Dan: As you might recall in our previous Beatles post I’d not had much exposure to their work until a couple of months ago. I had never really heard more than their early Love Me Do stylings and as such I didn’t explore any further. Interestingly enough this seems to be the same position as most of the people I know who also dislike The Beatles. With my position being reversed after hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul and only having The White Album on CD, I decided to invest in the new stereo remastered collection released on September 9th. I shall make comparisons to the non-remastered versions where I feel I can but for the most part this is an account of my introduction to all thirteen studio albums and the Past Masters.
Upon receiving the glorious box set I made a decision to listen to the albums in chronological order. It’s the order they’ll appear in here. Before we begin and as I also bought the recently released and brilliantly fun Beatles Rock Band, treat your eyes to the opening cinematic:
Despite all my rants about The Beatles’ early work, I actually kind of like Please Please Me, their debut album. It’s not brilliant and definitely not a record I can get excited about but I really like the feeling the album has. As it was pretty much just a recording of all the songs they enjoyed playing live it has a great sense of fun and poppy ambition. The lyrics are saccharine and the music isn’t highly accomplished but as a first album by a group of newcomers it certainly has its charms.
With The Beatles sounds exactly like what it is. The first album had been a hit so it makes sense to deliver more of it. Fourteen more tracks hastily written and recorded. No development in terms of music or lyrics – just a repeat of their first album. There are a couple of tracks which are better than others but mostly they’re all distinctly average. These first two albums are also rather limited in ‘remaster-able’ scope. Vocals are sent right while the music stays on the left speaker. There’s not a lot they could do but I’m sure the mono mixes are the superior option.
It’s at this point that I think the Beatles albums can be paired stylistically. A Hard Day’s Night is, as with With The Beatles, a repeat of their earlier work. More quick-churned songs to appeal to a mass market that tie in to a movie for extra money and exposure. Nothing epitomises this more than the sickly Money Can’t Buy Me Love – a mindless pop song written for the purpose of being a hit, it sold well but it’s impossible to enjoy.
During their next two albums you can hear the Beatles’ talent grow and the lyrics start to collect layers. Beatles For Sale still has the same desire of continued success as a motive and this is reflected in the dumb-love lyrics in Baby’s In Black and Every Little Thing. But the highlights are to be found in (probably my favourite ‘early’ track) Eight Days A Week. I know it’s full of shallow lyrics but as a pop-song it works. It isn’t stretching anything and it knows it. But crucially, it enjoys itself – the way all good pop music should work.
Help! continues their desire to develop lyrically and musically and it succeeds in places. It might have been better had it not been created around a movie. The first half contains all the songs used in the film and it feels flat and commercial. The second half see some more experimentation with instruments and feels fuller. The stereo remastering starts to show its benefit here.
These next two albums are possibly the two most important in the whole of The Beatles’ catalogue. The band developed in almost every way very quickly. The step up in quality between Help! and Rubber Soul is incredible. Last month I said that Rubber Soul was good, but not brilliant. That was after I’d heard the original vinyl pressing. With the stereo remaster sat in my hi-fi system, I was blown away entirely. It sounds incredible – crisp, clear, full and utterly amazing. Every note is played with pin-point precision and presented as such too. The songs are marvellously accomplished, with musical dexterity and layers of lyrical intricacy – Michelle and Run For Your Life take a darker turn and really stand out because of it. Of all the remastered albums, this is the one I keep coming back to which has surprised me somewhat.
Continuing the theme of development from simplistic pop to artistic rock is fan-favourite Revolver. Whilst this album is full of great tracks (Eleanor Rigby, And Your Bird Can Sing, etc) I find it harder to love than quite a few of their other albums. Where Rubber Soul really flowed as an album, this feels more to me like the ‘collection of songs’ style of their first five albums. The songs themselves also feel closer to their earlier work – as if this album should have come before Rubber Soul.
A quick thought on two songs of note: I have hated Yellow Submarine since I was 6 and suffered it being played several times in school for some god-forsaken reason. Here I have learned to accept and tolerate it though I don’t exactly ‘enjoy’ it. Tomorrow Never Knows seems to be a divisive track to Beatles fans. Some like it, others absolutely loathe it. I fall into the former camp – It’s the most experimental song on the album, and as the last track on the album it really works as an intro to their next record.
Where can you start with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before by someone else? It must be at least a contender for the most discussed/analysed album of all time. Nearly every second is beautiful, imaginative and bold. Miles from the beaten track which the Beatles are partly responsible for laying, Sgt. Pepper lives in his own world of glorious technicolour audio (technisound?) I listened to this on vinyl a number of times and the remaster works wonderfully in places, bringing out hidden details and refining others. In other places though it seems remarkably close to my vinyl copy. That said, it’s a terrific album and you can discuss it all you want – I’m happy to just listen. The only real negative point is that this album will never be perfect until it has been remastered in a way that leaves When I’m 64 off completely – such an abominable, simple dirge shouldn’t exist, let alone be present here.
