The Beatles: I'm Looking Through Them

Metroland | September 2, 2009
The Beatles are the greatest band of all time.

I had this epiphany midway through a 24-hour immersion in the newly remastered Beatles catalog. It's the same revelation that thousands of music fans have every year. I've had the same exact revelation dozens of times myself. But it's appropriate, as there's something revelatory about the music. From 1964 to 1970 the Beatles made more, better music than anyone else. Matched against any act over any six-year period since, the Beatles' flatten the competition. They had both quantity and quality. In six (or so) years, John, Paul, George and Ringo (plus all-important producer George Martin) mastered the pop single, the album format, and the art of studio recording. Game, set, match.

The idea of a Beatles-Stones rivalry is laughable. The Rolling Stones' 1960s records, like those of their contemporaries, were all about playing catch-up to the Beatles. While an album like Their Satanic Majesties Request is certainly worthy of critical appraisal, it never could have inspired decades of deconstruction in the way Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band did. (Some would say Majesties never had a chance; it came six months too late. Case in point.)

Yes, I'm a Beatles guy.

When I was a boy, everything was right. The Beatles are my oldest friends -- my parents' albums, those copies of Abbey Road and Magical Mystery Tour, were my favorite toys. You could tell which ones I liked best because I scribbled all over the sleeves. If only I'd known how much I'd have later appreciated the big color picture book in the Mystery jacket I might not have demolished it.

But the sounds were the thing. The sinister guitar riff of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was metal machine music for my 4-year-old mind. "I Am The Walrus," with its crazed heckle-chorus and jolly goo-goo-g'joobs, and all that wild, free-associated imagery -- it was fascinating as hell. Still is. So incredibly creative, and incredibly weird.

My tastes later shifted. I got stoned and listened to Revolver more times than I can count. I used to get hysterically high and drive aimlessly around the backroads of Saratoga county, trying in vein to get lost, with Revolver and Rubber Soul playing on an endless loop. These were the shorter, American releases, so the two albums fit snugly on one blank 60-minute tape. I copied them from my folks' old LPs. (Home taping may be killing music, but it never killed the buzz.)

These are some of the reasons that I found myself particularly excited when EMI announced the release of a new set of Beatles remasters. The new CDs come in both stereo and mono editions, and hit stores Wednesday -- the same day as the much-hyped "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. (There's still no digital distribution for this catalog, by the way, further raising the hype for a CD box set!) The new stereo editions (12 studio albums, plus Past Masters) will be available separately, or together in an understated black box, with a smattering of bonuses (short making-of documentaries, new liner notes on one title).

The mono editions are only available as a boxed set, and the set features some really ornate mini-replica packaging, in addition to the "real" versions of all those great albums. Though it was always fun playing "peek-a-boo" with Ringo, the hard-panning and swirling psychedelics of the stereo versions lost a lot of the band-in-a-room feel. These mono versions are where the band really gels. Some of us will want both sets, he said, pointing at himself.

I didn't go crazy for the Anthology titles in the 1990s, or for the Cirque du Soleil thing a few years back. This is the first Beatles product I've actually been excited for in a long time. I looked forward to the opportunity to revisit some of those old memories while also getting a new take on the sounds of the studio albums. And everyone has those memories -- Apple Corps' death-grip on the brand name has ensured that our associations with the Beatles' recordings are either through Beatles imagery, or our own experiences. (Unfortunately, "Rock Band" will likely change that in some respects.)

So I dove into this assignment headfirst, plunging through the entire set in one day, something I'd never tried before. Right upfront I can tell you that EMI/Apple did the right thing in waiting so long for this reissue -- in an age where it's hard to tell if sound quality matters to anyone anymore, this thing sounds fantastic. You can tell that the mastering engineers treated this project as lovingly as the Fab Four and George Martin did when making the albums. The sounds have so much space, even within the most complicated arrangements of later releases. Digital technology was finally to a point where it could appropriately deal with this material. Nicely played.

