So I had bought myself an expensive Christmas present with my bonus which it turned out the people I bought it from didn’t actually have. They returned my money but now I couldn’t find the same product for anywhere near that price so could no longer afford it. I did however still want to buy myself a present that was frivolous and expensive. Because I’m that kind of guy. And God knows working as long as we did over Christmas I deserved something. It was also my friend’s birthday just after new year and his girlfriend had bought him The Beatles Remastered Boxset which we had both been hankering after for the last 2 years or so. Anyway, after 0.3 second’s thought I decided this would be a good thing to buy. So I did. It arrived on Thursday and I have since listened to all 13 albums in their entirety over the course of 3 evenings at quite a high volume.
In advance, I already love the Beatles. They are one of, if not my actual, favourite band. I am a big fan of the 60s in general so not loving the Beatles would be pretty stupid. It’s not just the music, their fashion and dress has always had a profound influence on me, their ideologies, their artistic appreciation all have played an integral part in my development since my late teens. I have a Viola Bass, Epiphone Semi-Acoustic electric guitar, I even had a Ludwig ‘Fab Four’ drum kit and a leslie speaker in a guitar pedal. Yes, I like the Beatles. But this was something else.
I won’t try to write about who the Beatles were or their context (there’s enough boring scholarship about this that has always been pretty redundant) and I’ll try not to go into too much technical depth (Revolution in the Head is the only book you need for that) and I won’t review each album individually as we’ll be here all night, I will merely talk about my feelings for what I was listening to over the last few evenings.
First and foremost the remastering is simply staggering. I didn’t know this kind of spit and polish was possible on such permanently fixed material. The reason I say this is that tape is a notoriously immovable method of recording being that you cannot single out specific tracks to clean or edit as the bass, drums and guitar will often be on the same track so you have to master/mix all three at the same time. Apparently digital software is more advanced than I conceived as the quality of even the earliest records is as good as any released record today. Weirdly it is even better sounding than the records that try to emulate the sound now (anything recorded at the famous analogue studio Toerag for instance). A good indicator of this is that I can tell what instruments are being used on what track, for instance: George is definitely playing a Strat on ‘I Want To Tell You’ and a Tele on most of the ‘Let It Be’ album, You can hear Ringo’s switch from Premier to Ludwig kits and you can tell what effects are being used where and on what track. This is an astonishing achievement for the nerds among the Beatles fans (of which there are many) but even more of a treat for those who have no technical knowledge of the recordings. This is what I really wanted to talk about.
There has been enough myth making about the Beatles over the years and all the related Apocrypha that adds to a legend not even 50 years old, so I went into this boxset as a fan and was sincerely hoping in the harsh, desiccating digital light the anaemic guts of these records would be laid bare and all hyperbolic gumph would be surgically removed. Unfortunately this is not the case. Quite the reverse in fact. Not only does every single record translate well to high-grade digital format but it genuinely enhances each record. Whatever alchemical magic that was present in the Beatles as an entity and as such the much pored over recordings, is revealed in all its psychedelic, technicolour glory. It was like someone had given me a whole new set of recordings from what are undoubtedly now the best band ever.
I remember saying to my friend people would not tolerate this endless reissuing from any other band but this time not only was it justified it is practically essential. Modern listening devices require an update of old material if they are to survive and if this boxset proves anything these albums need to survive. Every single one of the 217 songs contained in the set are examples of what is as close to perfection in music as is possible to attain. They have been matched but never bettered and it will be a long time before anyone will be as revolutionary as they in my humble opinion and their craft and ability is easy to behold in the stark relief of digital enhancement.
Ignoring their leaps and bounds in technology (a largely contextual concern) what remains is the frankly unbelievable quality of the entire body of work. Each album was like reading a good book or watching a great film. Winding, varied, enjoyable and immensely satisfying. The minor gripes of previous issues that grated are gone: no hiss, no crackle, no distortion and all the much-too-tight, thudding, compression is gone giving each track room to breathe and the definition and clarity nerds like me have always craved.
A few tracks leapt out at me over the course of listening that I had forgotten about that are now practically on a loop. ‘I’ll Be Back’ is so spacious now, the harmonies are truly haunting and genuinely heartbreaking. ‘No Reply’ s chorus is now simply, fucking HUGE. Like a slap in the face to start ‘For Sale’. ‘And I Love Her’ was always beautiful but now the clarity and warmth leant to Harrison’s solo is hypnotising. ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ bubbles over and races past in two minutes of absolute joy, it would probably be better known if it didn’t precede ‘Yesterday’. ‘It’s All Too Much’ reveals itself as the progenitor for the entire British music scene in the 90s. A lot of the stuff that is often called ‘over-produced’ comes out of the remaster well too. The strangely maligned ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is for all the world now shown as the mind bending, experiment in sound it honestly is and is a real experience to sit through from start to finish. The clean-up has a strange subduing effect to what was an almost overpowering production. I think it’s the removal bleed from the many tracks so a lot of the mushiness is removed allowing for a neater appraisal of it. The White Album benefits from a sit down listen too. It comes across now as less of a collection of songs more of a very long radio play that will suck you in if you let it, the lurches in tone and genre so frequent and violent, boredom is impossible and you end up letting it blissfully wash over you.
