By Jay Jay French
If there was ever going to be a forensic review of the recorded Beatles music by yours truly, then now is the time. Why? Because the catalog has been going through a remix/ remastering period that began in earnest in 2006 with the Cirque du Soleil reconfiguration for the Las Vegas Love show, and then with the audacious reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 2017 and continuing through with The Beatles (aka the “White Album”) in 2018, Abbey Road in 2019 and a reissue to coincide with Peter Jackson’s reedited Let It Be movie, Get Back.
It should be noted that Let It Be was also totally remixed in 2003 as Let It Be...Naked. This was due to Paul McCartney’s particular distaste of Phil Spector’s over-production of the original studio album, which was officially the last Beatles studio album released but was actually recorded before Abbey Road.
Much has been written and will continue to be written about how The Beatles came to an end. This, however, is not a story about that.
I want to begin by saying that as a 10-year-old kid first hearing The Beatles in mono through a 1-inch transistor radio speaker and then watching and hearing them through a 3-inch speaker in my parents’ Zenith B&W television, me (and millions of others) fell in love with the music. There was no stereo, no 180-gram vinyl albums, no CDs, no cassette tapes (yet), no streaming of any kind and certainly no remasters and remixes.
Just the music. In mono, coming out of little speakers. Yes, you could buy stereo albums — that proudly stated “stereo” on the cover — and quarter-inch, reel-to-reel tapes, but not only was that an exotic concept, it was also financially non-approach-able by me or anyone else I knew. No one had a stereo set up — certainly no reel-to-reel tape players, either. All we had was mono playback until 1966. That means that for two years, all I listened to were mono records on the AM radio and on my RCA Victrola at home.
That means that up until Rubber Soul, I never even knew what stereo actually sounded like.
When I finally heard a stereo record, in stereo, it was a revelation. It was also a gimmick. Maybe not purposely but in its early incarnations, engineers really weren’t sure what to do with it. If you listen to early Beatles albums in stereo, especially the German pressings, the instruments and vocals were very separated. The left speaker had drums and guitar and maybe one vocal; the right speaker had bass and vocals. It was cut and dried.
So, to be clear about the intent of this column, the music was (and should always remain) the single greatest part of this kind of analysis, but as all music is just a reproduction of a set of performances put on tape, the chain of reproduction becomes the limiting factor. Let us never lose sight of that.
I asked Mike Portnoy, Dream Theater founding member, prog drummer of the century and part-time Twisted Sister replacement, to join me in this analysis. Mike was born six weeks before the release of Sgt. Pepper (born April 20, 1967).
Mike Portnoy may have the most extensive collection of Beatle bootlegs that I know of, and his love for the band is as legendary as he is.
What is interesting to me is that, although I am 15 years older, our opinions are nearly aligned, which makes me think that we, as musicians, may hear things differently than non-musicians.
However, this is a story about all the new reinterpretations of a musical canon that is arguably the most well-known pop music of the 20th century and how successful we feel the job was accomplished.
Will all the music be remixed/remastered?
Little birdies inside the inner sanctum of all things Beatles have told me that Rubber Soul and Revolver remixes may also be coming. As remixes are considered artistic and financial successes, they may have to be released, especially because, beginning with Rubber Soul, The Beatles transformed the pop music landscape with music and explorations that had heretofore never been done.
Add to that, Revolver has, in many critics’ eyes (and ears), surpassed Sgt. Pepper as the greatest and most influential Beatles album of all. Personally, and for the record, I disagree purely over the fact that I listen to Sgt. Pepper far more frequently. (That, too, is a story for another time.)
All the Beatles albums (mono and stereo) have been remastered many times. This also includes the original digital transfers in 1987.
The remixes, however, involve a much longer and technically challenging process — and adding to that, of course, one has to decide in which format, especially on all the early, pre-1966 recordings, stereo or mono.
Why I’m writing about all this now is because I recently had the opportunity to relisten to original vinyl versions of the U.S. Beatles albums (both mono and stereo) owned by neighbors, who had them sitting on shelves gathering dust since 1964-67. Yes, I do have my own, but the same albums sold in the same years can sound different depending on where the copy was pressed: different countries, different lacquers, different engineers and what number per master plate was stamped. (This may get into the weeds a bit for many, but I assume those reading this Goldmine article are well aware of the fanaticism that we Beatles fans possess!)
While the album covers of all these golden-oldie Beatles albums were not in great shape, they all sounded great as I had re-membered, as they were all pretty clean with very little scratches, clicks and pops.
I had mono Meet The Beatles, Introducing The Beatles, Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Stereo versions of Beatles ’65, Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour rounded out the album list. Add to this all my original British EPs, all in mono, and this became the great comparison. To finish the comparisons, I pulled out my 1968 original “White Album,” ’69 Abbey Road and ’70 Let It Be.
