“The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these suppositions are true, the Beatles are rated properly by everyone.” – Chuck Klosterman.
I know, I promised you other reviews this week. But there’s nothing I want to talk about as much as the Beatles right now. In fact, I’ve been talking about almost nothing but the Beatles for a week, driving friends and co-workers insane. I’ve always been a little obsessed with the Fab Four, but for the last seven days, as I’ve been immersing myself in the new remasters, I’ve been all but single-minded. My Facebook status read simply “BEATLES!” for two days, as I posted thoughts on the remasters in the comment fields.
It’s a sickness. But it’s not like I’m obsessed with Blink-182 or anything. It’s the frigging Beatles, the best band ever.
So okay, I’m not going to be able to write about the Beatles without slipping into hyperbole like that, so you’ll have to bear with me. I honestly do agree with Chuck Klosterman – the Beatles are the most important band of all time, because they wrote all the best songs. It’s been said the lads from Liverpool wrote 90 percent of all possible pop songs, and everyone else has been working on the other 10 percent ever since. Including the four of them, who were never as good apart as they were together.
I am a connoisseur of songwriting. I’ve heard hundreds of thousands of songs, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most of them just disappear into the ether five seconds after they’re finished. A very small number of them work their way into my brain, and an even smaller number stick with me for years. Even my favorite songwriters have only produced, at best, a dozen songs I have treasured for decades.
The Beatles? I can name 25 perfect songs off the top of my head, and if you give me a minute, I’ll add 25 or so more. I heard my first Beatles album, the absolutely flawless Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at age 15. (It was 20 years ago today…) I can recite the entire thing from memory now – every lyric, every melody. In many ways, Sgt. Pepper launched me on the musically obsessive path I’ve been on ever since. Every time I listen to a new album, I’m hoping against hope that it thrills me the way Sgt. Pepper did when I was 15.
I don’t really know what to say when people tell me they don’t like the Beatles. Intellectually, I understand it. For a band touted as the most important ever, they’re really silly. The first half of their catalog is clichéd love songs, the second half batshit nonsense. I get it. But emotionally, I don’t understand at all. I don’t know how anyone can hear “A Day in the Life,” or “And I Love Her,” or “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Got to Get You Into My Life” and not fall immediately in love. I simply can’t wrap my brain around that.
So there was really no question I would drop $200 on the brand-new remasters of the Beatles catalog, out last Wednesday. I first bought these albums on cassette, then on the iffy 1987 CDs, so this is the third time I’ve plunked down my cash for these songs. But let me tell you, I don’t regret it for a second. Everything you have heard about these new editions is true, and then some. The sound quality is so fantastic that it’s like hearing them for the first time.
I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way that’s true. But I promise you it is. I have heard these albums, minimum, 60 times each over the last 20 years, and in the past seven days, I’ve discovered so many things about them that I’ve never heard before. These remasters have done the impossible – they have deepened my appreciation for a catalog I already considered the best in popular music.
Let’s start with the basics. The catalog has been re-released in two spiffy box sets, one for the stereo mixes and one for the mono ones. I bought the stereo one, but I’m probably going to shell out for the mono box at some point. The outer box is beautiful and understated – it’s solid black, with “The Beatles” in white lettering and the Apple Corps logo. The individual packages are lovely. They’re glossy sleeves with thick booklets. The photos are terrific, and the liner notes are informative without being sycophantic – no mean feat with this band.
The box also contains a DVD with 13 mini-documentaries, tracing the evolution of the band album by album. You don’t need me to go into that evolution here, I’m sure. The transformation from Liverpool rock combo to international sensation to studio innovators to squabbling druggies to solo artists is an oft-told story, and if you’ve forgotten it, you can just play the new Beatles Rock Band game for a refresher course. But it’s worth noting that said transformation took place over only seven years.
