While most people spent their Labor Day weekend flipping burgers with friends or catching the last rays of summer sun at the beach, I sat at home for three days listening to 14 newly remastered Beatles albums. Call me crazy, but I'm sure I had the best time of all.
My assignment was to listen critically to the new CDs (which are available starting today), compare them with the previous CD versions released 22 years ago (at the dawn of digital technology) and report back on whether the new ones are better-sounding enough to pony up 260 greenbacks for the boxed set, or $19 for the individual CDs.
Well, I have listened to them all (in chronological order thank you very much), and the verdict is in. Ringo, a drum roll, if you please...
Ahem... after umpteen hours of careful scrutiny (including some involuntary singing along. OK, a lot of singing along), it is my considered judgment that true blue Beatles fans and collectors will find the improved sonics, sparkling-clean tracks, and enhanced separation achieved by the Abbey Road studio engineers and assorted experts (who spent the past four years poring over the original tapes) on these new CDs well worth the investment. I mean, we're talking Beatles here.
So what's so special/different/amazing/not-to-be-missed? For starters, the overall sound is very clear and virtually distortion-free. The lads' lead vocals are somewhat enhanced and background voices sound less blended together, so it's easier to single out the individual Beatles singing harmonies. Formerly buried acoustic guitars suddenly are more present, and sound percussive, woody, and more resonant. Electric guitars seem to ring out more viscerally.
None of the four Beatles could be called virtuoso instrumentalists, but the juiced-up presence and an almost palpable dimensionality amps up their live rock band élan. It's most evident on "With the Beatles," their fine second record, which bristles with raw rock energy on covers like "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Please Mr. Postman," as well as the white-hot Lennon/McCartney opener "It Won't Be Long."
Suddenly, it's easier to imagine them playing live at the Cavern Club (minus the screaming girls). Listening to Revolver's "Got to Get You Into My Life," the horn section's brass sounds freshly polished and positively gleaming as Ringo's insistent shuffle beat drives the song up another level.
Paul and Ringo should be ecstatic about the boosted bass and more focused drum sounds, which reconfirms what a truly fine rhythm section they were. Ringo's ride cymbals and hi hats have never sounded so clear or shimmery. Tambourines and shakers, formerly buried in the mixes, can now be distinctly heard, adding visceral texture to the music. On the lovely "Blackbird," not only can you hear Paul's foot tapping out the steady 4/4 beat, but the type of shoe he's wearing is also apparent. (Lightweight leather with a thin sole was my guess, but I was stumped by the color. I would never have guessed the red and yellow oxfords with, yes, thin soles I later saw Paul sporting in the accompanying QuickTime movie.) His Rickenbacker bass, especially from "Revolver" on, swoops and thumps with added authority on these discs.
For those of us who are used to hearing a Beatles album or song at the very least weekly, these cleaned-up versions do require a listen or two to get used to.
The remastered lead vocals throughout these CDs have a defined apartness and dimensionality that I must admit I'm not yet wild about, or maybe it's that I just can't shake the way I've heard them sing those songs so many, many times before. Yes, the voices are more clearly delineated, but that increased presence has the effect of making John or Paul sound like they're standing way out in front of the band or sometimes in the next room. That said, it's a thrill to hear those amazing voices again, in all their exuberant glory – a hoarse, clearly exhausted John Lennon picking himself up off the mat and knocking "Twist and Shout" out of the park at the tail end of the first album's marathon, single-day recording session. Paul's romantic and drop-dead gorgeous vocal on "Here, There and Everywhere," arguably his best song. Ringo's unforgettable turn at the mike on Sgt Pepper's "A Little Help from My Friends." And none of the remasters' sonic tweaks could be called over the top. Legendary British restraint is much in evidence on this project, which is good news for fans of this marvelous music, producer George Martin, and the Beatles themselves.
The packaging is, in a word, fab. Each album features the original British song sequencing and cover artwork and there are, thankfully, no plastic jewel boxes. Instead, each CD is housed in a trifold cardboard sleeve along with a booklet containing recording notes by producer Martin, an essay placing each album in historical context, along with a generous sprinkling of rare photos of the boys. Each CD also boasts a delightful four-minute QuickTime movie that illuminates the making of that particular album. Photos and audio interviews with all four Beatles are cleverly assembled and animated to put you right there at the sessions. You'd think they are all still around, having a cup of Earl Grey, chatting and dropping amusing anecdotes. These fascinating little mini-docs alone are worth the price of the box forany Beatlemaniac.
If you're just a casual fan, you might find the Remastered Beatles more than you need, especially if you've already got the albums you enjoy. Perhaps you'll just want to pick up a few of your absolute favorites for the vastly improved sound and extras. I fall into the small camp of critics who think the original CDs released in 1987 sounded pretty darn good. I still think they sound good, even after listening to all of the new ones. Of course, I still play the scratchy old vinyl versions at home on my 1954 Magnavox hifi, so what do I know...
One recommendation, though: A surprising number of people I've encountered, rabid fans all, do not own one of the very best Beatles' albums, "Past Masters 1 & 2." Since most of the Beatles' various singles weren't on their albums, their record company assembled 32 singles, B-sides, and a few novelties like the German versions of "She Loves You" ("Sie Liebt Dich") and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" ("Komm, Gig Mir Deine Hand") on a two-disc set in the late 1980s. This material has now been remastered as a double disc set, and no (even casual) collection should be without the cool rocker "Day Tripper," Paul's incendiary "Paperback Writer," "I Feel Fine," John and Paul's charming duet on "The Ballad of John and Yoko," "Lady Madonna," the underrated "She's a Woman," or the irresistible "Hey Jude."
Listening to 14 Beatles albums in chronological order was a total gas, reconfirming not only the greatness and appeal of their music, but its unflagging vitality. The spark was struck from the very first seconds of their first album, with Paul's urgent "One, two, three, foh!" kicking off "I Saw Her Standing There." Is there a better rock song, even now? Or a better rock singer than McCartney or Lennon at their best?
A fresh listen to their career output revealed that everything we loved about them was already there on that first LP "Please Please Me" – John's acerbic edge and rock 'n' roll soul, Paul's sweet optimism and pop melodicism, George's old-school guitar chops, and Ringo's swinging drumming and charmingly off-key vocals. The only thing not yet in evidence was their ability to reinvent themselves continuously and carry us along on their fascinating, fun-filled, and fabulous seven-year ride. The Beatles Remastered offers us a chance to reexperience those heady years, those wonderful songs, and those four charismatic and talented young men. For the price of a fine meal with friends or a speeding ticket, you, too, could own all 14 discs. Do you need them? Probably not. Should you get them? Oh yes.
• Check online retailers for cut prices on the boxed set.