Friday, July 26, 2019

The Beatles capsules: remixes

As if the exhausting number of "alternate mixes" of Beatles music actually released in the '60s wasn't enough, we now have the revisionist history to contend with; below we've chronicled the compilations that have tried to correct flaws of vintage stereo mixes and give the Beatles' work a modern push, though what we find over and over again (as with the '70s remixes on Rock & Roll Music) is that the tastes that give rise to these altered versions tend to date more quickly than the scrappy but durable '60s mixes. That said, I'm not opposed to the idea in principle, and I think Yellow Submarine Songtrack and bits and pieces of Love work pretty well. I do think it's interesting, however, that the widespread urge to remix older music seems to concentrate almost exclusively on the artists that demonstrably need the least amount of help to appeal to new generations of fans. At any rate, these alternative approaches are generally fun and interesting to hear, if nothing else.

Please note that I've reviewed Rock & Roll Music, the American edition of which contains some songs remixed by George Martin, as part of the general pre-'87 compilations page, while the Pepper and White Album remixes (and probably any subsequent remixes of the albums in a similar format) are acknowledged as part of my pages on those respective Super Deluxe boxed sets.

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The Beatles: Help!/Rubber Soul - 1987 Remixes (EMI 1965/1987)
During the 1987 campaign issuing the Beatles' catalog on compact disc for the first time, George Martin was displeased with and put a stop to the use of the stereo mixes of Help! and particularly Rubber Soul, which admittedly is one of the more half-assed mixing jobs in the Beatles' catalog, with a lot of hole-in-the-middle "wide stereo" mixes that hard-pan vocals to one side and instrumentation to the other for no clear reason. His objections to the stereo Help! are harder to understand, but in any case, rather than issue these CDs strictly in mono as he'd insisted on for the first four LPs, which in the case of Rubber Soul would've been ideal -- and Martin said in an interview that he wanted to release the entire catalog in mono only and only did otherwise in a bow to commercial pressure -- he took the extra months leading to the second wave of CD releases to completely remix these two albums. The resulting "alternate versions" are not so alternate all these years later; in fact, they've completely replaced the original stereo mixes in the Beatles' canon, despite their low sampling rate and very 1987 attachment to now-dated reverb and aural cushiness. Meaning to emphasize the virtues of the CD format, Martin went too far for that particular brand of slick appeal; the clarity and shimmer are nice, but the tracks lose a great deal of life in the translation. It would have been wiser to leave things alone, or better yet to push for a complete catalog release of both mono and stereo mixes to begin with. The 1987 remixes remove the edge from these recordings and excessively "modernize" them; they're better than nothing, sure, and we all lived with them for a long time, but it's absurd that after all these years, these two key albums -- including one of the band's undisputed masterpieces -- are primarily sold in lower-quality versions than everything else they released. We're quite lucky that Martin deemed the mixes from Revolver onward "good enough."

The story should end there, but doesn't; on the otherwise competent 2009 CD remasters, Martin's increasingly antiquated remixes remained the widely available versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. It turns out that this wasn't the fault of the team of engineers in charge. During one of his various Beatles-related projects, Martin's son Giles sent an inquiry to Apple about using the original tapes of these albums as a source rather than the low-bitrate digital remasters, but was told Apple's policy dictated that because George Martin had considered these mixes definitive, they were now "the" only official mixes that could be utilized. Giles checked with his dad to find that he himself, twenty years down the line, did not even recall constructing the remixes! But the "policy" remained immobile, so across every streaming service and just about every Beatles disc or new vinyl record you can buy that contains this content, apparently Help! and Rubber Soul are doomed to be stuck in 1987 forever, and for no good reason. One pleasing sideline, however, is that the 2009 remaster campaign did manage to find a place for the original 1965 stereo mixes, flawed as they may be: tucked onto the tail end of the CDs for Help! and Rubber Soul housed in the boxed set The Beatles in Mono. So ironically, these most flawed titles among the '87 catalog now are the only Beatles albums to have received what should have been the uniform idea all along: single discs with the mono and stereo mixes presented consecutively. Is that so hard? Apparently. When you have the rights to literally the most valuable catalog of pop music in the world, is it really that hard to put it out in the world without issues? Again, apparently, yes.

The Beatles: Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Apple 1965-68/1999) [r]
Commemorating the DVD release of the film in 1999, this revision of the Yellow Submarine album removes the score and adds every Beatles song heard in the film, even those -- like "Think for Yourself" -- that only appear for a few seconds. The recordings have been brightly remixed (the first time such a project was undertaken for general audio release rather than a video or DVD) and sound quite good; for new fans, at least, this is the ideal way to get the four new songs from Yellow Submarine, though the original LP is not without merit (as noted in my review, the score is itself very good), and of course these aren't the "canon" mixes for whatever that's worth. Honestly these 1999 mixes sound a bit better to me than some of the more deliberately divergent Giles Martin retakes of the catalog currently making the rounds, though the purpose is obviously different.

