Okay, so here's the deal. I'm as excited about The Beatles remastered boxed set as anybody. Unfortunately, living on the salary of a starving music editor pretty much precludes me from purchasing the whole damn thing right now… which sucks, because I've been salivating for it like the die-hard Beatles nut I am since last week.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that the kind folks at the record label sent me a really nice two-disc sampler to check out. Often, these promotional samplers are badly thrown together affairs that barely scratch the surface of what such massive undertakings have to offer. Not so in this case.
With 32 tracks spanning the entire career of the greatest rock band in history, this sampler actually offers a great cross-selection of the entire work. And, beyond that, it is certainly a nice little collector's item, and one which only further whets my appetite for the boxed set that I will someday surely buy — once I can actually afford it, anyway.
But let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? Because there is both good and bad to report about this much lauded remastering job. Most of it is as thankfully great as advertised, though. The first thing you notice about these remastered recordings is that they are both louder, and quite a bit brighter sounding than what we've heard of the Beatles catalog since its sole transfer to CD back in 1987.
This has a particularly noticeable effect on the Beatles' early work. "I Saw Her Standing There," to cite one example, literally puts you in the room with the band — which means the guitars crackle like never before.
It also means that the vocals have a bit of a weird echo to them however, which becomes a bit irritating on a song like "Please, Please Me." In that case, though, a never-before-heard guitar accent saves the day. Even on the so-called "middle period" recordings like "Day Tripper," the vocal echo is a little bit irritating — but the rest of it is so damn clear it doesn't really matter.
The good news, though, is that despite all of the high end here (and on the early recordings, especially, there is lots of it), Macca's bass also comes through like never before — proving that even back then he was one of the best. More than that, what these remastered early recordings reveal is that the Beatles were one hell of a rock and roll band.
But… oh… my…God! The acoustic guitar strums on songs like "This Boy" and "Things We Said Today" are magnificent. Likewise, George Harrison's lead guitar has never rung so clearly as it does here on songs like "And Your Bird Can Sing."
Unfortunately, such magnificence comes once again at the expense of more of that reverberating echo on the vocal harmonies (except in the case of "And Your Bird Can Sing," where Lennon's voice is out front where it belongs). Again, McCartney's bass is, for the most part, likewise put nicely front and center here on the songs I've mentioned.
Right about now, incidentally, I'm starting to sense a trend. Wasn't Sir Paul himself involved in the actual remastering?
For McCartney fans, this will be a good thing — but for fans of the Beatles' vocal harmonies, a little less so. Still, there is no denying the general improvement sound-wise. Echo aside, the sound has much more of a live feel to it. As advertised, it does really put you right in the studio — especially compared to what came before this.
Once I do eventually purchase this boxed set, one of the things I will be most anxious to hear is the soundtrack to Help! — which has always been one of my favorite Beatles records. Something about all those James Bond-ish instrumentals bumping up against the Beatles, I guess.
Unfortunately, the sampler I got doesn't include what may be my favorite Beatles song from that album, "The Night Before." It does however include the often overlooked John Lennon gem, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." Like the other songs I've mentioned here, the acoustic guitar sounds just delicious — both clear as a bell, and crisp as a box of Rice Krispies. Snap, crackle, pop, baby.
Lennon's "Rain" is likewise a revelation here — his vocal is rightfully put out front, but never at the risk of one of Paul McCartney's best-ever bass performances. I can't wait to hear what they did with the other side of that original Beatles single — "Paperback Writer." By the time we get to Revolver, the harmonies on "Here, There, and Everywhere" are absolutely pristine.
But now, we get to the really good stuff.
By the time of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were expanding not only their minds, but their music as well. "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" might seem like a minor track from that album. But here it is an undeniable standout. The sonic layers that envelop the listener play like a kaleidoscope of Sensurround magic. The carnival calliopes and whatnot are such that one can literally lose themselves within them. It's like hearing a song you might have overlooked back then — as I mostly did as a 13-year-old Beatles fan — for the first time.
The songs from The White Album represented here likewise exhibit newfound depth. McCartney's bass on "Glass Onion" — which I never really even noticed before — rumbled through my speakers like an '80s NWA gangsta rap joint.
By the time of Yellow Submarine's "Hey Bulldog," however, I had to literally drag my jaw off the floor. The stereo separation is nothing less than amazing. The backing vocals are occasionally buried a little, but everything else is as clear as a freaking bell… the guitars, the bass, and, well, you know…
But McCartney's bass is the real star here. Still, Harrison's guitar, Lennon's vocal, and even Ringo's drumming — which is probably some of the most underrated in all of music, by the way — can each be heard on their own like never before. "Hey Bulldog" is, on its own, worth the price of admission.
And then there's "I Am The Walrus." This has always been one of my favorite Beatles songs, and here it sounds positively amazing. The reason I always loved this song is because of the layers of depth — which at the time it was released were pretty much unprecedented for a single.
On the remastered version, each and every one of those layers becomes newly alive — from the cellos and whatnot, to the weird backwards-masked vocals at the end from "everybody smoke pot" to the song-ending "bury my body" (which helped fuel the "Paul is dead" rumors).
I've always divided the Beatles into distinct eras — pre- and post-Sgt. Pepper. For those who favor the rawer sound of the band's early years, The Beatles remasters put you right in the middle of the recording studio. There are flaws — which mainly boil down to the echo. But the recordings here also sound brighter, crisper, and clearer than ever before.
For fans of the Beatles' more intricate later recordings like Sgt. Pepper and The White Album, you will hear levels of depth here like you've never heard.
Based on this 32-song sampling, if you are a Beatles fan, do not walk, but run like hell to get this. You won't be sorry.