I spent the next two weeks going over every track, back and forth.
It also is important to note that all my listening was done from vinyl on a state-of-the-art turntable ($20,000 VPI) played through a reference hi-fi system where the electronics are far superior to the electronics that were used to actually record all the songs.
Much of what Portnoy listens to are CDs loaded into iTunes and played back through his phone, although he also has the vinyl counterparts as well as a good audio system.
I wanted Portnoy’s thoughts on the re-mixes because I know that he would have very strong opinions, and I was curious if we saw things the same way. Portnoy is much younger than me, so he didn’t quite have the AM radio experience that I did, but he did listen to the mono mixes many times.
He has memories of hearing The Beatles in real time, meaning that he was three years old when Let It Be came out, and he heard their music played in the house frequently.
Portnoy and I had a very long talk about the deluxe packaging, but I realized that for the purposes of this article, I needed to focus on solely the effect of the remixed albums.
Before I get into the remixes, I want to say a word about the mono remasters. If I want to relive my Beatles experience of my youth, I can either listen to all my British 45 EPs (all mono) or the superb remastered mono series by Sean Magee and Steve Berkowitz that came in a box set (vinyl and CD) several years ago. It was because I had listened to my collection for such a long time that I enjoyed listening to all these old albums I had recently been given.
I also went back to my old Parlophone British EPs. I will say that listening to the original British 45s there is something that is very electric (read: exciting) going on. An immediacy and the songs even sound a little faster. Maybe it’s all psychological. After all, this is really holy grail stuff. The U.S. singles (as well as the early Capitol Records Beatles releases) had a very different sound. There was reverb added to the U.S. releases. This was done deliberately to make the songs jump out on U.S. radio stations.
This now, with the official Giles Martin Beatles albums remixes, is where a line is drawn. Starting with Sgt. Pepper, the album with the same song lineup all around the world for the first time.
Sgt. Pepper not only ushered in the entire “concept album,” it set a bar for experimentation that put all competition out of reach. Martin, having received the go-ahead from all the various estates following the work he did on Love, jumped right into the fray.
A remix of Sgt. Pepper commemorating its 50th anniversary was not only daring and subject to such scrutiny that its success (or failure) would sure to be the benchmark for any attempted further remixes but was akin to the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican.
Upon dropping the needle on the new remix of Sgt. Pepper, I felt that the drums exploded out of the speakers in ways that I never knew existed. The bass also sounded a lot fuller. My initial thought was that, as McCartney and Ringo Starr are the only surviving members, was Martin only trying to impress them? I asked him that question directly when I interviewed him for a Goldmine article in 2017. While he thought that it was a very interesting question, he explained that his father, George Martin, recorded all the instruments on separate tracks, but due to the four-track technology at the time, the mixdowns had to be com-pressed many times over, not to mention the final mastering process (this was 1967, remember), which pushed the dynamics down even more.
When Giles Martin remixed the album, he was able to digitize all the original tracks and then remix everything with much greater dynamic range without fear of a needle jumping out of the record groove, thus the drums sound like (Led Zeppelin) John Bonham’s! Listen to the drum intro in “With a Little Help From My Friends” on a good stereo. It will blow you away.
Everything was heavier and thicker sounding. The vocals had more clarity and the guitar parts cut through more.
Remember this, all you analog freaks: The entire process was done digitally. If you love analog and analog only, then your opinion may be very different. One thing that struck me as really interesting is that after comparing the remixed CD version vs. the vinyl version, I like the vinyl version better. So did Giles Martin, and he was especially surprised by that because the native remix was digital. This is how the allure of analog continues to mystify those of us who are deeply involved in all things audio related.
The whole process with each album meant that I listened to each release the way it was intended. From side one, in order, to the final cut on side two (or album two in regard to the “White Album”). How important was that? To me it was a very important part of the experience as this is how I/we listened to this music back in the day. We rarely, if ever, picked up the tone arm and skipped over a track. As I listened to each album in its intended entirety, it enabled me to get the feeling of the flow of the music and the increased fidelity embodied in the remixes that brought it to life.
The “White Album” is very rich in its musical variety, much more stripped down from the Sgt. Pepper experience. Starting with “Back in the USSR,” the pure heaviness and joy of the playing was increased to greater levels. The clarity of each track was enhanced.
The guitar picking on “Blackbird” and “Julia” especially had greater presence and color. The package itself was full of alternate takes as well as the Esher demos.
One could do an entire column on the “kitchen sink” approach with all of these packages. I just want to concentrate on the actual effect of the remix of the actual albums them-selves, however.
While Abbey Road was the next actual release in the timeline, Let It Be was really the next studio album. It was really a hybrid live/studio album recorded mostly with a mobile unit under less-than-perfect conditions.
