Sometime in the summer of 1967, when I turned 13, I was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the gramophone in my bedroom, and made the decision to grow my hair out and become a groovy guy.
Later that September, I appeared on the steps of FH Collins, ready to start Grade 8, resplendent in my groovy new hairdo, my fiery-orange bell-bottom slacks, and my bright yellow short-sleeve shirt with fiery-red polka dots on it.
I also had a chain around my neck with some kind of irrelevant zodiacal sign on it (Taurus the bull, I think).
My friends and acquaintances gathered at the school door with me were, as I recall, a little taken aback at my new-found grooviness, since the Grade 7 version of me had been a pompadoured left-over from the Eisenhower era.
I persisted in this course of grooviness, in various permutations, and with limited success, for the next 40 years, until, in response to my wife’s patient blandishments, I at last conceded to my increased years and depleted grooviness, and cut my hair short again.
On the afternoon of that momentous occasion, I took time to listen to Sgt Pepper’s again, as a kind of farewell to my happy-hippy era.
These memories came back to me last Wednesday evening, as I sat listening yet again to Sgt. Pepper’s, this time in the digitally remastered version just released that very day (on the ninth day of the ninth month of 2009 – hence the 090909 in my title, a play on the song The One After 909 on Let It Be).
The set costs about $240, but that is not really such a bad price for 14 albums – the 12 canonical Beatles LPs, plus Yellow Submarine and a double-CD album of uncollected singles and alternate song versions.
I only had time, that night, to listen to two of the LPs, so I chose the two that seem to me to be the most vital ones – Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s.
What I encountered in this first re-listening was both revealing and a bit disturbing.
This set is made up of carefully re-edited stereo versions of the original LPs, and as such is a very welcome improvement over the muddy, unpleasant-sounding CD transfers EMI Records released back in 1987.
CD technology was still in its early stages, in those day, and so was the art of digital remastering.
Even if they had not been careless and cynical (and they were), the EMI people were not equipped, in 1987, to produce CDs of a quality that would stand up in the much more sophisticated audio environment of today.
It is something of a scandal, in fact, that a band as seminal and enduringly popular as The Beatles has been so badly served for so long by both EMI and Apple Records.
Pleasant and refreshing is these new discs are, though, I quickly started thinking I had bought the wrong boxed set – that maybe I should have sprung for the $400 and bought the newly remastered set of mono versions of the albums, not the stereo ones.
(That EMI and Apple have released the mono versions at such a ludicrous price – in a set that does not include the stereo-recorded LPs Abbey Road, Let It Be and Yellow Submarine – goes beyond idiotic greed; it is downright nuts.)
As their legendary recording engineer, George Martin, said long ago: if you want to hear The Beatles the way they intended to be heard, you have to listen to them in mono.
Paradoxical as this may sound, it is, I think true.
The fact that they are more technologically advanced does not mean that the stereo versions of the albums are actually artistically superior.
From Revolver on, The Beatles were radical innovators in the recording studio, both musically and technologically; but they were and remained a mass-market band whose audience largely consisted of teenagers.
Teenagers like me in 1967 could not afford stereo systems; those were toys for the more mature and well-heeled audiophiles.
Like most teenagers at that time, I consumed my Beatles on a “monaural,” single-speaker gramophone
That was the technology available to about 90 per cent of their audience, so that was the technology around which The Beatles engineered their final product.
Many of the stereo mixes of their songs were done almost as after-thoughts for the audiophile niche market, and that fact shows, even in these newly remastered versions.
On Eleanor Rigby, for instance, Paul McCartney’s otherwise crisps and fresh-sounding vocals shift, distractingly and annoyingly, back and forth from the right channel to the mid channel – an audio trick that may have been cute in 1966, but sounds pretty hokey, today.
Still, the engineers who produced this set had to work honestly with the materials at hand; and they have in fact done an estimable job of putting the best face on what may, at times, be not the best possible version of a Beatles recording, but perfectly good one.
If the remastered stereo versions of the songs sometimes lack the vigour and oomph of the mono versions, they do bring out some of the subtleties not so audible on mono.
The best solution, I think, is to buy the remastered stereo box set, then pick and choose from among the remastered mono versions, when they finally come out individually.
The Beatles, working with old-fashioned, four-track tape technology, managed to produce some of the most inventive and inventively recorded music of the modern era.
It is salutary that modern technology is at last giving them the just treatment they have so long been denied.
Now, if would only get the money-grabbing meat-heads at EMI and Apple to put a realistic price on the mono versions, both the public and The Beatles would be well served, at last.
Oh, and the EMI/Apple guys could try getting with the millennium, too, and finally allow The Beatles songs to be digitized in a downloadable format, too.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.