NEW YORK OK, this is weird. I'm standing in a ridiculously super-luxe reception hall on the fourth floor of the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street. The place is a riot of red plush and Deco-to-the-max fireplaces and ... yes, those appear to be hand-carved bears holding up the mantelpieces. Seated before me on a velvety couch are four Boomer-type people, all sipping wine and politely jiggling their toes to the music issuing from an elaborate stereo rig about 25 feet in front of us.
We're listening to the Rolling Stones.
No, not the latter-day Rolling Stones of Steel Wheels and Bridges to Babylon the stuff you've probably passed over in utter bafflement, after hearing these guys over-hyped as legends for so long by your parents. (Grandparents?)
No, this is the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, when they could lay straight-faced claim to being one of the most monumental rock and roll bands in the world. Back when the late multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones (sitar! vibes!) and the indispensable bassist Bill Wyman were in the band. Back when they were doing blow-you-away albums like Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Let It Bleed, the unjustly underestimated psychedelic opus Their Satanic Majesties Request. The music that's a central source of inspiration for the garage-rock revival that's now threatening to kick major butt on today's constipated pop-music scene.
But so what, you say all this old Stones stuff is still readily available, having long ago been converted into gleaming CD product.
Well, forget that. What we're listening to here is part of an ambitious reissue project called The Rolling Stones Remastered, for which ABKCO, the company that controls much of the band's classic material, has sought out the original, first-generation master recordings, and had them remastered using SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) technology.
The SACD process features sound sampled at a much higher rate than that currently used in making CDs, and the result vividly evident on these revamped Rolling Stones records is vintage music that suddenly sounds as if it's had 35 years' worth of cobwebs blown off of it. I know this may seem an eye-rolling assertion, but it really is like being in the studio when the band laid down the tracks.
Like you, I suspect, I am not a high-end audio person. I know I'll never be in the market for a $65,000 pair of speakers or a $12,000 turntable. (These things actually exist.) I'm not on any audio company's freebie list, either. And while I realize these remastered Stones CDs naturally sound super-good being played on a $3,000 Sony SACD player routed through $7,000 Pass amplifiers and a $15,000 pair of Eggleston speakers, I'm relieved to learn that some SACD players are available at around $200. So I can actually get one. And hey, so can you. (Probably, right?)
And even if you can't, these new CDs as I learned when I tossed a sampler disc on my nothing-special home player still sound noticeably better on current equipment than any previous Rolling Stones releases. Maybe even the vinyl originals. (Ultra-picky, vinyl-loving high-end audio buffs appear to be unusually excited about SACDs, too.)
There are also some interesting factlets about these Stones reissues. For example, in the course of remastering, it was discovered that two of the group's early hits "Mother's Little Helper" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" were originally recorded on a faulty tape deck, which resulted in a slightly slower-than-intended master. Now, decades later, this flaw has been rectified. And the celebrated 1969 album Let It Bleed, we learn, was originally intended by the Stones to run continuously without track-separating grooves of silence as a single, album-length composition. Now, at last, in remastered form, it does. (Although you can still program the separate tracks at home.)
I know: Here we go again. The ever-voracious record business is once again trying to compel us to re-buy all our old albums in a spiffy new form. (And in a reprise of the old VHS-versus-Beta video wars of the 1970s, there's a competing DVD-based audio format that also utilizes the new higher sampling rate.)
I much resent this sort of thing, too. But SACD is a quantum leap for digital sound, a revelation, really. Time takes an unavoidable toll, and I never imagined I'd ever be jazzed about another new Rolling Stones release. But remastered, these great old albums sound new all over again. And jazzed I am.
(The Rolling Stones Remastered collection 22 albums, including original U.K. versions and bonus tracks from back in the day will be released on August 20.)