This week I finally get to what I've been wanting to do for weeks - write about the new Beatles' vinyl albums recently released by Capitol Records.
The entire Beatles catalog - released as the British versions - includes a 180-gram slab of high-grade vinyl, the original (British) covers, remastered sound and any goodies the originals came with, including posters, decals, etc.
The single albums are priced at about $17 to $25 depending on where you shop, and I bought a few on sale. The box containing all 16 LPs runs for about $400, which doesn't seem like a bad price until you consider it might actually be cheaper to buy them individually as I did.
The albums include "Please Please Me," "With the Beatles," "A Hard Day's Night," "Beatles for Sale," "Help!," "Rubber Soul," Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Yellow Submarine," "The White Album," "Abbey Road," Let It Be" and "Past Masters," a double LP set which includes singles that weren't released on British albums.
It's important to remember the U.S. Beatles album releases differed significantly from their British counterparts, in that Capitol, understanding the difference between the American and British demand for Beatles' material, would basically release the British versions to U.S. customers and leave out two or three cuts. Those in turn would be compiled with songs that were released as singles in Britain. By squeezing the American market this way, Capitol managed to get three extra albums of Beatles' material for us Yankee suckers to buy. And boy, did we ever buy. On the other hand, the British record-buying public wasn't so gullible and demanded a certain number of tracks to make it worth their while to buy an album - even if it was the most popular band in the world that also hailed from the former empire island.
Already possessing the original American vinyl pressings of everything the Beatles produced, I wasn't of the mindset to purchase the newly remastered Beatles vinyl. I mean, why? I already had like three copies of "Sgt. Pepper" and four copies of "The White Album." Surely the new releases couldn't possibly compare with the original analog releases. I mean, one of the worst vinyl sounds in the world is taking something recorded back in the 1960s or '70s, remastering it digitally and then pressing it back as a vinyl reissue.
Most of these versions I've heard - Columbia did it in the 1980s with the Miles Davis catalog - sound like crap - thin sounding and tinny and pressed on cheap vinyl. No, I always go for the originals or reissues that haven't been digitally tampered in some way.
However, I was deeply impressed with the job Capitol did in reissuing the Beatles catalog on CD a few years back. Digital remastering has come a long way since the original Beatles' CD versions came out in the late 1980s, and man, did those ever sound botched. I could never understand why Capitol waited nearly 20 years to sonically update those really awful first batch of Beatles CDs, but I guess if they're selling, why bother? Still, it seemed nearly criminal to me.
So, I walked into my favorite new record store in Pittsburgh - Sound Cat Records in Bloomfield - and lo and behold, there was the new "Sgt. Pepper" vinyl re-issue on the store's turntable. And man, did it ever sound great.
I was shocked and still skeptical the original vinyl versions could ever be digitally improved, but damn - there it was to hear, and it sounded wonderful.
I had to hear it on my high-end stereo system to really know - was this just a fluke, or would this really sound as good at home as it did in the store?
So, despite my reservations and my other vinyl copies of "Sgt. Pepper" at home, I pulled the trigger. I bought just one just to hear, and "Sgt. Pepper" was the first album I ever purchased as a kid, so the nostalgic feeling I get when I purchase another copy never really goes away.
I took off the shrink wrap, made sure the house was quiet, put the needle on and settled back on the sofa for some serious listening.
Now, I've listened to this album hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in various formats. I know and have memorized every sound after 35 years of listening to it.
But this was different. Shockingly different. In fact, this was just like hearing the album for the first time. I heard a depth of detail I'd only "imagined" was there, but never heard with the clarity as on the new album.
The one big difference was the bass response. While McCartney's original Hofner bass lines always sounded rather muffled and a little buried on the original LPs, here I could distinguish every bass note cleanly, many of which I had never really heard before.
In fact, the album had a three-dimensional aspect and a warmth I would never associate with digital remastering, especially when then transferred to vinyl. This was astonishing. It also confirmed my belief "Sgt. Pepper" is the best stereo album I've ever heard.
So, then I was hooked, and began buying them individually. Every one is a vast sonic improvement over anything I've heard in the past, especially with "Revolver" and Sgt. Pepper," which happen to be the Beatles most adventurous albums.
All the new reissues sound improved, but maybe not enough to warrant a re-purchase - "The White Album," while improved, doesn't have the same impact as the Beatles' "psychedelic" years, which include the recordings "Rubber Soul" through "Yellow Submarine."
"Let It Be" is the only letdown, but I've always thought the album sucked anyway and isn't a true Beatles record but more a Phil Spector travesty, who produced the album.
If you had to buy only one, I'd say go with "Sgt. Pepper." If you want to buy two, go with "Revolver" second. The better the stereo system, the more dramatic the difference in sound.
Capitol Records has done the nearly impossible with the Beatles catalog, and prices them reasonably to boot. I can't recommend the new vinyl highly enough. Fifteen stars!