part, remains the work of a band struggling to shift out of neutral and back into gear. They’d find a way to fire things up – more ways than one, actually – on their next album. –Jon Cummings
Time has proven the Beatles’ Revolver to be the masterpiece Sgt. Pepper‘s has been purported as all these years. All the elements, the eclecticism, the adventurous arrangements, the willingness to break the form of the pop song into pieces then refit them in new ways, it’s already evident on Revolver. This is not to take anything away from what Sgt. Pepper is, but it was designed to be a statement, whereas their previous album was a pop album that just became a statement by existence. In this, the earlier album feels effortless where the latter feels labored, machined, honed to a point.
As it is with almost every one of the band’s recordings, you know the songs. Even if you don’t know “For No One” by name, you’ve heard it. “Yellow Submarine” has taken on the guise of a latter-day children’s sing-along and “Tomorrow Never Knows” lets open the floodgates of psychedelia to the whole world where it was once the domain of those ‘freaks.’ To have to convince you of the validity of the album is to devote far more time and historical detail than one review could possibly afford. I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.
Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. What’s the remaster like, Dunphy? Glad you (or I) asked. I was intent to be extremely hard on these remasters, as I have been duped so often lately to buy doubles of CDs I already have, all for the promise of a little better sound, a little more clarity, a little less shrillness in the highs and more weight to the lows. Generally, remasters have proven themselves to be gutless cash grabs, spiking volume, turning up bass and then compressing everything down to sonic mush.Â The propaganda coming from Apple Corps. made a lot of hay about the process of bringing the catalog up to relatively modern standards, but that depends on what you think about the modern (re: overly loud) standards. Relax. It’s cool.
No, I’m rather shocked myself. I was expecting the brittle sound of the opening “Taxman” the way I’ve heard it since the first CD release of the album. Instead, the track actually does sound fuller, the bottom end actually exists now and those harmony points toward the end, the ones that were rendered near painful originally, now are part of the song again. Next up, “Eleanor Rigby” and if ever there was a test drive track, this would be it. Would there be ‘space’ between the instruments or would everything be flattened in order to drive out the analog hiss? For the first time in I don’t know how long, the song sounds full and rich even though there is no reverberation on it, that space I was looking for is truly there and the lack of hiss just proves the algorithms in digital restoration have vastly improved.
That’s a key word here — restoration, not refurbishment. A friend set me straight that, no, these mixes would not outright alter the songs and the hard left and hard right channels would remain. That’s how the stereo mix has been for near 43 years and how the fans have come to hear these songs. Shoving around instruments digitally to offer new, modern mixes would sound interesting, but would not represent Revolver anymore. There is, however, ever so slight nudging going on, especially on the tracks that aren’t considered huge singles. Now, unlike before, it sounds more naturally stereophonic and less like two mono sides pasted together.
Don’t get me started on the mega mono box set, either. After getting everyone all worked up about how this is the only proper, and band-preferred, way to hear their albums, EMI has remained steadfast on not releasing the titles separately. If you want to experience those, you’ll scrape up the $200 like everyone else. That’s really not an option for me, nor is it for a lot of interested parties, many of which already own these albums in numerous configurations. To you I say, it’s all right. My ears are very pleased by the sound of this disc, even if my wallet can’t take the plunge for more.
I was born in 1969 just as the band was imploding and the solo era was starting to take form, yet the music of the Beatles is as integral to my understanding of pop music as it would be to one who lived through it, and just as it will be to someone born two decades after me. Now there is a sterling representation of these seminal records available, and there is no better place to start than Revolver. –Dw. Dunphy
(Note: Scott Malchus’ review of Rubber Soul can be found as part of his Basement Songs series. –Ed.)
Millions and millions of words have been written and spoken about Sgt. Pepper. The acclaim (but not the album) has become so cliche that it’s become fashionable to consciously choose another album when asked to name the Beatles best. It’s just not cool to pick Pepper anymore, and most of that traffic seems to have gone to Revolver. What the would-be hipsters are missing is context. Sgt. Pepper cannot beconsidered outside of the state of the world, and the state of music in 1967. The release of this album was nothing short of a revolution at the time. And yes, I’m old enough to have been around and conscious of such things.
