The night before The Beatles made their American debut onstage February 1964 in New York City on CBS-TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show (in the Broadway building between 53rd and 54th that now houses LateNight With David Letterman), I couldn’t sleep. Those of us in the 7th Grade at Maple Avenue School in Newark, NJ had all heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It was the only song any American kid had heard so far, and it was the topic of daily conversation. We were inundated with it, as it was constantly being played by WABC 77 AM, the station I listened to on a little transistor radio I put under my pillow every night. I was no more impressionable than most 13-year olds, and the station was so overboard with this Beatles thing that it renamed itself W-A-Beatle-C. I couldn’t sleep because I knew my grandfather was going to let me see them, and I was dying to know what they looked like.
They were on three Sundays in a row and many months later, I persuaded my mother to buy me Beatles ’65 at the Belmont Record Shop on Belmont Avenue in Newark. I played that sucker over and over on a little portable record player that my single mother’s boyfriend at the time, Arnie, a window-washer, bought me. I loved every song on that album except “Mr. Moonlight.”
Needless to say, I bought every Beatle album since. Then bought them all again on CD. The band seemed to mirror my own odyssey of growing up, changing, looking different, maturing, experimenting with drugs. I remember being extremely mad at my mom for not letting me go to Shea Stadium in 1965 because by 1966, they had stopped touring completely and I never got to see them live.
The release of the entire Beatle catalog digitally remastered over a painstaking four-year period and put in a box with original UK art, expanded booklets, new essays and even a mini-documentary on each disc included as a QuickTime file that can be played on computer—for me and millions like me—is like putting my own life in a box. And before they put me in a box someday soon, I’m going to plumb the depths of this sucker just like I sat in awe in front of that little portable record player Arnie bought me. And yes, the bottom line is this box sounds appreciably better than what was previously released on CD. I even did the test, got them all out, played them side-by-side with the new CDs, and there’s no comparison. In this instance, believe the hype—those ‘80s CDs now sound thin and flat compared to this sumptuous feast.
The QuickTime files are only being included in the first pressings (there’s also a mono box with other goodies). This stereo monster has 16 discs in all: the 13 Beatle albums, a two-disc singles package (with many non-album tracks) and a DVD of all 13 mini-documentaries. At $250.00, it’s a bargain. (The first four Beatle albums were never released in stereo until now.)
It’s going to take some getting used to. The American versions of the original Brit albums were haphazard affairs, stringing together tracks from various sources. (Beatles ’65, for instance, was just an American knock-off of tracks from earlier Brit albums.) And I don’t think I’ll ever get used to hearing “Taxman” on Rubber Soul instead of on Revolver. But it’s a small glitch because this time, Paul’s bass, for instance, darts, skips and playfully dances up, down and through the mix like never before. Did I not notice it or had it been submerged? Definitely the latter.
Ringo’s drumming is another big surprise. Who knew he was so deft at counter-rhythms and hi-hat rides? The harmonies are more up-front too: the early Everly Brothers fascination that Paul and John had comes to the fore. Even the seconds of feedback that John discovered he could harness (years before Hendrix) that starts “I Feel Fine” strikes like a dentist drill.
It goes without saying that the later stuff—with producer George Martin becoming more important—sounds so damn delicious (the brass in “Penny Lane,” the avant-garde montage of “Revolution #9,” all the creative use of reverb and backwards effects). What is revelatory, though, is that the early stuff—those years when they predated punk by recklessly covering American soul artists and arbitrarily speeding up the tempos, zipping through black girlgroup hits, Isley Brothers, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Little Richard—sounds so fresh, vital, punched-up and joyously juiced. It’s the sound of unlimited horizons, the exuberance of youth, and paying no heed to your forebears.
I guess having no Beatles ’65 is a small price to pay, after all.
The Beatles Stereo Box Set is available in stores where you can find it; online retailers (such as Amazon.com) will have new stock as of Nov. 1. Best of luck to all.