I played the albums down alphabetically, as that's how they stacked up in iTunes. This meant starting with Abbey Road, a great, if not unfair, place to start a discussion of the stereo remasters because it's one of only two studio releases that didn't have a mono companion. Immediately, there are details: The breathy drum compression on "Come Together" (check out the decay of Ringo's ride cymbal); the bleating synthesizers on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" (I don't recall the fake horns being so prominent!); the aforementioned "metal machine music" at the end of "I Want You" that goes on for what feels like forever, getting steadily louder, like a challenge to the listener to get through to side 2.

The Beatles, aka The White Album, followed. This was arguably the album most in need of an overhaul -- the variety and juxtaposition of sounds and styles made earlier CD issues jump around in volume and quality. And the gold-standard double album got a gold-standard once-over: Here, everything's brought up to level, to the great benefit of quieter tracks like "Julia" and "I Will." "Dear Prudence" is wide open. You can hear Paul's fingers touching the guitar strings on "Blackbird." Intact are Macca's whimsy and Lennon's dark sarcasm, George Harrison's funny "Piggies" and Ringo's funnier "Don't Pass Me By." "Helter Skelter" sounds like an airplane landing on your face.

Next came For Sale and A Hard Day's Night. This is where the stereo versions suffer -- I had to abandon my perch in front of my studio monitors and take a seat 10 feet away, so the signals would blend a bit, to really get the sound of these albums. And from here, you notice where these early albums got buffed up: The thud of the kick drum, the choogle of the guitar, Paul's effervescent, effortless basslines -- these guys were an outstanding rhythm band, and the proof is all over these records. Check out the massive 12-string guitar on "I Should Have Known Better," the cry that opens "Mr. Moonlight," Ringo bashing away like a robot. Help! gets a similar kick in the pants, though what's really most striking about the album is Lennon's dominance. "Ticket To Ride," "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," and "It's Only Love"are all here. This may have been his finest hour.

The stripped-down postscript of Let It Be is punchier than its CD predecessor, though there are no revelations to speak of. Magical Mystery Tour -- which, I've been instructed, isn't a "real" album -- is still a favorite of mine, with Ringo's heavy backbeats, now bigger than ever, among his best studio work. On Please Please Me, the teenage Beatles still smile through the speakers. But this time, their teeth are whiter.

Revolver and Rubber Soul are, for the reasons above and others, sacred to me. For one thing, I'm accustomed to the U.S. Releases, which have fewer songs. And the layer of funk on my folks' LPs is part of the music for me. But rest assured, the new masters sound fantastic -- I feel like there are entire rooms on Revolver that I've never explored. That's for another essay.

Comparing the new CDs to the original CD issues -- the never-terribly-popular 1987 ones -- is like comparing apples and canned dog food. These just sound better in every way. They're noticeably louder, brought up to a "competitive" volume without being all mushed like many modern CD releases. The clarity is stunning. It's already boring to talk about how awesome these things sound.

Finally, the ultimate test: A quick A-B listen, comparing one of the new CDs to its original vinyl LP counterpart. And what better candidate than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band to be subject to the little experiment?

It's a tough call as to which of these "better," honestly -- a recording etched into a piece of plastic with 42 years of wear, versus a brand-spanking-new, expertly remastered digital version of same. The brass on the title track is broad and booming on the new master, while the same song's overdriven guitars are more in-your-face on the LP. The remaster opens up volumes of details and frequencies; the record is thinner, with a distinct growl that CDs just ain't got. It's a Lexus or a Lincoln Continental -- one gets really awesome gas mileage, but the other has suicide doors.

These new details, these slight new twists on old favorites, are worthy of investment for both Beatles fans, for whom it's an opportunity to hear the music they know so well in a new light, and for new fans looking to get their first kick. For me this was a chance to get lost in the music again, in a way I never could on those upstate backroads.

It's hard to get excited by music these days. But this is the greatest band of all time. This is exciting.


Metroland was founded in 1978 as a monthly entertainment guide; a year and a half later it went weekly, continuing to focus primarily on arts, entertainment and lifestyles. In September 1986, Metroland reinvented itself as a full-fledged alternative newsweekly, offering...
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