Magical Mystery Tour is basically an album b-side to Sgt. Pepper. The experimentation is still present (This is fairly obvious as it contains I Am The Walrus) and the quality is still very high. While the first half again gathers the songs that appear in the movie tie-in, the second half is where some of the best tracks appear. Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane provide two of the band’s most well-known tracks but it’s Hello Goodbye that catches me every time. Another upbeat and rowdy song that makes no effort to do or say anything of value, it’s a perfect example of what a good pop song should be. And as long as we all ignore the last track this is a great album.
The Beatles (The White Album). There’s too much content here to go into detail,so I’ll pick out significant points. The remastering is great in places, really opening up and expanding tracks such as Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey and Cry Baby Cry. The former is improved significantly and now sounds like a proper song you’d want to listen to, whereas the latter has been defined to a new level of perfection – it was one of my favourite tracks on the album before but here it’s even better. Unfortunately The White Album still has it’s down points. No amount of remastering can save Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Piggies or Revolution 9 from stupidity, mundanity or pointlessness. Thankfully for the most part The White Album is still a joy to listen to, though perhaps not all at once.
Released shortly after The Beatles (The White Album), Yellow Submarine is another movie-related record. Unfortunately it’s almost entirely rubbish. Of the 12 tracks only the first 6 are Beatles songs, the rest being instrumental pieces used in the film composed by George Martin, The Beatles’ long standing producer (and my candidate for the title of ‘Fifth Beatle’). Of the 6 Beatles tracks, 2 are recycled from earlier albums – both of them average at best. Which leaves 4 new songs on a ‘new’ album. Unfortunately, they mostly feel like White Album rejects and with good reason. The only song worth listening to here is Hey Bulldog, which I feel should have been included on…
Abbey Road. It would make much more sense for Octopus’s Garden to have been on Yellow Submarine and have Hey Bulldog in it’s place. Oh well. At least the rest of Abbey Road is glorious. John Lennon bursts in with Come Together before George Harrison steps up with the beautiful Something, equally matched by Here Comes The Sun which appears later on in the album. It’s hard to find a bad track here, which is shocking considering it’s the last album they recorded. Bands usually keep going until they dry out which makes Abbey Road’s supreme quality all the more astonishing. Along with Rubber Soul it’s a high contender for the title of Best Beatles Album. The way the second half flows is gorgeous, and concludes with the best 3-track-outro I’ve heard since Gorillaz’ Demon Days. Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End seem to be the most perfect, fitting end to The Beatles. It seems to sum up everything they’ve done and say “That’s it – your turn now”. I don’t include Her Majesty in the outro as it’s nothing more than a discarded track re-introduced as a ‘hidden’ bonus half-minute curio. It seems a bizarre choice to keep it at the end of the record instead of either keeping it in its original place (between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam) or just discarding it altogether.
The real end is of course found in the other album recorded in their awkward last sessions, Let It Be. Having not heard the original album I can’t say how improved the controversial Phil Spector production is on the remaster. Apparently it’s much better than it was and I actually don’t think it’s that bad. It’s excessive in places, particularly on The Long And Winding Road but overall it sounds good enough to me. Then again I’ve not heard Let It Be… Naked, so maybe my opinion will change when I get it (and get it I will, along with Love, now my curiosity’s piqued). It’s another strong album with amazing tracks such as Across The Universe, Let It Be and I’ve Got A Feeling being standouts along with the brilliant closer Get Back. In fact the only real problem here is the pointless bookends to Let It Be - Dig It and Maggie Mae. These two tracks are both less than a minute long and disrupt the flow of the album for no reason. Otherwise it’s a strong finish for The Beatles. It doesn’t shine as much as other albums and the tracks may not be so engaging as others but they’re still undoubtedly great.
Of course, there are a number of tracks and oddities not available on the studio albums. These are collected on the two-disc package Past Masters, which showcases everything else from The Beatles’ back catalogue. It spans their entire career, covering original versions, German versions, alternate versions, singles and b-sides. Disc one is full of songs written during their early albums and contains ‘popular’ tracks such as She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand. It also has the German versions of those two songs from the vinyl-only Rarities album. Most of what’s on offer here is dull and almost entirely skippable.
Disc two moves into their better stages and presents classics such as Get Back, Don’t Let Me Down and the proper, fast-paced, rockier Revolution. Along with slightly different versions of Let It Be and Across The Universe this disc is good enough to listen to on its own. Most collections of a similar nature to this are best suited to cherry-picking and whilst you can certainly do that with disc one, disc two could work as another album. There’s guaranteed to be something here you’ll like, and the remastering is of the same high quality it is on the studio albums – crisp, clear and defined.
One more thing…
Each album has a ‘mini-documentary’ included on the disc. If you get the big box set you get them all on one separate disc as well, which makes it much easier to watch considering they’re only about 5-10 minutes long. As you’d expect from the short run time they’re not exactly insightful. They contain very little more than what you can find out by reading the much nicer sleeve notes. The sleeve notes are decorated with lots of high quality photos too, rendering the videos even more pointless.
While I’m ashamed I took so long to investigate properly, I’m glad I waited until the remasters came along before I saw the error of my ways. And what an error it was – their earlier, overplayed tracks are a million miles away from the genius of their later albums. Overall it’s a fab package.
What? There had to be a pun in there somewhere!