Amid the understandable hoopla around the release of "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game, one of the most significant events in recorded music of the past 20 years is actually taking a backseat: The long-awaited digital remastering of the Beatles' albums, which haven't received an upgrade since they were first issued on CD in 1987 and are finally hitting stores on Wednesday, the same day as "Rock Band."
While most major catalogues of the 20th century by now have been overhauled multiple times, the Beatles' legal affairs — which are probably more complex than many United Nations matters — move at such an elephantine pace that the most important catalog in rock history has remained trapped in tinny-sounding CDs. And although the group's outtakes and BBC sessions were carefully curated onto the Anthology series and Live at the BBC album during the 1990s, the resulting situation was almost tragic: The extraneous material on those albums was available in pristine sound quality, while the Beatles' core albums sounded terrible. So, just in time for the obsolescence of the CD, the group's original releases — the British LPs, along with the Magical Mystery Tour compilation and the Past Masters collection — are finally available in optimal audio quality.
I grew up on scratchy (vinyl) Beatles albums, and I've spent much of the past week listening to the new CDs — every single note of them (except for the non-Beatle orchestral songs on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack), at full volume, in headphones. The question for those who might not share that level of obsession is: Do you really need to hear these revamped incarnations of songs you've already heard dozens if not hundreds of times? The answer depends on how big of a fan you are — and suffice it to say that die-hards will be overjoyed.
The recordings have been meticulously reprocessed with technology I couldn't hope to explain (involving "24 bit 192 kHz resolution via a Prism A-D converter" — head here for details), but the remastering team has been just as meticulous in retaining the original mixes and feel of the recordings. Thus, the closest analogy here is a restored painting: The songs are the same — they even retain mixes that, in the strange logic of the early days of stereo, can have all the vocals and the bass in one speaker and all the other instruments and no vocals in the other — but it's as if a cloak has been lifted from them, bringing forth sounds and details that were obscured on earlier releases. You can hear breaths being taken before verses are sung, previously muffled instruments (usually percussion or keyboard parts), mumbled asides in the backing vocals, enthusiastic shouts in the background (usually from Paul McCartney), and even subtleties like the group seeming to fight off laughter as they sing the final "Mee-ee-ooooo" of "Help!"
The engineers have also done an admirable job of isolating the instruments without sacrificing the ensemble sound; it's easier than ever to hear the individual instrumental parts and the tones of the instruments, and imagine the bandmembers playing them. Hopefully, this will bring belated respect to the understated but masterful work of the eternally underrated Ringo Starr (particularly on "Rain") and George Harrison (especially his raucous work on the White Album and Abbey Road, and his searing solo on the album version of "Let It Be"). But the greatest revelation is in the vocals, which bring a new intimacy to both the individual singers — Lennon's snarl, McCartney's soulful roar — and their peerless harmonies.
Of course, whenever history is revised there are issues, and these remasters aren't without them. The first two albums were recorded on two-track machines, and while the sonic detail on their remasters is remarkable, at times the primitive sound seems confused by the new technology, conjuring visions of a befuddled person being vaulted 45 years into the future: Particularly when overdubs or echo are in play, backing vocals and instrumental tracks will disorientingly swoop in and then vanish, or a voice will come out of one speaker and its echo the other. (This problem does not effect the post-1963 material, which was recorded on four- or eight-track.)
Also, the enhanced clarity cuts both ways: For example, the blown harmonies on songs like "You Won't See Me" and the mistakes on the Let It Be album sound worse than ever. However, it is to the credit of the reissue team that such human mistakes (as opposed to things like a microphone popping or amplifer hum) weren't fixed: The Who, for example, have rarely resisted an opportunity to embellish history by posthumously remixing or even (reportedly) adding decades-later overdubs to archive material. Also, as someone who has long believed Paul McCartney to be the greatest rock bassist in history, the clarity here sometimes makes his melodic and inventive playing, which felt understated in the earlier releases, seem like showboating.
(Of course, there's also the issue of the monophonic releases: Stereo was a new phenomenon in the 1960s, and artists of the era usually released material in both mono and stereo, with differing mixes and sometimes even the vocal or instrumental tracks. To sate the die-hards, the Beatles' mono material has been collected into a boxed set, which was sold out at press time but reportedly will be reissued.)
In line with the meticulousness of the sound, the packaging on the CDs has been dramatically upgraded. The CD booklets contain period photos and exhaustive liner notes, and anything more you'd want to know can be found in the "Anthology" DVDs or Mark Lewisohn's definitive "The Beatles Recording Sessions" book. Each CD also comes with a "mini-documentary" on each album: The two I watched are about five minutes long and contain quotes and studio chatter, but little video — again, see the "Anthology" DVDs (or YouTube) for deeper dives.
As for the digital releases of these albums, well, due to the above-mentioned legal dramas, there aren't any yet. The press release about the CDs tersely reads: "Discussions regarding the digital distribution of the catalogue will continue. There is no further information available at this time." Still, for some of us, the fidelity of these CDs is reason enough to keep a working stereo in the house.
And hey, if for some reason you don't like the way they sound or simply don't want to spend the money, don't worry: The long-awaited release of these remasters guarantees that within weeks, the old Beatles CDs will be available at garage sales all over the country — at bargain-basement prices.