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Beatlemania Returns With Rock Band, Remasters
It’s been 45 years since they first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Forty years since they recorded their last album. Thirty-nine years since they broke up.
After all that time, do we still love the Beatles?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
A fresh bout of Beatlemania erupts this week with the rollout of “The Beatles: Rock Band” video game — with downloadable material that marks the Fab Four’s first foray into that realm — and the release of remastered versions of the group’s catalog of albums in both stereo and mono. It all upgrades the original 1987 CD issues, and the onslaught of new material — slyly released on 9-9-09, a homage to the “number nine” loop in “Revolution 9” from 1968’s “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) — has the universe of Beatlemaniacs flipping their mop tops.
“It’s going to be a very big deal, even though it’s so many years after they first came on the scene,” says media consultant and classic rock radio format creator Fred Jacobs of Southfield-based Jacobs Media. “It’s going to be huge in terms of overall sales, not just for Beatles collectors but, I think, a lot of people.
“I can’t think of any other band, or brand, from the ’60s from a pop culture standpoint that is anywhere near as forefront as The Beatles have been. It’s incredible they’re as top of mind and currently in demand as they are.”
Bill O’Keefe of Rock-A-Billy’s Records in Utica says he expects to see that demand personified when the new products roll out on Wednesday.
“Oh yeah, there’s a lot of excitement,” says O’Keefe, who’s planning a week-long “rock ’n’ roll garage sale” to coincide with The Beatles releases. “I really didn’t think it could be that big of an improvement (sonically), but I think it’s rather dramatic — good enough that I think real Beatles fans will definitely go out there and buy it, even if they have everything already.”
Even Peter Frampton, a contemporary who played on George Harrison’s solo album “All Things Must Pass,” counts himself among those who will re-stock with the remasters and “Rock Band” game.
“We are Beatlemania in my house, for sure,” Frampton says. “We love The Beatles. I went to the (online) shop, and I couldn’t help myself. I bought them all on CD. I even bought them all on vinyl!”
EMI Music, The Beatles’ home since 1963, is certainly planning to make the product abundantly available. Besides traditional musicselling outlets, the company has lined up lifestyle chains such as Whole Foods, 7-Eleven and Restoration Hardware to carry Beatles wares. And Starbucks will broom its other music offerings to offer just four Beatles titles through the month of September — “Help!,” “Rubber Soul,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.”
“It will allow us to reach the everyday places people shop,” Bill Gagnon, EMI’s senior vice-president of catalog marketing, told brandweek.com. “We’re bringing the music to where they are.”
A number of ancillary products also are part of the program, including Beatles Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit games and Box Of Vision, a lavish, limited edition LP-sized tabletop CD display unit that comes with a book about The Beatles’ album artwork and a “Catalography” guide to the group’s entire discography.
The Beatles themselves,meanwhile, are just happy that the music is getting a chance to be heard again in the best possible quality, whether it’s the striking depth and detail of the digital stereo and video game sound or the surprisingly powerful and varied mono mixes.
“I’m sure the kids don’t care — and I don’t care — how they hear the music,” Paul McCartney recently told Billboard. “To hear it is the fun. It’s very good quality ... so I think it’s going to be an interesting phenomenon that will make another Beatles thing happen.”
The Long And Winding Road
That The Beatles are the most popular and successful rock band — and perhaps music act — of all time is unquestioned. The quartet from Liverpool, England, which was together for a decade, has sold more than 600 million albums worldwide and, when singles — 52 have hit the U.S. Top 40 — are added, well over a billion records total.
They also remain a force at radio; so far in 2009, Beatles songs have been played nearly 253,000 times across all formats, according to Mediabase.
“Obviously we’re going to look back at The Beatles the way older generations have looked at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and any of the classical masters,” says consultant Jacobs.
But a chink in the Fab’s formidable armor has been the sound quality of its catalog, as well as its absence from the digital downloading world. The latter is not fully being addressed by this week’s moves; though “Rock Band” game players will be able to download additions to the 45 Beatles tracks it comes with, the group’s music still will not be sold at iTunes and other cyber outlets.
McCartney says The Beatles’ move to digital downloading is “primed, ready to go” but has been held up by “contractual” issues. “You’ve got to get these things right,” he explains. “You don’t want to do something that’s as cool as that and in three years time you think, ‘Oh God, why did we do that?!’ ”
Nevertheless, the remasters and “Rock Band” certainly correct the thin and shrill sound of the 1987 CDs, which had been fixed somewhat on subsequent projects such as “The Beatles Anthology,” “1” and “Let It Be ... Naked,” but never with the level of care, attention and reinvention that was paid to this set of releases.