The sacrifice for this is there is nowhere to hide. There are errors I never noticed until now: Weird ‘ducking’ of the brass on ‘Marth My Dear’, drop outs, the odd fluffed note (Ringo’s early stab in No Reply wincingly obvious now), slurred or fluffed words but considering this was in the days before digital editing and auto tune it’s not what went wrong it’s how much they got absolutely spot on. Quite how they managed the harmonies without the compression, autotuning and vocal coaching every singer gets in this day and age is hard to believe were it not on every single track. All Xfactor contestants should be put through a Clockwork Orange, Ludovico Technique-style torture involving headphones and all these albums to teach them what you can do with taste and practice.
Revolver was my favourite album, mainly because it had the best tunes but now thanks to the clarity afforded Rubber Soul and the peculiar muting effect on Sgt. Pepper the remastering has done, it now slots into the infinitely wonderful other albums. They only one that has suffered for me is ‘With The Beatles’. It seems to be an interim album, trying to capture the same lightning of ‘Please Please Me’ but with too much polish and not achieving the excitement of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. It is by no means a bad album and soars high above whatever foetid set of values pass for average in today’s music (I’M LOOKING AT YOU COLDPLAY) it just does not kick me in the balls as hard as the others. No, the album that comes away the best (as has been mentioned in nearly every review of the boxset) is Abbey Road.
Abbey Road is technically the Beatles last album having been recorded after ‘Let It Be’ but released before it and it should be viewed as such. It is the most fitting finale for the band known for pushing every boundary possible in music and production, the last song is even called ‘The End’ (we’ll ignore Her Majesty shall we?). The remaster gives each instrument the clarity it deserves and the result is nothing short of gobsmacking. The album draws from and builds on everything the Beatles ever were and delivers a rich and textured piece of work that (in my opinion) hasn’t been matched. A careful listen shows the production on the album is still a template for any pop band/idol in today’s market. That drum sound, those strings, those harmonies, the genre splicing, everything about it sounds beautiful. George Martin may not have done anything to match it since but he deserves unending praise for gifting us the last 40 years of music production. What the now pristine recordings also reveal is what a tight unit and force of nature they were by then, the genres tackled, the arrangements and songs are so innovative, unique and creative you can feel them stretching to contain it all, probably the reason the bubble burst so soon after its release, you can’t contain that kind of energy from four personalities. Pepper got the laurels from history for being the first to do what it did but Abbey Road is better constructed, more focussed and still fairly pertinent. A fitting end for the band that changed everything to make what I hope history will now see as not just their best album but one of the best albums.
Many people I meet say they don’t like the Beatles, normally for effect I suspect, but my response to this is normally you have never really listened to any of the 13 albums (13! In 7 years! Seriously, HOW. THE. HELL?!) properly. There is not just a Beatles song for everyone there is an Album for everyone and it is in this boxset. If you honestly do not like them, fair enough but what you MUST do is respect them. Whatever music you like would probably not exist were it not for them, in fact half the equipment and techniques in the studios used to record your favourite band would not exist were it not for them. To be honest, I doubt I’d have been BORN were it not for the Beatles. Okay, I might be getting hysterical but in all seriousness, this band are honest-to-God world changers. We have only had a handful as good before them and we sure as shit ain’t had any as good since. Love ’em or loathe ’em, you cannot ignore them. As such I would recommend giving these remasters a listen if you haven’t been into the Beatles before, there is definitely something in there for you. Like metal? Helter Skelter. Like Classic Jazz? Honey Pie. Like Pop? Any of the singles. Like Ballads? Something. Like Hip Hop? Come Together (seriously, listen to the remaster, every bit of that song could be/has been sampled). If you’re already a fan and don’t have these remasters get them, NOW. You will not regret it. Worth every penny.
I could go on much longer with more breathless superlatives and hyperbole but the fact is the albums honestly speak for themselves. More so than ever. There’s a reason a band that was only together for 7 years broke so many records and still has the impact and influence that they do today. Because they are simply THAT good. These records prove it. Buy it, listen to them all, thank me later. You’re welcome.
And well done boys, nice work.