There hadn’t been any “concept” albums, at least none that met with success. Orchestral arrangements were not a common part of rock music. The Beatles, together with their brilliant producer George Martin, created sounds that were previously unheard, using the recording studio itself as their instrument. If you weren’t there, it’s impossible for me to tell you how important, how shocking, how revered this album was when it was released. The remastered version only adds to this legacy. First of all, it demonstrates what a talented group of musicians the Beatles were. The role of each player is so clearly defined here. You can hear the brilliance of McCartney’s bass playing as never before. Ringo has never been given much respect as a drummer. That finally ends here.
No one had been writing songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” or using the instrumental sounds that accompanied Lennon’s majestic vocal. What’s best about this remaster though, and all of them for that matter, can be summed up in one word — space. For the first time you can clearly hear the space between the instruments and voices in the stereo mixes. The songs literally breathe with new life. The guitars shimmer with added brightness on “Getting Better.” Absorb the presence of McCartney’s vocal blending with the sonorous string quartet on “She’s Leaving Home,” and let your heart be broken all over again. There’s something that sounds like a mandolin solo in “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” I never heard, or should I say I never noticed that before. George Harrison took a lot of crap at the time for his interest in Indian classical music. Listen to “Within You Without You” and see who’s literally getting the last laugh. The gigantic chord that closes “A Day in the Life,” and this album, has become godhead, an undulating, living wall of sound. In every way that matters, Sgt. Pepper was, and is the apex. –Ken Shane
For a record so full of classic songs, Magical Mystery Tour gets remarkably little love from Beatle freaks. It’s something of an odds-and-sods package, for starters; there’s only one side’s worth of new material, with Side Two as a dumping ground for non-LP singles. It seemed like a step backwards, at the time — the Fab Four, by this point, were widely considered an album band. But if Magical Mystery Tour doesn’t provide the cohesive listening experience of a Revolver or a Rubber Soul (to say nothing of Sgt. Pepper), it still stands as more than a collection of great songs; it’s a fascinating, fragmented portrait in snapshots, a kaleidoscopic vision of a band that continued to develop even as they dissolved.
With some of the most elaborate arrangements in the band’s catalog, Magical Mystery Tour is a record that benefits more than most from the remastering. There’s a new shimmer to the percussion; the title track rides out on the clatter of glass bottles — or is it a kalimba? or perhaps a prepared piano? — and the caveman stomp of “Baby You’re a Rich Man” hits squarely in your chest. And the subtleties of instrumentation — the Vic Mizzy-style bass harmonica of “The Fool on the Hill,” the feedback that rings through “Penny Lane” — leap out of the mix.
There’s an air of weariness creeping in, though, in those celebrated arrangements, as they veer towards the decadence of rococo. Martin can still bring the thrills, as when the pitch-tweaked band version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” crashes into the churning cellos and brass, or the whole lurching, shifting nightmare of “I Am the Walrus” — but for the first time it occurs that the charts may be compensating for the songwriting, rather than augmenting it. For all its horror-movie keyboards and Moby Grape-style phased harmonies, “Blue Jay Way” remains four minutes of mode in search of a song, and the sawing fiddles and vocal trickery of “Hello Goodbye” cannot disguise that it is, in the end, pretty thin broth.
“Your Mother Should Know” is similarly slight, but the arrangement is kept relatively unadorned, so it never seems to be trying to be other than it is — a simple, pretty tune, but with a melancholy undercurrent. In fact, there’s an edge of creeping sadness to a lot of McCartney’s songs here, and a simmering anger to Lennon’s. In hindsight, it’s obvious the end is inevitable, and that gives the songs some unexpected angles. The title song, with its jolly fairground sing-along, seems faintly sinister; “All You Need Is Love” comes off as desperate wishful thinking, and the protestations and discomfort of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (“Er, yes, but it’s all wrong — that is, I think I disagree”) sound like a passive-aggressive response to the pressures of being a Beatle.
At this point, it’s probably impossible to consider Magical Mystery Tour in isolation; and knowing what we do about what came before and after, three cuts jump out as developmentally important — songwriting moments that prefigure Lennon and McCartney’s eventual solo careers, either as signposts forward, or as dead ends. “The Fool on the Hill” basically maps out McCartney’s post-Beatles territory — earnest, wistful, a bit too on-the-nose — while “I Am the Walrus” carries Lennon’s cut ‘n’ paste word salad lyric-making to its end extreme, writing him into a corner with nothing to do but get progressively more plain-spoken and direct. No one could have written “Pipes of Peace” but the fellow who wrote “Fool on the Hill”; you can hardly believe that the same guy who wrote “I Am the Walrus” could ever have come up with “Cold Turkey,” or even “The Ballad of John & Yoko.”
