What do you listen to first?
"Every Little Thing", that’s my favorite Fab Four track (and I hate that appellation, but that’s how writers are, they’re afraid to use the same term over and over again, and come up with another moniker).
But as I broke the shrinkwrap on the giant box, I had a sudden urge to hear "Dear Prudence", because of the pure sound of that track. So I played that first.
THE WHITE ALBUM
Immediately noticeable is the low level. Today’s tracks are squashed to the max, with the volume cranked. They sound like shit, but they’re very loud. These Beatles CDs are not.
"Dear Prudence" was not a revelation. But what was immediately noticeable was that the guitar sounded like a guitar, one of those things with a body, with resonance, the guitar sounded three-dimensional. As did the vocal. This was no longer a record, this was someone real singing.
I figured the quieter sounds would be more revelatory. "Julia" is extremely personal, the instruments hover in space, but "I Will" sounds like Paul McCartney phoned you up out of the blue, said he was in the neighborhood and could he stop by and play you a few tunes? He’s here! This is not music made by a machine, but real human beings.
The first time through, I didn’t play "Blackbird", I just dialed it up. It’s like you were stumbling in the woods, looking for Rocky Raccoon, and you stumbled upon someone playing the guitar on his front porch. Just that intimate, and just for you. Wow!
BEATLES FOR SALE
It was called "Beatles ‘65" in the U.S. It had little cohesion, just six tracks on side one and five on side two. But in its original English form, with fourteen full tracks, including the missing "Every Little Thing" and "Eight Days A Week", sans "She’s A Woman" and "I Feel Fine", it flows perfectly, it’s become my most played Beatles album.
"Every Little Thing" ended up on Capitol’s slapdash American release, "Beatles VI", which I didn’t buy. Only years later, after being infected by the Yes cover, did I end up hearing the original. "Every Little Thing" is sincere and magical, it encapsulates all the hopes and dreams of adolescent love, and has none of the smarminess or calculation of the boy bands. And the drums and rhythm guitar are especially clear here, but my head didn’t explode. Then, listening to the music, my mind drifted back, way back to the summer of ‘64 on this ultra-hot SoCal afternoon. I broke the shrinkwrap on "A Hard Day’s Night".
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
On the American version, you’ve got to wait until side two for "I Should Have Known Better". But on the original English album, which this CD replicates, "I Should Have Known Better" comes second.
But it will always be number one in my book.
"I Should Have Known Better" is when we realized John Lennon was special. Sure, the song was great, but the way he sang it twisted our insides, who was this person, could we know him? We could never be as heartfelt, as passionate, we needed to get closer!
"I Should Have Known Better" is mindblowing. The rhythm guitar is distinct, in a way it never was before. The harmonica breathes. And when you hear John sing, you believe he’s still alive.
This remaster is the anti propofol. It’s like Disney imagineers came up with a serum they could inject into corpses to bring people back to life. And when John reaches up the scale, asking you to be MINE, you’ll jump, the hair on the back of your neck will stand at attention, you’ll get goosebumps.
"I’ll Cry Instead" sounds like a band at sound check. Ripping it off while the engineer gets the levels right. It’s casual, but more alive than any performance you’ll ever see at the VMAs.
Okay, I get it. The old albums had further to go, we listened on mono, on record players with heavy tonearms, but by time "Abbey Road" came out we’d all upgraded to stereos.
"Come Together" is about the guitar sound, not up front and center, but holding it all together.
I played the George Harrison tracks, the legendary "Something" and the sunny second side opener, "Here Comes The Sun". The latter was enhanced, it was like a bright spring morning. But then I played my favorite track from the second side, "You Never Give Me Your Money".
With air to breathe in between the instruments, the lyrics stand out. Comprehensible before, there’s a clarity that now lends new meaning. It’s like seeing a famous painting from the Renaissance scrubbed clean, revealing the underlying essence.
Suddenly, there was someone who was truly out of college, money gone, future looking bleak.
Still, "Abbey Road" was not the revelation of "A Hard Day’s Night".
LET IT BE
I figured I’d finish off the new albums, they wouldn’t be a big surprise, I’d get them out of the way and then look at the antiques that had had their cobwebs removed.
"Let It Be" is maligned. As an afterthought, cut before "Abbey Road", yet released after, rescued by Phil Spector, but ruined by his hands.
But when you hear John say "I Dig A Pygmy…" before "Two Of Us", it’s like you’re literally in the studio, at the sessions for this album.