And in that time, they made 13 albums and a host of singles, most of which did not appear on their proper records. In seven years, the Beatles composed close to 90 songs, many of them among the best ever written. And now, those songs sound better than they ever have.
I’m going to go album by album in a minute, just sharing my reflections as I listened again for the first time. But I hope these new remasters, in addition to introducing the Beatles to younger generations, also set right a couple of other things. Here are some lessons you can learn from this new, scrubbed-up take on the Beatles:
1. Ringo is a good drummer. Really, he is. One of the key elements of the new remasters is a focus on the drums and percussion, cleanly separated out for the first time. You can appreciate all the little touches Ringo brings to each song – you can clearly hear his hi-hat work now, for instance – and the overriding impression is of a good drummer working in the best interests of the songs. He shows off when he has to, but holds back when it suits what the band is doing.
2. Paul McCartney is one of the best bass players who ever lived. Damn, there’s that hyperbole again. But it’s true. You can have an enjoyable experience with these new remasters just by listening to what Paul is doing. Even on the early, simpler stuff, McCartney is just awesome, and when the songs get more complex, he truly shines. The new versions clean up the sound to such a degree that I’m hearing bass runs I’ve never heard before. McCartney showed whole generations of bass players how to do this right, how to add to the song inventively without derailing it.
3. George Martin was unquestionably the fifth Beatle. When I first heard Love, Martin’s remix of the Beatles catalog for Cirque du Soleil, I was half-certain he’d tampered with the original masters, adding parts that weren’t there originally. He hadn’t. The Beatles worked on four-tracks and, near the end, eight-tracks – there’s better recording equipment than that on my computer, and it came standard from the factory. Given that, Martin’s production work is astonishing. There’s so much depth to these recordings, and it was all there in the ‘60s. His arrangements are breathtaking, still, and his work is so detailed that it holds up next to records from the last five years. And now you can really hear it.
Okay, album by album. You don’t need me to tell you whether to buy these things – they’re the frigging Beatles, and smarter men than I have spent thousands upon thousands of words on these records. So I’m just going to share my impressions, listening one at a time.
Please Please Me
The Fab Four’s debut album was recorded in one day, which still amazes me. In many ways, they never replicated the live-sounding energy of this album, and Ringo in particular stands out here. Please Please Me contains eight originals and six covers, and it’s immediately apparent that Lennon and McCartney are already outwriting their influences. “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and the title track are all perfect little pop songs, much better than the likes of “Chains” and “Boys,” which the band covers. It’s absolutely clear why they were so immensely popular.
Two things struck me upon cueing up “I Saw Her Standing There.” The first was that I have never heard this song with such clarity before. The guitars ring, the drums shimmy, and everything’s in perfect balance. The second was the weird stereo mix. In 1963, stereo was brand new, and very few people made use of it. The mono mix of this album (and the next five or so) is considered the definitive, and the stereo mix an afterthought – all the instruments are in the left channel, and the vocals in the right, and that’s it. Hearing the first two albums this way convinced me to buy the mono box, especially since “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” are here in mono, and they sound terrific.
I love Please Please Me. It’s 30 minutes of effervescent pop, performed with nothing but guitars, bass and drums – it’s like the Beatles as teenage garage band. Fun, fun, fun.
With the Beatles
Essentially the same album, With the Beatles is a repeat of a winning formula – eight originals, six covers. But the originals are getting better. The album opens with “It Won’t Be Long,” a clarion cry if ever there was one, and continues with “All I’ve Got to Do” and “All My Loving,” a pair of perfect pop tunes. And George Harrison gets his first writing credit, on the grumpy “Don’t Bother Me.”
The improved songwriting just makes the covers sound worse, although the band once again does a great job slamming through them. They do give a hint of Lennon and McCartney’s roots – Lennon shouts his way through “Money (That’s What I Want),” while McCartney gives a wistful reading of “Till There Was You,” from The Music Man. This record, again, suffers from the weird stereo separation, but I got used to it, especially since the instruments are so crisp and clear. And the vocals! You can hear individual inflections in the harmonies now – I can pick out John and Paul and George easily. It’s like being in the room with them.