That being said, “Baby You’re a Rich Man” has much of the thud and bluster of early Plastic Ono Band. So Lennon gets two iconic songwriting moments here to Macca’s one, which seems about fair. Forget that “cranberry sauce” nonsense — it was Paul that put that line about, anyway, and John totally buried him, all right. –Jack Feerick
You never forget your first love, and as far as Beatles albums go, the White Album was mine. It came out in 1968 when I was four months and four days old, so when I awoke to this thing called rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it didn’t seem awfully important to start enjoying the Beatles albums in order of their release.
On vinyl, played over my brother Bob’s for-the-times nice Advent hi-fi rig, it wasn’t like the other tripe he played (James Taylor, Grateful Dead). No, this one had piggies skronking, jet planes flying back to the U.S.S.R., and memorable songs like “Martha My Dear,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey,” “Rocky Raccoon,” and “Blackbird” that still rang in one’s head the next day, long after we powered down the stereo. And one can’t leave out the unbelievable master class conducted by George Harrison and Eric Clapton, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
More than a quarter-century later, playing the remastered White Album isn’t quite the sweetly intense experience of original discovery. Certainly, however, it’s revealing as making that leap from vinyl to CD for the first time. Not a lot of “new” things jump out in the playing—except, they finally fixed the poorly edited track split between “The Continuing StoryÂ Of Bungalow Bill” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” so the first thing you hear on the latter is the actual intro to the song, and not the last, circus-y yelp of the former—but like the rest of the Beatles catalog reissued this week, there’s much more clarity in the sound:
- “Blackbird” sounds more vivid (as if it needed it).
- “Julia” sounds more sparse and longing.
- “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” and “Helter Skelter” sound angrier than before.
- McCartney’s beloved pop beauties “I Will,” “Honey Pie,” and “Martha My Dear” shine anew, like your car does after a fresh wax even though the odometer just passed 100,000 miles.
- “Cry Baby Cry,” for some reason, sounds a thousand times better, as if they found a fresh tape copy from which to begin work.
- The brass band in “Revolution 1″ flies into the headphones more aggressively than ever, as do the saxes in “Savoy Truffle.”
Unfortunately, remastering doesn’t help the Ringo songs, “Good Night” and “Don’t Pass Me By,” and it doesn’t make “Revolution 9″ any less of a waste of good vinyl, er hard drive space. “Long, Long, Long” is longer than ever. Not like remastering would help these numbers, but we had to break that bit of news for the optimists among us still holding out hope. There also don’t seem to be any more secret messages in the music than were there before, so all the radicals and crazies who got off on the vinyl version back in late ’60s probably don’t need to spring for a new copy of the remaster.
For most groups, a double album is a dicey proposition that usually results in a single album’s worth of material and a lot of unfortunate filler. The White Album was mostly cream tangerine, as George put it in “Savoy Truffle,” written about Clapton’s chocolate addiction. The remaster, cool cherry cream. –Mojo Flucke
Considering that I tend to write about children’s albums, Ken figured I might be the best person on staff to write about the remastered CD for the animated classic Yellow Submarine and, truth be told, I really do love the movie. I went so far as to record the movie off of TV with my little cassette recorder. (This was before VCRs, people.) And I listened to it so much that I can now do a fake Liverpudlian accent at the drop of a hat.
But enough about my childhood; what about the CD? Chances are, if you don’t have enough money to buy the complete Beatles remastered set at once, this album would probably be the last one on your list, if you buy it at all. Why? Well, technically speaking, the Beatles are only on half of it (or Side 1 back when this was a record). The other half is George Martin’s arrangements of instrumental music in the movie. Not only that, but two of the Beatles’ songs (“Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need Is Love”) were previously released elsewhere. The four new songs were said to be throwaway songs that the Fab Four didn’t deem worthy enough to put on one of their regular albums.