As for "I’ve Got A Feeling"… Where did they get that guitar tone? Years before there were enough effects pedals to cover the stage at Madison Square Garden. And Paul’s vocal is quintessentially Paul. The cheeky guy who’s never taken seriously enough, who’s going to show you in one fell swoop how fucking great he is! I can’t imagine this being any better.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
Finally finishing off the newer albums, I dialed up the title track, a personal favorite. People focus on "I Am The Walrus", but I love this progenitor of "Back In The U.S.S.R." It sounded good, but my head didn’t explode.
In the U.K., it was an EP, but in America it was a full-blown album, with assorted tracks on side two. I figured I’d spin "Strawberry Fields Forever", the experimental hit song that captured the essence of the Summer of Love, even though it was cut across the pond.
You can hear it’s a mellotron! I melt listening. It’s not a sound, the introductory notes are being played by an instrument. Sure, it was tape loops to begin with, but now it’s no longer wallpaper, on this CD it jumps off the wall to pirouette in the room. The vocals are like the version you know, but better. But what stands out, what makes an impression, is the drums, accenting the track. "Strawberry Fields Forever" was built by humans. Previously, it sounded like it was made by machines. No longer.
I was holding off from playing this, needing to savor it, fearful that it might disappoint.
Sure, the albums were different in the U.S. and the U.K., but sandwiched in between the movie music on the American edition there were gems that bring me right back to summer camp, where I spun this album each and every day.
"The Night Before". Bands cut one track as good as this, and they get hosannas. This was just an album cut.
"I Need You" sounds like George, the dead and now forgotten George. Sure, that’s an overstatement, but dying during the holiday season after a long illness, George didn’t get his due. The vocal is so good, it’s on a par with John and Paul. Once again, the drums are noticeable, anchoring the track. You can hear the percussion. Also, I want to mention Paul’s bass, which dances under so many of these cuts, not looking for attention, but adding a flair that contributed to the Beatles being the best band ever.
"Another Girl". "For I have got!" Need I say more? A great track sounds even better, you can hear the effect on Paul’s vocal. You can hear every instrument. This is a band.
"You’re Gonna Lose That Girl". Great bass, great guitar, but John’s vocal astounds, it’s an extension of "I Should Have Known Better". Who is this guy who knows pain, without being crippled by it? You will lose that girl if you don’t pay her attention, if you don’t treat her right. Best track on the subject EVER!
PLEASE PLEASE ME
The sound of "Help!" didn’t knock my socks off quite like "A Hard Day’s Night", but "Please Please Me" was such a shock, I almost couldn’t listen to it.
A combination of the first Capitol album, "Meet The Beatles", and Vee-Jay’s "Introducing The Beatles", "Please Please Me" doesn’t have "I Want To Hold Your Hand", but it’s got the roots. With one foot in a German club, "Please Please Me" is four chaps who’ve got a need to prove themselves. Who are confident, and want to insure that they don’t end up in a life of "Misery".
Which is the track I played first, knowing it so well from "Introducing The Beatles". To die for!
"There’s A Place", the B-side of "Twist and Shout". If you were alive back then, you’ll cry listening to this album. It will bring you right back to 1963. I can see myself going bowling with Mr. Conley’s class. I can see myself sitting at home on Saturday afternoon watching "Wide World Of Sports". The past comes alive.
WITH THE BEATLES
"With The Beatles" is almost as good.
Starting with "It Won’t Be Long" instead of "I Want To Hold Your Hand", you can hear George play…if a band cut a track this good, they’d get a deal tomorrow, the cognoscenti, the alterna-people would be e-mailing the MP3 to everybody they know, saying they’d found the new Kurt Cobain. And "It Won’t Be Long" is only one of fourteen tracks!
"Don’t Bother Me". The anthem for teenage America, as we laid on our bedroom floors and shut the door to keep our parents out. Wow, you can hear the pain in George’s voice.
I bow at the altar. Of a perfect album cut by youngsters who’d paid their dues when no one was watching and emerged fully-formed. This CD sounds like someone just turned on the tape machine, like it was cut earlier this afternoon.
Once again, different from the American version. But, unlike "Beatles ‘65", the American edition hung together. The English version is like finding out your new car is also a convertible, even though no one told you so and you paid nothing extra.
Sounds great, like the rest of the CDs. You can hear all the instruments, the vocals are full-bodied, but you don’t get a jolt listening.
