Thursday, April 09, 2009

The one after 9/09/09

Okay, call me crazy but I read the news today, oh boy, and it made me quite giddy. After two decades, we'll all get to hear the music from the greatest band that ever existed in a sound quality that pays justice to it.

Now, pardon me if you will this indulgence. This music means a lot to yours truly. I grew up with it and still enjoy it thoroughly. The Beatles are that rare band, just like Led Zeppelin, U2 and perhaps a few others, who's music has stood the test of time. And if your idea of great contemporary music is dull, half-assed, throwaway tripe like Nickleback, then I'm about to take you to school. And come September, after many delays attributed to differences between The Beatles' Apple Corps. and their distributor, EMI, you'll finally get the full educational treatment. Old and young fans alike will now get to experience the greatest band on the planet in a whole new way, when the original Beatles catalog, as created by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, gets the remastering treatment on CD on September 9, 2009 (9/9/09). This will be the same day as the release of the equally-ballyhooed Rock Band video game devoted to their music, and makes for one heck of a tie-in.

Sure, all thirteen of The Beatles' studio albums, as well as various compilations, are currently available on compact disc, and have been since 1987. Even the local Target and Wal-Mart may still stock a few. But CDs made the 1980s have not held up well over time. Early discs sound rather cold, flat and harsh by today's standards. Mastering technology has come a long way since then, taking a major leap forward in the mid-1990s with the advent of more powerful computers and elaborate recording software such as Pro Tools. The modern technology has given today's CDs a much fuller sound, coming closer in approximating the intimacy and warmth of analog tape and vinyl LPs. Today's CD is virtually a different format altogether.

Over the years, many bands have reissued their catalogs to take advantage of new technology, and to market to a new generation of fans. Beatles contemporaries such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Beach Boys have long ago remastered and rereleased their original output. The Beatles are long overdue in this regard.

Newer generations of artists have also undergone the remastering treatment. Classic 80s and 90s albums that don't really seem that old, like Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms, U2's The Joshua Tree and recently, Pearl Jam's Ten, got anniversary makeovers. Needless to say, just about every major veteran artist in the music industry has freshened up their original repertoire.

Initially, like most, I scoffed at the idea of remastering. I thought it was just another excuse to re-release the same stuff we already had. Then I started listening to some of them. The reissue of both of the Traveling Wilburys' albums sound much stronger and richer than the original releases from 1988 and 1990. Likewise, George Harrison's reissued All Things Must Pass had a warm and beautiful feel missing from the original CD. The Clash's upgraded London Calling jumps up and smacks you in the face. The current incarnation of Billy Joel's The Stranger took my breath away. It's like night and day.

And then there's The Beatles. From the get-go, they took their time in arriving to the CD party. The delay was due mostly to squabbles with EMI. After finally taking approval rights over their catalog, the band took their time bringing the music into the digital age. When they did, it was, for the most part, a bit underwhelming. Releasing them in the original British configurations was a logical idea, rather than in the overwhelming American format we here in the states grew up with. But they really goofed when they kicked it all off with the release of the first four CDs. They were issued only in mono, per producer George Martin's insistence. Granted, Please Please Me and With The Beatles sound a bit brutal in two track stereo, but it was due to a memo error between Martin and EMI that we were stuck with mono-only versions of A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale for nearly a quarter century (and both of those albums have excellent four track stereo mixes). The 1987 release of Rubber Soul (arguably their best album) still had a lousy remix only slightly tweaked from the underwhelming one done in 1965. Most of Magical Mystery Tour still employed the same awful faux (duophonic) stereo mixes made by the engineers at EMI's American arm, Capitol. All the album releases, save for a really good deluxe Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, had meager liner notes and grim packaging. And it stayed that way until now.