So why in Pepperland would you want to buy this? Because throwaway Beatles songs are still better than anything most of us could come up with. Plus, the four new songs are still pretty good in their own right. “All Together Now” is a playful song that was considered good enough to have the audience sing along to at the end of the movie. “Only a Northern Song” was George Harrison’s contribution to the soundtrack and, even though legend has it that he wrote it in a few hours, it still has a fun sense of humor and a psychedelic sound that the Beatles were dabbling more into. I read that the song “Hey Bulldog” was actually the last full collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and they sound like they’re having fun singing it. “It’s All Too Much” sounds like it may have been done as a rousing anthem to end the movie but, to my mind, really does go on far too long. And Martin’s songs are good as well but, to be honest, probably won’t be listened to all that much by buyers of this album.
All right, we’ve discussed what’s on the album. Now how does the album sound? As you might expect, it sounds great! The remastering brings out the individual instruments, and the harmonies really shine. Other little fun bits come out as well. For instance, in the song “Hey Bulldog” when there’s all that screaming towards the end, Paul yells out, “Don’t look at me, I already have grandchildren!” I don’t really know what that means, but it was still fun to hear it.
So my final verdict? What’s on there sounds excellent. If the four new songs are important to you, this is the only way to get them in the remastered set. Otherwise, you might want to spring for a copy of the Yellow Submarine CD released in 1999 that just had the Beatles songs used in the movie, although they likely won’t sound as good as the remastered versions coming out now. –Tony Redman
It was the end, and they all knew it, but the Beatles decided to go back into the studio one last time. We should all be grateful that they did. The resulting album, Abbey Road, was initially released in September, 1969. Let It Be had been recorded earlier, but wasn’t released until May, 1970. I kind of wish the band had been allowed to go out on the higher note, musically and emotionally, that was Abbey Road.
“Come Together” was the first song that I heard from the remasters. It was just a random decision for me to tackle Abbey Road first. It took about ten seconds of listening for me to dispel any doubts that I may have had about the entire project. Even after listening to nearly all of the albums, this song is among those that has been most improved by the remastering process. Everything is so present. John’s vocal is so cynically ominous. The song’s darkness has become even more profound. I keep saying that the songs breathe, but there’s no other way to describe these new versions.
Of course it’s the side two “medley” of Abbey Road that most people talk about now, but to ignore what precedes it means that you’ll not only miss “Come Together,” but two of George Harrison’s greatest efforts; the beautiful “Something,” on which the drums have taken on a more pronounced role here, and the ever-uplifting “Here Comes the Sun.” There is also one of Paul McCartney’s greatest rock and roll vocals on “Oh Darling,” and the sheer brilliance of John Lennon that dominates “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
Let’s talk about that medley though. As properly defined, the medley begins with “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and ends, appropriately, with “The End.” The 16-minute suite is comprised of eight songs that were blended together by McCartney and George Martin. Three are Lennon songs, the rest McCartney. Yes, that is Ringo playing his one and only drum solo (and the only instance of the drums being recorded in true stereo on any Beatles album) on “The End.” The 18-bar guitar solo at the end of “The End” features McCartney playing the first two bars, followed by two bars from Harrison, then two bars from Lennon before the sequence repeats. “Her Majesty” was originally supposed to be a part of the medley, but McCartney had it removed. How it ended up back on the album is part of Beatle-lore. In any event, the medley is stunning. “The End” is the most perfectly appropriate last testament that any artist could hope for. For me, Abbey Road is the album that has benefited most from the remastering.
Suppose you had a pile of diamonds that had gone pale and dusty with age. Now suppose you discovered that by putting in four years of work, you could make those diamonds shine again, not only as brightly as they once did, but more beautifully than ever. That would be quite something, wouldn’t it? These are tough times. It’s hard for me to recommend the purchase of a box set that costs about $250. You can, of course, buy the albums individually. But having heard them now, I don’t know how I could possibly live without any of these diamonds.
There will never be a Beatles reunion. John and George are gone, and I still miss them every day. Tears still come to my eyes each time I hear:
“Once there was a way, to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling do not cry,
And I will sing a lullaby”
I cry because now we all know that there is no way to get back homeward, something the Beatles knew a long, long time ago. While this music brings great comfort, there’s also a profound sadness in my soul over the loss of what once was, and can never be again.