With the Beatles is not a complete success, but it’s about as much fun as its predecessor, and even with Martin playing piano here and there, it still sounds live and raw.
A Hard Day’s Night
Their first perfect album, and not coincidentally, the first one that’s entirely made up of Lennon-McCartney originals. The Beatles were the first boy band, no question, and their early songs are all fizzy love ditties. But they are absolutely perfect fizzy love ditties, and they never got better or more consistent in the early days than this. That ringing Rickenbacker chord that announces the title track, the rollicking “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the secret-agent-man minor-key wonder “Things We Said Today,” the gorgeous “If I Fell,” the singalong “Any Time at All”… the hits just keep on coming on this one.
And I’m so glad to have A Hard Day’s Night in this pristine new version. The stereo mix is wonderful – they’re recording on four-track now, and taking the time to mix for real. The first track in this set to make me sit back in open-mouthed wonder was “And I Love Her.” You can hear the frets buzzing on Paul’s acoustic, you can hear Ringo’s wood block high and clear above everything, and Paul’s voice is warm and close. You have to hear this. And while you’re at it, dig the rest of A Hard Day’s Night, one of the best pure pop albums ever recorded.
Beatles for Sale
A letdown in a way, the Beatles’ fourth album finds them returning to the half-covers format, but if Parlophone Records wanted to keep selling them as a rock band, well, they needed them to do songs like “Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey” and “Rock and Roll Music.” Because the originals on this record are mostly slower, acoustic things that betray a darkness beneath the skin.
Lennon’s opening trilogy sets the tone: “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser,” and the ultimate picking-up-chicks-at-a-funeral song “Baby’s in Black.” The great “Eight Days a Week” and “What You’re Doing” are pretty much the only shafts of light here. Now, it’s not Smiths dark or anything – these are still fizzy love ditties, after all – but the specter of Bob Dylan is certainly present. I found myself liking Beatles for Sale this time a lot more than I remembered, and the quieter ones, like McCartney’s “I’ll Follow the Sun,” sound incredible now.
The soundtrack to the Beatles’ second movie, Help! is the last of their “cute” period, and it adds another 12 glittering little pop gems to their vast catalog of love songs. They don’t sound out of ideas, though – rather, this is one of the best of the early records, thanks to wonders like Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” If not for the two covers, this might have been a contender for A Hard Day’s Night’s crown.
As it is, it’s merely awesome, not perfect. And it contains one of the most beloved songs in pop history, “Yesterday.” You’ve never heard it like this – the clarity will blow your mind. The acoustic guitar sounds right there, Paul’s voice is remarkably close and clear, and Martin’s string arrangement – the first on a Beatles album – will take your breath away. Seriously, it’s like McCartney and a string quartet set up shop in your house and played the song just for you.
Help! is one “Act Naturally” and one “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” away from pop perfection. I think the early Beatles records get a bad rap, simply because they’re compared with what came after. But I dare you to find better pure pop songs than the ones on these first five albums. The Beatles went more interesting places, but they were never this much fun again.
The very template of the transitional album, Rubber Soul found the Beatles shifting from their mop-top pop days into something more sophisticated and original. At the time, I’m sure, fans and critics expected the Beatles could never get better than this, but this was merely the first step on a much more interesting path. Still, it’s an amazing record, and it’s here that the Fab Four’s collaboration with George Martin really gains steam. And in these new versions, you can really hear how detailed and intricate the production is.
The Beatles did a bunch of things they’d never done before on Rubber Soul. Here’s Lennon’s strange folk fantasia “Norwegian Wood,” and his dark ballad “Nowhere Man,” two songs with druggy imagery that offered hints of what was to come. Here’s McCartney’s gorgeous high-school-French ditty “Michelle,” and his piano-driven rock-star giggle “Drive My Car.” These are songs with more mature outlooks, more interesting subjects. They’re also melodically awesome.
