Friday, January 16, 2009
The Beatles - an update from the NYT
If you still believe in Santa Claus, you might also have expected to wake up on Christmas morning and find an iPod stocked with the long-promised reissues of all the Beatles albums. But if you know the shocking truth about Santa, you probably know that the vaunted Beatles reissues don’t exist either, outside the vaults of EMI, the group’s record label, and Apple, the company the band set up in 1967 to oversee its interests.
Other long-anticipated Apple projects, like DVD versions of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert and the “Let It Be” film, failed to turn up for the holidays as well. And if you put any faith in Paul McCartney’s passing mention, in November, that the 1967 avant-garde track “Carnival of Light” might be released, don’t hold your breath: this track has been dangled before (about a decade ago, when Mr. McCartney used it as the soundtrack of an unreleased “photofilm,” made from photographs of the Beatles taken by his first wife, Linda).
Whenever Mr. McCartney releases a new album (as he did the week “Carnival of Light” was mentioned), reports of “long-lost” Beatles tracks that “might be released” suddenly surface, but the recordings themselves do not.Even the most believable of reports, floated by EMI insiders, proved fruitless this year.
During the summer EMI was said to be preparing a deluxe remastered edition of the “The Beatles” (popularly known as “The White Album”) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release. The anniversary came and went, with no sign of the reissue.Instead, Apple sent e-mail messages to fans directing them to beatles.com, the official Web site, where they could celebrate the anniversary by buying a $395 “White Album” fountain pen. Also on offer were a “White Album” hoodie and T-shirts. Presumably, the wizards at Apple think people will want these things in time for the Beatles edition of Rock Band, the computer game to which the group agreed, this fall, to lend its name and music.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It is not for lack of interest at either end of the food chain that the Beatles can’t manage to get upgraded versions of their classic recordings onto the market, except by way of a video game or a site-specific show (Cirque du Soleil’s “Love,” in Las Vegas).EMI, which owns the group’s recordings, remastered them at least two years ago. According to a 1989 agreement that ended 20 years of lawsuits between the Beatles and EMI, the label can do nothing without an O.K. from Apple.
But Apple is supposedly keen: early in 2007 it hired Jeff Jones, a record executive whose last job was overseeing historical reissues for the superb Sony Legacy series.There would have been no reason to hire someone with that background if archival reissues were not in the company’s plans, and since Apple acts only with the unanimous consent of its four shareholders — Mr. McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — presumably all four have agreed to a release program, at least in principle.And how many record labels, just now, are facing an army of consumers who are saying, in effect: “We’ve bought this music several times already — on mono and stereo LPs, on picture discs and audiophile vinyl, perhaps on cassette and most recently on CD — but please, we beg you, sell it to us again.”
So what’s the holdup? No one is willing to say, but Mr. McCartney recently asserted that EMI was demanding an unspecified concession that the Beatles were unwilling to make.Frankly, the reasons hardly matter at this point: to collectors awaiting these releases, either on physical CDs (improved sound being the main point of remastering) or as digital downloads (where convenience trumps audiophile considerations), the inability of Apple and EMI to get this music onto the market is a symbol of how pathetic the record business has become, and how dysfunctional Apple continues to be.
On Beatles chat boards and Web sites, the $395 pen, in particular, was greeted with derision.This must be intensely frustrating for Mr. Jones; in fact, people close to EMI and Apple say he has a significant list of projects that he would love to release. But in the nearly two years he’s been at Apple, he has presided over the video game agreement and a DVD documentary about the making of the “Love” show (which, in truth, includes a few revealing moments, showing the difficulties of dealing with Apple’s shareholders, from Cirque du Soleil’s point of view).While EMI and Apple have been squabbling, collectors have taken matters into their own hands, pooling unreleased tracks and compiling anthologies that are far more ambitious than anything EMI is likely to release. Usually, these unauthorized desktop bootleg projects (which are of course illegal) have attractive cover art and copious annotations, and these days money rarely changes hands for them: the people who compile them distribute them freely (and encourage others to do so) either on home-burned CDs and DVDs or, increasingly, on the Internet.Some are curatorial masterpieces.
A label called Purple Chick has assembled deluxe editions of each commercially released album, offering the original discs in their mono and stereo mixes, along with the singles (also in mono and stereo) released at the time, as well as every known demo, studio outtake and alternative mix.Drawing mostly on an earlier generation of less obsessively organized bootlegs and adding otherwise unbootlegged rarities when they turn up, Purple Chick has generally chosen the best-sounding and most complete takes (editing together fragments where necessary) and has done some speed correction and other sonic tweaking.It offers upgrades, as well: when copies of the unmixed, unedited four-track masters of four songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” began circulating at the end of last year, Purple Chick revised its “Sgt. Pepper” compilation to accommodate them.So if you wanted to celebrate the anniversary of “The White Album,” you could turn to Purple Chick’s “Beatles Deluxe,” which covers 10 CDs. And if you want to begin the new year by commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Let It Be” sessions, which ran from Jan. 2 to 31, 1969, you still have a few days to find Purple Chick’s “A/B Road,” which offers nearly 96 hours of those sessions on 83 CDs.It can be a slog — songs are rehearsed endlessly — but its best moments are magical. Along with discussions, fights and jam sessions, you hear classic tracks coming together, from the first time one of the Beatles walks the others through its chord progression, straight through to the finished arrangement, with lyrics taking shape along the way.Purple Chick has also compiled the group’s BBC radio performances on 10 CDs and a CD-ROM (compared with EMI’s two-CD official release), and is currently working its way through all the available concert recordings.Another label, Lazy Tortoise, is compiling chronologically all the Beatles’ television and radio interviews. And on DVD, the FAB label is doing the same with the group’s film and television appearances, from 1962 to the present.
Nobody who collects these things would hesitate to buy officially released archival projects, if only Apple and EMI would release them. Perhaps by the time the 40th anniversary of the “Abbey Road” album rolls around, on Sept. 26, Apple and EMI will have gotten it together.