Scripps Howard News Service
For Mike Mettler, the editor-in-chief of Sound + Vision magazine, music enthusiast and passionate devotee of vinyl records, the release of the Beatles’ original studio album remasters on stereo LP represents “The Holy Vinyl Grail, Part I.”
“It’s the world’s greatest band in the best-ever stereo sound,” he says, “and it’s on vinyl, the format for which the music was originally recorded. This really tells the story. In the vinyl form, when you put it on, you automatically understand why the Beatles are so good.”
Beatles aficionados and vinyl enthusiasts everywhere are again considering a new incarnation of the iconic rock outfit’s back catalog. On Tuesday, the band’s 12 original U.K. albums, originally released between 1963 and 1970, were reissued in remastered stereo versions.
The stereo vinyl releases are the latest chapter in the history of a storied discography. In 2009, the remastered CD editions hit stores, and in 2010 -- after considerably lengthy negotiations -- the music made its download debut on iTunes. Next year will bring Mettler’s “Vinyl Holy Grail, Part II” -- the same vinyl LPs, only this time in mono.
For years now -- and especially since the music made its 1987 debut on compact disc -- hard-core Beatles fans and audiophiles have debated and analyzed every subtlety and nuance of a legendary (and somewhat chaotic) discography.
It’s a reality that’s not lost on Sean Magee, one of the engineers at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London who -- using the original 24-bit remasters rather than the 16-bit versions required for the production of CDs -- cut the digital remasters to vinyl.
“No pressure, really, is there?” he said with a laugh. “You approach it like any job. Not saying the Beatles were ordinary, but you go into professional mode and do what’s required. We see what we’re trying to achieve, and then stick to that. We’re not trying to change anything. We just want to try to make it better if it needs to be.”
For Mettler, the new stereo vinyl editions contain numerous revealing moments that make for an enhanced listening experience, from Paul McCartney’s pulsating bass line in “Taxman” (from 1966’s “Revolver”) to the powerful orchestral backing on “A Day in the Life.” But the earlier songs also chart new sonic paths.
“For the casual listener, songs like ’She Loves You’ and ’I Want to Hold Your Hand’ -- any of those songs where the harmonies were the core of what the songs were about -- you can really hear how all those voices blend. You just get a sense of what masters of harmonies these guys were. You sit there and you smile, because you’re like, ’Wow, this stuff is as good as I remember.’ The proof is in the groove.”
The new Beatles 180-gram stereo LPs appear against the backdrop of a small but steadily growing marketplace for new vinyl. According to Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music-industry-sales data, some 3.9 million new vinyl albums were sold in 2011. That’s up from 2.8 million in 2010, 2.5 million in 2009 and 1.88 million in 2008.
It’s still a very digital world: Overall, sales of new records represent less than 4 percent of the overall commercial music pie. In 2011, the year’s best-selling release was the Grammy-winning “21” by English singer-songwriter Adele. Anchored by the smash single “Rolling in the Deep,” it moved 5.82 million CD copies -- and all of 16,500 vinyl copies.
The best-selling vinyl album for three years running has been “Abbey Road,” the 1969 Beatles classic. It sold 41,000 copies in 2011, up from 35,000 in 2010.
The reissued titles appearing Tuesday include “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Beatles for Sale,” all of which make their North American LP debut in stereo; “Help!” and “Rubber Soul,” both featuring producer George Martin’s 1986 stereo remixes; the original “Revolver”; and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which includes a replica psychedelic inner sleeve.
Rounding out the discography are “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”), which contains the iconic color photos of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr that were included in the original 1968 release; “Yellow Submarine”; the original versions of “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be”; “Magical Mystery Tour,” originally a U.S. release; and the double album “Past Masters,” which consists primarily of commercial singles that didn’t make the original U.K. releases.
Each LP is available separately (priced from $24.99 to $32.99), as well as part of a lavish, complete box set that comes with a deluxe, 252-page hard-bound book that chronicles the story of each release and lists for $349.99. (More details to be found at www.thebeatles.com.)
Magee thinks the arrival of new Beatles LPs could help accelerate the format’s proliferation. While some listeners swear by the sound, others have embraced vinyl in response to an ever-increasing digital world, one that’s fundamentally changed the way millions of people experience music.
“I think there are people who are getting into vinyl because they’ve never experienced it, and I think there are die-hards who only listen to vinyl,” said Magee, who has been with Abbey Road for 18 years and has worked on projects for Pink Floyd, Queen and the Rolling Stones, among others. “There is something attractive about the whole thing: It’s physical, you can hold on to it, you can see it, you can read it without glasses, and it’s got a sound to it.
“For all its imperfections, they’re kind of what makes it sound nice. There’s just a little bit of chaos thrown in there. It’s something you can sit and look at and appreciate, even when it’s not delivering music to you.”
Mettler, as the top editor at a commercial magazine that caters to the interests of high-end sound enthusiasts, regularly finds himself on the road and, when he can, he seeks out the best local record stores he can find.
“You’ll see people in their 40s and 50s, people you’d kind of expect to be there,” he said. “But then you see these young people in there, too -- teens and 20-somethings. Groundswell-wise, the vinyl revival is well under way -- and it’s not an exponentially huge number in terms of overall music sales -- but the percentages each year keep increasing dramatically. There’s a trend upward, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.
“Will something like the Beatles bring a lot of people in? I think the answer is yes, because they appeal to so many different generations. Every generation discovers them. I think that’s the great thing about it.”
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