Beatles vs. Stones Again?

Terry Ott looks at why EMI can't wait any longer
to remaster the Fabs' recordings

At the risk of stating the obvious to the initiated, by the summer of 1965, the so-called British Invasion of pop music was at its peak.

And while there were many worthy UK groups occupying the number 2 and below slots, the Beatles at 1(A) and arguably, the Rolling Stones at 1(B),were, well, musically numero uno.

Where I grew up in Southern Ontario, about 40 miles north of Buffalo, NY, in an industrial town called Hamilton, we were throughout the 60s blessed with 3 hometown Top 40 radio stations. Add the powerhouse 1050 CHUM AM, and 2 or 3 other AM 40s, just an hour's drive east up the freeway in Toronto, and the area was well versed-and served- in radio rock'n'roll.

CHUM was very involved in the promotion of the Beatles first concerts in Toronto in September, 1964, one of which I attended as a 9 year old.

From January 1964 to the Beatles second summer American tour of 1965, it seemed that all you heard on the radio was the Fabs.

However, by late 1965, and certainly 1966, the "other" major English rock band, the Rolling Stones, were making inroads in North America not only on the radio, but on the tour circuit as well.

Although no where near the support afforded the Beatles, the Stones nonetheless made their mark in '66 with huge radio hits like Satisfaction and Get Off My Cloud, if not hugely attended concerts.

After the Beatles gave up touring in 1966, the Stones would gain the title, "Greatest Rock'n'roll Band In The World."

And during those heady days, both the Beatles and Stones spewed an incredible amount of record releases unto a needy public. How about 20 or so titles each?

Three Beatle LP titles were even unique to Canada, and up until 1967, all Stones and Fabs releases had different UK versions to that of their American counterpart.

To some fans and critics, the above situation was a rip-off. But to others, the unique American and Canadian versions of early albums remain warm and fuzzy things, each track line-up committed to musical memory.

And so when the Beatles and Stones back catalogue was prepared for initial CD release in 1986, many fans were ticked off that they would be getting the UK versions only.

Fast forward to the summer of 2002. The Beatles as a performing group are dead, as are two of their significant members. The Rolling Stones are set to embark on their 40th anniversary tour, still proclaiming themselves "The Greatest Rock'n'roll Band In The World." But ask a Stones fan what they would like from the group besides a world tour, and you would get this answer: "Re-do the 1963 to 1971 CD back catalogue! NOW!"

It seems the Stones, and that rascal Allen Klein- whose ABKCO music publishing company managed to walk away with the rights to the Stones back catalogue in 1970- are of the same mind.

So on August 20, all 22 (!) Rolling Stones LPs, including UK versions, American versions, and hits compilations are supposed to hit the market.

Re mastered for the first time in 17 years, the albums will also feature Super Audio mixes as well as regular state of the digital art stereo-and in some instances mono- versions.

The beauty of the SA format is that it adds considerable depth to old, funky mono, 2, 4, and 8 track recordings.

But by now you may be thinking, "why has group 1(B), beaten group 1(A), to the digital format punch?" Especially when group 1(B) sells about 25% of the albums than that of group 1(A). What's up with that?

I guess we could ask EMI, which holds the contract to release Beatle CDs, but they usually don't return calls to writers about such Fab questions.

Seriously, what is going on?

Like the old Stones ABKCO/London releases, the Beatle CDs, redone by producer George Martin very early in the CD format game, sound, well, for the most part bad, or optimistically, just OK.

The first 4 albums are in mono, even though suitable 4 track mixes of Beatles For Sale and A Hard Day's Night exist. Spotty bass, digital fragments, strident and harsh are descriptives that apply to most of the first batch of original Beatle albums on CD.

And while EMI did make up some lost ground with the Anthology series beginning in 1995, and later with the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, they have done nothing to rectify the past mess. Even their "30th Anniversary Edition White Album," was not re-mastered. In fact, of all EMI's major pop properties such as Pink Floyd, David Bowie and the Beach Boys, the Fabs are the only group to languish in mid 80s digital dreck.

The rumors of an impending whole catalogue re-jig have been circulating for about 4 years now. I was told by a low level Canadian EMI rep in 1999 that George Martin himself would be re mastering the albums for an imminent DVD Audio release. That story, for the online service JAM Music was posted on the Abbeyrd site, but quickly taken down after embarrassed EMI officials retracted their statements to me a few days later, calling it a "misunderstanding."

According to sources, the Anthology series is, or has been re-done in DVDA 5.1, and is set for release, sometime.Maybe even soon, like as in the traditional X-Mas Fabs deposit. Even with out DVDA, compare the mixes of All You Need Is Love from the Yellow Submarine Songtrack and the version from the 1987 vintage Magical Mystery Tour. Recall the term "night and day?"

But if you've got a DVD or DVD A player, check out the Yellow Submarine DVD release to hear how good a 21st century design has on this 30- 40 year old music. All the songs on this DVD are in 5.1 and while some have quarreled with the placing of the sound stage, the new mixes are still miles ahead of the old stuff.

So it would appear that EMI, with the world's hottest pop property, is eating the dust of Allen Klein and the Stones. After all, EMI only has a relatively short window with which to exploit the CD format, before it goes the way of the 8 track, say in about 5 years. Expect Web delivery music after that, or even something that hasn't been invented yet! It would only be fair to ask what is going on? What could EMI be thinking? Do they have a plan?

Part of the answer may be the recent illness and death of George Harrison. All decisions about releases of Beatle product by EMI must be approved unanimously by the so called "committee", which is comprised of the surviving Fabs and their reps.

It may also hinge on what high end audio format EMI believes will win the format wars. Once committed to DVDA 5.1, has EMI had second thoughts about going to SA? The Rolling Stones obviously believe SA to be the winner.

And despite the format, will EMI correct their earlier mistakes of the mono/stereo question on the first 4 albums? Will they in fact offer-like the Stones-high end audio and re mastered digital on the same disc? Will they take this chance to offer fan faves like the mono versions of Sgt. Pepper-something that almost happened in 1997-and the White Album? Will the new versions have alternates and outtakes?

EMI, which still bills itself as "The greatest recording company in the world," is lagging badly in sales volume behind Universal Music, which will be distributing the Stones/ABKCO re-issues.

Perhaps EMI is stalling to see how the 22 Stones titles sell. Will it only be the hard core fans that replace their old with new, or will it be a sea change?

Certainly EMI will not be so foolish to release-as is claimed of the Stones product-all of the Beatles back catalogue on the same day.

But still, unlike the Stones, time is not on the side of EMI or the millions of Beatle fans, who want a fresh, and modern, sound.