Hurple Hoopla

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Beatles, Circa 2009

I’ve not said much, here, about the new Beatles remastered releases. Those that know me have probably been scratching their heads and wondering why. After all, the Beatles are the Alpha and Omega of my musical universe. My complete obsession with music started with the first Beatles album I bought (Reel Music, for those keeping score at home) and their music will always be a major part of my life. It speaks to me in a way very little else does.

Well, I’ve been sitting back, enjoying these new releases, reading the countless reviews, and biding my time, trying to get my thoughts in order. I’ve bought the sets, listened to them many many times, compared them to the original 1987 CD releases, ripped them to my Zune, and even created a “Heath’s Favorites” CD/MP3 compilation of, well, my favorite songs (not much of a distillation as my collection sits at 139 songs out of 215). I think now that I’ve had some time to digest the CDs (no, I didn’t EAT them, although they look like they’d be tasty dipped in a nice holinday sauce), I think I can finally jot down some coherent thoughts.

I find it amazing that these CD releases have garnered the attention that they have. From “Uncut” magazine and their self-proclaimed “definitive” review to “Sound & Vision” devoting almost half of their latest issue to their review, the press, both online and traditional have been universal in their praise. For a band that broke up 40 years ago, that’s amazing.

My own story with the Beatles starts at Westwood Junior High School, in Manchester, TN. One of the guys I knew there was a kid nicknamed Doobie (after the “Doobie Brothers” band, not the recreational supplement… although that’s what the BAND was named after, so… anyway). He was a music freak and record collector, already, and plastered every available surface in his locker and on his notebook with magazine photos of various musical acts. The most prominent of them all was always, The Beatles. I took note of that, although I still am not sure exactly why that was so. Down the street from where I lived there was a “Big K” general store. Even though there was a highway between my house and the store, occasionally I was allowed to walk there to spend my allowance. One day, I walked into the store, with that week’s $5 bill burning a hole in my pocket, and noticed new signage. “Going Out Of Business,” it proclaimed, “All Merchandise 50% off,” it continued. I was heartbroken. And then I noticed what was in the front display of the small record section. Yes, It was the aforementioned “Reel Music” Beatles album. Wow! At 50% off its 9.98 retail price, I had enough to buy it! Forget the silly Star Wars action figures this week, I’m getting THAT!

I ran home and ripped the plastic off the album jacket, pulled the big black vinyl disc out of the cardboard sleeve and plopped it down on my little toy record player. Before this moment, the record that got played most on that thing was probably some “Electric Company” or “Muppets” disc. But, as I dropped the needle down on my very first actual music disc, my world turned upside down. The very first thing I heard from that “Reel Music” collection was the unbelievable first note of “A Hard Day’s Night.” It was love at first “BLAM!” With that grand first note, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr suddenly became an indelible part of my life, forever.

For the people that love to hate on that album, “F-off!”

That was 30 or so years ago. Because of that moment, I have grown and discovered so many new things. I have tried and tried to find more music that speaks to me the way The Beatles do. Others have; Buddy Holly has become, as I have stated before, my pivot point of all my musical journeys; I never could have survived the loneliness and isolation of my college years without The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds,” and The Who have become a bit of an obsession. But, still, no music artists speak to my complete being as do The Beatles. I mean, I distilled 215 of their songs (this includes the two “new” recordings done for the 1990s “Anthology” releases) down to a 139 “favorites” compilation. Any other band, I’d throw out far more than half their catalog to make the same type collection. In fact, I think the 4-disc Who box set “Maximum R&B” is overkill.

Whenever you claim to be a Beatles fan, one of the first things people tend to ask is, “which one is your favorite?” My usual response, “All of them.” It’s not the Beatles without all four of those distinct personalities. And, in reality, it’s not even The Beatles without George Martin either.

Yeah, I’ll probably throw silly little asides like that in through the entire blog post. Get over it. Just be glad I don’t have another leprechaun story to tell.

Now, all the above being said (written), I do not and would never consider myself a Beatles fanatic. I’m not, as a friend who runs a local used CD shop calls them, “a Beatard.” I’m not the type of person who would buy a complete used quad sound system just to hear an 8-Track tape quad mix of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” like I was told one fellow Beatle-fan in town did recently. I also can’t tell the difference between the “real, actual, true” mono mix of the American pressing of “Rubber Soul” and the “fold-down” mix that was accidentally included on “The Capitol Albums, Volume 2” a few years ago. The owner of the previously mentioned local used CD shop (North Street Records in Normal, Illinois) had to tell me about that Capitol Records gaffe. And, actually, I don’t care. That’s minutiae that really does not matter to me. What speaks to me is the music, the lyrics, the production, and the performances, and the way all those are blended together in a way that reaches into my very soul.

