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November 29, 2012

The Beatles on 180-gram vinyl

The Beatles

14 Studio Album Remasters Just Released

By Harvey Kubernik

T

he Beatles’ acclaimed original studio album remasters, released on CD in 2009 and 2010 for digital download exclusively on iTunes, made their long-awaited stereo vinyl debut released by EMI Music North America.

Manufactured on 180-gram, audiophile quality vinyl with replicated artwork, the 14 albums return to their original format with details including the poster in the Beatles (The White Album), the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’s cutouts, and special inner bags for some of the titles. Each album will be available individually, and accompanied by an elegantly designed 252-page hardbound book in a boxed edition, limited to 50,000 copies worldwide.

The last time I spent with Dennis Wilson, to utilize the phrase, I blew his mind out in a car. I had a little Phillips portable 45-RPM player in the back of my car. I played him a new Beatles 45. It might have been ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ it might have been ‘Good Day Sunshine.’ It was the Beatles, it was 1966 and Dennis was late for his gig.

______________—Andrew Loog Oldham, record producer, author, disc jockey 

The book, exclusive to the boxed edition, by award-winning radio producer Kevin Howlett, features a dedicated chapter for each of the albums, as well as insight into the creation of the remasters and how the vinyl albums were prepared.

The 12”x12” book showcases photographs spanning the Beatles’ recording career, inclu-ding many images not included in the 2009 CD booklets.

Beatles-Vinyl-Box-Set-promo-photoThe titles include the Beatles’ 12 original UK albums, first released between 1963 and 1970, the US-originated Magical Mystery Tour, now part of the group’s core catalogue, and Past Masters, Volumes One & Two, featuring non-album A-sides and B-sides, EP tracks and rarities. With this release, the Beatles’ first four albums make their North American stereo vinyl debuts.

In 2013, the remastered albums will make their mono vinyl debuts.

“The Beatles worked with an incredible team of recording engineers,” reminds Richard Bosworth, a Beatles expert, and a noted engineer and record producer. “That includes Keith Grant and Eddie Kramer at Olympic Recording Studios, Barry Sheffield at Trident Recording Studios and Glyn Johns at Apple Recording Studios as well as Olympic, all located in London. That being said, the group recorded their greatest body of work at EMI’s Abbey Road Recording Studios, St. John’s Wood, North London with [in chronological order] engineers Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick, Ken Scott and Phil McDonald.

“Norman Smith engineered virtually every studio performance of the band from 1962 through 1965. The iconic hits that Smith recorded encompass the singles, ‘Love Me Do,’ ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘From Me To You,’ ‘She Loves You,’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love,’ ‘A Hard Days Night,’ ‘I Feel Fine,’ ‘Eight Days A Week,’ ‘Ticket To Ride,’ ‘Help!,’ ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Daytripper’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’ and every LP from Beatles from the first, Please Please Me to Rubber Soul.

“Many consider, Brian Wilson being one, Rubber Soul to be the paradigm shift for artistic achievement from the ‘45’ to the ‘LP.’ On Rubber Soul Smith captured innovative new sounds such as fuzz bass guitar, sitar and distinctly dry vocals. To this day when one listens to Norman Smith’s recording of ‘Ticket To Ride’ on either radio, vinyl, CD, or MP3, it still lights up the speakers.”

Since it was recorded, the Beatles’ music has been heard on a variety of formats: from chunky reel-to-reel tapes and 8-track cartridges to invisible computer files. But there has never been a more romantic or thrilling medium for music than a long-playing 12-inch disc.

With the advent of the cassette tape in the ‘70s and the compact disc in the ‘80s, album artwork was reduced in size and importance, losing much of its charm. That is partly why vinyl LPs have not, as predicted, been discarded.

None of that would really matter, were it not for the enduring power of the Beatles’ music.

In September, 2009, The Beatles’ remastered albums on CD graced charts around the world. 17 million album sales within seven months was resounding evidence of the timeless relevance of their legacy.

The stereo albums are available individually and collected in a boxed collection, accompanied by a lavish 252-page hardbound book.

The EMI Music North America media news release announcing this 2012 item addressed the demand for the Beatles’ albums on vinyl.