As I said, it’s transitional – later Beatles albums wouldn’t include semi-stumbles like “The Word,” and the queasy murder-pop of “Run For Your Life” is just here for shock value. But you can hear in every note of this thing just how wide the Beatles’ ambitions were starting to grow. The remaster uncovers things I’d never heard before – the quick harmonic at the end of Harrison’s solo in “Nowhere Man,” for instance – and adds new depth to songs I thought I knew by heart.
Now, this? This is the shit.
I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who considered Revolver the best Beatles album. (I disagree, as you’ll see in a moment, but not by much.) Listening to this new version, I’m astounded that this album was recorded on four-track tape. I had a four-track recorder as a teenager, and I’m reasonably certain I couldn’t have made it do all the tricks Martin coaxes out of it here. But it’s the Beatles themselves who stepped up with 14 of their best and most striking songs here, blowing everything that came before out of the water.
Just take “Eleanor Rigby,” a strings-and-voice lament for a lonely, forgotten woman. The remaster brings the grittiness of the string quartet to the fore, and it’s even more haunting than it’s ever been. Elsewhere, McCartney turns in his finest ballad with “Here, There and Everywhere,” and one of his most exuberant anthems with “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
But this is John Lennon’s album, and he does nothing less here than turn popular music on its ear. “I’m Only Sleeping.” “She Said She Said.” And the granddaddy of them all, closer “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hear “Tomorrow” in 1966. It’s a psychedelic nightmare full of backwards instruments and odd noises, over a pulsing, relentless beat. This new, cleaned-up version is even scarier, sounds floating in and out of the din like ghosts. It’s just awesome.
I can’t fail to mention George Harrison’s contributions too, particularly the rocking “Taxman” and “Love You To,” the first flowering of his fascination with Indian music. Revolver still holds up as one of the most creative and fascinating albums ever made, and one of the best.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
I mean, really. What can I say? This is the album I still name as the best one I’ve ever heard. A concept album that allowed the Beatles to step out of their own skins and pretend to be a different band altogether, Sgt. Pepper is the apex of their most creative period. It’s also the one with all the best songs on it, in my opinion – Lennon’s hallucinatory “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” McCartney’s superb “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole,” Harrison’s amazing “Within You Without You,” and of course, the best of them all, my favorite Beatles song, “A Day in the Life.”
This new remaster brings that song to new (ahem) life, particularly in the twin orchestral crescendos. What was once sonic mush now sounds like what it is: a real orchestra playing chaotically ascending runs. You can hear what individual instruments are doing, which is just breathtaking. In my last listen through, I pinpointed the French horns. It’s unbelievable. That same sonic care has been lavished on this whole record. I said before I have this one memorized, but there are things I’ve never really heard before. The bass part at the beginning of “Lucy in the Sky,” for example, never stood out to me like it does now.
Sgt. Pepper is my favorite Beatles record because it’s the first one that treats the album as a long-form work of art on its own. This one was meant to be heard front to back, and now you can hear how carefully thought-out the segues are. Even this record’s worst song, “Good Morning Good Morning,” is a pop masterpiece. It’s been 20 years for me, and I still can’t get over how good it is, and now, how good it sounds.
Magical Mystery Tour
This is the one America got right. For most of the Beatles’ career, their U.S. label, Capitol, had been screwing with the running orders of their albums, rearranging them into completely different forms. There was never actually a Beatles album called Yesterday… And Today, nor one called Beatles ’65 – they were both Capitol creations. In the U.K., Magical Mystery Tour was a six-song EP, released in tandem with the TV special of the same name. But in the U.S., those six songs were placed on side one, and the second side filled out with the non-album singles and b-sides from 1967. Turns out, that was a perfect move, and the band has adopted that format as the “official” Magical Mystery Tour.
