Revolution 2009: The Beatles Remasters

The new versions might not strike you as drastically different. Buy some anyway.

Not to say the unearthliness of those early highlights—the hymnlike elegance of "If I Fell" (Paul's voice doesn't even crack in mono!), the sweet Motown worship evident in With the Beatles' gorgeous cover of "You Really Got a Hold on Me"—suffers much in either format. On the later, weirder records, that's less true: The mono version of the White Album is immediately disqualified, as "Helter Skelter" doesn't have the part at the end where Ringo screams, "I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!!" Doing extensive, deep-concentration, track-by-track, side-by-side comparisons of the two Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band iterations is a particularly hallucinatory way to spend an afternoon, but you can only listen to "She's Leaving Home" so many times before your heart breaks.

Hardcore audiophiles with money to burn are not begrudged the impulse to own both boxes—the Beatles are basically a one-band justification for being a hardcore audiophile in the first place. But Ringo's blisters aside, it comes down to personal preference, headphones vs. speakers, being bowled over vs. being surrounded, so on and so forth. Choose a side. We're in a recession.

Me, I'll take the box that gives you Abbey Road. The most luxurious single minute of this entire remastering bacchanal is the first 60 seconds of "You Never Give Me Your Money," weeping piano in your left ear, lithe and bluesy guitar in your right, Paul's voice floating delicately in between. And even then, an extensive, deep-concentration, side-by-side comparison between the old '87 CD and the remaster doesn't uncover much sonic difference except maybe in the case of Paul's bass, when it finally meanders in, emboldened now into a forceful bum, bum, bum that you'd be less inclined to describe as "farting."

©Apple Corps Ltd.

Emboldened basslines are among the remasters' more tangible benefits, Paul's deliciously subtle showoff tendencies setting the tone for Rubber Soul ("Drive My Car") and especially Revolver ("Taxman") immediately. Ringo, too, enjoys a bit more power and resonance—no Keith Moon he, but no impassive stooge, either. He can bring forth the thunder when the thunder is required. Which brings me to my new favorite Beatles song: "Birthday."

Yes, that one. The whole second disc of the White Album is a mesmerizing, schizophrenic trip. (Another reason to favor the stereo: that passive bingo caller calling "Number 9? Number 9?" panning slowly, hypnotically back and forth across your cerebral cortex.) But "Birthday" sets the tone immediately for all the deranged ebullience that follows, Ringo pounding with all his might as his mates scream, "I'M GLAD IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!" directly in both ears amid joyous bursts of piano and fusillades of handclaps. It's a song you're quite possibly (and justifiably) sick of, a baseball-stadium cliché by definition, but, in this context, canonized and lavishly refurbished at last, it sounds both hilariously crazed and defiantly, improbably beautiful. Whether it's the painstaking remastering job or just the prism of reverent nostalgia, it sounds wonderful now, pure and triumphant and unstoppable. Even through earbuds.

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