“Indeed, 2011’s best-selling vinyl LP in the United States was Abbey Road. Following the success of the Beatles’ acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning 2009 CD remasters, it was decided that the sound experts at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios should create new versions of the Beatles’ vinyl LPs. The project demanded the same meticulous approach taken for the CD releases, and the brief was a simple one: cut the digital remasters to vinyl with an absolute minimum of compromise to the sound.”

During a 1997 interview I conducted with George Harrison published in HITS, he commented about the band’s studio endeavors as well as his own sitar playing.

“That was the environment in the band everybody was very open to bringing in new ideas. We were listening to all sorts of things, Stockhausen, avant-garde music, whatever, and most of it made its way onto our records.”

George had first heard the sitar on the set of the Beatles’ movie Help!. Later that same year, he would record with the instrument on John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Subsequently, Harrison integrated the sitar into his own composition “Love You Too” for the Beatles’ Revolver album. He fused sitar and Indian influences on his selection “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and also on “The Inner Light,” the B-side to the “Lady Madonna” single.

Harrison described his earliest attempt at playing the sitar with the Beatles, “Very rudimentary. I didn’t know how to tune it properly, and it was a very cheap sitar to begin with. So ‘Norwegian Wood’ was very much an early experiment. By the time we recorded ‘Love You Too,’ I had made some strides.”

Harvey Kubernik and Ken Scott Interview 

Ken Scott began his engineer-ing career at EMI Recording Studio. His first album job with the Beatles was on The Magical Mystery Tour and then The White Album. Scott later worked with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass. In 2012 he published a memoir Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust.

Q: In your book you talk about the first time you were in the control room with the Beatles during sessions for A Hard Day’s Night. Then you’re eventually in the room for the Help! and Rubber Soul albums. What was that like for you? 

A: There were two feelings. The first time I was actually in the control room with them I was like a fly on the wall and taking pictures. I was absolutely ecstatic. Excitement. “My God. How did I ever get here?” That kind of thing. And if all ended tomorrow it would be worth it. And the first time working with them as button pusher and engineer it was pure fear. I had never done it before. Both as a button pusher and engineer I was thrown into the deep end. They were my first sessions.

Q: You started in the EMI (Abbey Road) mastering lab as a cutter and preparing lacquers. You were then a button pusher, a second engineer. What followed was some work on sessions on The Magical Mystery Tour, including “Your Mother Should Know,”  and “I Am The Walrus.” And then you engineered the White Album. How did the experiences in the mastering room, or cutting lacquers inform your engineering roles with the band and producer George Martin? 

A: The whole thing that one learned from the mastering, first and foremost, was what could go onto vinyl. Because you could put a lot more onto tape than you could on vinyl. You had to watch phase, you had to watch the amount of low end, all of that kind of thing because it would make the stylus jump. That was really why they out you into mastering before allowing you to engineer. The other aspect of it that you learned was about EQ. Tone control. Bass, middle, high- end and how you could affect that. What sounded good and what didn’t sound good and how much it took to try and change a sound. After a few days you learned you could make it perfect just by adding one notch as opposed to piling it all on.

Q: Talk to me about the Beatles’ White Album. Were there tensions in the studio? 

A: Not as many as people believe. There really weren’t. Yes there were some blowups but the majority of the time it was fine.

Q: There was a moment, like on “Back In The U.S.S.R.” tracking date where Ringo had temporarily quit the band and the basic track has Paul on drums. John is on bass and George on lead guitar. 

A: Ringo came back a week later. It was more like he didn’t show up one day. George decked out the entire number 2 studio with flowers and a banner, “Welcome back, Ringo.” But perhaps seeing Paul on drums made them fall in love with him again. Look, you come to expect different things from them would be my answer. You could never tell what was going to happen with them. Except the one thing that kept me going during the times of extreme boredom was I always knew it was gonna finish up being something exceptional.

Q: While recording the Beatles, specifically The White Album, what amazed you about them? 

A: The most amazing part was when they really got together again after Ringo had quit. Whilst they went through the thing about actually telling him how much they loved him and how much they needed him, made him feel comfortable, it seemed to be picked up by all of them. They were more verbal about each other. They went back down into the studio and just played like a group. It was back totally the way they were totally in the early days. And they were having a blast. And just watching that and feeling that energy coming from them was amazing.

