Friday, October 30, 2009

The Beatles Complete Remastered CD's: Timeless, Terrific, Tasty

Pictured above: The Mono collection and the Stereo collections
Okay, we’re a little late with this, but it took awhile to get The Beatles in Mono as the blog’s finance department assessed whether this investment was worth starvation before sending the requisition to procurement after a massive buying effort which led to the inventory of the entire catalog of stereo albums. The end result is Right Minded Fellow is not as financially solvent with another investment of the 40th Anniversary boxed set of the Rolling Stones, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out right around the corner, but these great albums are the pillars of our modern culture, right? In that spirit, there are no CD’s of the Dave Clark Five available, so we downloaded a comprehensive two disc collection from iTunes. While a few songs were great to hear again like “Glad all Over,” the DC5 is probably best left back in the 60’s unlike some of their peers like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, and we’d even suggest some of the Kinks.

This is no small deal, we’re talking about the complete works of the Beatles, every official song from all their albums as they were originally released in Great Britain. No complete works covers so much musical territory in so little space so beautifully. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones might have released many more albums, but what the Beatles accomplished in just less than eight years releasing 13 albums (with a 14th album, a compilation of singles and other tunes not on original albums) showing such remarkable growth from their first single, “Love Me Do,” through the album Revolver where they finally came of age with several remarkable albums to follow, stands on its own as the single most spectacular accomplishment in popular music history. Other artists may have issued albums that stand up to the best Beatles’ albums, but nobody’s collective works hold up nearly as well.

For those still oriented to how the Beatles music was released on record, there was a huge difference between how the Fab Four’s work was presented in Great Britain and Europe and the New World up through the release of Revolver in 1966. Listeners who purchased the original 1988 CD releases finally heard the Beatles albums sequenced as the lads intended. The British albums generally had 14 songs, where the American albums had 11 songs. The British albums seldom had songs released as singles, where singles were included, usually with “B” sides too on the American albums. Thus the American albums worked out to roughly three albums for every two albums released in Great Britain, but the issues don’t stop there. Different masters for the American audience were prepared pumped up with reverb and more exaggerated equalization. Also, Capitol records did not see the Beatles marketable when the Beatles were first striking it rich in England so they passed on the first album and a few original singles which were mostly released on a rinky-dink label, Vee-Jay which was home to the Four Seasons. “She Loves You” was relegated to a small Philadelphia label, Swan! The American albums often had different titles. A Hard Days’ Night and Help! were released as movie soundtracks in the USA complete with incidental instrumental music from the films. Those accustomed to the American version of Rubber Soul were listening to two songs from the British release of Help! and only ten of the fourteen songs on the British release. Revolver was cut by three songs released on “Yesterday” and Today, “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Birds Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert” all of which were only presented in fake stereo. The result was the American Revolver might give listeners the impression that John Lennon was checking out of the band left with only two of his performances with three songs by George, one sung by Ringo, and the rest by Paul.

Only the most dedicated Beatles fans were aware of the difference between American and British albums until 1988 when one standard, the British albums were adopted for the whole world. Hard core fans could find the British albums at specialty collector’s and audiophile record stores not the department stores, K-mart and shopping center stores where most fans got their records. Even so, when most fans were aware of the difference, the world had already standardized on stereo recordings, so the significance of the most recent CD release takes on even more meaning.

Now, let’s address the stereo/mono debate. Few listeners are probably old enough to remember their mono records, if they had any of the Beatles. These would be for folks who purchased the Beatles at the time of their records release from the beginning through Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but what we’re used to are the American alternatives which were mostly accounted for in the two sets of The Capitol Albums presenting the first eight albums as they were released in America with both stereo and mono recordings for each album.

Great Britain was slower to adopt stereo as a standard. Though some pressings of Magical Mystery Tour were issued stateside, the album was almost exclusively available in stereo. In Great Britain, only Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let it Be were released exclusively in stereo.

The “purist” will argue that the mono recordings are the “official” release of the Beatles catalog. When their albums were first released, there was no FM stereo radio. Most listeners got their Beatles on little transistor radios or on booming 6x9” dashboard speakers in their parents’ cars. Listeners did not have stereos or systems, but instead mostly listened to record players. What little stereo listening there was would be on mom and dad’s console stereos more noted for their furniture than sound on which stereo or mono albums made little difference anyway.

