Re-meeting The Beatles.
The story of The Beatles on compact disc is a tale of woe. No, wait, it's much sadder than that. It's a tale rooted in the opposite of love: indifference. How else do you explain that the recordings of the greatest rock and roll band of all time (apologies to the Stones) were transferred to CD only once before, way back in 1987, when digital-to-analog technology was in its infancy, and though the result was clearly lousy, no further attempt was made to do it right? Greed? No, greedy people would have “remastered” the tapes numerous times, each time virtually identical to the time before. Laziness? Maybe. Willful malice? Doubtful. But indifference? Definitely. No one in control of the recordings cared enough to do anything about the travesty that was the original transfers. Worse, here in 2009, indifference has not finally given way to love. It has given way to greed, for there are no Blu-ray versions, even though, from what I have read, the master tapes were re-transferred to digital using the latest 24-bit, 192KHz DACs, the Blu-ray standard. So why rip them down to 16-bit, 44.1Khz? Simple. Because two or three years from now, the whole catalog can be released yet again, forcing people like me, people who deeply love the music of The Beatles, to buy it all yet one more time. Which I will do.
Okay, rant over, how do the new Beatles remasters sound? Revelatory, sort of. If they were on Blue-ray, they would indeed be revelatory, I am sure of that. The difference between these new discs and the originals is pretty easy to hear, but what they really convey is how great Blu-ray could have been. So much almost jumps out, but just not quite. Still, to finally be able to hear McCartney’s bass lines on songs like Help, to hear Ringo’s bass drum work, to hear Harrison’s tone and sharpness, to hear Lennon’s rhythm guitar, and, of course, to hear the voices, each so distinct yet so unified, well, I’m pleased.
For my first batch I bought Help, Rubber Soul, Past Masters, Beatles for Sale and Meet the Beatles. (Or so I thought. Sadly, I was sent two copies of Past Masters and no copy of Meet the Beatles.) The first song I listened to was The Night Before, off of Help, which is possibly the greatest vocal performance I have ever heard. Bliss. All the warmth of McCartney's double-tracked pipes I always knew was there is there, and underneath him the band drives the rhythm to the absolute edge. Any harder, and it would be too much, any softer and it wouldn't be as good. I bought stereo versions, but for my next purchase, Meet The Beatles, I'm going mono (click here to more on this). The added clarity of the new versions reveals how chopped together the stereo tapes truly were, and I have to believe that for early Beatles recordings mono is better, if only because The Beatles themselves oversaw the mono mixes personally, but weren't even present for most of the stereo mixes, at least on the earlier stuff.
Lest you think I’m a bit underwhelmed by these new remasters, well, I am, I admit it, BUT, when I first heard The Beatles back in 1970-1, it was a thrill I thought could never be repeated. There can be only one first time. And yet, these new CDs are kind of like meeting The Beatles all over again. And for that, I am deeply grateful.