EVER SINCE THE BEATLES first emerged on CD in 1987, there have been complaints about the sound. Back then the convenience of storage and cue-ing, the miraculous dearth of surface noise, plus the erroneous predictions of the format's longevity ("You can gouge 'em! Put jam on 'em! They'll last for ever!") made naysayers look like ridiculous luddites. But in 2009 CD is the beleaguered format, dissatisfaction with Beatle CDs is not the crank's preserve, and anyone lucky enough to own original vinyl copies of the Beatles singles and albums will appreciate the advantages in clarity and dynamism they enjoy over owners of the corresponding CDs. Compare Paperback Writer/Rain on crackly 45, with its weedy Past Masters CD version, and the case is closed.
It's a payoff, of course. Vinyl noise or CD murk? You pays your money and you takes your choice. Only now you don't have to. Because here are the Beatles CD Remasters, four and a half years in the development and bursting onto a market prepped and tweaked by the hoopla surrounding Beatles: Rock Band.
"You're in for a shock," Abbey Road sound legend Alan Rouse had promised MOJO back in July, when we were first allowed some ear-time with the still-unpackaged discs. Brilliantly, that's still how it feels a month later.
I will refrain from reviewing the music all over again. You will probably be familiar with that. Although it is worth saying how exponentially the Beatles appear to benefit from any attempt to improve their clarity. The best Beatles music (and that, of course, is most of it) is a federation - not a union - of elements, with the individual contributions so discrete and characterful that any time spent drawing them out is well rewarded. Recently, I had my doubts about the remastering of R.E.M.'s Murmur - I felt that some magic had departed with the murk - but there are no such caveats here.
While there are hundreds of mini-revelations in store for the Beatle-head - the clattering bell that drives The Beatles' Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey is made somehow even more exciting - the best thing about the new stereo versions is the singing. A certain amount of limiting on the original CD versions made them sound vaguely constrained. But the remastered vocals are purer, more natural-sounding and give the illusion of sitting slightly higher in the mix (technically, they don't - there's been no remixing, à la 1999's Yellow Submarine Songtrack or '06's Love, at all). My notes allude to the extra "presence" of the Lennon vocal on Magical Mystery Tour's I Am The Walrus, Paul's performance on Help!'s Yesterday is more perfectly limpid than ever, while the vocal harmonies sound astonishing throughout.
Certain technical flaws - of such vintage that they've become almost benignly tolerated - have been fixed. Notably, the drop-out in the third verse of Day Tripper has disappeared. Quirks derived from the Beatles' own performances - like Ringo's notorious drum stool squeak in A Day In The Life - have been retained, and actually jump out more now that the environment is so neutral and pristine. In fact there are moments when, if provoked, you might complain of too much information. I never noticed how irritating the hi-hats in Can't Buy Me Love were, and now they're really bugging me. But this is a lapse of Beatle taste, not sonic propriety and - Maxwell's Silver Hammer apart - there are few of those in the Beatle canon.
And so to the mono remasters - unlike the stereo albums, available not individually but only in a box. MOJO readers will, I suspect, be proportionately more interested in these than will the broader music-buying public. Mono is, after all, the sonic format in which most Beatle records were designed to sit, and while mono remains a fringe enthusiasm (especially since the incarceration of this gentleman) it also provides the most direct and powerful experiences (the "shocks" promised by Alan Rouse) of this remastering campaign.
Overall, it's a relief to wave goodbye to crude ping-pong effects and aggressive left-right separation (remember, many of the Beatles records have toiled under the yoke of "false stereo", where certain frequencies, not instruments, are panned across). And while bass attack is more powerfully projected across both the stereo and mono remasters, there are songs - Taxman, Paperback Writer, It's All Too Much - that sound, to these ears, simply better in mono.
And what of "The Mono Pepper"? A mythic creature to those weaned on the stereo - who may wonder how the prototype of the larger-than-life rock album fares with half its picture "missing" - it is perhaps the numero uno revelation of the whole campaign. The "straighter" tunes like Getting Better and Pepper Reprise sound punchier/gnarlier, and A Day In The Life remains exactly as overwhelming, albeit in a different way. That is, less spacious, but more intense.
Doubtless Paul McCartney would agree. "To us, what was important was the balance of the song," Sir Paul tells MOJO magazine in the latest issue. "We felt we were sort of mixing the message, rather than putting things in places. We just weren't that interested in stereo. It wasn't where we were from."
But whichever side you stand (left speaker? Right speaker?) on the mono/stereo debate or (worse, in some ways) if you're drawn to both, you have a dilemma on your hands. £169.98 for the stereo box is not inconsiderable in these straitened times; the sideflashes on the sleeve-fronts that mark the albums from their predecessors look rubbish; and the Quicktime mini-docs are charming window-dressing but aimed, one presumes, at the Beatle novice.
£199.98 (amazon.co.uk price) for the mono box is even steeper. You're only getting 10 albums, and the fan-bait (the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul - which George Martin, a man of some taste, always despised - plus mono Only A Northern Song, All Together Now, Hey Bulldog, It's All Too Much, plus Across The Universe from a mooted-but-unreleased 1969 EP) is unconvincing.
It's tempting to recommend purchasing the stereo remasters album by album, starting with Past Masters. Call it a loss leader; if you're as blown away as I was, get the box, and pass your double-ups to a young friend, "first taste free" as drug dealers used to say.
On the other paw, the mono box is a saucy, pouting minx and I must have her - as she knows I must. But rest assured, I will feel used afterwards. Worth it for that thrusting versh of Paperback Writer, at last a match for my original 45, discovered in the belly of a second-hand Radiogram purchased by my parents in the late '70s?
Perhaps it sounds barmy, but I've spent £200 less wisely and I bet you have too.*
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 12:00 PM GMT 09/09/2009