As such, the Beatles attended to the entire recording process only for their mono recordings. Stereo albums were created for essentially audio snobs in Great Britain, but had a little more interest on the US versions. The stereo recordings in the UK were usually supervised by producer George Martin with the Abbey Road engineering staff weeks or even months after the original mono albums were finished with no input from the band. American albums were finalized by Capitol records who’d even create ghastly fake stereo versions of songs only released in mono on singles Great Britain the worst of which are “She’s a Woman” and “I Feel Fine” on Beatles 65.

For the American audience, Magical Mystery Tour, aside from the singles on side two, The Beatles (The “White” Album), and some songs on disc two of The Mono Masters including the Yellow Submarine tunes, the current releases are their first taste of this material in mono. Some material, most notably, “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Helter Skelter” are far different mixes than what folks would have heard on The “White” Album.

The difference between mono and stereo is at times dramatic. For their first two albums and Rubber Soul where the stereo recordings consisted of all the vocals pushed to the right channel and most of the instruments pushed to the left channel a rather jarring effect, the mono recordings sound much more natural. Through out the recordings, there are little elements left in or left out from one version to the other, but the real irony comes with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band thought to be the most advanced experimental album of its time. One would think it would also boast the best state-of-the-art stereo technology available in 1967.

Not so. First, though the Abbey Road recording equipment was superb at delivering clear beautiful sound, it was not set up to accomplish much studio mastery. The Beatles were working with only four tracks where many US studios were running eight tracks by then with sixteen tracks right around the corner. As such, the engineers under George Martin’s supervision had to improvise techniques so the Beatles could pile up layers of sound creating the album. As such, figuring out a scheme of how to locate voices and instruments in the stereo listening field was arbitrary at best. For a fully realized artistic endeavor, the mono recording of Sgt. Pepper is the presentation of record. To fully appreciate the full creative intent of the Beatles, it is the recording to enjoy. For those who listen on headphones and don’t like music coming from the middle of their heads or simply just can’t adjust to mono as being so primitive, it would be hard to give up the stereo recording, however stereo listeners miss out on some things.

First, the annoying movement from speaker to speaker for the lead vocals on the title track is eliminated. “With a Little Help from My Friends” has vocals pushed to one channel. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has a much more ethereal spacey sound in mono where the phasing techniques and other studio tricks work much more effectively. “She’s Leaving Home” is a little faster making the song far prettier and less laborious and dragging as it is in stereo. The laughter at the end of “Within You, Without You” is longer and louder. Listen to the animals in “Good Morning, Good Morning.” They’re much more pronounced. “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise)” has more crowd noise at the beginning and Paul McCartney’s vocal rant at the end can be clearly heard in mono where there’s such the faint sound of Paul doing something at the end of the stereo version. Only “A Day in the Life” which concludes the album is perhaps better in stereo which is able to fully articulate the orchestral effects and captures the full drama of the song.

Fans will debate the comparative merits of A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, and Revolver. Any differences noted by purists will go in favor of the mono recordings since they’ll argue, “that’s what the Beatles intended.” For the casual listener, opening up the sound and presenting it in stereo might be a more pleasant experience, but that’s debatable. The mono recordings are so well done, have plenty of dynamic range, and don’t suffer from the technological compromises of the limited Abbey Road technology available at the time could still be the best listen.

By the time of The “White” Album, the ability to record quality stereo had been mastered and American listeners would be familiar with the stereo version exclusively thus the differences become more of a curiosity than an essential.

Forget about the debates about don’t the original albums really sound better and more authentic. Here’s the catch, if the listener is lucky enough to have British records in almost mint condition and can listen to them on a high quality stereo system, then the sound quality is almost pristine. However, the quality of Capitol records recordings in the 1960’s was downright terrible at times loaded with surface noise, ticks and pops, and overall crappy resolution. The 1988 CD’s were among the best of first generation CD’s, but they were just that, 1st generation CD’s. As such, regardless of what recordings the listener chooses from the recent remaster release, the results are most satisfying.