Granted, Apple Corps. has worked to atone for the shoddy presentation of their highest-profile product. It all started with 1994's Live At The BBC. The following year saw the release of the ambitious Anthology series, collecting some of their best outtakes and unreleased songs, long demanded by hardcore fans tired of sifting through crappy-quality bootlegs. It got better. Yellow Submarine Songtrack, coinciding with the re-release of the movie in 1999, was an ambitious undertaking, and is perhaps the best of the Beatles compilations. For the first time ever, the Abbey Road engineers went back to the original multitrack tapes and remixed everything. "All You Need Is Love" became a whole new experience. "Eleanor Rigby" featured the string quartet in true stereo for the first time. "Nowhere Man," from Rubber Soul, finally got a mix worthy of the song itself.

The next year saw the release of a definitive greatest hits collection, titled 1. The songs were remastered from the original tapes (though not the multitracks) and sounded light years better than the 1987 CDs. In 2001, bassist McCartney sanctioned a new-and-improved "naked" counterpart to the much-derided Let It Be, freed from the crass Phil Spector wall-of-sound overdubs that he and many fans loathed. The Cirque Du Soliel-inspired Love, from 2004, featured an even more radical remix than Yellow Submarine, in effect a re-manipulated mashup, by original producer George Martin and his son Giles, that presented the music in a whole new way without going over the top. Like Yellow Submarine Songtrack, it was created with 5.1 surround sound in mind, and it sounded awesome.

The remastered catalog likely won't go that far. They will probably stay pretty faithful to the original Martin mixes, with only minor alterations. Nonetheless, just modern technology alone will finally result in a decent sounding Beatles catalog. Even the recent pair of The Capitol Albums box sets, spanning 1963-1965 and taken from the original second-generation masters sent to America and reverbed all to hell, sound better than the early British releases currently on CD.

So, what other reasons are there for buying a bunch of old discs that we already have? All 14 albums (including a now single-issue Past Masters), will be packaged in tasteful deluxe cardboard digipacks, rather than the brittle and ubiquitous jewel case. The packaging will approximate the original artwork of the British LPs, and each will include booklets with deluxe liner notes, recording notes, photos and historical information. And, as icing on the cake, each original release (aside from Past Masters) will include a newly created video documentary, in Quick Time format, on the making of each album, containing archival footage, rare photographs and never-before-heard studio banter.

For the fans who must have it all (which would be many), all 14 titles will be packaged in a complete box set, along with a DVD compiling the individual documentaries. Hardcore fans are already crowing about another planned box set, long demanded, called The Beatles In Mono, collecting the mono mixes of ten albums and a bunch of singles. Now, why on earth would anyone salivate over mono recordings in the age of stereo and surround sound? Well, all of the band's recorded output, up until 1968, received distinct mono mixes. At the time, stereo was almost an afterthought, whereas mono was the dominant form. The heavy needle arms on mono record players would destroy the more delicate stereo LPs. And in order to get good mono and stereo results, each was done in its own way, separately. This resulted in radical differences between the two. For example, the mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, overseen by the band members themselves, is much different than it's more widely heard stereo counterpart. After hearing it, you'll never think of it the same way again. The mono box is a smart move on the typically stubborn Apple's part.

So, is this all just a new packaging of old stuff, or will it be a monumental event? What are some of the ramifications of the whole thing, anyway? Let us count the ways:

1. In an age when Pete Townshend has no idea what happened to the multitracks from Who's Next and The Beach Boys' best-known recordings are littered with tape noise, background chatter, coughing and sloppy mixes, The Beatles enjoy the lofty position of having perhaps the best, most well-preserved and best-sounding back catalog of any band from the 1960s. And we're not just talking about the music. EMI used excellent quality analog tape in those days. None of it has even oxidized, in contrast to lower quality tape. And while the equipment at London's Abbey Road Studios was technologically primitive compared to the cutting edge stuff used at rival studios (later resulting in the band utilizing other recording facilities), it did result in high-quality recordings. All of the band's recorded output is currently kept in a special vault at Abbey Road. They even have a dedicated caretaker, longtime Abbey Road engineer Allen Rouse, who's sole job for the past decade and a half has been keeping an eye on the crown jewels and overseeing various Beatles projects.

