28 December 2009

Remastering Memory

As much as I am a big fan of The Beatles, it has been a long time since I had much opportunity to listen to them afresh. That gapall those years of listening to the original 1980s CD releases of the band's catalog, but minus much of the joy of really listening, given their flat sound; or even looking, since the CDs had little of the visual joy of their vinyl predecessorsmight have taken their toll. Instead, that time has given me a chance to re-engage, wonder, and marvel at The Beatles all over again, now that the stereo and mono remastering of the albums (and the album packaging that goes along with it) has been released.


I bought the mono set first, and the first thing I listened to was the so-called White Album, starting with “Back in The U.S.S.R.” The White Album has always represented the pinnacle of rock music to me. Where other albums offered two sides, the four sides here were like a dream, an opportunity for the joy of listening to go on and on. Back in the day, my parents had a fancy, drop-stack turntable, so I have a kind of memory equilibrium of listening to the White Album in four different ways: with the A sides following each other, and then the B sides, or mix-and-matching, or eschewing the stack and flipping through sequentially.

What you get, right off the bat with the new discs, is the crystal clear sound of an airplane landing. And it sounds like an airplane, with the rumble and the background noise that I haven’t heard since … well, since the vinyl, when the needle probably added some background noise of its own. Even here, there is a subtle but distinct difference between the stereo and mono sounds; hard to describe except perhaps to say that I find the mono version to sound almost more authentic, clearer. Both are, unquestionably, better than the original compact discs.

That feeling of joy continued. There it was again, at long last, in the clarity of the punchy guitar on “Dear Prudence,” pure George Harrison breaking through from underneath the rhythm guitar that has for so long dominated. And “Long, Long, Long,” a song I have listened to repeatedly at some of the darkest moments of my life, now returned to me. That gaping chasm of universe at the end of the song is back, and more powerful than ever; in mono, it sounds like a black hole heading straight at you, while in stereo it is as though you’re about to be engulfed by god from all sides.


The early parts of The Beatles’s catalog are a whole other kind of pleasure. Hearing “Little Child” (one my early favorites) in a new mono remaster is an emotional throwback, to a much earlier timewhen I'd absconded with my father's LPs and played them on the horrible, kid-friendly turntable I had in my room. Indeed, that turntablewith its single, built-in speaker in a red-and-white plastic casingis the reason I wanted to have the mono version of the albums: some of my earliest, best, most personal and meaningful experiences of listening to The Beatles were through a mono system.

I think the mono remasters make a stronger impression for the first five albums, perhaps because that (re)mastering is better suited to the music itself, a kind of all-in rock-n-roll sound that still holds together well. It isn’t until Rubber Soul that the impact of the stereo really takes off, and the use of the technology matched the desire of The Beatles and their producer, George Martin, to achieve a certain lush sound. (For an aural reference point, think of the sitar on “Norwegian Wood.”)


Looking through the box sets, I found myself entranced by the pictures of the band in Abbey Road. And all of a sudden it just flew out of me, this flood of conflicted feelings about that album: the sense that for everyone's hype, it actually holds together the least well, pulled apart by the fraying in their personal lives, which is reflected in the songs. This notwithstanding a quote from Ringo that the end of the album is “one of the finest pieces” the band did, which may be true.

On the one hand, the album as a whole feels weak for a band capable of the conceptual brilliance of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Come Together” matches the John Lennon of the era: just look at the pictures there, him like a hippie-Hasid. “Maxwell's Silver Hammer” is such a prefiguring of the even greater goofiness that would emerge from some of McCartney's later song-writing, especially in the Wings era, that it is only my sentimental attachment to The Beatles that lets me listen. “Octopus’s Garden” belongs on a (blissfully, unmade) Beatles children’s album. Have you ever heard such a brilliant break-up album, before or since? George sounds like he would as a solo star; Paul sounds like he would as a solo star; John sounds like he would as a solo star. (Ringo is, was, and shall remain Ringoand thank goodness.) Four, barely united as one, for the last time.