The Beatles: Let It Be... Naked (Apple 1968-70/2003) [c]
This is the most pointless of all official Beatles releases promoted as containing "new material." Ostensibly it's a case of the remaining Beatles finally "finishing" the Get Back album that became Let It Be, nixing Phil Spector's editing and overdubs and streamlining and cleaning it up as if it were a canonical Beatles album (not a "new phase" one as described on the back of the original LP). The issue is that this task was already undertaken quite well by Anthology 3 seven years earlier, and it did so while bringing a wealth of actual new music into official release; that expansive set allowed us to hear most of the key tracks from Let It Be, often in better performances and uniformly with none of the extraneous distractions that marred canon tracks like "The Long and Winding Road" and "I Me Mine." Still, an official release of one of the Glyn Johns assemblies of Get Back might have made sense; what we get instead is simply a rearrangement of Let It Be that uses the exact same performances as the original releases with three exceptions: "The Long and Winding Road," "Don't Let Me Down" and "I've Got a Feeling" (the latter two edited from multiple performances from the Apple rooftop on January 30th, 1969) but excludes the Spector overdubs as well as the incidental dialogue. For the most part, this makes the record totally arbitrary, a vanity project that, apart from the one complete new performance ("Road") really provides nothing new and isn't genuinely true to the Beatles' mission of the time, since its wonky mastering takes pains to make these songs sound "of a piece" with other Beatles recordings rather than distinctively raw as the title seems to promise. There's a second disc of "fly on the wall" material meant to throw a bone to that spirit of live-in-the-studio mayhem, but it's just an incoherent mess. You'd think that, by 2003, Apple would've gathered that this sort of half-measure wouldn't be well-received by fans; it's now on the streaming platforms, but still sits awkwardly in the band's discography. On most of the recordings the compilers have taken more away than they've added, which they seem only have done to be able to call all of them "previously unreleased." I'm willing to concede two points, though: the new "Road" is nice, as actual new Beatles music nearly always was and is; and the inclusion of "Don't Let Me Down," the finest song from the sessions, even if in an inferior version, corrects one of the most misguided choices Spector made for Let It Be. This does also boast probably the most flattering mix of the canon version of "Across the Universe"... but the song still doesn't belong with the Get Back material, and the Anthology 2 version is far superior. At a total of 54 minutes spread across two discs, the whole thing feels like a waste. Thankfully, it was one of the last times the Beatles' catalog would suffer such a strange indignity.

The Beatles: Love (Apple 2006)
I don't really care for mashups, but this elaborate soundtrack constructed by George Martin and his son Giles for the Beatles-oriented Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas does have its moments of clever interpolation: a deconstruction of "Lady Madonna" actually finds previously obscure hooks in that everpopular chestnut, and the magical progression of "Strawberry Fields Forever" from demo to final stages compressed down into a five-minute montage coheres impressively. The first time you listen, there's something revelatory about hearing the "Tomorrow Never Knows" drums underneath "Within You, Without You," but that miracle seems to fade with repeated exposure as the experience totally undercuts the brilliance of both songs, and the fit isn't as snug as the Martins want it to be. That sort of overreaching ambition is a bit of an outlier, really; the generalized problem with Love is that it's unexpectedly boring, with many songs (like "Help!", "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday" and "A Day in the Life") left nearly untouched, while at other points the thing becomes an unbearable cacophony of cross-referenced gibberish (the insane fusion of "Drive My Car"-"The Word"-"What You're Doing" sounds like a nightmare of the Beatles collectively having a stroke, and fusing "Come Together" with "Dear Prudence" almost couldn't be more of an obnoxious idea). The best of what Love offers to the world comes out of its more tasteful experiments: we finally get the second half of "I Am the Walrus" in glorious stereo (it was mixed as such for the Anthology DVD as well, but not quite so adventurously), and George Martin's new string arrangement for the Harrison demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is unorthodox and lovely. It all probably sounds fine at the show, but as a listening experience, it seems to pander a little and fills the needs of neither a glorified greatest-hits package or of a cop to "modernizing" the Beatles, in which case its DJing goofoffs already sound more dated than the original records anyway. (Note: the digital releases of this album add a couple of bonus tracks. I've never heard them and don't much care to seek them out, making them the only officially released Beatles recordings I feel comfortable skipping, because I don't see this as a really important corner of the Beatles' output in the first place.)

The Beatles: 1+ (Apple 1962-70/2015) [r]
The greatest hits package 1 was originally issued in 2000, switched to a digipack format shortly after the 2009 remasters were released, and finally made its way to the streaming services with this new version in 2015, which had the stereo tracks (all but the first three) remixed by Giles Martin. This is easily the best version of the disc, in whatever form you hear it; Martin's tasteful mixes effectively modernize the flawed stereo versions of these songs, giving them a fuller, more enveloping and detailed sound that makes you wish you could hear his take on the rest of the catalog, and of course he's subsequently begun that process with Pepper and the White Album. (It should be noted, however, that Martin's improvements are less substantial in those cases; most of the Beatles' singles weren't mixed to stereo at the time of their original release, so the afterthought mixes made later frequently tended to lose some of the distinctive flavor of the songs in question.) Martin is well aware of the central fallacy of this compilation in the first place, that the mixes it included weren't really the Beatles' hits, and he does his best to approximate the intensity of the mono mixes while spreading them to two channels (or to six, on the DVD/Blu-ray editions). He succeeds moderately on most of the tracks; his will probably remain the best in the very poor stack of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" stereo attempts, but he really shines on the likes of "Paperback Writer" and "Eleanor Rigby," vastly improving on those deeply inadequate stereo tracks, centering the vocals on "Eleanor Rigby" and regaining the psychedelic effects of "Paperback Writer." The only jarring mixes are those of "Hey Jude," which distractingly fusses with the levels of the singalong chorus on the fade, and the Spector-enhanced "The Long and Winding Road," which couldn't have been salvaged anyway. Not all of the changes seem necessary but very few are distracting, and along with the more flamboyant Yellow Submarine Songtrack, this overall is probably my favorite of the Beatles' remix projects to date.

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