Figuring the sound of "Rubber Soul" didn’t blow my mind, I was not prepared for "Here, There and Everywhere". It’s like being at a high school party and having the host knock a glass with a knife, quieting everybody down as a few attendees stand and form an a cappella group, not only singing exquisitely, but performing a song of their own creation, better than anything on the pop charts.
The Beatles are still here, there and everywhere. Listening to this track, you know why.
"I Want To Tell You" is the track wherein George Harrison invents riff-rock. Funny, scrubbed clean it loses a bit of its power, but you can hear the separate vocals, the piano, and there’s still that motherfucking riff!
"Tomorrow Never Knows". Where John Lennon invents stoner rock. This one track is a metaphor for the whole experience of listening to this boxed set. You’ve got to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. So you can hear each and every instrument and effect in this track. They built this, the Beatles, George Martin, a host of string players and… There was a vision, which fit no contour in an executive’s brain. Great artists are a step ahead, they take chances. They don’t always succeed, but as you listen to the tribal bass, as the sounds come out of the jungle, you wish you were still in high school, so you could show up with this album and tell everybody!
SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Once my favorite Beatle album, "Sgt. Pepper" has not aged well in the eyes of the public. Instead of being seen as a breakthrough, it’s perceived to be a curio. But its cohesiveness is to be admired, something the Beatles never executed on this scale again.
"Sgt. Pepper" was at the advent of the stereo revolution. We know how this sounds. It still sounds good, but we were exposed to the original.
An afterthought in the original CD release schedule, a collection of scattered hits, this two disc set is now a lost religious relic found, the Holy Grail! The background vocals on "Love Me Do" are worth the price of admission alone.
The guitar on "Matchbox" will blow your mind. Although imitating the work of Carl Perkins, the Memphis legend of yore, I’m not sure there’s anybody in Nashville today who can get this same tone along with the feeling!
"I Feel Fine", it’s not only the original feedback explosion, but the picking after that which will have you jumping up and dancing.
"Day Tripper" is so clear and so pristine, yet positively alive, that you almost won’t believe it’s the same track.
Upon insertion of "Help!", I was told by computer that there were two programs. An audio CD and…
Upon seeing George Harrison jumping in the snow, I lost it.
George can’t be dead. And I can’t be 56.
George Martin tells the famous story about the original lyrics of "Yesterday" being "scrambled eggs". And then you hear the record.
You’ve got to give Paul McCartney credit, he’s survived. He didn’t end up in rehab, rather he raised a passel of kids who’ve turned out just fine, and even endured the death of the love of his life. He’s led a charmed life. But he earned it, no one handed it to him on a platter, his father didn’t have a big job in the music business. Paul made it by himself, through sheer guts, hard work and inspiration. Sure, he wanted to avoid a life of drudgery, but he didn’t do it for the money, but the fun. The hit of energy coming off the audience, the toke on the marijuana cigarette, the fun of pulling girls and having a laugh with his buds after the fact.
The Beatles were not a band, they were a religion. And we baby boomers were believers. The Beatles spoke of possibilities, they inspired us, they told us to leave home in order to fulfill ourselves.
There’s nothing in this boxed set that you haven’t heard before. You’re very familiar with the tracks. You only wish there could be more. But this is all there is. But now, it’s come into focus, like someone granted you magic glasses that allowed you to finally see the world.
In an era where sound quality is going in the wrong direction, where logarithms remove some of the sound to squeeze songs down into tiny files, releasing remastered CDs is akin to polishing up an IBM Selectric. Still, maybe these finally pristine releases can be a beacon. Maybe the younger generation will invest in better speakers, techies will invent new file formats, that allow people to hear music the way it was truly made.
Unlike the beat-infused tracks on Top Forty radio, the Beatles music was totally alive. Machines were used to capture the sound, but they didn’t substitute for human beings, flawed, but trying their best. The vocals weren’t comped, maybe that’s why they sound so damn good, real people are singing.
You can’t digest these remasters in an afternoon, you need a whole season. To dig beneath the shock of the sound to investigate what can now be heard, to not only learn but reevaluate your original impressions.
You’ll jump in amazement now and again, but listening mostly puts a smile on your face. As beauty in any form does.
Listening for hours, all I can say is…I believe in yesterday.
The Beatles catalog is being remasterd and released next week. Bob Lefsetz, whose work I HIGHLY recommend anyone interested in music or the music industry follow, got his copies early and shares his thoughts on what he heard. I can't wait to get mine on Tuesday!