“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love, you make.” –Ken Shane
Let It Be was, is, and always will be a mess. We all know the story—the guys in the band couldn’t stand one another, but decided to rehearse anyway for a single live show that would feature new material; they agreed to be filmed during rehearsals; they didn’t get along; they decided theyÂ hated being filmed; Yoko showed up; George quit; George came back; Billy Preston showed up; they all played on the roof; yada, yada; the band abandoned the project; the band recorded another record (Abbey Road); John handed the Let It Be tapes over to Phil Spector; Spector threw strings and horns and choirs (I hate choirs) on top of everything like he was doing spin art at the shore; blah-blah-blah; the movie came out; the record came out; McCartney heard Spector’s mixes; McCartney vomited uncontrollably for three weeks; the band split up. It’s all in the history books, and the history books offer the same conclusion—Let It Be was, is, and always will be a mess.
Except it isn’t, really. Certainly, it lacks the wonderment of the pre-’65 albums, or cohesion of Rubber Soul, or the sense of formal experimentation that made Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s so endearing and enduring. Sure, it contains throwaway tracks (“Dig It,” “Maggie Mae”) that can leave a listener scratching his or her head. What enables the album to transcend the commonly accepted meme of its messiness, though,Â are the heights to which several key tracks scale, heights that become more vivid with the remastered sound of the new reissued CD.
The first of the revelatory moments comes with “Across the Universe.” The beauty of Lennon’s words and voice have never been clearer—were I hearing this for the first time while enjoying certain psychotropic substances (though I’m not doing either), I might feel moved to think Lennon was actually in my mind—that his poetry was flowing out of me, like a cosmic rainbow in some Peter Max cartoon. That perspective (were I to have it, for the reasons previously stated) might be buttressed by the new warmth of Spector’s flourishes, from the harps to the strings, to the choir’s wordless vocals (though, again, I hate choirs). Is that a sitar in the last verse? If I think really hard, will the true meaning of jai guru deva om come to me, or should I let it simply happen?
Do you get it? The remastering job is really good.
Or listen to “Let It Be”—it sounds like it was made last week, by a really good band that would never, ever get played on the radio today. McCartney’s voice has never sounded more plaintive (or naked, not even on Let It Be … Naked). The amazing cathedral organ that plays for, like, three seconds before the guitar solo has never sounded so briefly majestic. And when all the various elements—McCartney, his gospel piano, the guitars, Ringo, Spector’s showy orchestration—come together at the end, it’s as though they’ve been puzzle pieces only now put together correctly, with everything in its proper place. It’s never sounded like that before. You might think it has, as I did, but you’re wrong, as I was. This is “Let It Be” at a whole new level. (To think McCartney went from this to “Freedom” in the course of 32 years is as good an argument as I can think of for early retirement.)
I’m even now ready to give props to the original take of “The Long and Winding Road,” though I have long preferred the “naked” version found on bootlegs and the Let It Be … Naked record. The strings and horns sound so warm now; the bass line even pops into the frame for the first time I can remember. Or “I’ve Got a Feeling,” on which you can now actually hear tiny nodules forming on Macca’s vocal cords, while Lennon chuckles and talks about hard years and wet dreams. Or George Harrison’s blues “For You Blue,” which always seemed slight to me, but on which I can now hear the full complement of stringed instruments up front, the piano foundation to the back, and Ringo’s brushed snare sending the thing down the road like an old, proud Studebaker. Or “Get Back,” which gallops like nobody’s business, with every instrument made more distinct, every vocal nuance noted, every bit of applause well deserved.
And, if you’re at all like me (God help you, if it’s true), when Lennon ad-libs “I hope we passed the audition” at the album’s conclusion, you want to answer back, “Yes, absolutely. You’re in, buddy. It’s just that it took 40 years to hear you properly.” –Rob Smith
Has such an important collection of music ever been thrown together in such slipshod fashion? Past Masters’ entire existence is an accident of history – an accident, more specifically, of the vagaries of 1960s music marketing in the U.K. – and Capitol/EMI certainly has treated it as a neglected stepchild, both in 1988 and on 9/09/09. It’s too bad, really, because – as of this morning – this annoyingly cobbled-together, chronological anthology is the only place you’ll find the remasters of songs as essential as “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper,” “Paperback Writer” and “Lady Madonna,” “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
The original sin behind Past Masters isn’t really a sin at all. Right through the Beatles’ reign atop Western culture, record buyers in Great Britain demanded something approaching Value for Money; if a song was released on a 45-RPM single, the Brits expected not to be asked to buy that song again on a long-playing album. As a result, many of the Beatles’ greatest hits didn’t appear on the studio albums released contemporaneously with them; think of the Liverpudlians who flooded into Brian Epstein’s old NEMS record store on December 3, 1965, and were presented with a pair of new releases – Rubber Soul and the greatest two-sided single ever, “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out,” neither of which was available on the new album.
