Well, last week I was fortunate enough to pick up the very last copy of the box set containing all of the Beatles’ remastered albums. I picked them up at City Lights (and if anyone from State College or thereabouts is reading this and hasn’t bought music there in the last three months, shame on you. It’s the last record store we have left, people, and you’re going to miss it more than you realize if you let it go away…but that’s another post).
Back to the matter at hand: I spent more money on this than I’ve ever spent on recorded music at one time in my life. No point in detailing just how much, but it was plenty. I continue to veer back and forth about whether it was worth it — just like I do with everything I buy that costs more than, oh, five bucks or so — but the fact of the matter is that I probably would have eventually picked up all of the remasters anyway, so it seemed to make sense to just bite the bullet and buy them all now rather than piecemeal.
It also gave me an opportunity to listen to all of the albums, every track, sequentially. And that, even independent of the remastering work, was a revelation…hearing the progression of their work from “Please Please Me” to “Abbey Road”, and everything in between, is awesome enough. When you realize that they did everything in the span of about seven years, it’s staggering.
So, a couple of initial observations now that I’ve listened to every (officially) released Beatles track, in order of release. And in typically perverse, Lennonesque fashion, let’s present them in the form of contradictions, all of which — like everything you’ve probably already read about the set — are true.
- Yes, the boxed set is overpriced. And yes, it was worth it.
- Yes, you can hear the difference on most if not all of the tracks — they sound better than the 1987 CDs. But the 1987 CDs sounded just fine to me for the last 22 years…
- The music sounds extremely crisp and vibrant, and you can hear a lot of details that were buried in the earlier CD releases. But those original CDs still sounded pretty great, too.
- If you’re not almost breathlessly excited about the prospect of remastered Beatles tracks — there’s a certain type of person who is, and I’m sure you’re already aware if you fall into that category — the revelations contained in the new mixes are likely to underwhelm you. On the other hand, if — like some us — you’ve listened to “She Said She Said” about 10,000 times and could easily listen to it 10,000 more, those subtle nuances and details are quite likely to reinvigorate these old friends for you. (Case in point: “Baby’s in Black” from the Beatles for Sale album is built on the deliberately emphasized TWANG of Harrison’s guitar. But hearing, with crystal clarity, just HOW MUCH TWANG is actually there refocused my attention on how tastefully restrained Harrison’s work on that album was. And the albums each have dozens of such moments.)
- Yes, the Beatles were overrated. And yes, they really were the best band that’s ever existed.
- People who say Ringo wasn’t the world’s greatest drummer are correct. People who think anyone else could have been the Beatles’ drummer are fools. His playing on these sides is exquisite, and yes, I can tell when it’s not Ringo behind the kit.
- John Lennon was a nasty prick. He could be a really sappy romantic, too.
- Paul McCartney was a really sappy romantic. He could be a nasty prick, too.
And finally, here’s the most unexpected revelation thus far from the set, and it came quite near the end. The Beatles’ used one of the first Moog synths on Abbey Road, and one of the tracks it’s used on is Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. It comes in near the end of the extended coda, in about the last two minutes of the song. Here’s the revelation: It’s not used to make little cutesy “bloop” noises or anything obvious. Instead, it’s used to create a veritable ocean of hiss, that first appears at an almost imperceptible volume but gets steadily more prominent in the mix, until by the end — you know, when the song suddenly gets cut off (or when the needle would have lifted for those of you who first heard that cut on vinyl) — the hiss is damned near as loud as those iconic guitars.
That’s a pretty avant use of the synth, and not an obvious one. It works beautifully, and you know who it reminds me of? You know what using the Moog to fill out the sound with washes of noise presages? PERE UBU, motherfuckers — that’s right, on “Abbey Road” of all places, you get a pungent whiff of what Allen Ravenstine would do to such great effect on those early Ubu singles, like “Heart of Darkness” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”