Q: On The White Album George Harrison was really coming into his own. From the number of his songs on this LP and other tunes he was developing that would surface on his solo album “All Things Must Pass.” 

A: Absolutely. During that period they were laying down the tracks and playing together, sorting out the arrangements together. It was all good. Obviously whoever wrote the song had more sort of sway over ideas than the others did. It was very much a group effort. Generally speaking the others would filter out whilst whoever’s song it was worked on the finished thing. And it was like that for all of them. You knew that it would go a lot quicker with John than it would with Paul or George. Vocals would take the longest with Ringo. (laughs). Especially ‘Good Night.’

“It was pretty much the same for all of them. I think very much the difference, writing wise, for George, was that he was on his own. Even during the ‘White Album’ there were times when Paul and John would interact on how a song should be. But George didn’t have any of that. It was all him. And he didn’t initially have the confidence in his songs. Even at the White Album stage. Yes, he was coming up with incredible stuff. He didn’t know it yet. He was writing more for other people. If you think about it, he gave My Sweet Lord away to Billy Preston. There was something he wanted to give away to Jackie Lomax. He didn’t have the confidence within himself to do those songs. Like, ‘Not Guilty,’ even though we never completed it. We never really got to the point where it was even sort of even considered going on the album.

Q: What struck you then and keeps striking you now about the The White Album

A: When we were actually recording it I thought, ‘My God. Will this ever end?’ We were just going and going. I didn’t even know there were May 1968 demos done by the band at Kinfauns, the Esher home of George Harrison.

“What strikes me now, not just about The White Album it’s just all that was done in that period at Abbey Road and how great it still sounds. We were doing this thing and it still stands up to the modern technology. Sometimes even better. I guess that is what astounds me the most now.

Q: Mono vs. stereo. It was the first world you worked in. Martin and the Beatles approved the mono mixes. And later the stereo mixes occurred.  

A: I like the Beatles in mono because that was what they sanctioned. The whole point was, in England at the time virtually no one had stereo. So it was pointless to do it in stereo because the core audience at home wouldn’t hear it. They would only hear it in mono. Radio was basically AM at that point. There were record players. Not stereo systems or hi-fi systems. So, because of that, all we were interested in was the mono. The mixes, and that’s why they only sanctioned the mono. Because no one else was gonna listen to it. And not until around The Magical Mystery Tour, and by the White Album, they were totally into it. And the mono White Album has some differences from the stereo. They were getting comments from fans in other countries saying, ‘Did you realize there is this difference from the mono to the stereo?’ And they thought they could sell twice as many records if they got involved making the stereos different.

Q: Do you have any theories why we are still discussing the Beatles’ library, let alone this stereo LP box set? 

A: Because of the changes going on in that period of time their music and they have become more important. They were very much a part of the major change within the western civilization. A lot of it stemming from WWII. Because of the baby boom. Younger people were getting more of a say. More power. And that helped to change things, which they were a major part of.

“I also feel that a lot of it is because it’s real. They were performances. It’s not like it is today where it’s all pieced together. Yes, we would do punch-ins and that kind of thing, but there wasn’t copying one chorus and putting it in every chorus so it’s always exactly the same. They had to sing and play everything. And they had this ability, which so few other acts had, the closest I would probably come is U2, but they had this ability of being able to take the audience, their audience through changes. Without losing them. They always moved just enough that they could pull their audience with them and have the audience grow along with them.

Q: You saw and documented their move from vinyl to cassettes to the CD format. What about the Beatles on vinyl? 

A: To me it’s analog vinyl to CD. I find digital quite often cold compared to analog. There’s a warmth and a depth if you like to analog, be it vinyl be it tape that we don’t get in the digital domain. We will eventually, but we’re not quite there yet. The whole point for me was that we had to move away from vinyl, at least for pop music, because the vinyl that was being used for albums was becoming so bad and so noisy that records were becoming thinner and thinner. It had to change. The way we listen to music had to change. And CD’s, even as bad as they were, when they first came out, were better than the quality of the vinyl at that point. I think now there’s probably more the availability of vinyl has improved so the vinyl being used for the records is at a higher standard.

___________________________________

Harvey Kubernik is the Contributing Editor of Treats! Magazine. The L.A. native has been a music journalist for 40 years and is the author of six books.





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