Here’s the bad news. If the Beatles fan wants to buy single albums not wanting the entire Beatles inventory, the only choice is stereo albums. This will be the first release of their first four albums in stereo on CD since Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for Sale were released in mono in 1988. Boxed set versions of the stereo albums are available containing the same packaging as the individual albums with the bonus of a DVD which includes the short video introductions included with each album assembled together – no big show stopper to be sure. The Mono box is very expensive listing at $299 but retailed more often down around $230. Each album is presented in a miniature facsimile of the original record sleeve right down to the dust sleeves inside the covers and enclosed in plastic protective covers. A nice booklet explaining the Beatles recording process with some great photos is also included. An additional bonus is that both Help! and Rubber Soul include both the mono recordings and the original stereo recordings. In 1988, those albums were re-engineered as ADD recordings by George Martin to pump up the sound. Honestly, there’s nothing in the original stereo recordings that would be revelations to anyone other than the most obsessive Beatles’ purists. For listeners who’d want to opt for the mono version, to complete the Beatles library, they would also need to purchase Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let it Be.

The stereo recordings have nice booklets with more liner notes mostly dedicated to the recording geeks on the making of the albums not the creative process. There is one serious complaint, the CD’s have nothing to fasten on and must be pulled from the sleeve allowing for finger prints on the discs and higher likelihood of scratching the disc surface. This is a major price to pay for more attractive packaging avoiding those horrible jewel cases.

The mono box was supposed to be only a 10,000 copy release. Advance sales far exceeded that so a second production run boosted up the inventory but EMI is mum on how long these sets will be available. There are no plans to release the mono albums individually. The thinking is any fan compulsive enough to care about the differences between the two would probably want the entire inventory anyway. They’re probably right about that for most listeners, but we’d argue Sgt. Pepper fans might relish the chance to get a Sgt. Pepper disc in mono.

The stereo box is also a limited release. The stereo albums are supposedly special releases with the video included. At some point, they’ll revert to just the song selections and there’s no word on what packaging will be included.

Our recommendation to Beatles fans is to spring for their favorite albums from the new releases if sound quality matters in the least. Likewise, if the old LP’s are long gone, the new discs give a nice feel of those album jackets of old. Listeners who never enjoyed the British format of the albums are strongly encouraged to check out A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. While A Hard Day’s Night is still at the height of their early Beatlemania sound, there’s so much going on beneath the surface of these bright, joyful songs. George Harrison influenced many with his brilliant 12 string electric lead guitar work enough so that Roger McGuinn was inspired to learn the craft and establish the Byrds. Help! is so much more pleasant without having soundtrack gibberish interspersed plus the songs left to show up on Beatles VI, Rubber Soul, and “Yesterday” and Today make more sense on their original albums. While some argue the American album of Rubber Soul starting each side with songs from Help! “I’ve Just Seen a Face” for side one and “It’s Only Love” for side two and eliminating “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone” accidentally became the definitive recording since it flows together with a remarkable folk-rock feel, the British album is a more thorough affair and there’s no CD alternative to “Yesterday” and Today. Revolver absolutely sounds castrated with three John Lennon songs removed. In its full glory, it’s easy to understand why as time passes, it is increasingly being recognized at the Beatles finest album.

With the holidays around the corner, this would be a good time to inspect friends’ and family members’ CD collections and find some good Beatles additions for their library; however, if that special someone is a real Beatles maniac and worthy of a $300 Christmas present, allow them to discover the joys of the stereo CD’s. That’s all that will be on the shelves at most music stores anyway. Spring for The Beatles in Mono. It’s the real deal for the real serious Beatles fan.

We are abandoning our plans, at least for now, to summarize the merits album by album, start to finish of all fourteen Beatles albums. We’ve come to realize anybody who loves the Beatles already knows their music and those who haven’t discovered the joys of their music is not old enough to appreciate this blog anyway. We do believe that if it came to just one album, Revolver is a far better choice than Sgt. Pepper which can sound dated and gimmicky after 42 years. Just about all Beatles fans have their personal favorites with Sgt. Pepper, The “White” Album, Abbey Road, Revolver, and Rubber Soul usually topping the list. Honestly, no one can go wrong with any of their albums though their first two are far from the creative power they’d show later in their career. While Beatles for Sale is considered by many a bit of a disappointment, more or less a transitional album, as such it has not gotten as much attention over the years. Surprise, surprise, there’s still some really good stuff on it and might be a nice surprise for those who’d only know the songs if they remember Beatles 65 and Beatles VI.

Finally, the Beatles, Stones, and Who all have wonderful remasters of all their classic albums. There’s still much music from that golden age demanding some good technological TLC for today’s listeners many of us aged lovers of the music when it exploded upon the airwaves all those years ago.

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