Greatest-hits collections are rarely an ideal panacea for such a situation, but the two Beatle-hits albums that appeared in 1973 (the “red” and the “blue”) came about as close as you could get to a perfect amalgamation of the band’s best album tracks and those non-album singles. A few years later, a vinyl LP titled Rarities had (in the U.K., at least) compiled all the band’s non-album B-sides and EP tracks in nice, compact fashion. Unfortunately, when the band and Capitol/EMI organized the first deluge of Beatles CDs in 1987-88, they adopted an anal-retentive stance requiring that every song in the catalog be released only once in the new format. And instead of collecting the non-album hits on one disc and leaving the Rarities anthology intact, they crammed the two into a chronological, two-disc mess.
At least this time they’ve packaged the two Past Masters discs together. Still, on the first disc we’re left with a roller coaster of classics and throwaways, sliding from the brilliance of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/”That Boy” single sides right into the pointlessness of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Liebt Dich.” The road between the peaks of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Feel Fine” is a long and winding one indeed, including those German-language knockoffs as well as a series of perfectly fine, EP-only covers (“I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down,” “Matchbox,” etc.) that nevertheless had sounded much more impressive on that old Rarities LP. (Paul himself seemed to learn the lessons of Past Masters when he compiled his Wingspan anthology, separating the tracks onto discs labeled “Hits” and “History.” If only he could have talked EMI into following suit here.)
OK, enough grousing about asinine compilation and sequencing – after all, we’re just gonna rip this sucker onto our hard drives and organize the tracks any way we damn well please, aren’t we? What of the music? Well, I’m happy to report that once the recordings emerge from the prehistoric era of 1962-63, the newly remastered versions of these classics are eminently worth the upgrade. (The two-track recordings of “Love Me Do,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and their B-sides obviously didn’t give the audio techs at Abbey Road much room to operate, and those tracks are best heard in their original mono mixes anyway; the Beatles didn’t begin working with a four-track console until the sessions for With the Beatles and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”)
Paul and Ringo have noted during the lead-up to 9/09 that the Beatles themselves focused on those mono mixes, and couldn’t have cared less about the stereo versions of their songs, all the way through Magical Mystery Tour. Interestingly enough, then, the sometimes-awkward stereo separation on the band’s mid-’60s tracks provides many of the real joyous discoveries on these Past re-Masters. Shoving all the vocals into one channel reveals the fumbled lyrics on “Thank You Girl” and “Slow Down,” as well as hilarious backing vocals I’d never noticed on the hard-rocking “I’m Down.” Suddenly I find Ringo’s drumming on “Day Tripper,” confined as it is to the left channel, nearly as phenomenal as his work on “Ticket to Ride.” And Paul’s bass work on both sides of the “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single – which I’ve always considered two of history’s great performances on that instrument – have never sounded better.
The late-period tracks on Past Masters are less revelatory … with the exception of George’s “Old Brown Shoe,” which as of right now is one of my new favorite Beatles songs. The saloon piano, which always seemed an afterthought before, now jumps playfully around the right channel, while the left is dominated by a Paul bassline so brilliant you’d think he actually gave two shits about George’s songs.
Speaking of afterthoughts, Past Masters concludes with the rambling, ridiculous “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” Appearing on the B-side of the “Let It Be” single, the song served as an apt metaphor for a band in its decadent, disintegrating final stages; now it serves nicely as a symbol of an anthology conceived with little imagination – the damn thing features no cover art whatsoever, for crying out loud! Past Masters raises as many questions as it answers – for example, will we ever see remastered versions of the “red” and “blue” albums? And what of the Anthologies, or The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl? Until those queries are resolved, go ahead and start ripping … and one other thing: When you’re pushing those infernal buttons on the Rock Band bass guitar while “Paperback Writer” plays, please don’t imagine you’re re-creating Paul’s brilliance. Because you’re not. –Jon Cummings
The Beatles – A Day in the Life (remastered) (download)