Falling James on the Beatles Remasters: "Get the Originals Out There First. Desecrate Later"
By Falling James
I was surprised to see that the 7-11 up the street had a carton of the new Beatles CDs on sale, sitting on the counter right beside the register. Usually, 7-11 doesn't traffic in such fine musical merchandise, apart from the occasional Miley Cyrus plastic bauble, and definitely not on the day it's first released. When I went home and looked at the Amoeba Music ad in the Weekly, I found that Amoeba was selling its Beatles CDs for more than 7-11 was charging! Now that's a shock. Generally, anything you buy at 7-11 is priced at least a dollar higher than it would cost at the supermarket. Like a banana. Or an apple. Or a record on Apple.
Since I've already wasted so much money at 7-11 buying useless junk food, I decided that I might as well buy one of these newfangled Beatles contraptions, preferably Revolver. But Revolver was already sold out by the time I went back to 7-11 Thursday evening, so I settled for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's not one of my favorite Beatles albums, but it has that colorful, circus-y cover, so I instinctively grabbed it when I got to the counter. I don't like to spend a lot of time comparison shopping at 7-11, and I already felt strangely guilty and surreptitious about buying a Beatles CD there. I don't know if I was embarrassed to be seen buying a dorky Beatles album or if I was embarrassed to be in 7-11.
In every TV piece and magazine and newspaper review I've seen so far, critics have raved about how perfect these Beatles remasters sound. I must be the only Blue Meanie in the whole world. I don't want to spoil the party, but the more I listen to these new versions, the less I like them.
Although these are purported to be remasters, they sound more like remixes. On a certain level, they sound fine: They're clear, competent, well-defined, more modern-sounding. But on another level, they're an abomination. They don't even attempt to accurately recapture how wonderful these songs once sounded on vinyl. Instead, they're a paler, fussier approximation that often emphasizes minor parts over more important musical components.
There's no doubt that these carefully pulled-apart and polished stereo remasters sound okay, if taken on their own, but they don't sound as lively as the originals. The new engineers were able to make the instruments sound cleaner, more separated. But this isn't a good thing. I miss the way that instruments meshed together, and how overtones formed. The reissues are also not very loud, without the overall volume and power you would expect from modern CDs, and the levels only sporadically go into the red on playback.
It's true that you can discern more of the little things that were previously buried in the background. Many of those surfacing snippets and underlying piano and percussion flourishes and guitar licks are indeed quite fascinating, and wonderful to discover. In that sense, these new "remasters" succeed as interesting revisionist remixes that emphasize lost coloring and melodic variations, bringing to life some lovely embellishments and harmonies.
But they fail in the sense that they aren't better than the original mixes -- they work more as interesting variations for fanatics who need a break from the originals -- and they're different enough that I find it unbelievably disheartening when a major guitar part that once linked two parts in, say, Abbey Road, is pushed into the background. Or that deliciously eerie sound near the end of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which comes rising out of the keyboards and sounds like a hellish choir of voices spinning by on a merry-go-round. It's already a subtle effect in the original, but here it's much fainter. You can still detect such things, especially if you're looking for them. But how would you know to look for them if you've never heard the original?
In another example, the classic guitar progression that Elvis Costello lifted in homage on Armed Forces is still audible, but it's much more muted and faded-sounding and doesn't have the same presence. It makes me wonder if Costello would have ever borrowed that melody (as well as John Lennon's distinctive watery-sparkly guitar sound), if young Declan McManus had grown up hearing the Beatles only through the muted magic of these brave new remasters. Probably not.
What about our memories? What about authenticity, accuracy, preserving the actual literal sound of the LPs? It's as if these purported "remastering" engineers decided to play god or holier-than-thou surgeons, who seemingly said to themselves, "Hey, as long as we're in here to dust things up, why don't we rearrange the furniture and a few key body parts?" And then they left in a bunch of sponges to soak up the sound when they hastily sewed the body back together. It's part of that whole mentality that anything "modern" must be better. But these new remasters don't necessarily sound better. And in some ways, they sound much worse.
