Let audiophiles debate whether the Beatles albums sound best in the newly remastered, highly touted mono or in the fresh stereo editions. Or, for that matter, on the original vinyl discs.
To many of us aged 7 to 17 in 1963, the year the Beatles conquered America, the more exciting thing about the Beatles’ reissues is the deja vu of ecstasy they induce.
Like a gazillion other little girls screaming at their TV sets during the band’s U.S. debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I got caught up in that swoon of prepubescent sexual hysteria triggered by the “lads from Liverpool.”
I vividly recall how John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr made shaggy hair and collarless suits cool. And how their cheeky wit and raffish panache suddenly turned dowdy old England into the center of the pop-culture universe.
The Fab Four had style to burn. But Beatlemania was first, foremost and forever about their irresistible, irreplaceable music.
Though they draw less attention today, the band’s first five British album releases (from “Please Please Me” to “Help!,” all recorded, amazingly, between 1963 and 1965) capture the essence of their aural appeal: supple Lennon-McCartney melodies. Creative daring with tempo, instrumentation and chords. Sublime musical chemistry, forged by John, Paul and George since their teens (Ringo came aboard later).
With erudite and simpatico producer George Martin, the Beatles crafted an amazing array of 3-minute wonders during the period — not mere ditties, but chamber-pop compositions polished to a high gleam.
Even on a $5 transistor radio, the songs didn’t just grab you with a catchy riff or two. They snagged your ear with hooks galore — George’s sublime guitar licks, Ringo’s eclectic percussion, Paul’s nimble bass lines, and, best of all, those killer lead vocals and celestial harmonies.
Setting aside the group’s many robust covers (of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, et al) and their monster, classic singles (“She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” etc.), I’ve fallen in love again with some (relatively) obscure 1960s Beatles originals from the new remasters that still please and please me (oh yeah). Here, in no special order, is a short list.
“It Won’t Be Long”:
An exuberant rave-up, with Lennon bragging about an imminent sexual conquest. He’s egged on by some back-and-forth with Paul (“Yeah!” “Yeah!” Yeah?” — a total of 56 “yeahs” in all), and a thrilling closer: that hushed, blissfully harmonized exhalation of the final word: “Yooooooou.” (from “With the Beatles”)
A doozy from Lennon’s stack of jealous-guy songs. In hypnotic musical shorthand, it’s the Hitchcockian tale of a crazed guy who pulls a Peeping Tom when his gal won’t answer his calls — and spots her at home with a new love. Lennon’s insistent vocal carries a sense of dread and betrayal that belied the band’s “cuddly” image of the time. And the background refrains (“I saw the light!” “I nearly died!”) are deliciously eerie. (“Beatles for Sale”)
“I Saw Her Standing There”:
OK, I’m cheating a little here with a huge Beatles favorite (which Paul has rerecorded with Dave Grohl). But when it was paired with the monster hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I didn’t get its genius. The song opens the Beatles’ debut album with a shot of pure rock adrenaline. And it proved their “B” sides were everyone else’s triple-A’s. Plus Paul’s shout-out is one of the best intros ever: “One, two, three, ‘fo!” (“Please Please Me”)
“If I Fell”:
A haunting, harmonically innovative ode to romantic ambivalence, unfurled in a sinuous, fluid ribbon of sound. Amazingly, there’s no overdubbing on the unconventional two-part vocal: it’s just Paul and John, on a single mic, harmonizing an octave apart as they send out a yearning plea for tenderness. (“A Hard Day’s Night”)
“Things We Said Today”:
Shifting between minor and major keys, both tender ballad and rock stomper, this jewel enchants from the first strum. It features a dreamy vocal by Paul and bears one of his favorite themes: “reverse nostalgia” (looking ahead to look backward). Though McCartney says he wrote it for actress Jane Asher, forget about her. He’s really cooing this to you ... (“A Hard Day’s Night”)
“I Call Your Name”:
Lennon and McCartney turned out so many great songs in this period, they sent their overstock to other British bands. This jaunty strut, tempering heartbreak with insouciance, was first recorded by Billy J. Kramer and Dakotas. But the Beatles’ version is far superior, with its muscular Lennon vocal (“I’m not gonna may-ya-yake it”), Harrison’s limber guitar lines and Ringo clanging away on the cowbell. (“Past Masters Volume 1”)
Paul shrugged this tune off as “album filler,” and so have many rock critics. Never mind, ‘cause with John’s bluesy harmonica entreaties and his “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” lead vocal, Ringo’s drums and Paul’s pumping piano, it’s a grand invitation to dance. (“With the Beatles”)
“I Should Have Known Better”:
Another robust harmonica riff from John pulls you into a sparkling cut from “A Hard Day’s Night.” The Beatles perform it on a train, surrounded by love-struck schoolgirl fans (one played by George’s future wife, Patti Boyd). And given those clanging, rollicking rhythms and Lennon’s blissful falsetto, it’s a swell ride. (“A Hard Day’s Night”)
“You Can’t Do That”:
Once again, Lennon has something to say that might cause us pain: If we ever talk to that boy again, he’s gonna leave us flat. What might have been a standard 12-bar blues threat is transported by the metallic jangle of George’s electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, and those punchy backup refrains (“Everybody’s greeeeeeeen!”). (“A Hard Day’s Night”)
“You Like Me Too Much”:
Harrison was a come-lately to songwriting, and his early efforts can’t touch the Lennon-McCartney output at this time. But he begins to find his groove here, with a bouncy reconciliation tune enriched by a bluesy keyboard solo, and George’s drawling, endearing vocal. (“Help!”)
“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”:
This treasure is a bridge to the Beatles’ next phase: leaving behind live touring and focusing on increasingly inventive and complex studio work (starting with “Rubber Soul”). Inspired by Bob Dylan, John wrote one of his most personal, candid lyrics to date — but matched it with a gauzy, moody waltz that is pure Beatles. The soaring “Hey” chorus punctuated by tambourine? The winsome flute solo? Sublime. (“Help!”)
THE BEATLES: THE REMASTERS
Available in two multi-album DVD sets — stereo and mono — with mini-DVD documentaries and historical booklets. (The stereo discs are also available individually.) More details: www.beatles.com.