Yet, to Ringo’s quote, credit where credit is due: the last ten minutes, from “Mean Mr. Mustard” straight through to “Her Majesty,” is brilliant, lush, and (yes) symphonic. This remastered version brings out details one longs to hear and follow along with, like the bass line on “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” which changes at about the one minute mark, doubling up on certain chords. What once sounded smudged (how else to describe the first CD release?) is now clear and strong, and it keeps that song moving. This 10 minutes brings Abbey Road to a conclusion that saves it from itself.


Revolver. My beloved Revolver. From its composite cover to its stellar collection of brilliant songs that helped to define so much of what rock is about, it remains one of the best albums of all time. It is also the essence of what The Beatles were about, too: from the lyrics about life, love, sadness, or joy, to the relentless musical experimentation, it is an exquisitely produced 35 minutes.

I could go on and on about the album or the songs, but instead this may be the moment to mention the value of the Fifth Beatle, producer George Martin. What would these four Liverpudlians have come to be without Martin’s talented ear guiding them from their earliest Parlophone recordings? No idea, but certainly not The Beatles as we know them. And just as I think Rubber Soul represents the moment when stereo came to be a better conveyance for The Beatles’s sound, Revolver seems to me to be the album around which both the band and their producer converged fully, and together advanced beyond mere chart-topping rock to create music that was pioneering, musically and technically. Without Revolver, the restSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band includeddoesn’t happen.


I have had some great Beatles moments over the last two years, mostly related to musical rediscoveries as a parent: introducing my daughter to the band, the players, and the music, and sharing in the experience with her. But the last time I had real cause to consider the group as a whole in a new way was at the time of the release of the Anthology discs and the companion book; that was more than a decade ago and, frankly, more thrilling as a Beatles fan than for the music itself.

These remastered box sets deliver a better experience on many levels; even the casual listener should be able to hear the difference in these songs over the older CDs, while the diehard fan will surely hear (and see) the kinds of details that reward on many levels, emotionally and aurally. It’s all long overdue, but well worth the wait.

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28 June 2009

Poor MJ

I imagine that many people feel about Michael Jackson’s death the way I felt about John Lennon’s murder on 8 December 1980: hard to reconcile feelings of surprise—shock is more like it—mixed with sadness and an immediate, very personal longing. I never met John Lennon, but on that day in 1980, I felt as though I had lost someone very close to me.

I don’t feel that way about poor Michael.

Strictly speaking, I should be more a child of Michael Jackson’s era than of John Lennon’s. The Beatles dissolved the band around the time I was born, while Michael truly came into his own—as an independent superstar, eclipsing both of his earlier incarnations—as I entered adolescence. There was a lot more of Michael Jackson on the radio than John Lennon, and certainly the radio-killing MTV was more attracted to Michael (and various other Jacksons) than to anything as old and dated as the British Invasion.

The sequined glove era just wasn’t me, though. As much as I admired Michael Jackson on various levels, from his stick-in-your-head songs to his dancing to the brilliant theatrics of his music videos and performances, I never found Jackson as compelling as Lennon, because I never found his off-stage persona at all meaningful. Where Jackson was a performer, Lennon was an artist. Jackson always seemed to find his highest level of expression literally moving in the spotlight—or trying to duck it, and the paparazzi too. Lennon spent much of his time in the spotlight, from his performances to his bed-in antics, trying to redirect those bright lights on to the world’s problems and our responsibility to try to solve them.

It is like the difference between Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Jordan remains (to my mind) one of the world’s most incredible athletes; watching clips of classic Chicago Bulls games, Jordan’s maneuvers are still eye catching. However, Ali remains (to my mind) one of the world’s most incredible artists, an athlete who tried to use the bully pulpit provided by his star power to greater social and political ends. Any clip of Ali boxing is incomplete without his corresponding commentary from the beginning and the end of each match, where he was as likely to spout off about the war in Vietnam as about his own (self-granted) title as “The Greatest.” Like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson never rose above his performances to offer us anything deeper or more meaningful.

Perhaps my definition of art, and of artists, is too narrow. I respect Keats’ construction—that a thing of beauty is a joy forever—as much as the next guy, and by that logic I should take Michael Jackson’s body of work and admire it for what it is. In a way, I do. Jackson’s legacy is assured, and his death is very sad. But it is all the more tragic because what is left behind is as much our collective memory of Jackson’s own sadness, the emptiness that was his circus show life, as our recollection of any single one of his songs.

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