Most people have forgotten that the Beatles were latecomers to the compact disc. Apple Corps, the organization entrusted with protecting the Beatles’ legacy, stubbornly stuck with issuing material on vinyl until discs started rolling out on Feb. 26, 1987. When the full catalogue was finally available, the decline of the LP was a done deal.
But those original Beatles CDs really weren’t anything special. They sounded fine — the analogue-to-digital transfer technology they used was the best of its day — but by later standards, they sound harsh. The packaging and the liner notes were basic and dull, devoid of any history or context. Bonus tracks or alternate mixes? Sorry, just the standard 30 to 36 minutes per disc. And outside of a 40th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper in 2007 that featured tarted up packaging, we’ve had to make do with these — let’s face it — embarrassing digital reissues for 22 years.
This, however, will all change on Wednesday (09-09-09: “Number 9…Number 9…Number 9 — get it?) when all the original U.K. albums along with Magical Mystery Tour and Past Masters — not to mention the Beatles edition Rock Band — hits stores.
A dedicated team at Abbey Road spent months using digital filters and other electronic tricks to clean up and tweak the original master tapes. The refurbished versions sparkle with a clarity unheard in Beatles recordings until now. You hear things — snare buzzes, fingers moving on strings, growls in the voice — that had been submerged in the murk. Obsessive types will search for things like the point in Hey Jude where John drops an F-bomb, the squeaking piano stool in A Day in the Life and the mythical Morse code in Strawberry Fields Forever.
The super hardcore fan will go for the box set which features the mono mixes (The Beatles came late to stereo, too, with the first ten albums recorded that way), which are considered by many of the faithful to be the proper and definitive versions of the songs. But the stereo mixes are also brilliant, showing off George Martin’s skill as a producer.
Add in the upgraded packaging — the box sets are gorgeous — and the Beatles canon finally gets the digital respect it deserves.
This will most likely be the last major event we’ll see with the CD. Think of it as a going away present for the compact disc.