Much of the new remasters sound drier, with sound effects that were crucial in the early stereo mixes literally sucked out. The apparent goal was to present the Beatles' voices and instruments dry, without much reverb or other effects, so they could be appreciated in their natural, unadorned state. That's certainly artistically valid, but it's so unlike George Martin's and the band's ongoing desire to experiment and expand the songs with lavish arrangements. It's like the engineers wanted a more minimal approach instead of something heavily produced, as if the Beatles were produced by Spot instead of Roy Thomas Baker. Whatever the intent, the instruments sound brighter and more isolated, but the consequence is that more than a little bit of the previous fairy dust has been has been leeched out.
There was one place in the nouveau Abbey Road where you could hear the reverb being switched off while McCartney was still in the middle of a line! The amount of reverb declined over a few seconds, as if someone at the control board had forgotten to roll off the effect at the right time, and then had to scramble to turn it off during the phrase. The adjustment was sloppy, and wasn't the kind of thing George Martin would have tolerated.
I guess that's the way it is. This is the new Beatles paradigm, the new reality. I suppose oldies radio will start playing and entombing these versions. Even the new LPs aren't that amazing, because they're taken from these new interpretations rather than the original stereo mixes. Those with long memories just have to get used to these and many other minor enhancements, which are sometimes obtrusive enough to stand as new arrangements.
For instance, a more prominent kick drum gives the ostensibly mellow and dreamy "Sun King" more of a percussive groove. It's a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. The louder kick doesn't sound bad -- in fact, it's a credible and interesting variation -- but the whole point of releasing these Beatles songs, which haven't been heard in their proper state for many, many years -- is preservation, not reinterpretation. Do the fancy, sterilized disco remix later, under your own name. Get the originals out there first. Desecrate later.
It's especially ironic in this day and age, when you can easily find the complete works of such former obscurities as the Monks and Rhino 39 (if not Trouble Funk or the Phillip Blues), that it's been so many years that the Beatles' music has been available in a decent-sounding format. Of all bands. It's not like they're on some struggling indie label (or are they?). Whether it's out of indecisiveness, extreme caution or the plucky belief that the Fabs' aging fans will all live to be 104 and not just 64, the Apple Corpse of Inaction doesn't seem especially worried if it takes another 50 years to get right what every indie and punk label figured out a good 20 years ago: how to transfer vinyl masters to a CD format while making them still sounding good (and, many times, better and louder).
Apple is similar to Disney in that it obviously doesn't mind if much of its catalogue is out of print, for decades at a time. It's a successful strategy on some levels, since, by the time either corporation deigns to release some long-lost classic title, it gets more attention than a million Otis Redding reissues would ever gain. Apple wants to be sure that you're a dedicated Beatles fan before it hands over the goods, and it's willing to wait generations and bluff you out to your graveside. (Good luck ever hearing Brute Force's delightfully brilliant, planned-&-then-banned 1968 Apple Records single, "King of Fuh." It can't still be controversial, can it? But Apple's motto seems to be, "What, me hurry?")
Submit to your new remasters. It's your duty now, and it will be for the foreseeable future. The sound is cleaner now, the instruments more separated and distinctly defined, but much of the old reverb and echo that gave songs their magic is vaporized. Once upon a time, there was a warm, golden glow to the way the Beatles' instruments fused together in the original stereo vinyl mixes, the way McCartney's deep bass rumbles burned into Ringo's tom-toms and John's fat rhythm guitar, how the harder, overdriven edges of the harmonies and George's fuzzed-out lead guitar buzzed against each other. The stereo mixes didn't always make sense (especially compared to the mono versions), but they were usually compact but loud, bursting with sustain and intertwined sounds. These remasters are more like individually lovely performances neatly arrayed in rows of laundry on a line, with plenty of air between them.
In their own way, these remasters are just as disappointing as the first time Apple released the Beatles albums on CD. Obviously, the remasters sound much better than those CDs, but, whereas the first line of CDs were thin replicas, these are more like well-coiffed departures from collective memory. The engineers on both series of Beatles CD reissues, then and now, seem to have had the same mindset, albeit with differing approaches: We're going to fix something that wasn't wrong in the first place, just because we can.
Now you can walk around inside the nice, clean, brightly lit aisles between individual parts in the songs. It's neat that technology can do these kinds of crime-scene cleanups, but that doesn't mean you have to use them. I'd rather cling to the original blood-splattered body. Give me back my Beatles.
While it's great that McCartney's bass is big and present in the new versions (correcting a longtime travesty in some of the previous vinyl and CD editions), it also sounds curiously restrained and too polite. It's up there in the new mix, but it doesn't have the same old boom. On the other hand, John's rhythm guitar is quieter and hidden, more of a background-strumming hum than a driving force. Yet Lennon's guitar is (was?) a major reason the Beatles were credible during their infrequent hard-rock moments.
