A few weeks ago, I spoke with some of the brass from The Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd and EMI Records at the New York City screening of Magical Mystery Tour. Surprisingly, they turned the cocktail chit-chat to talk about the then-upcoming vinyl box set by the band. They all wanted to know why the online chatter amongst Beatles fans was so negative when no one had actually heard the set. Elvis Costello, who was part of the panel that had spoken about the impact of Magical Mystery Tour that evening, piped up and revealed that, as fans, we hold The Beatles to a very high standard and that the hand-wringing was to be expected.
"Us Beatles fans, we're a curious lot," Costello said. "We know what we want and we're never satisfied."
Well, let me put the naysayers to rest. I've held the future of high-end vinyl archival releases in my hands and heard it with my own ears, and it is called The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set. I recently received an advance copy of the 14 LP collection; complete with a deluxe, hardcover 252-page book and lovely flip-top case. It is spectacular. There is nothing on the market, certainly not in classic rock or popular music, that even comes close. The Beatles have, once again, set a very high bar with a product that should be on every serious fan's wish list. Only pale imitations will follow this one. First impressions? The artwork is superb. The photographs are obviously from the original negatives, wherever possible. The reproduced inner sleeves, as well as items like the "White Album" poster, stills, and Sgt. Pepper's... cutouts are also lovely. They're nice (but necessary) touches. The actual box the albums are held in is glossy and striking (though I'm not sure how it will wear over time on a shelf). They're built in the same style as the recent Beatles stereo CD box, with a glossy cardboard slipcover listing the contents, as well as replicas of the albums' spines on the side.
The hardcover book, exclusive to the boxed edition, features a dedicated chapter for each of the albums, authored by award-winning radio producer Kevin Howlett. The essays don't really contain anything diehard Beatles fans won't know already, but they are well written and contain just enough energy and insight to make you want to get up off the couch to put the next album on the turntable. There's also a final section that details the creation of the remasters and how the vinyl albums were prepared. The 12-inch by 12-inch book includes a wealth of photographs spanning The Beatles' recording career. Many of the images were not included in the 2009 CD booklets and the quality of the printing is striking. But most importantly, the vinyl sounds absolutely stunning. Remastered especially for LP by the team at Abbey Road, the 180-gram pressings are crisp, clear, and clean, with little hint of any digital concessions in the mastering process.
Please Please Me sounds warm and energetic, with rich sound even in its odd stereo mix (its first appearance on vinyl in the US). With The Beatles sounds better than ever, whether owing to the remastering process, the use of the 24-bit sources (not the 16-bit versions used for the 2009 CD releases), or the use of a low-generation master. The sound literally jumps out of the speakers in a way that is new and fresh and vibrant, unlike many previous vinyl pressings. By the time you get to A Hard Day's Night your ears will have become accustomed to the sound of these pressings; but it is no less remarkable, with an excellent stereo image, deep bass and clear high end. Help! and Rubber Soul are cut from George Martin's 1987 mixes, which makes comparison to other vinyl versions difficult, but they are excellent. The pressings of the band's key late-period works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's..., Magical Mystery Tour (the only nod to the US versions of The Beatles' releases), the "White Album" and Abbey Road are also superb. A nice addition to the set is the vinyl version of Past Masters, including all of the single and EP releases by the band. From "Love Me Do," through "Rain," to "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," each track sounds as good as it's ever sounded on vinyl.
There has been a lot of chatter in The Beatles' fan community about the use of digital masters rather than analog, but the end result is that this is the way The Beatles were meant to be heard. The Beatles Stereo Vinyl Box Set pressing is a limited edition (though the albums will be available individually as well, which is handy as the box has a hefty price tag). So if you haven't ordered yours yet and are a vinyl freak, Beatles collector, or both, I suggest you order yours pronto. This is a must have set. That is until the mono box - promised for 2013 - hits the shelves! (www.thebeatles.com) -Jeff Slate <www.jeffslate.net>