As if being the biggest selling musical artist on the planet with an estimated billion records sold hasn’t already made Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr along with the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison incredibly wealthy; from September their fortunes will make another mighty leap.

No their back catalogue isn’t finally being unleashed via digital downloads to millions of fans who’ve spent years waiting for online access to their songs; but EMI in London has finally confirmed all the details of one of rock’s worst kept secrets. That after several years of undertaking high tech painstaking restoration and tinkering; the label will release the band’s 11 conventional (UK released) studio albums in state of the art remastered CD’s; plus the American album version of Magical Mystery Tour. Originally in Britain and Australia it appeared as a double vinyl 45rpm EP. Two other single disc post break-up CD compilations that rounded up seminal non-album issued singles and B sides Past Masters Volumes One and Two will be combined as a single title, to make a 14 album slate; which will be released individually and as a complete box set.

Consistent with today’s integrated leisure marketing this Beatles bonanza on September 9, will coincide with the release of the band’s first video game: The Beatles: Rock Band.

Despite the band’s collective back catalogue starting with 1963’s Please Please Me through to the 1970 final album Let It Be (it was actually recorded before Abbey Road but was held back to coincide with the film’s release) being the greatest selling reissues in the history of music; the original 1987 CD releases have long been viewed as inferior sonic masters. Today’s state of the art digital remastering of older catalogue has seen breathtaking improvements of recent years being delivered to revitalise, and in some instances provide astounding results in being able to rehear past greats in transforming reissues of their classic recordings.

Among the first to benefit immensely and generate millions more in sales from lovingly restored original masters that almost defy belief in their fidelity — more so given their vintage and the primitive studio equipment of the day up to the mid-1960’s, is Elvis Presley. To that list you can add a virtual who’s who of rock music enjoying similar remastering that’s become a hugely lucrative, low outlay revenue source for the labels. At the same time as the likes of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel and AC/DC were being made over; it only exacerbated just how lacklustre the industry’s defining band sounded on their outdated discs.

But finally all that is about to change and in some ways the late start and fastidious restoration will deliver a stellar result. How can you be sure? Because judging by the results of some previous limited remastering (and remixing) for select projects; some of which isn’t at all contemporary but dates back to the 1990’s; they have produced some stellar improvements.

Until now the only transforming remastered or remixed Beatles CD’s beyond the 1987 issues that remain to this day; are the Love soundtrack to the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil stage show; and the 1 compilation of Beatles number one hits. There are also two USA released Capitol Records four-CD box set remastered compilations covering all the early to mid-period Beatles singles and albums due to originally different early album configurations in America. The main benefit of these was offering stereo versions, although mostly extremely primitive up to and including A Hard Days Night and Beatles For Sale.

But for the vast majority of fans who have had no exposure to these expensive box sets; the original decision made by producer George Martin to only issue the first four studio albums as mono only, still grates. Now this will be addressed via the September releases. The three The Beatles Anthology double CD compilations that served as companions to the original Beatles TV documentary series in 1995; which also spawned a VHS boxed set and expensive coffee table book; were something of a dog’s breakfast. The CD’s showed little by way of improved mastering.

While the digitally restored DVD’s of A Hard Day’s Night, Help and Yellow Submarine (the last two available in Dolby 5.1 surround) sound fantastic; some of the 5.1 Dolby and DTS mixes of classic video clips in the 2003 expanded DVD issue of Anthology such as A Day In the Life, All You Need Is Love, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus are revelatory and thoroughly whetted the appetite for wanting to hear virtually all albums from at least Rubber Soul onwards in surround. Incredibly, although I suspect marketing forces are at play here and eventually there will be DVD surround sound mixes of the 14 albums issued; EMI has revealed no such plans for issuing surround versions. Yet I doubt there isn’t a Beatles fan alive with a home surround system who wouldn’t thrill to hear the likes of Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band bursting from all corners of the room.

It’s also worth clearing up as reported in today’s press an erroneous fact regarding what is being made newly available. It’s incorrect to state that Help and Rubber Soul have not been previously issued in stereo — they always were from 1987. Also mention is made of how The Beatles and AC/DC are two of the few supergroup holdouts who refuse to release their music online. Apple Corp which represents The Beatles business interests continue to negotiate with various parties including EMI over downloading, but suggest at this stage no deal is pending as a result of these releases. But the sticking point is money and who gets what — not any technology issues.

As for AC/DC’s catalogue being withheld from online downloading; this is also incorrect. The difference being the band insists their albums can only be sold in their totality — not as singular songs. While this is an important distinction that makes the band philosophically unique in company with only a handful of other big names who insist on treating each album as a whole listening experience, it’s fact that in 2007 the band struck an exclusive deal for full album downloads with US mobile phone operator Verizon’s music store which was due to expire in March. But don’t bother looking for them at iTunes or Big Pond music stores.

For Beatle loving Crikey readers with an inclination to discover more behind the technologies and expertise that has been deployed in previous Beatles restoration and remastering, these links provide fascinating and detailed insights into the complexity and care taken to help transform old masters:

Peter Fray

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