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An Opportunity Almost But Not Quite Fully Realised
on 24 September 2009
Let's start with the good news. This box houses one of the most important bodies of work in the history of popular music & as such cannot be either overlooked or regarded lightly. The question, then, is this: has justice been truly done to a catalogue that has exerted an incalculable influence on millions across the globe? It would be easy to just say yes in gratitude for finally having the Beatles albums available in a condition that is at last compatible with the equipment we use to listen to music these days. The 1987 releases have not stood up to the many changes in the technology of musical reproduction that have overtaken them in the last 20 years or so & were in urgent need of a comprehensive overhaul & this, we are led to believe, is what we've been waiting for. Yes, it IS what we we've been waiting for but, alas, I've come to the view that this particular package falls short of deserving the unreserved acclaim it has met with in some quarters. Now if you're thinking that this is likely to be a grouchy review then so be it but let it be known that it is written by one who cares deeply about this music, who recognises the marks it has left on the collective consciousness of the human population, and who firmly believes that it warrants the greatest care and attention. If the first disc you extract from this box is Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Abbey Road or the 2nd half of the double Past Masters set, you are likely to be very impressed- as I am. These recordings were always the richest in detail and production values, so these remasters certainly come up trumps, springing a generous number of pleasant surprises along the way. For example: the sound of the guitars on Revolver .... well, they always sounded good but now they sound so much BETTER than good. Then there's the 'Get Back' single & its attendant B-side 'Don't Let Me Down': these tracks now pack the presence they possessed when first issued on vinyl & I have thoroughly enjoyed hearing them as if for the first time again. Wonderful stuff. I have no hesitation, then, in declaring the remastered editions of the albums named above a triumphant success. Elsewhere, I'm, there are some serious misgivings.
First up: Let It Be. Was the title taken literally by, well, generally letting it be? Having played the new release back to back with its 1987 predecessor on a number of occasions, I'm still finding it difficult to detect as much sonic improvement as demonstrated elsewhere. Given that one of the two surviving Beatles is well known to abhor producer Phil Spector's treatments of the original tracks on this 'official' version of the album, this might mean that it did not warrant much more than the rudimentary EQ tweaks it receives here. It's only a suggestion. I'm willing to stand corrected, but that still leaves me wondering exactly why Let It Be still sounds a little flatter than the others mentioned above. The Let It Be puzzle nevertheless palls in comparison with that of the band's first 4 long players: Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night & Beatles For Sale.
In 1987 the first 4 Beatles albums were issued on CD as they were first heard by the vast majority of those who bought them back in the day: in mono, But not this time. Were you wanting to purchase just the one Beatles album in this series, to get you started, and were you to select one of the first 4 you'll be supplied with a stereo version. A remastered mono version HAS been issued but is only available in the expensive (but otherwise staggeringly impressive) Mono Box. As things stand, you are not able to purchase a stand-alone mono version of any of these albums simply because you'll find only the stereo edition available from the retailer of your choice. This would be all well and good, of course, if the stereo versions offered something to enthuse about, but sadly this is not so. What we get are the original primitive stereo mixes and no amount of remastering prowess can disguise the fact that they still sound both dated and shoddy. Deprived of the in-your-face aural power that made the mono originals irresistible to millions, a newcomer to the Beatles might be forgiven for wondering what on earth all the fuss was about in the first place on the strength of the evidence presented here. Furthermore, these mixes sound suspiciously similar to the majority of those used for the Capitol Albums Volumes 1 & 2 box sets, issued in 2004 & 2006 respectively- titles to which we shall return in due course.
The same reservations apply to Disc 1 of the double Past Masters set. The 1988 release of this disc (as Past Masters Volume One) contained 7 seven mono tracks, 4 of which have now been replaced with 'primitive' stereo versions and in one particular case, woefully so. The accompanying booklet contains the truthful observation that "John's harmonica playing was an essential part of the Beatles' `From Me To You'" but completely fails to explain why John's harmonica part is nowhere to be heard in the stereo mix, which seriously undermines the credibility of that 'essential' tag. This is conspicuously clumsy, to say the very least. Would it have been too much trouble to inform buyers that this is the version first issued on the stereo mix of the Collection Of Oldies (But Goldies) compilation in 1966? The harmonica part is thankfully still intact on that No. 1 hit single's B-side, `Thank You Girl', which was originally issued in stereo on the North America release titled The Beatles' Second Album. Precisely why neither the formidable 'She Loves You' & its B-side 'I'll Get You' were never mixed in 'true' stereo remains something of a mystery, so they turn up in mono but not quite as dynamically as their counterparts in the Mono Box- another anomaly that has this listener scratching his head in mild bemusement.
Finally, we are presented with Help! & Rubber Soul. The 1987 releases featured brand new stereo mixes by producer George Martin and these are favoured here over the original 1965 issues. You'll not hear me complain on this score because Martin's remixes were far superior to the originals. This, of course, begs a question: why were the first 4 albums not similarly remixed to the same superior status? If fidelity to the original releases is the answer then it is rendered facile by the shown preferences for the 1987 versions of Help! & Rubber Soul. But wait a moment: the original mixes have been made available to the Mono Box where they appear on the same discs as their magnificent mono counterparts. So what on earth are they doing in the Mono Box when they are in stereo? What was so wrong about providing extra consumer value by placing them after the George Martin remixes in the Stereo Box so we might all fuller appreciate, by means of direct comparison, the skill & precision of his late 80's labours? Sorry, but this doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Let it Be apart, the quibbles are mostly concerned with the presentation & content of the first 6 albums, with those that followed sounding excellent. The anomalies outlined here tend to devalue the collection to these ears & cause the package to fall short of the highest expectations. It should also be noted that the Capitol Albums Volume 1 & 2 box sets featured the original mono & stereo mixes of 8 albums on the same discs- a strategy that Apple have evidently felt no need to repeat, regardless of its obvious desirability. Me, I'd love to have seen the same approach taken towards the British albums, but I'm beginning to suspect I might have to wait another 20 years for something quite that sensible.
If you're wanting to hear the Beatles sounding their best then it seems to me that, great as this music is, the Stereo Box doesn't quite make the grade & you are advised to obtain the Mono Box as well, while you still can in order to the likes of With The Beatles & Beatles For Sale in shockingly good quality. Recession? What recession?