It helps that the singles were amazing: “Hello Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “All You Need is Love.” “Fields” was a double-A-side with “Penny Lane,” and “Love” was backed with “Baby You’re a Rich Man.” Five fantastic songs. And the EP itself ain’t bad either, containing “The Fool on the Hill,” “Your Mother Should Know” and “I Am the Walrus.” Sheesh, huh? Too bad it contains one of the band’s few bad songs, “Blue Jay Way.” Otherwise, this one’s perfect.
And the sound! These songs are among the Beatles’ most psychedelic, and the swirling oceans of sound have never been more unnerving and beautiful. “Strawberry Fields” in particular benefits, and had the song been released in such a clear version in 1967, we’d never have had the “I buried Paul” controversy. (Lennon clearly says “cranberry sauce” near the end of the song.) “All You Need is Love” is remarkable, the wash of orchestral instruments now all separated out and sounding fantastic. This album is a fine companion piece to Sgt. Pepper, and almost as good. I’ve severely revised my opinion of it upward thanks to this new version.
Ah, the White Album. Here’s some heresy for you – I think the White Album is a mess. There are some brilliant pieces sprinkled throughout these 92 minutes, but there are some genuinely awful songs on here too, as if the Beatles wanted to simultaneously propagate and dispel their own myth. The good outweighs the bad, but nothing holds together – this is a sprawling and sloppy effort, the kind of album that can only be made by superstars surrounded by yes men.
It’s also off-the-wall diverse. You get blues and country pastiches, orchestrated Baroque pieces, Tin Pan Alley piano-bangers, 40-second interludes, folk songs, and in “Helter Skelter,” a bit of proto-metal. The whole thing ends with the apocalypse: an eight-minute tape-loop nightmare called “Revolution 9,” and then “Good Night,” a sweet lullaby for the end of the world. I would trim about 12 of these 30 tracks, but then, the White Album wouldn’t have the insane, multiple-personality character it does. It’s an album unlike any other they made.
And it sounds brilliant, even throwaways like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” immeasurably improved. You can hear the full jazz arrangement of “Honey Pie” clearly now. You can hear how much Harrison’s acoustic guitar means to “Piggies.” You can hear McCartney’s fingers slipping up and down the frets on “Blackbird.” And the minor-key soundscape coda of “Long Long Long” sounds incredible. And of course, “Revolution 9” is stunning, sounding even more hellish. (That’s a good thing.) This will never be my favorite Beatles album, but if you ever wanted to hear the best band in the world splintering before your ears, well, now you can hear it in crystal clarity.
If there’s one to skip, it’s this one. Yellow Submarine was the soundtrack to the animated film of the same name, and just as the band had little to do with the movie, they slapped the soundtrack together as an afterthought. Here are “Yellow Submarine” and “All You Need is Love” again, matched with four leftovers from 1967 and 1968. The second side is George Martin’s orchestral score for the film, and it’s nice, in a kitschy way, but not essential stuff.
The best new song here is “Hey Bulldog,” although “All Together Now” isn’t bad either. But I forgot how interminable “It’s All Too Much” is. Still, the sound quality is fantastic, and even the orchestral stuff on side two has been sharpened and cleaned up. This is such a cash-grab quickie, though, that it hardly even belongs in the official catalog.
By 1969, the Beatles were pretty much done. Their proposed Get Back album and film project had fallen apart, and at McCartney’s urging, the Fab Four convened one last time at Abbey Road Studios with George Martin, to make one final record. You’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a disaster. Instead, Abbey Road is one of the band’s very finest efforts, a last hurrah of monumental proportions.
The weakest track is Ringo’s “Octopus’ Garden,” which comes to new life here. But that’s it – everything else is wonderful. And even at the end, the Beatles were pushing themselves. Dig Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” part blues and part progressive rock, with an endless, punishing coda. Dig Harrison’s two gorgeous numbers, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” And just listen to McCartney’s breathtaking vocal on “Oh! Darling,” now crisper and clearer than ever.