Gee, that’s a pretty long post already, and not one word, so far, about the quality of these new releases. Sigh. Get over it.

You might think, after that last aside, that at this point I’ll start discussing the quality of these releases. If you do, then you really don’t know me. Instead, I’ve got something else to write about first.

That something is this, how mind-bogglingly idiotic is the brain trust at EMI? These CDs should have been EVERYWHERE on the day of their release. Nobody, that wanted a copy, should have had any problems finding a copy. 10,000 copies of the Mono Box? Insanity! I read later in an interview, with one of the men responsible for that decision, that EMI considered the Mono Box as a set that would only sell to Beatle fans who were there when the album came out in the 60’s. Clearly, these people in charge of making these decisions are as out of touch with the music-buying public as the Republican Party is with mainstream America in regards to public healthcare.

Yeah, I had to throw that aside in there. Bite me if you don't like it.

In my case, I planned on getting both the Stereo and Mono boxes, from Best Buy, on release day. I planned on just popping out during lunch, hitting the local store and grabbing copies of both, paying for them with a credit card (to get cashback points) and using my Best Buy Rewards Card (to get later in-store credit). Then, about 2 weeks prior to the release date, I happened across an online news story that the Mono set was already selling out, as a pre-order, all over the place. Uh-oh. I immediately went online and checked the Best Buy website. Yup, sold out. And, so was the Stereo box. Oh no! So, I rushed over to Sold out of both as well. Um… How about Sold out.

Everywhere I went, every iteration of the upcoming Beatles releases were listed as “Sold Out.” I finally found a little mom and pop record store website for a place in California that still listed both as available, so I placed an order there. It was canceled a few days later, with a note of apology that they just hadn’t kept the site updated and they were sold out, too.


Well, I knew I could, eventually, get the Stereo Box, since it was not “limited edition.” But, what about the Mono Box? There, I knew somebody, somewhere, would post image files of the discs online, so at least I’d be able to hear them and make copies for listening to. That wasn’t good enough, though! I wanted these things on factory-pressed discs! Oh well, I guessed that just wasn't to be.

Then came release day! I took off for lunch to the local Best Buy. At least I could still get that blasted Stereo Box. The store, however, did not get any copies. When I asked why, the manager explained that they shipped web orders to customers first, before allocating any to ship to stores, and the web store had sold out weeks ago. But, he added, “the store will get some in soon. I hope.” Insane. Was the demand really that much higher than had been expected? Or had EMI, Best Buy, Amazon, etc, just underestimated the demand for this product that severely?

The weekend after the releases, my family had to take a quick trip down to my hometown of Manchester Tennessee. It was a quick jaunt for a family member’s wedding, one day drive down, sleep, go to the wedding, hang out a little, sleep drive home. Zoom, zoom, zoom. While there, though, I talked my wife into stepping into a local Hastings, just to look around a little, after all, I still hadn’t even seen one of the Stereo Boxes yet. We walked in and right up front there was a big Beatles display. Cool.

There were four Stereo Boxes sting in the display rack. I grabbed one to look over. I was still planning on waiting to get the Stereo Box at Best Buy to get the reward points, but at least I could look at one there. As I am looking at the gorgeous black box, checking it out and wishing I could pick one up right then, my wife says, “What’s the white box?”

“Oh, the Mono Box is white. The Stereo one, here, is Black.”

“Ah,” she nods, “They have a Mono Box.”

“Those are sold out everywhere, I doubt they have one here.”

“No, they do,” she pointed, “I’m looking at it, there. It’s behind those two Stereo Boxes.”

I was thinking, “Yeah, right, it’s a cutout or some marker showing where the real set would be sitting, if they had one.” I looked where my wife was pointing. Oh. My. God. She was right, they did have a Mono Box. Well, they did have one until that moment, because at that moment, I picked that one up and did not let go of it again, until it was in my car. (Yes, I wouldn’t even let go of it at the checkout stand, the lady had to swipe the bar code with the box in my hand.)

So, I got my Mono Box. Before I got the Stereo Box.

And there were no leprechauns involved.

The next weekend, my local Best Buy had the Stereo Box in stock, so I got that, then. No muss, no fuss.

