The Beatles remastered
The entertainment world is flush with excitement about a band that broke up nearly 40 years ago, whose songs are so familiar that many children hear them as lullabies and whose influence is so pervasive that a pop music modifier has its name as a root: Beatlesque.
Just-minted sounds abound in the marketplace, but all this genuinely new music isn't stimulating half as much talk, especially in the media, as has greeted the remastered Beatles catalog and the group's "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game.
The thing that's interesting about the buzz is that it doesn't feel like nostalgia. Partly this is because of interest in the game, which offers a novel route into the Beatles. As reviews have noted, "The Beatles: Rock Band" allows for a visceral experience of songs that most of us have taken for granted.
It's being sold as a lure for a younger generation of fans, a bridge uniting families and — not that anybody's getting too worked up about it or anything — a "cultural watershed" that "may be the most important video game yet made." (Seth Schiesel in The New York Times.)
"The Beatles: Rock Band" is innovative, although it's also simply another step in the development of a gaming subgenre that's already united families thrashing away on their plastic instruments to Van Halen and Nirvana. The box sets, however, are not at all undiscovered territory.
They're the opposite, in fact: painstakingly exacting reconstructions meant not to shift the original influence of the Beatles' music but to restore it. A team of top engineers, led by longtime Beatles associate Allan Rouse, labored four years to return the feel that was lost in the flimsy-sounding 1987 compact disc reissues — the way everyone except audiophiles and vinyl hoarders (and, at the spectrum's other end, YouTube browsers) hear Beatles music.
"It's not smarter or more sophisticated," Paul McCartney recently said in Billboard of the remastering effort. "It's just more real — it's more true to the noise we were actually making."
Grasping the archival essence of this latest Beatles push doesn't diminish the delight the reissues offer. Time spent with them is pure joy and, yes, revelation. As many critics have noted, McCartney's bass playing sounds more powerful and it's possible to really hear Ringo Starr's inventive drum work.
Because those 1987 reissues offered all but the group's first four albums only in stereo, despite the fact that the Beatles and producer George Martin focused on mono mixes for everything up to and including "The White Album," those who invest in the limited-edition mono box finally can immerse in the details of these masterpieces as they were originally drawn.
But the real bolt of insight this latest round with the Beatles provides goes beyond an appreciation of any one element of the music. It has to do with newness itself, as an idea, a sensation, even a way of life.
The Beatles first embodied the quality of newness in the 1960s, when it seemed like novelty was everything. What's more interesting is that their harmonies and dissonances can so easily resurrect that mood of unexpectedness and possibility. Crack open the black box of the stereo remasters (or the stone-tablet one that holds the mono mixes) and be surprised: The music bursts out, rudely and gleefully, forcing a consideration of the very idea of the new.
How can this happen?
Partly because the Beatles were, from the beginning, a next step.
"The Beatles ... were about mutation," writes Devin McKinney in his survey of the band's career, "Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History." "British into American; Liverpool into Hamburg; Buddy Holly into Motown; Beatles into audience."
Musicologist Gordon Thompson puts it in plainer terms in his ethnography, "Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out." "(T)his group brought a number of important elements together in their music," he writes. " ... Specifically, the Beatles enfolded girl group pop (the Shirelles) and Motown rhythm-and-blues (the Marvelettes) into an ensemble designed for country music (Carl Perkins) and country rock (Chuck Berry)."
Add skiffle, show tunes and a little Latin loving and you get the point: The Beatles, four strong-headed guys with sensibilities whose edges overlapped but didn't always align, put everything they heard into their songs and then smashed away at them until they no longer matched their sources. All artistic innovation works this way, but few artists keep at it, banging and ripping and pulling at the stuff from which they borrow, the way the Beatles did.
The mutation McKinney describes continued past Beatlemania and through the rest of the band's career. The foursome just kept slurping up stuff: Indian music, psychedelia, minimalism and sound collage; Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan; the righteous gospel of the civil-rights movement and the flat brightness of Pop Art.
That innate restlessness, which contributed to the band's short life span, posed a challenge for the Beatles' peers and continues to do so. Thousands of words could be devoted to the subject of artists interpreting the Beatles; doing so is a rite of passage for musicians, a necessary dip into pop's central repertoire. But for some, it's more specific — a challenge to the newness of the Beatles that ends up stretching everything and everyone involved.