I should clarify that there are two versions of the remastered Beatles catalog, one in stereo and one in mono, and that I'm primarily directing my disappointment at the stereo edition. The mono versions are only available as an expensive box set instead of as single albums like the stereo versions. That's a serious shame, because the mono CDs are intended to be relatively faithful, less-tampered-with remasters of the original mono mixes, which were the main ones that the Beatles and their engineers spent most of their time on (since that was the preferred medium at the time). It's Fab-tastic that wealthy Mop Heads can get all of the mono remasters in one big lumpy box-set tower (at least for a limited time), but the rest of us will have to make do with these new stereo re-imaginings, which will become the de facto versions.
It's a little frustrating. The project's engineers realized that it was important to preserve the mono mixes as faithfully as possible, while simultaneously taking the liberty of doing their own interpretations of the stereo remasters/remixes, without apparent regard to historical accuracy. So even if these new virtual remixes are competent and listenable -- especially if you didn't grow up on or weren't already familiar with the originals -- they're nonetheless a little dry and sweet and clean and dull.
While the early stereo mixes were more haphazard and had less direct involvement from the band, they still sound (to me) much better than these polite new remastered ones. There's certainly more historical resonance in the originals, despite their supposed flaws, than these new re-imaginings.
Give me back my Beatles. Just make them sound like the old records, with all the heat and noise and vibrancy. If certain things sound murky and lost in the old LPs, that's because they were supposed to be mysterious! While it's admittedly fascinating to hear other instruments and sound effects emerging in the new mixes, you can also hear more mistakes and things that were supposed to be buried.
I was also dismayed that there was so much sloppiness in the packaging, particularly in the booklet and liner notes. These days, most CD booklets -- even on major-label, big-budget productions -- have typos and sloppy grammar and design elements. But with the Beatles, you expect higher standards. Especially with all of this talk about the years of effort it took to release these ancient albums. There are a fairly high amount of typos and style inconsistencies, not to mention out-and-out factual errors, such as misspelling Edgar Allan Poe's name in Sgt. Pepper's liner notes. Many of these typos and misspellings are the kinds of basic mistakes that any decent copyeditor and fact-checker would catch.
Perhaps that's of little interest to folks who aren't neurotic about grammar and style. But it's still unnecessarily sloppy, especially given the project's built-in sense of prestige and historical relevance. The CD packaging and booklets sport lots of great photographs, including many worthwhile outtakes from the original album-cover photo sessions. There's a little background about the recording and release history, although much more care and detail would have been nice.
It also would've been better if the credits had mentioned some of the many guest musicians who sat in on Beatles recordings. The credits and liner notes are quite limited, and inconsistently arranged from album to album. I wonder if the production staff worked on these albums chronologically. Whereas the Sgt. Pepper's booklet is relatively lavish, with more pages and remembrances from Paul McCartney, George Martin and others who look at the 1967 album from a variety of angles, the Abbey Road booklet is comparatively terse, with a stubborn minimum of facts and credits. It's as if the dutifully drab and interchangeably unstylish writers on the liner-notes staff became weary and bored and ran out of things to say by the time they got around to the last album.
Sgt. Pepper's is the only one of the remastered CDs that comes with a reprint of its lyrics, just as the LP did. Its notes also include some fascinating tidbits about Peter Blake's famous cover. However, for all of the focus about the historic photo shoot and its rows of celebrities, gurus and historical figures, it didn't occur to anyone to show a close-up or detail of those rows, beyond the standard small version on the front cover. Ironically, there's plenty of space in the CD package, as someone found room to include eight variations (and one double-panel repeat!) of the band photo that was originally found inside the LP.
Given the uncritical media hysteria about how great the remasters are, these are likely to be the only Beatles recordings available for a long time, especially since the mono versions are only being sold on a limited basis. I suspect that fans will learn to love these gussied-up stereo repackages, if only because they've spent so much money on them. Eventually, a few surviving elders will point out that these souped-up remasters don't sound anything near as radiant as the originals, and an even bigger hoopla will be raised the next time Capitol/EMI/Apple re-releases the Beatles catalog and "gets it right" -- which will likely be 20 years from now.