For a band that broke up more than 50 years ago, The Beatles have put out a surprising amount of material in recent times.
Less than a year on from the buzz and hype of Peter Jackson’s eight-hour-long doco The Beatles: Get Back and its accompanying expanded version of the album Let It Be, another “new” release from the long-gone band popped into stores and music streaming services this week.
The band’s hugely influential seventh record Revolver is the latest Beatles album to get the super deluxe re-release treatment in the past five years, following on from souped-up versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (AKA The White Album), Abbey Road and Let It Be.
So why is this happening, when will it stop, and is the Revolver re-release worth it — or is it scraping of the bottom of the barrel?
Tomorrow never knows
The re-releases started with the 50th anniversary of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 2017.
The main selling point for hardcore Beatles fans was the new stereo remix … and stick with me here, because we’re heading into the borderlands of audiophile territory.
When the band and their producer George Martin recorded Sgt. Pepper’s back in late 1966/early 1967, mono mixes were all the rage, and stereo mixes hadn’t really caught on.
Mono mixes were meant for sound systems with a single speaker, where all the individual instruments sound like they come from one point.
Stereo mixes split the sound across a left and right speaker, with the different instruments sounding like they’re occupying a slightly different space, or sometimes even moving from left to right, as is the case in things like Queen’s Now I’m Here, where Freddy Mercury’s voice is initially in the left side of the mix, or the left speaker, and then the right.
The mid-1960s-thinking that mono was superior to stereo was borne out by the fact all four Beatles members were in the studio when the mono mix for Sgt. Pepper’s was done, but didn’t bother to hang around for the stereo mix — it was considered an after-thought to appease a select group of people who thought having two speakers was better than one.
Nowadays, stereo mixes are industry standard, while mono mixes have gone the way of the Walkman.
Which brings us back to the re-release of Sgt. Pepper’s, which saw original producer George Martin’s son Giles inherit both his father’s legacy and his seat at the mixing desk.
Giles was given the original four-track tapes of Sgt. Pepper’s to do a new stereo mix of the landmark album, and while The Beatles still weren’t in the studio for it, the result is one that benefits from 50 years of advances in mixing techniques and technology.
In a sense, it’s the first true stereo mix of this much revered album.
Even to untrained ears, the new mix is a vast improvement on the one from 1967. Instruments are balanced evenly across the mix, Ringo’s drums and Paul’s bass stand taller than before, and the vocals are richer and clearer.
While some die-hards still swear by the original mono mixes, there was a lot of love for the new stereo mix among the band’s fan community.
The album’s re-release even went to number one on the UK charts and put Sgt. Pepper’s back in the top five in dozens of countries, including Australia and the US.
New stereo mixes of The Beatles (AKA The White Album), Abbey Road and Let It Be soon followed, to an equally positive response.
Which brings us to Revolver.
Got to get you into my life
Widely regarded as one of the most important albums of all time, Revolver saw The Beatles help revolutionise psychedelic and electronic music, while also pulling world music, classical, Motown and chamber music influences into mainstream pop.
To do this they pushed the recording studio to its limits, doing a remarkable amount with just a four-track recording machine — the pinnacle of recording technology in 1966.
But that same four-track technology has its own limitations, which initially made the idea of a Giles Martin stereo remix impossible, or at the very least, pointless.
On a song such as album-opener Taxman, the drums, bass and guitars are all on the same quarter of the four-track tape, unable to be separated, meaning there’s very little that can be done with them to improve, for example, the guitar sound, without affecting the drum sound.
But during the making of The Beatles: Get Back, director Peter Jackson and his boffins advanced technology that could separate the dialogue of The Beatles from the instruments they were banging away on while talking.
With some more improvements, including using AI developed by police to isolate voices in surveillance recordings, the technology got to the point where it could separate the drums, bass and guitars on Taxman, despite them being baked onto the same quarter of a four-track tape more than 50 years ago.
It means that Revolver, which bears an often ugly stereo mix, can get a more modern mix that many fans hope will do an amazing things to an already amazing album.
And your bird can sing
If you’re not interested in new mixes because you’re happy with your old LPs/tapes/CDs or you’re one of those people who listens to music out of the speaker in your phone, then the other sweetener in these so-called “super deluxe” re-releases is the bonus tracks.
While the promise of long-lost Beatles recordings might sound great, the vast majority are alternate takes of existing songs, often accompanied by bits of the band talking, which serve as a kind of historical document, but not something you would listen to in place of the real album.
Still, each of the re-releases has had its own special thing in the bonus tracks to appeal to the hardcore fans.
For Sgt. Pepper’s, it was the band-only takes of the songs, stripped of their psychedelic overdubs, showcasing the musicianship and songwriting at the core of the landmark album.
For The White Album, it was the “Esher demos” — all 27 of the joyful rough sketches the band laid down on acoustic guitars and percussion at George Harrison’s place prior to getting into the studio, including eight tracks that didn’t make this album.
For Abbey Road, it was hearing the construction of the individual songs that make up the medley, which comprises almost the entirety of the original record’s side B.
For Let It Be, it was the many-and-varied jam sessions and musical diversions the band made while slowly falling apart, plus the unreleased mix of the album by original producer Glyn Johns.
For Revolver, there wasn’t as much material left on the cutting-room floor, but the super deluxe edition features two discs worth of alternate takes and a couple of early demos.
Some will argue it sounds like the scraping of the bottom of the barrel, while others will marvel at the sound of a young band creating history in the prime of their musical lives.
Either way, it more than likely means a super deluxe remix edition of their 1965 opus Rubber Soul is just around the corner.