“We do the approving, and the other guys do the real hard work,” McCartney told Billboard. “So they do the work and then Ringo (Starr) and I go in and listen to the demos and we usually go, ‘Wow, this is amazing — that’s what it sounded like in the room.’
“That’s what’s nice about it ... It’s just more real, it’s more true to the noise we were actually making. I can listen to those records and see John (Lennon) right there.”
The remasters project started in late 2004, according to Mike Heatley, who retired from EMI at the end of last year and teamed with Kevin Howlett to write the historical notes for the CD reissues. The two worked in tandem with a team of engineers at Apple Studios in London, where The Beatles recorded with producer George Martin, all pursuing a similar goal.
“They didn’t want to make these records sound different,” Heatley says. “They would listen to the original vinyl (albums), they would listen to the existing CD, then they would listen to the vinyl again ... several times before they would even make any decisions at all about how they were going to process the job in hand.
“They didn’t want to have an artistic interference at all. They wanted them to sound as good as they could using the original analog masters and using the best of modern technology. But what they didn’t want to do is alter the sound of The Beatles.”
Howlett adds that, “In the early days of CDs, the engineers went a bit mad. If they heard tape noise or hiss they would filter it out, and that affected the sound of the rest of the recording. That hasn’t been done here at all.” In fact, he estimates that of 525 minutes of music contained on the 14 titles, only about five minutes was treated with “some de-noising technology.”
“It’s all been done with the greatest amount of taste,” Howlett contends. “If you remember how the records sounded in the ’60s, it’s pretty much how they’re gonna sound now, but with extra clarity. You get the authentic experience.”
Twist And Shout
The stereo versions of the albums, which are being sold individually and in a boxed set, also have been dressed up with Heatley and Howlett’s new liner notes — “We don’t have to say they’re the greatest group that ever lived,” Howlett notes with a laugh. “That’s almost taken for granted.” — as well as with original and new artwork, and QuickTime mini documentaries about the making of each set. The Beatles’ first four albums — “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Beatles For Sale” — are available for the first time as stereo CDs, while the “Past Masters” collection of rarities and non-album tracks is now a two-CD set rather than the two individual volumes that came out in 1987.
Many fans, meanwhile, are even more excited about “The Beatles in Mono” box set, a package that includes the first mono CDs of legendary titles like “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The Beatles.”
“Nothing’s better than the Beatles in mono,” says Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive veteran, and Beatles fan, Randy Bachman. “Everything is in the center. Everything on both sides is coming out the same. You don’t hear the bass or the kick drum that well, but you feel the bottom. Stereo ... sounds nice, but put on mono and it all just comes alive.”
Howlett — who was nominated for a Grammy Award for The Beatles’ “Live at the BBC” compilation — points out that mono was actually The Beatles’ “main priority when they recorded. They concentrated on mono. Paul ... has said they were just not that interested in stereo.” These mixes, he says, “sound different, have different effects. The instruments were mixed differently.” The most striking in that regard may be “The Beatles,” where a version of “Helter Skelter” is a minute or so shorter, “Don’t Pass Me By” is a different speed and even the chirping effects in “Blackbird” fall in different spots in the song.
“In America,” Heatley notes, “the transition from mono to stereo occurred earlier than it did in the U.K. (‘The Beatles’) was the first Beatles album only issued in stereo in the U.S. Because of that, the mono mix of the album has almost gathered a legendary status in the U.S, so now people will get to hear that again.”
Maybe. “The Beatles in Mono” has quickly become a scarce item, particularly in the U.S, with retailers and wholesalers alike complaining that their orders are being shorted or completely unfilled. “It’s almost becoming kind of a detective thing — ‘Where did they all go?’ ” says Rock-A-Billy’s O’Keefe. EMI denies reports that a mere 10,000 copies are being distributed in the U.S., but label sources add that the company is gearing up to manufacture more copies as soon as possible.
“It’s not limited to any particular number,” Howlett says. “Maybe in its first release it’ll be hard to get, but it’ll always be available, I think. Every generation will latch onto this. It’s almost come to a stage now where every home will have Bibles, the works of Shakespeare and The Beatles.”
Ticket To Ride
“The Beatles: Rock Band” game came into being after the CD remasters project was already started, and the late George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison is widely credited for pushing the idea on Starr, McCartney, his mother (Olivia Harrison) and Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono.
“Well, not to sound like I’m boasting or anything, but it was my idea,” the younger Harrison says. After becoming “obsessed” with “Rock Band,” he met executives at Harmonix, which created the game, and then made a pitch to Apple Corps, the company founded by The Beatles that still oversees the group’s archival endeavors.
