Several days ago I wrote a blog about the backlash toward the upcoming Beatles "US Albums" box set. In short: the source audio for these CDs will be the 2009 remasters done in the UK at Abbey Road, and not the original tapes mastered by Capitol Records in the US back in the 60s.
Those Capitol mixes were done with the average 1960s American teenager’s turntable in mind, and under tight production deadlines. As a result, American Beatles fans heard the music with extra compression, EQ, reverb, and the occasional "duophonic" (or “fake stereo") mix (more on this later). And that's how we remember Beatles music sounding, for better or worse!
So when Capitol announced that the 2009 UK remasters would be used for the "US Albums" box, many fans were outraged at what they perceived as a "rip-off." My blog post sought to calm the fury a bit, telling these "outraged" fans to get over themselves: if they want to hear those US albums, they should dust off their old LPs and give them a spin on their turntables. I posted the blog, got a fairly positive response, and that was the end of it. Or so I thought.
All weekend long, the phrase "rip-off" kept going around in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I couldn't figure out why it bothered me so much that these folks were complaining. Meanwhile, I was bingeing on Beatles music, particularly the discs from both volumes of "The Capitol Albums" (released in 2004, utilizing the original US masters).
And then it hit me: Rip-off? What are you talking about? Those Capitol LPs were rip-offs to begin with! Yes, we American fans have our sentimental attachments to US-only LPs like "Something New," "Beatles '65," and the imaginatively-titled "The Beatles Second Album." But sense memories aside, let's face it: those LPs were always hodgepodges, "packaged in the US" like bagged spinach from China.
Don't forget: despite being a subsidiary of EMI, Capitol Records rejected The Beatles for almost two years. But over time, Beatles news (and sales figures) from the rest of the world couldn't be ignored. So with an eye on the Almighty Dollar (and no input from the band or producer George Martin), Capitol started slapping Beatles LPs together with lightning speed and efficiency.
For a start, the Capitol albums always had fewer songs on them. This was for two basic reasons: to keep the group's royalty payments low, and to crank out more albums. (In the UK, singles never appeared on albums; this policy gave Capitol plenty of extra tracks to cobble together extra LPs in the US.) Track listings were sequenced almost at random; cover art was equally slapdash, and the liner notes read like generic teenage ad copy written by a grownup who’d never listened to the music. ("AND HERE THEY ARE, SINGING AND PLAYING THEIR NEW COLLECTION OF HITS!")
This is to say nothing of the way they sounded. When tapes of the stereo mixes of "She's A Woman" and "I Feel Fine" didn't arrive from the UK in time for the scheduled release date, Capitol's engineers didn't wait. They took the mono mixes, filtered the highs to one channel and the lows to the other, and washed the whole thing in reverb. As a result, an entire generation of Beatles fans heard "She's A Woman" and "I Feel Fine" as if they were playing on a boombox at the bottom of an elevator shaft. It wasn't until the 1988 release of the "Past Masters" CDs that we Americans heard the truth, the UK mixes initially being the template for Beatles compact disc releases.
Let’s be honest: America has a proud history of presenting The Beatles sloppily and haphazardly. We had goofy "interview" albums like "Hear The Beatles Tell All" and "The American Tour With Ed Rudy." The American “A Hard Day's Night" soundtrack album released by United Artists is padded out with instrumental scores, some of which aren't even in the film. (And Capitol's "Something New" LP even recycled five of those HDN songs!) The Beatles cartoon series produced by King Features didn't contain their real voices. And the less said about a Capitol album called "The Beatles Story," the better.
The very first sound American record buyers heard of The Beatles was a mistake, on an album called "Introducing The Beatles" released by Vee-Jay Records in January 1964 (before Capitol came to their senses). The opening track, "I Saw Her Standing There," is missing the "one-two-three" of Paul's famous count-off, thanks to a sloppy edit by a careless American engineer. Similarly, the very last sound they released was also an edit: applause from the live rooftop performance of "Get Back" grafted onto the studio take of the same song, closing out the "Let It Be" album (another hodgepodge LP "reproduced for disc" by Phil Spector under the aegis of Allen Klein, both Americans).
But back to the forthcoming "US Albums" box: most of the people whining about the 2009 source audio will most likely play these CDs in their car, or copy them onto their computers for listening on desktop speakers and/or iPods. The serious audiophiles will listen through home systems that are a million times better sounding than whatever audio gear they owned as teenagers in the 60s. In other words, we'll never be able to completely replicate the "experience" of hearing those albums the way we did back in the day. Yes, some wonderful sense memories will be activated. But unless you play your old vinyl on your old system thru your old speakers, placed in the exact same position in your old bedroom in your parents' house as before, it's gonna sound different!
Just for laughs, the other night I compared my 2004 CD of "Something New" from "The Capitol Albums Vol. 1" with the 2009 stereo remaster of "A Hard Day's Night." There's no contest: the ’09 tracks are cleaner, bolder, fuller, alive and breathing as if they were recorded tomorrow. The "Something New" disc is nice, but next to the 2009 disc it sounds like a color Xerox.
If the highest-quality audio source available is being used, thus improving the listening experience, how can this be considered a rip-off? And if the argument that the original product was something of a rip-off to begin with, can a slightly-improved re-packaging of said product also be considered a rip-off? What metrics are we using to make this evaluation? Are we concerned with the quality of the current product, or its authenticity in relation to the spurious item that it seeks to re-create? Are these fans who are shouting "rip-off" upset because they're not being ripped off again today as they were then?
I'm choosing to think of the "US Albums" box like a guitar company reissuing an old model. My Fender Jazz Bass is a 1965 reissue, built in 1989. The body shape, hardware, pickup configuration and paint job are all exactly the same as a Jazz Bass made in 1965, but it'll never sound exactly like a '65: the wood is 24 years younger, and bass amp technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1960’s. But it's still a sweet axe that I love to play, so who cares? Love is all you need.