And of course, there’s the second side medley, an incredible merging of song fragments into something greater. It may be the apex of the Beatles’ collaborations with Martin, and the final trilogy (“Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End”) are superb. Each Beatle gets a solo in “The End,” and the album concludes with the sentiment that defined the ‘60s: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Of course, “Her Majesty” is here to puncture the gravity of it all, but whatever.) Like everything else in the catalog, this has never sounded better, and this most emotional of Beatles moments stands tall.
Let It Be
And so it comes to this. The last Beatles album is actually the remnants from the Get Back sessions, laid down before Abbey Road was recorded. It’s a simple, stripped-down affair, with strings added afterwards on a handful of tracks. It’s nice, for what it is, but it’s more of a coda than a grand finale. Still, there are some superb songs here, including the title track, “Across the Universe,” “Two of Us,” “I’ve Got a Feeling” and the great “Get Back.” That tune fulfills its own mission statement, ending the catalog proper where it began – with shuffling, good-time rock and roll.
I will never love Let It Be the way I love Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper, or Abbey Road. But it’s a fine, fine album, and the remastering truly shows that allowing Phil Spector to fill out some of these tracks was the right decision. The strings on “The Long and Winding Road” have never sounded more rich, and the wonderful oddness of “Across the Universe” cannot be overstated. Still, it’s the fantastic title song I keep returning to – the simplicity of it, the resignation and philosophical good-heartedness, they get me every time. And Harrison’s solo is magnificent.
It’s an undistinguished end to perhaps the finest catalog in popular music, but it’s still a great little rock record, and the new version sounds terrific, like they’re jamming in your garage.
This is the catch-all, the one that rounds up the non-album singles from 1962 to 1970. For those of you who don’t know how the British record industry worked in the 1960s, singles were rarely, if ever, taken from albums. They were released separately, and sometimes concurrently, so often the Beatles’ best songs were only available on these slabs of 45-RPM wax. This seems strange and counter-productive now, but that’s just the way it was.
Hence, Past Masters, containing everything that didn’t make the proper albums. It’s something of an alternate history of the Beatles, starting with their first single (“Love Me Do”) and progressing to their last (“Let It Be”), both presented in alternate versions. Here is the only place you can get “She Loves You,” “From Me To You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Day Tripper,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer,” the original “Revolution” and the big one, as far as I’m concerned, “Hey Jude.” So it’s pretty damn important.
And of course, it sounds phenomenal. The first disc has some of the same stereo issues as the first two albums, but when you get into tunes like “I Feel Fine” and the blistering “I’m Down,” well, it’s like they’re brand new tracks. And the second disc is wonderful. You can hear how the bass, piano and guitar in “Lady Madonna” are all playing different things, but all supporting the groove. The separation of instruments on Harrison’s “The Inner Light,” the final part of his Indian trilogy, is amazing. And even lesser tunes like “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” are given the showroom shine.
Past Masters ends with arguably the worst Beatles track ever, throwaway b-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” and even that is vastly improved here. Still, I’m an albums guy, and these songs have always felt disjointed to me, somehow out of context. Some of them are absolutely essential, and should have been on proper albums. But even so, it’s just good to have them all here, remastered and sounding gorgeous.
And that’s the lot. I’ve said this a couple of times already, but they’re the frigging Beatles, the best band in the world. I’m not sure why any fan of pop music wouldn’t already own these, but they are more than worth buying again in these spiffy new versions. They set the template, they wrote the guidebook for generations of musicians who came after them, and in a scant seven years, they crafted a legacy that will probably never be equaled. In many ways, we’re still catching up to them, 40 years after they broke up.
And it’s still all about the songs. I’ve still never heard songs quite like these, and I’ve never heard these songs quite like this. They’re the Beatles, and this is their music. Enough said.
See you in line Tuesday morning.