“I said, ‘Look, there’s a whole new generation of kids that play these games and we can give them a chance to appreciate The Beatles,’ and they got it,” recalls Harrison, who bears a striking resemblance to his father and also has is own rock band called thenewno2. He took a hand in designing the game as well, even serving as a model for some of the characters.
“My job description is ... being enthusiastic,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve been working on it for the past two years.
This is the first one that is going to be totally, historically accurate. It’s been a real headache, but it’s been the most enjoyable work I’ve done in my life.”
With sound remastered by George Martin’s son Giles — who won a Grammy Award for his work on Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles “LOVE” show — Harrison promises that “Beatles: Rock Band” players will experience a “historically accurate” game that allows them to “perform” The Beatles’ songs in a variety of settings, ranging from
Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1962 to “The Ed Sullivan Show” studios, the set of the “Magical Mystery Tour” movie and the group’s final performance on the rooftop of Apple’s London headquarters on Jan. 30, 1969. Special “instrumental” control devices have been modeled after the actual instruments The Beatles played.
“We’re obviously thrilled about (Rock Band),” Heatley says.
“I’m sure there will be another audience there that will want to experience (the game) that is perhaps not as familiar with the music. It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of that. Playing the music on (“Rock Band”) may lead to them wanting to buy the original music.”
Frampton, however, counters that The Beatles “don’t need that to turn on another generation. It’ll just enhance it and speed it up, I guess, but, come on. It’s The Beatles. The music does the job all by itself, doesn’t it?”
Tomorrow Never Knows
While it’s much more involved and high-profile, the 9-9-09 campaign is part and parcel of what’s helped The Beatles maintain a certainly level of mania during the 39 years since they split up.
“From a pure marketing standpoint, they do a brilliant job of almost time-releasing various packages or events or tours or things that seem like they are
timed-out to take advantage of media cycles,” Jacobs notes. “The timing of this couldn’t be better from a radio standpoint; it coincides with the beginning of the fall ratings period, which is very important, so the timing is excellent. Radio is all revved up and ready to go.”
“Rock Band” and the remasters certainly have legs and will carry The Beatles brand well into 2010. But few expect them to be in the end of the story. Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis is reportedly planning a 3-D remake of the 1968 “Yellow Submarine,” perhaps for next year. And there is still Beatles music in the Abbey Road vaults, ranging from live performances and alternate takes of released songs to “Now and Then,” an unfinished “Beatles Anthology” song from a Lennon home demo that Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr worked on in 1994 but reportedly wasn’t up to audio snuff.
Liner notes writer Heatley says that this week’s products “are certainly not the end of Beatles releases,” but he’s not about to predict what might come next.
“That will be down to what Apple believes is the right thing to do,” Heatley says. “When I was sort of rehearsing to talk about (the remasters), I made a list of everything that had been done since about ’93, and it was scary. There’s a great deal of Beatles music out there, and I don’t think anyone’s tired of it yet.”
MEETING THE BEATLES -- AGAIN
Celebrate the release of The Beatles: Rock Band game and the group's remastered catalog with these events:
* VH1 Classic is airing special Beatles programming leading up to Wednesday's (Sept. 9) releases. "Imagine: John Lennon" will be featured at 5 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 6), while "The Concert For Bangladesh" and "The Concert For George" will air back-to-back at 8 p.m. Monday (Sept. 7). "Storytellers: Ringo Starr" is on at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 8), and for those not busy playing their Rock Band game, "The Beatles Anthology 3" finishes the marathon on both VH1 Classic and VH1.
* The Blockbuster store at 29742 Woodward Ave. at Catalpa in Royal Oak will hold release party for The Beatles: Rock Band at 9 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 8). The night will include a performance by the Beatles tribute band The BackBeats as well as contests to win the game and accessories.
* The Cast of "Beatlemania" brings the Fab Four's music show to town Friday (Sept. 11) at Andiamo's Celebrity Showroom, 7096 E. Fourteen Mile Road, Warren. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $40, $30 and $25. Call (586) 268-3200 or visit www.andiamoitalia.com.
The 10 most-played Beatles songs on U.S. radio stations so far i 2009 according to Mediabase:
1. "Come Together"
3. "Get Back"
4. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
5. "Let It Be"
6. "Hey Jude"
7. "A Day in the Life"
8. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"/"A Day in the Life"
9. "Here Comes the Sun"
10. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
The 10 best Beatles songs according to Britain's Mojo magazine, based on a celebrity poll whose participants included Tom Petty, David Crosby, Phil Collins, Ozzy Osbourne and the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, among others:
1. "A Day in the Life"
2. "Strawberry Fields Forever"
4. "Tomorrow Never Knows"
6. "In My Life"
7. "Happiness Is A Warm Gun"
8. "Penny Lane"
9. "She Loves You"
10: "A Hard Day's Night"
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