First, let’s compare the packaging in the two sets. The Mono Box is a gorgeous cardboard brick containing mini LP sleeves housing the CDs. Each album is contained in smaller replicas of the original releases from the 60’s. And, each of those comes housed in a protective mylar resealable pouch. The box also contains a booklet explaining the importance of these Mono Beatle albums. Perfection.

The Stereo Box contains all the individual albums exactly as they’re sold individually every day. It also includes a separate DVD of all the Quicktime mini-movies contained on those CDs. That’s it.

In case you couldn’t tell. I prefer the packaging of the Mono Box. It is a beautiful set; clearly intended for the serious collector. The least they could have done with the Stereo Box is enclosed a special booklet, or even just put the CDs in little protective mylar pouches, like the Mono Box. But, those are minor quibbles.

Now, as for the sound…

Start by listening to “Because” off of Abbey Road. Yes, those are tears of joy streaming from your eyes. The Beatles have NEVER sounded better… ever. Period.

Follow that up by listening to “The End” also off Abbey Road. See, Ringo played an actual, real, honest-to-goodness drum set. Now, it sounds like one, boom, thump, boom, thud, crash; rather than a tinkie little toy, tikki, tikki, chink, plonk. Who knew?

Now, when Ringo yells that he’s “got blisters on my fingers,” you’ll believe him.

Had enough snarky comments, yet? Cool. Then lets’ get to a little more meaty details.

Honestly, I’ve heard the complaints about the sound on the 1987 CDs for years. I just ignored those people and wrote them off as pedantic fanboy types. Are these new CDs all that remarkably improved? Well, yes and no. There was definitely more care taken in these digital transfers. The old CDs were just the original mixdown tapes dumped to digital masters. Nothing wrong with that, they sounded good for their day. But, there has been 20 years worth of technological improvements in the equipment used to make digital masters. That alone makes these new remasters sound better, but not remarkably so, for the “average” listener.

True, the highs are crisper, and the lows are boomier. Like I wrote earlier, Ringo finally sounds like he’s playing a real drum kit, rather than pie tins. His drums boom and thud the way a real, wooden kit should, and his cymbals ring and wash the way they should. No more chinka, chinka there.

There’s also a great improvement in the precision and clarity of the mixes. Now, when John and Paul sing together, you can tell it’s John and Paul singing together, rather than it seeming like some weird double-tracking thing. Listen to the voices in “Yes It Is.” Follow that up with “I’m Down,” and listen to John’s attempt at singing the bass vocal parts. So clear, so crisp. It sounds like he’s right there in the room with you. And, now, in that same song, for the brief electric piano freak-out, you can hear the musician’s fingers (is that John, Paul or George Martin?) thud the keys as he slides up and down the keyboard more maniacally than Jerry Lee Lewis could ever dream of doing.

It’s in those type of details that these newly remastered discs far outpace the original CD releases. Because of that, I’ll argue that if you don’t have a dedicated high-end stereo system, then you probably won’t hear enough of a difference to care about the new CDs.

And, besides, if you don’t have a system like that, you should, anyway. You’re missing such a big part of every song you listen to, Beatles, or anyone else.

Listening to these over and over, it strikes me again and again how achingly, beautifully gorgeous the Beatles’ voices were, all four of them, for what they’re worth. And, when they sing in harmony, whether just John and Paul, or john and Paul and George, or all four of them, it’s the perfect convergence of vocal timbre, ability and phrasing. I sit in wonderment, every time, at how these four men wound up together, paired with a producer as sympathetic to their artistic vision and talented enough to match those visions as was George Martin. And, on top of that, to then gain the services of an engineer with the abilities and inventiveness as Geoff Emerick, just as they were growing into a style that needed that inventiveness… fate weaves a wonderful web, sometimes.

Take away one piece of that puzzle, and everything falls apart.

Back to these CDs, specifically.

Of course, this amazing improvement with the precision and clarity of the mixes is not without drawbacks. In particular, it, badly, highlights the primitive stereo mixes in tons of places. For example, “Girl,” and “Day Tripper” stood out as particularly egregious in stereo, now. Through headphones, these two have become almost unlistenable, even though they use the exact same mix found on the 1987 CDs.

And do not even get me started on why anyone would EVER want to listen to the first two CDs in stereo, ever. If you find anyone who prefers the stereo mixes of those albums, to the mono, just shoot them. The rest of us will thank you later.

Who knew “Lovely Rita” had so many fiddly bits tossed in the mix? I never did until these CDs. pop! What was that? Where did that come from? Is someone behind me making silly mouth noises? Oh, it’s in the song? Since when?

