The bottom is falling out of compact disc sales in America. But don’t tell the Beatles, who are making like it’s 1987 all over again on Wednesday when their entire back catalog gets spiffed up and rolled out one more time on CD.
Here are the relevant numbers: The reissues encompass the Beatles’ 14 albums (the 12 original studio albums plus “Magical Mystery Tour” and the “Past Masters” compilation of non-album tracks). They will be issued individually (at $18.99 each; list price) or in a boxed set ($259.98). All but three of those titles (“Yellow Submarine,” “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be”) are available separately in mono as well, but only as part of a pricey boxed set ($298.98).
What’s new? The sound is improved, benefiting from two decades of technological improvements. And the packaging is slightly better, with terse, just-the-facts-ma’am recording notes; extra pictures; and short, infomercial-style videos on the making of each album (accompanying the stereo versions only).
Is that enough to justify repurchasing the catalog? I can’t say that it does. The sonic improvements in the stereo releases, while welcome and in some instances discernible on even mediocre playback devices, will be appreciated (for the most part) only by the die-hards who are familiar with every Mellotron flourish and French-horn riff. I’m as thrilled as anyone to be able to hear the rolling thunder of “Rain” with greater stereo presence on “Past Masters: Volumes One and Two,” but I’m not sure it’s worth nearly 19 bucks if you already have the album in your collection in a good vinyl pressing or on the original CD.
Of course, if you own a stupendous stereo system and obsess over every note, go for it.
And if these reissues are your introduction to the band, there are worse places to start. If nothing else, listening to these albums in pristine form affirms what we knew all along: The Beatles were good. Really good. I can quibble that some of the music on their early albums is schmaltzy. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “P.S., I Love You” appeared on the 1963 debut, “Please Please Me,” and they sound like a house-trained version of the band that ripped it up in the Hamburg nightclubs the year before. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” still has a few underwhelming tracks (“She’s Leaving Home,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Within You, Without You”), especially given its perennial status as the “greatest album ever made” (heck, it’s not even the best album ever made by the Beatles — give me “Revolver,” “Rubber Soul” and “Abbey Road” any day). And “Let It Be” still sounds like a halfhearted “back to basics” effort.
But the music’s worthiness isn’t the issue. The timing of these reissues, on the other hand, is curious at best. While many of the Beatles’ ‘60s peers — the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Who — have had their catalogs remastered and updated in the last 20 years, the Beatles have been stuck in the ‘80s. That’s a travesty given that the Beatles were nearly as much about sound as songs.
The ‘87 Beatles CDs were limited by the era’s technology; they were remastered at a much lower bit-rate than is currently available, and their thin sound became more apparent as the decades passed.
The ‘09 CDs were copied a track at a time into the digital format from the analog master tapes at a higher bit rate, and there is a discernible upgrade. The instruments have greater presence, the dense mixes are a bit more transparent, and the modern-day oomph factor is there as well — yes, the Beatles now sound louder, with more pop in Ringo Starr’s drums.
But the reissues arrive as compact discs are falling out of favor with consumers, especially the younger listeners the Beatles most want to reach. It’s expected that by next year, sales of online music will surpass CDs for the first time in America. Yet the Beatles’ music is still not legitimately available as digital downloads in any Internet store. The Beatles’ sole nod to 21st century consumer demand is to release a custom version of the “Rock Band” video game, which will include 38 tracks. But that’s more of a stopgap than the complete digital rollout Beatles fans have been craving for years.
What’s more, just a few months ago Neil Young began rolling out his back catalog using Blu-ray technology, creating what is essentially a multimedia version of his music that can constantly be updated via the Internet. The Blu-ray mixes provide a genuinely new way of experiencing the music, and they’re revelatory.
The Beatles stereo CD reissues don’t provide nearly that much of a “wow” factor. The mono mixes are a different story, though, and it’s a shame they aren’t more readily accessible to the average fan at an affordable price.
Mono was the dominant recording format for most of the Beatles era, and the band has long insisted that the optimum way to hear “Sgt. Pepper” — at the time the most meticulously constructed studio album in rock history — was in mono. Yet the mono version was not available digitally until now (for the ‘87 CD reissues, only the first four Beatles albums were issued in mono).
Packaging the mono and stereo versions together would’ve allowed Beatlemaniacs to indulge their fetish by endlessly comparing the two mixes. For a band so obsessive and innovative about sound, often creating multiple versions and mixes of the same song, it would’ve been a fitting way to reassess their legacy. Instead, consumers will have to pay big bucks to get their hands on the mono rarities. Beatles fans deserve better.