If it seemed that the “White Album” was an attempt to get back to the roots of the instrumentation, Let It Be really sounds like demos, even after the Spector production. The challenge with this one is that there are really several official different versions of Let It Be.
There is the Let It Be...Naked, the Glyn Johns Get Back mixes and, of course, the Spector original. This is about the Spector original. This is the version, orchestrations and all, that was remixed. As such, great care was used to maintain all that added Spectorization (my description) but it just brought greater clarity to the proceedings.
The lead track on all the remixes is enough to tell you what is going on. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Back in the USSR,” “Two of Us” and “Come Together” all set the stage for their respective albums.
On the opening track of Let It Be, “Two of Us,” the bass drum (acting as a metro-nome) is much more upfront and center stage. After that, however, the mixes follow such direct pathways that the increase in fidelity, while not easily apparent, eventually find its way into one’s own consciousness.
There was no attempt to lessen the effects of what Spector did. It seemed the most cautious remix of the series.
What the Get Back movie did was to also really put the songs on Let It Be in the proper context, which made the listening to the remixes even more fascinating. Just knowing that all the songs (as well as those on Abbey Road) were created in such a short time (like when John Lennon and Paul McCartney had to write for A Hard Day's Night and Help!), you just can’t separate the wonder of it all. The Johns mix was even a greater gift.
This brings us to Abbey Road. The original recording was done on a solid-state mixing board, which is why it sounds so much more contemporary than any other Beatles album. It is also a much drier (and sonically heavier) sounding recording than all previous ones.
The album contains some of the most played (streamed) songs in The Beatles catalog: “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” On the remix, the band just sound heavier (read: more deliberate) than ever. As loud as “Helter Skelter” was, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is, well, really H-E-A-V-Y. “Come Together” is so powerful in the remix that the guitars absolutely explode out of the speakers, and the bass is incredible.
In general, the whole point of greater fidelity and reproduction techniques is to get the listener closer to what the producers and engineers hear when they are mixing the music. That is as close as one can get. Never mind that the choices these people make form the foundation of what you are hearing. That is simply the closest anyone will ever get.
The challenge has always been to pre-serve as much of the information as one can from the original mixing process. All of the different forms of releases — i.e., vinyl, CD, reel-to-reel, cassette and now streaming — have their own unique sets of problems.
The new remixes are, in my opinion, an attempt to make the catalog just sound better and more acceptable on all the reproduction platforms from the oldest (vinyl) to the latest (streaming). How well this was accomplished will always be in the ears of the listener.
Portnoy and I have always preferred the stereo mixes (new and old) over the mono ones, and I believe that the reason for this is that, regardless of how crude the original stereo mixes were, they allowed musicians to hear the individual instruments more clearly allowing us to learn how to play the songs correctly. The mono mixes brought the voices up front. The stereo mixes featured the instruments in greater detail.
This whole process began because of my relistening to the original albums.
I can say with certitude that there will never be any replacement of the thrill and the memories of the sound of the originals. I have never played any music, including my own albums, anywhere near my absorption of the entire Beatles catalog. My DNA has their imprint, and it can never be replaced.
Intellectually, the Giles Martin remixes have a different sound. The new mixes give me the ability to listen to The Beatles on super gear with all the improvements technically available for me to hear this music all over again and hear some things that either I never heard or were so buried in the mix that I didn’t realize were there.
For someone like me, however, these remixes will always exist as an alternative. There is nothing wrong with that. Sure, the new mixes show off my system better, but when it comes to The Beatles’ records, there is much more going on — something so deep and ingrained that it is impossible to put it aside. This is why I write this column. It is because, like many of you, this music is why the entire 55-year history of classic rock music is substantial.
I want to add that the remastered vinyl is super quiet, and I appreciate the care that the analog transfers were made. The inherent distortions that vinyl brings even to digital remasters is and will remain special. I urge you, if you are into vinyl, to listen to the remasters in their vinyl form. Bravo to Sony/Universal to offer superlative pressings to those who want to shell out the extra dosh.
The label also provided much, much more to each package, including alternate versions and/or early-in-development versions of many of the songs. Those who collect or consider themselves “completists” will love the packaging, although it comes at a price.
The value added makes owning the remixes really worth it. The question, however, is this: Are the remixes so great that I would no longer listen to the original versions?
That is a question I asked myself (and Portnoy), and boxed above is the verdict on an album-by-album basis, using a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being the least-satisfying attempt on improving the originals and 10 being the most).
BEATLES REMIX SCORECARD
Jay Jay French
Sgt. Pepper: 10/10 —always listen to the remix
The Beatles: 8/10 —prefer the remix
Let It Be: 7/10 —either one works
Abbey Road: 9/10 —always listen to the remix
Sgt Pepper: 10/10
The Beatles: 8/10
Let It Be: 7/10
Abbey Road: 8/10