And the horns in “Good Morning,” and “Savoy Truffle,” that’s how horns should sound all the time!

In “Back in the U.S.S.R.” you can now hear previously buried background vocals that highlight the true depth to which McCartney went to make this Beach Boys pastiche. Dear Prudence shines with new brilliance as the layers of sound now explode around one of Lennon’s most powerful vocal deliveries.

Really, because of the improved sound on these CDs, there are new details that emerge from the mix of just about every song in the catalog.

Okay, not really. That is a little bit of over-hyping hyperbole. But, it is closer to the truth than not.

I thought that, after listening to each album in both Mono and Stereo, I would have a clear choice as to which I preferred for each album. Ha! I thought wrong. My plan was to pull out each CD, make an image file on my PC, scan the CD art, and make jewel case copies to listen to, so I could pack away the original CDs in their inferior cardboard packaging for safekeeping.

Yeah, that’s what I thought before I bought both sets.

I decided, instead, to rip both the Mono and Stereo sets to my PC, scan in the artwork and then burn BOTH Mono and Stereo sets. I ran out and bought a few double CD jewel cases, and put the Stereo set in front and the Mono set in back for each album. Oh, except for the first two albums, “Please Please Me,” and “With The Beatles,” which should NEVER be heard in stereo, EVER. If you accidentally do ever hear them that way, seek counseling, immediately, and maybe, just maybe, you can still salvage at least a small part of your sanity.

Now, the last question remaining, for me, is what do I do with all the old CDs? They were the first CDs I ever bought, and they are the very reason I bought a CD player to begin with. So, they hold a special place in my memories. But, I can promise, I’ll never actually play them again. Not anymore.

And, one last thing. Now, how about EMI commission a “Modern Mix” box set? Every track, except the two German duds, in chronological order, 76-80 minutes per disc, mixed like the tracks from “Yellow Submarine Songtrack,” or “Let It Be… Naked.” Don’t worry about dividing the CDs by album, EP or singles. That would be, what, a 6 or 7 disc collection, so not prohibitively expensive, and would be a nice “gift.”

Oh, yeah, they could feel free to leave off “Revolution 9” too, if they want. Bleh!

And the song about the homosexual gerbils with attitude problems. Nobody needs to hear that song ever again. Okay, just kidding, The Beatles never recorded a song about homosexual gerbils. They recorded songs about a freakin’ sheepdog and raccoon but homosexual gerbils, no. Bastards.

That was a joke. Please don’t send me angry emails, all you sheepdog and raccoon lovers. Or, if you are a homosexual gerbil.

Finally, here’s a fun party game for those that are entertained by idiotic pedantic musings; try to guess which 76 songs I left off my “Favorites” compilation. I’ll give you a few hints: “You Know My Name, Look Up The Number,” the two German pieces of crap, the silly “show tunes” on the first few albums, and the damn raccoon song (But, I do love the sheepdog song). And, here’s another hint; there’s at least one song from every album, but only one album which, technically, I pulled just one song from, even though there are two songs from that album in my compilation. Otherwise, there is only one other album in their catalog from which I pulled just two songs. In addition, there’s only one album from which I pulled just 3 songs. From every other album, I pulled 4 or more songs.

Have at it.

My favorite online reviews of the new Beatles CDs are:



Dangerous Minds

Music Radar, Part 1

Music Radar, Part 2



  • So, this is Ford Prefect's original article, and the September 9 post is just "Mostly harmless"?

    By Blogger Kelli, at 11:22 PM  

  • More, initial thoughts and a longer dissertation upon more reflection.

    Or, in other words, yeah, exactly.

    By Blogger Hurple, at 12:12 AM  

  • I don't care what's in your favorite list... so long as Penny Lane is in there.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:53 PM  

  • It lives! And writes long articles, too.

    By Blogger Stacy J, at 9:54 PM  

  • Anonymous, of course it's on there, but just to make you happy, I'll put it in there 14 times. And just to be all snarky about it, I'll put "Sympathy For The Devil" before it and "Anarchy In The UK" right after it. Every time.

    Yo! Stace! SJ! Da Man! Great to see you survived the great Y2K disaster... And the following 8 years. Me? I think I'm a zombie. Maybe I just need to get more sleep. If they (whoever they are) want me to get more sleep, they need to add more hours to the day. And hit me on the head with a rubber mallet.


    By Blogger Hurple, at 11:51 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Stacy J, at 9:57 PM  

  • One thing is for sure: Time will kill us all unless we stop it!

    By Blogger Stacy J, at 10:33 PM  

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