Opinions: Beatles Remasters Dazzling, Expensive

by David Bauder

Hard to believe that it's been 40 years since the Beatles sang "You Never Give Me Your Money." You had to expect at least one cheap shot, didn't you? The Beatles' remastered catalog and a dazzling coffee-table "Box of Vision" hits the market Wednesday, as most dedicated fans have known for months. Fanatics will line up, but for most people, a purchase decision is more likely to be financial than musical.

Technicians at Apple Corps Ltd. spent four years cleaning up and giving a digital punch to the master recordings left behind by the Beatles. Each is available individually, as well as in a $259.98 box set that includes the band's original discs, plus the "Past Masters" singles collection, 14 albums in all. Mini-documentaries are included for all but "Past Masters."
Also on sale is a $298.98 box of mono mixes for each album through the "White Album"; after that the music was only released in stereo. For those under age 50, mono has the same music coming through each speaker (stereo splits different parts of a track through different speakers) and was the dominant music system in homes until the late 1960s. At first, the Beatles devoted more attention to their mono mixes.
The "Box of Vision" is an $89.98 package (plus shipping -- it's only available by mail order) to fit all of the CDs with album-sized reprints of every album's covers and liner notes -- yet no actual CDs included.

Do the math: it's possible to spend upwards of $350 and receive not a single note of new music.

Given that we're in an era where artists have a hard time convincing fans they should pay for ANY music, that falls into the selling-ice-to-Eskimos category. Despite that, despite the economy, Amazon.com sold out its allotment of boxes and has a waiting list of buyers.
Now, this is the greatest catalog in popular music, so if your collection is Beatle-less, the box is a terrific buy. Really, though, what serious pop music fan doesn't already own some of these albums already?

Since the albums contain no outtakes or alternate versions, the remaster is the attraction. The advice here is to arrange a test-drive: buy, or borrow, an individual disc ($18.98 list, $24.98 for the White Album and "Past Masters") to see how much difference the sound makes before setting aside a few hundred bucks for one of the boxes.

In the case of "Rubber Soul," what's striking is how the new mix let you hear each background singer with sparkling clarity. A tambourine feels like it's jingling in your ear.
It sounds great. It ALWAYS sounded great, frankly. For an average person with an average sound system, the differences aren't going to make it seem like an entirely new listening experience.

What is new here are mini-documentaries on DVD, about three minutes apiece, on each album. They feature interviews with band members and producer George Martin, seemingly left over from the "Beatles Anthology" days, and some studio banter.
They're all fun and occasionally enlightening. Starr described the lengthy studio sessions for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by saying, "It's a fine album, but I did learn to play chess on it."
Yet that mini-doc talks little about the album's epic "A Day in the Life." No time. Each piece is like a slightly elongated trailer for a show you'd like to see but doesn't exist.

The "Box of Vision" is a beautiful package, with the groundbreaking photo of the four Beatles with their faces in half shadow on the front of a box that has the size and shape of old record albums. Inside are plastic sleeves to insert copies of CDs, purchased separately, and two books.

Both are exhaustive. One lists the Beatles' complete discography, detailing the differences between British and American releases, which were substantial in the first half of the band's career, and all of the reissues. Another reproduces the album covers and all of the liner notes, including booklets of later CD releases like the "Anthology" series.
It's pleasantly memory-jogging and reproduces that experience, from before the CD era, of having something substantial you can hold in your hands while listening to the albums.

All of these packages ooze class and quality. Fans must decide for themselves if it's worth paying for things they've paid for before.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.


Anonymous said...

When there is so much in the way of unreleased music that would have benefited from this kind of attention and which would have been snapped up by Beatle fans, It seems so sad that EMI have chosen this thoughtless route of flogging the same old stuff over and over again. Yes the sound is better than the previous attempts at recycling the music, but that is because of the earlier transfers to cd was all about making money and not about improving sound quality.
Buy it if you must, but it just encourages EMI to continue doing more of the same.

Larry said...

I, personally, don't get all the hoopla surrounding these releases. Sure, I will bet the sound quality is better than any previously released Beatles material, but most people's systems aren't that great anyway, so you won't really hear just how much better these new releases are. Me, I have everything on vinyl, and no matter how many nicks and pops you get on vinyl, their music--and music of this era in general--sounds better on record.

I think the Beatles Rock Band is more of the story here, because it will bring together the generations to play--and listen to--the Beatles. It will introduce young kids to our classic music, and I am sure it will become destination music for them too.

The reissues are a good thing to keep them freshly on the market. Frankly, they are really for the kids that get turned onto the Beatles through Rock Band. They are not for me or my generation, who were around during the Beatles' prime years.

Larry L.

J Neo Marvin said...

I only want to know one thing: does the new Magical Mystery Tour still have the awful "simulated stereo" on some of the tracks (including the last half of "I Am The Walrus"), or has this bit of weirdness been finally corrected, as the new issue of MOJO suggests?