One obvious way this happens is with black stars who covered the Beatles while the band was still together. For these artists, the Fab Four represented a shift in the pop market that led to racial segregation on the charts (as Elijah Wald argues in his book, "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll"), and elevated white boys with guitars into the position of the artistic vanguard. At the same time, the Beatles openly adored black music and cribbed from it constantly, from their earliest recordings all the way to "Abbey Road." Check out "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" for some seriously stoned Chicago blues.
Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles eloquently interpreted the Beatles catalog; Green's sumptuously sexy version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" might be the best Beatles cover of all time. A few musicians went deeper, recording whole "answer" albums that took the Beatles back toward rhythm and blues, and forward toward jazz fusion.
Guitarist George Benson released "The Other Side of Abbey Road" in 1969, just a month after the Beatles' final studio effort came out. His interpretations are smooth and expansive; on McCartney's "Oh! Darling," he shows the most soulful Beatle how to wail like a grown man.
In 1970, Booker T. and the MGs took the same material in a funkier direction on "McLemore Avenue," which reworked "Abbey Road" to expose the Stax influence that was so important to the uptempo Fab Four.
These efforts followed in the wake of Ramsey Lewis' "Mother Nature's Son," a suite of songs from "The White Album" in which pianist and producer Charles Stepney expanded the connections between psychedelia and soul.
These musicians honored the Beatles but also reminded listeners that artistic innovation doesn't come in one color. More recently, musicians paying coin to the Beatles have sought something different: the legitimization that comes from passing a particularly arduous test.
In 1994, Phish covered "The White Album" virtually in its entirety live at Glen Falls Civic Center in New York; this was the first of the band's "musical costumes," Halloween concerts in which it takes on a major work by a rock icon.
In 2007, New Jersey power pop band the Smithereens embarked upon a similar path but in the studio: "Meet the Smithereens!" is an album-length recasting of 1964's "Meet the Beatles!" Since then, the Smithereens have released an album of Beatles B-sides and one that takes on the Who's "Tommy."
Power pop elders Cheap Trick also released a CD-DVD of its live performance of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which debuted at Hollywood Bowl in 2007 and has traveled to Las Vegas, Chicago and New York.
Cheap Trick, the Smithereens and Phish are direct inheritors of the Beatles. Performing their music note-for-note is like a rite of passage for such musicians, a way to acknowledge a fundamental debt but also to exorcise a ghost. As the remasters prove, the Beatles' songs are chemical experiments that transform the basic elements of pop. Re-enacting these experiments helps rockers ditch the false burden of originality and find another way into the creative process.
In the hip-hop age, sampling and mash-ups have radically altered the idea of a cover version. The Beatles have been central to this shift, too. Starting with the groundbreaking art band the Residents, who created a collage of Beatles songs, studio outtakes and spoken word snippets titled "Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life" in 1977, adventurers on the edge of electronic music — and legal copyright — have gravitated toward the Fab Four.
In 2004, a kid named Brian Burton combined instrumental tracks from "The White Album" with a cappella versions of raps by Jay-Z to form "The Grey Album" — a cornerstone of the mash-up movement that sent Burton, also known as Danger Mouse, on the path toward becoming an illustrious producer and pop star himself, as half of the duo Gnarls Barkley. EMI Records challenged the release, and it is not available commercially, but it spread over the Internet and, many would say, changed the course of pop music.
The Beatles' own camp never endorsed "The Grey Album" but made a powerful symbolic gesture by allowing Martin and his son, Giles, to rework and recombine the band's catalog for the soundtrack to "Love," the Cirque du Soleil fantasia on the Beatles that's been playing at the Mirage in Las Vegas since 2006. The music of "Love" casts its own swirling light on the Beatles; like the Cirque spectacle itself, it's attuned to the myriad dreams the music has inspired, some deep, some frivolous.
Julie Taymor's 2007 musical "Across the Universe" travels similar territory, taking liberties with Beatles music and iconography that must seem horrific to purists but resonating in a way that's entirely appropriate for an era that's adopted "reuse, recycle" as a mantra. The film was a flop at first but became a hit when tween girls — among the youngest Beatles fans and likely to be ace players of "The Beatles: Rock Band" — embraced it.
It turns out that both artists and listeners have been rethinking the Beatles all along. The current flood of interest doesn't belong to one target demographic or even one generation. It's just another wave, to be followed by more, as long as lovers of beautiful pop music seek a familiar space in which to find something new.