Flashback: 1987 (Interlude)

The Beatles

  • Please Please Me  CDP 7 46435 2
  • With the Beatles  CDP 7 46436 2
  • A Hard Day’s Night  CDP 7 46437 2
  • Beatles for Sale  CDP 7 46438 2
  • Help!  CDP 7 46439 2
  • Rubber Soul  CDP 7 46440 2
  • Revolver  CDP 7 46441 2
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band  CDP 7 46442 2

all Parlophone

One diversion from all the heavy soul-searching and bouts of existentialist angst was the much-heralded reissue of The Beatles on the still-new(ish) Compact Disc format. “Much-heralded” because, for many folks, the lack of albums by The Beatles on CD was probably the factor keeping them from investing in the new format.

A move that caused no small amount of resentment among many American fans was EMI’s decision to release the albums in their original UK configurations (plus the US edition of Magical Mystery Tour—the original UK release was an EP). So, those whose first Beatles album was Meet the Beatles, preferred the track listings of the shorter US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, and/or who preferred the extra echo/reverb added to some Beatles songs—never mind that the Capitol albums through Revolver were either “new” collections cobbled together from songs they’d dropped from the original UK albums, or bastardized, incomplete versions in the first place—were going to be out of luck.

Then there was the decision to release the first four albums in mono. A lot of folks felt that, if the albums weren’t going to be released in mono and stereo versions (preferably on the same disc, seeing as how the albums were short enough to fit), then they should be released only in stereo.

Yet another bone of contention for some was George Martin’s decision to remix Help! and Rubber Soul, apparently because he felt the existing stereo mixes weren’t good enough for the new format. But, probably because of Martin’s involvement, the outcry was muted.

A smart move on EMI’s part was to release the albums in batches, rather than all at once, with the all-important Sgt. Pepper reissue set for June 1—20 years to the day from the original UK release (“it was 20 years ago today…”).

The first four albums—Please Please MeWith the BeatlesA Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for Sale—reached store shelves on February 26th. The next three—Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver—were released on April 30th. And, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out on June 1st.

Now, while I did have Beatles albums in my record collection, I had never owned any of the “proper” albums before Sgt. Pepper. All of the earlier songs that I had in my collection were found on the 1962-66 and Rock and Roll Music compilations. So this was an excellent opportunity to acquire those earlier albums—and in their original configurations.

I trekked across the freeway to my nearest Tower Records on the day the first batch was released, paid my money ($11.99 each, plus sales tax), and brought them back to my apartment to listen to them for the first time.

When I got the discs out of their longboxes (American retailers were extremely resistant to invest in new display racks, and basically browbeat the record companies into coming up with packaging that would allow them to use their LP-oriented racks with minimum alteration), the first thing that struck me was how cheap the presentation was. Beyond the front cover, there was precious little attempt to maintain the integrity of the original artwork. Granted, the track listings were clearly facsimiles from the LP artwork, and they did use some of the photos, but the booklets were pretty minimalistic, and the label design and printing were, well, kind of sloppy—hardly what one would expect for an artist of The Beatles’ stature. (This continued to be the case right up through Revolver—and was never corrected, even when the Apple logo was slapped on the back covers and labels years later.)

Another thing I quickly realized was that there was a lot of filler on those first four albums. On the first two especially, there’s some real crap. Mostly the covers. Granted, these would undoubtedly have sounded fresher back in 1963. In 1987, though, I was glad for the ability to instantly skip to the next song.

Fortunately, matters improved dramatically on A Hard Day’s Night (all Lennon-McCartney songs, fortunately) and Beatles for Sale (though “Mr. Moonlight” is still hard to take).

The other source of disappointment was the monaural sound, which seemed kind of thin. Then again, I’d read from time to time about how The Beatles were often disappointed by the lack of bass on their records (something they’d managed to correct with the “Paperback Writer” single), so I figured it was at least historically accurate.

The next batch was something of a relief, despite the same sloppy packaging and presentation. We were now in the land of glorious stereo, complete with the some of the oddball panning choices (e.g., voices on one side, instruments on the other) those earlier Beatles records were known for. And, with Help! and Rubber Soul digitally remixed, the sound felt a bit crisper (then again, my only real source of comparison was vinyl). More importantly, though Revolver had not been remixed, its sound quality was on a par with the other two albums, suggesting that George Martin’s remixes had not “ruined” them.

Though I know there are folks who prefer Rubber Soul, I’m still inclined to think Revolver is the better overall album. While the two albums share a similar template, Revolver‘s poppier songs aren’t as cloying as, say, “You Won’t See Me”—and it doesn’t have a real clunker like “Run for Your Life”.

But none of that really matters, because this was all leading up to…

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This was the first Beatles album on CD that got the deluxe treatment it deserved. A nice, thick bookletActual liner notes. Full color. And a decent re-interpretation of the original album artwork. The lyrics were even printed in the same typeface (something which cannot be said for the remastered, re-packaged edition released in 2009).

The packaging looked good. But the album sounded good. And they’d even restored the 15 kHz tone that had been missing from the American LP (at least, it wasn’t there on the copies I owned), and figured out how to handle the chattering voices from the runout groove (which was also not on the copies of the LP I owned).

When you stop to consider that much of the focus of record companies at that time was just getting stuff out on CD—as opposed to today’s restoration-like approach—the treatment given the Sgt. Pepper CD is nothing short of astounding. (One has only to look at the cheesy artwork for CBS’s Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series to see the difference—and they were re-issuing such classics as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out, fer cryin’ out loud.)

And, to tie things back in with my own narrative, the day the Sgt. Pepper CD was released, I had an interview with representatives from a small printing company in Tokyo that was looking to hire a translator.

I got the job.

(May 24, 2012)