2. The Beatles reissue project will be a shot in the arm for a music industry that desperately needs one. Let's face it, it's rough out there. The recording industry of 2009 finds itself competing against many other forms of media. Video games and DVDs are serious rivals for the entertainment dollar. In addition, the wide digital availability of music has made an impact, both authorized (iTunes, Rhapsody, etc.) and unauthorized (file sharing). The industry dug its own grave on that one back in the mid-90s when they greedily decided to deep-six the single format. At the same time, Billboard began allowing album tracks to enter the Hot 100. The labels, in an attempt to move the more profitable albums, tried to force consumers to buy the whole thing to get the one hit. Enter Napster a few years later, which allowed music fans to get what they wanted in the first place - the sole hit song. We all know what happened after that. Too much blame has been put on unauthorized downloading, though. A few artists, such as Radiohead, actually saw their sales go up due to file sharing. And digital sales are doing extremely well, though at the expense of the better CD format. And yes, even the archaic vinyl format has been making a comeback in recent years. Currently, 1969's Abbey Road is one of the best selling vinyl LPs in the land.

A major reason for the current recording industry slump that rarely gets mentioned is airplay. MTV doesn't play much music anymore, so videos don't have the same impact that they did in the 1980s, save for country music. Radio has also become more restrictive, as many are controlled by corporate entities with uniform playlists that don't take the chances they used to with newer artists. Sure, there's the internet, with sites such as MySpace and Last.fm. But as McCartney himself has claimed, major labels have no idea how to promote music online.

And then, there's quality. Many of today's key meal-ticket artists aren't coming up with earth-moving music. Sure, U2's latest album did okay. By now, it's probably hit platinum. But in all honesty, it's a rather weak effort compared to their past output. The only thing that could possibly save the rather tepid No Line On The Horizon is their upcoming tour, and a follow-up album due later this year. Bruce Springsteen's new album is good, but it can't hold a candle to Born To Run. Today's recordings all seem so sanitary. So perfect. And a bit bland. It's also very heavily clipped, as record labels seek to make each product louder than the last. The process results in sonic dreck that exhausts the ears rather than pleases them. Ironically, music in the digital age sounds pretty lousy compared to all that old stuff recorded on ancient analog equipment.

Over the past half-century, The Beatles have been the only guaranteed money-making artists in the industry. Even their back catalog still sells like crazy. The 1 compilation, a taster consisting of all their #1 hits, is one of the biggest selling releases of all time, with 31 million units moved worldwide. The simultaneous release of the remastered catalog on the same day as Rock Band will be a swift kick in the ass for the industry. And people will most likely buy the CDs, rather than just wait for it to turn up in inferior mp3 files on BitTorrent. Don't be surprised if The Beatles are the top-selling artist of 2009 and people rediscover the CD format.

2. Even without official digital distribution, The Beatles are still the most downloaded artists on the internet. This is helped mostly by the wide availability of 'bootleg' releases. But rather than the umpteenth repackaging of the White Album acoustic demos and zillions of sloppy rehearsal tracks from the Get Back sessions, most of the bootleg activity these days revolves around unofficial 'remasters'. These 'remasters', essentially high-bitrate digital files ripped from good quality imported vinyl releases using high-end turntables, actually sound better than the 1987 CDs. Scary.

3. So, when are The Beatles going legit with their downloads? Negotiations between Apple Corps., Apple Computers (yes, that lawsuit has long been resolved) and EMI have been rough. The Beatles, along with AC/DC (who refuse to digitize their music for downloading) are among the sole remaining high-profile holdouts. All of the individual Beatles have released their solo catalogs through online mp3 retailers (and in remastered form to boot). McCartney himself wants to see a resolution that will put legit mp3s of The Beatles online, but acknowledges it's all between the lawyers now. Dhani Harrison, representing his late father George, claims iTunes and others need to charge more than the standard 99 cents for individual Beatles tracks. Since iTunes has just introduced tiered pricing, this thorny issue could be close to a resolution. The younger Harrison, seemingly the group's point man in tech-related issues (he was the one who suggested the Rock Band project), has even proposed the idea of Apple Corps. doing their own digital distribution.

