The Beatles, remastered: Got to get them into your life?

(Apple Corps Ltd.)
By James Reed and Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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The Beatles are one of the rare bands whose music has skipped like a stone across multiple generations. Most everyone knows at least a chorus or two of a few songs, and the music is such a fundamental part of our cultural fabric that many of today’s pop songs - recorded four decades after the Beatles broke up - owe the band a debt.

Why, then, do we need yet another blast of Beatlemania, which arrives Wednesday with the release of the band’s entire catalog remastered for the first time and decadently packaged as a 16-disc box set?

We don’t need it. For the average listener the superior audio quality may not justify the suggested retail price of $259.98 - especially if you’re planning to rip the CDs and upload them to your MP3 player. Still, these stellar remasters, which will be sold individually as well, are a great way to fill the gaps in your collection.

Beatles completists, however, will want the set for a host of reasons: reproductions of the albums in their original UK editions (with liner notes and sleeve artwork) and mini documentaries on the making of each album. Fanatics might also want the companion box set (sold separately) of mono mixes, many of which have never been widely available.

Even if these remasters aren’t essential, they force us to reevaluate something we take for granted: the potent value of the Beatles’ legacy. Coinciding with the release of The Beatles: Rock Band video game, this mam moth box set also puts the Beatles’ importance in a broad context that can’t be grasped without experiencing the music in its proper chronology.

This set is a stunning and indelible cultural artifact and a reminder of just how evergreen the music sounds four decades on - and how far ahead of the times it traveled. The collection includes all 12 original studio albums in stereo, plus “Magical Mystery Tour,’’ “Past Masters,’’ and a disc of short documentaries.

Of course, the collection illustrates what we already knew - that almost everything that was great about the Beatles was in place from their first album. Recorded in a single day, “Please Please Me’’ offers ecstatic rock, country jaunts, shouting R&B jams, those instantly recognizable harmonies, and the unerring sense of melody that would remain the quartet’s immovable center. This first release alone boasts the title track, “I Saw Her Standing There,’’ “Love Me Do,’’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret,’’ and “P.S. I Love You.’’

While these remasters illuminate the songs in ways that are revelatory - McCartney’s bass is particularly beefed up, and the clean, front-and-center sound puts the songs right in your head - the buffed-up audio is only part of what makes these reissues so great.

Especially with regard to the early years, they remind you of the less famous but no less enjoyable songs that don’t make the all-time top 10 lists. The adolescent self-pity numbers “Misery’’ and George Harrison’s “Don’t Bother Me’’ still ring musically and emotionally true.

The jubilant covers make plain their debt to American R&B such as “You Really Got a Hold on Me.’’ Originals like “Tell Me Why’’ clearly reveal the lads’ desire to transform into Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. And the sheer immediacy of the songs - a combination of youth, short studio time, and excitement - conjures the unmitigated joy that fans have come to associate with this band.

The Beatles’ middle period - which spans “Help’’ (1965), “Rubber Soul’’ (1965), “Revolver’’ (1966), and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’’ (1967) - marks the most visceral period of growth for the band: from grinning purveyors of love songs to probing, sophisticated craftsmen.

This is where listening to the mono and stereo recordings side-by-side, sequentially, is particularly striking, because the distinction becomes more and more marked as the band progresses through time. Audiophiles will revel in the remastered stereo mixes, where every feature of the band’s rapidly evolving palette of sounds and moods leaps from the speakers.

But the real surprise here, especially for younger listeners who don’t have nostalgic ties to the mono sound, is that some of the songs actually sound better in mono. Spinning “Eleanor Rigby’’ in both formats is to appreciate anew the compact beauty to be found from a single speaker. The mono recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s’’ is downright startling - not simply for the audio differences but because many of the songs sound like altogether different versions.

According to the liner notes, once the mono version was finished, the group left the studio, content to leave the stereo mixing in producer George Martin’s hands. And yes, the stereo version of this fearless, innovative collection is the greater audio thrill. But history buffs and culture vultures will be equally thrilled to finally hear the songs exactly how the Beatles intended them to be heard.

By the time the Beatles released their self-titled 1968 album - commonly referred to as “The White Album’’ - their grandiose studio ambitions were at full and head-spinning throttle. As Lennon says in the short documentary about the making of “Magical Mystery Tour’’: “We got more freedom to be artists’’ around this time.

The short documentaries, full of archival video footage and most ranging in length of three to five minutes, turn out to be vital sources for understanding the Beatles’ latter catalog, an opportunity for the band to address the myriad assumptions about its music. For instance, Lennon discourages over thinking the tripped-out imagery and sonic collage of “I Am the Walrus.’’ What does “I am the eggman’’ mean, exactly? Hell if he knows. “It’s not that serious,’’ Lennon quips.

From the documentary about “The White Album,’’ we learn that “Helter Skelter’’ was, according to Ringo, recorded in “total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just have to shake out the jams.’’

It’s hard to know just how well-versed younger generations are in the Beatles’ catalog. But, as Derek Taylor wrote in the liner notes for the band’s fourth album, “Beatles for Sale,’’ in 1964: “The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today.’’

Joan Anderman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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