We have reached a point where the announcement that a band is having its entire catalog reissued is more likely to be met with skepticism than breathless anticipation. (If you're looking for someone to blame for this, we would suggest that you start with Messrs. Costello, Bowie, and the Glimmer Twins.) The one band that could make the most from the reissue game, ironically, refuses to play it; the Beatles have always been cautious when it came to hawking their wares – it took an act of God just to get the Red and Blue compilations issued on CD – so when word came that they would be reissuing their entire catalog with a spiffy remastering job (including a set in mono, no less) in conjunction with the release of "The Beatles: Rock Band," no one scoffed. The Beatles had earned the benefit of the doubt on these things.
Ah, but tastes and trends change. Would they receive the same reverential treatment they had been afforded in the past? Resident Bullz-Eye audiophiles and Beatlemaniacs David Medsker and Jeff Giles sure as hell hoped so as they plowed through the reissues, praying that the most sacred collection of songs in the history of recorded music didn't get raped by a modern-day, tin-eared engineer who thinks everything should be loud, loud, LOUD! What's the verdict, gentlemen?
DM: We've heard some shitty-sounding records in the last few years, haven't we?
JG: God, yes. I think pop records take the brunt of the criticism for the compression fad, and rightly so, but try listening to a modern rock album and see how tired your ears feel afterward. There's just no dynamic in the major-label releases anymore; everything is designed to leap out of your $10 earbuds or shitty car stereo speakers. And that kind of thing has always had its place – hell, when I was making albums in the '90s, the "car test" was a time-honored tradition – but now it's all there is, at least if you stick to what the majors are putting out.
DM: It seems ironic that vinyl is making a small comeback. Wouldn't a traditional stereo system eat a modern-day mix job alive?
JG: It would have to, wouldn't it? I mean, one of the things even the vinyl enthusiasts have to admit – and I think John Leckie talked about this in his interview with Mojo Flucke – is that vinyl's dynamic limits are far less expansive than what you get with digital, so I can't even imagine what you'd get if you put, say, a Pink album on a turntable. Thinking about it makes my ears dizzy.
I don't know how you felt about the Beatles remasters, but reissues are such a gimmick most of the time that going into these, it was hard for me not to be at least a little cynical.
DM: Well, sure. Some of those new mixes on the Cirque du Soleil album Love were just a bit too clean, too sterile. If they scrub these albums too much, they run the risk of stripping the songs of their souls.
JG: I see what you mean about Love, but it didn't bother me too much, because that album was just a magic trick, you know what I mean? I felt like it was more about the niftiness of being able to make the Beatles do a mash-up with themselves than anything to do with the songs themselves. Kind of a 3-D aural collage. The original albums, though, are as sacrosanct as anything in pop music.
DM: Oh, I loved the mash-ups on Love – combining "Tomorrow Never Knows" with "Within You Without You" was genius – but when it came to the songs that were merely remixed as opposed to remodeled, I suddenly had a much stricter grading scale. As you said, sacrosanct. Get your damn hands off my Beatles.
Imagine my surprise, then, to hear that they absolutely fucking nailed it here.
JG: Yeah, they really did. I guess part of it is just the inherent benefit of being the last kid on the block; you know, you get to learn from everyone else's mistakes, and use the best tools for the job. But it's more than that. As we discussed in the beginning, very often "remastering" is just code for "compressed," and the sonic warmth -- the soul you were talking about -- just gets crushed. I think a lot of people are eyeing these remasters and assuming they probably sound worse, if anything, than the original transfers. But these are real, honest-to-gosh remasters -- they've been polished off and cleaned up, and when you listen to them, as much as I know this is a cornball phrase, it's like you're in the room with the band.
DM: I like the fact that the stuff that was supposed to sound a little dirty still sounds dirty, while the prettier stuff sounds gorgeous. And no two songs demonstrate this better than "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Here Comes the Sun" from Abbey Road. In fact, all of Abbey Road sounds amazing. Well, the parts I listened to, anyway – I couldn't bring myself to sit through "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."
JG: Absolutely. In fact – and I feel silly just saying this – the remasters sound so good that they even make the songs I never liked tolerable. You mentioned "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which is a track I've never had much patience for, along with "Come Together," and I'll happily sit through either of them now. It doesn't make logical sense -- these are great remasters, but they don't reinvent the music -- but that's how I feel. And the stuff I always liked is now just...I think I told you before that hearing the remastered "Penny Lane" outro is as close as I think I'll probably ever come to a religious experience.
DM: The only song I've noticed so far that doesn't quite measure up is "Your Mother Should Know." That one's a tad hot. However, they redeemed themselves on "Strawberry Fields Forever," even going so far as to eliminate that edit at the one-minute mark where you can clearly hear them cutting from the band version of the song to the orchestral version. (If you've never heard the edit in question on the original recording, don't go looking for it; you'll never hear the song the same way again.) I listened to it five times, and the edit is…gone. How the hell did they do that?
JG: Patience, care, and attention to detail – which might as well be the incantation of a magic spell, as far as most of the fuckwit mastering engineers working these days are concerned. Of course, it helps that the original performances were so terrific, and that the tapes have been locked up in a vault that makes the Smithsonian look like an unattended table at a rainy flea market, but still – this is a job that would have been really easy to screw up. It isn't like fewer people would have bought it if they'd done a shoddy job, you know what I mean?
DM: It was a very pleasant surprise to see the people responsible for the reissues show some respect to the consumer, yes.
JG: I think what really might be the best part of all this is the fact that having these remasters out encourages us to go back and re-listen to the catalog with...maybe not fresh ears, exactly, but certainly a new appreciation. I think we've all gotten kind of jaded about the Beatles, and sort of stratified their catalog into stuff that works and stuff that doesn't – you know, tried to knock them off their pedestals a little bit. And okay, so maybe Yellow Submarine is still pretty dumb, but setting that aside, is there an album in the bunch that any other band wouldn't kill for?
DM: No, not a one. On The Beatles and Let It Be, the magic was clearly dying – sorry, but I decree that the White Album is overrated – but they still came up with "Helter Skelter," "Dear Prudence," "Revolution," "Get Back," "Across the Universe," "Two of Us," and "Let It Be." Even at their lowest, they were better than everyone else. And these reissues are proof that not only are they better than everyone else, they're even better than everyone else when it comes to maintaining their catalog. Huzzah.