The whole digital impasse could be resolved by the end of the year. That's what they're hoping. But does it really matter? Hardcore Beatles fans don't care about iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Rhapsody. They'll buy the CDs. The only advantage to download availability would be to cater to a younger demographic (the massive success of the 1 compilation has proven that they are very effective at this) who have been moving away from CDs. But since the iTunes software itself is highly effective at making decent quality mp3 files from CDs, why not, for the same price, just buy the more attractive and better-sounding discs instead? Downloading is really just an impulse purchase geared toward obtaining individual songs.

4. Apple seems to have finally gotten the whole thing right. For the most part. And this new undertaking has shown that they really are trying to please the fans. I like the idea of the mono box set, the extensive liner notes and the cardboard digipacks . The documentaries are a nice touch. I would have, however, totally remixed Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour and a few of the single-only releases (some of which didn't see true stereo mixes until long after the band broke up). I also wouldn't mind seeing 5.1 surround mixes of a few releases, but perhaps that's further down the road.

And Apple and EMI did entrust the whole remastering project to reliable personnel. The seven engineers overseeing it have long been associated with some very high-quality Beatles-related reissues, as well as a few solo Beatles projects (such as John Lennon's catalog). They know the material inside-out. They are familiar with the delicacy involved in faithfully digitizing the old analog tapes, and know that old technology must be used with the new high-tech stuff for the best possible results. Modern gimmicks such as de-noising and digital limiting were used very sparingly. The tape heads were cleared of dust and debris after playing back each song. All in all, this was not a slap-dash effort. This was serious business.

5. Some may bemoan that The Beatles are not padding the original albums with outtakes, B-sides, singles, etc. This was no oversight. McCartney himself states that the band prefers to present the albums in the way that they were originally intended. They don't want younger generations to remember a 24-song Revolver packed with filler. And quite frankly, would you want to hear "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" on Abbey Road? Or "Lady Madonna" on The White Album? It just wouldn't work. Often bands and record labels tend to stuff CDs with excess material because they can. And in some cases, it works. But when all is said and done, isn't it all about quality rather than quantity? Instead of just stuffing it with filler, perhaps it's better in this case to present the material in its original, intended form. These are legendary albums. Beethoven never added outtakes to his symphonies. Would you add a few chapters of J.D. Salinger's scribblings to the end of "Catcher In The Rye"? Or splashes of color to Picasso's "Guernica"? Of course not. For those who do want the singles, outtakes, etc., Past Masters and Anthology do just that.

Sure, I may be making a big deal out of all this, but this will likely be the most-talked about event in the recording industry this year, so it is worth mentioning. The Beatles could give the recording industry a swift kick in the pants in 2009 like they did 45 years ago with "I Want To Hold Your Hand." And if, indeed, this is the swan song for the CD format, as some of the more pessimistic observers predict, it will be one hell of a wake. And for the young folks who's idea of rock and roll is the Jonas Brothers, well, it's time to experience the real deal.

Ladies and gentlemen - The Beatles!

2 comments:

Bukko_in_Australia said...

The Beatles are that rare band, just like Led Zeppelin, U2 and countless others

You realise, don't you, that the Beatles cannot be both "rare" and like "countless others"? I know it's snarky to say, but that just leapt out at me.

ltr said...

Picky, picky...

I wrote that wrong. That's what happens when I hurry through an entry and don't have the luxury of an outside editor.

I admit, I suck at editing my own stuff. And even casual readers can probably tell. Hence the occasional rambling and random spurts of absurdity. So there.


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