DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
The Beatles are hardly obscure, and the release last week of their entire catalog of recordings in new remasterings, as well as "The Beatles: Rock Band" game, has thrust them into the news again. Sales numbers from the first week are now in. News of 626,000 albums sold. And those box sets, by the way, they're counted as one unit.
Our rock historian, Ed Ward, has spent the past couple of decades without a single Beatles record in his house but has used the occasion of the re-release to listen to them all again.
(Soundbite of song "Rock and Roll Music")
THE BEATLES (Rock Band): (Singing) Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music. Any old way you choose it. It's got a back beat, you can't blues it. Any old time you use it. It's gotta be rock roll music. If you wanna dance with me. If you wanna dance with me. I've got no kick against modern jazz. Unless they try to play it...
ED WARD: My relationship with the Beatles has always been sort of tense. When they first appeared on the scene, I'd already been through my rock-and-roll period and rejected it, when all the plastic Bobbys and Fabians began to appear. Instead, I'd turned to folk music, which was more real, more important, and more grown-up. I had, after all, just turned 15.
And there was another thing: My sister, who was three and a half years younger than me, loved the Beatles. No 15-year-old boy is ever going to share the taste of an 11-year-old girl, for heaven's sakes.
But a couple of years later, I went to college and was beginning to change my mind. A friend's brother said he had a protest song he wanted me to hear and played me "Satisfaction." A number of my folk idols were plugging in, as I'd already seen Bob Dylan do at Forest Hills tennis stadium. So when the Beatles came out with "Rubber Soul," I felt they'd met me halfway.
(Soundbite of song "Nowhere Man")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) He's a real nowhere man sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Doesn't have a point of view. Knows not where he's going to. Isn't he a bit like you and me? Nowhere man, please listen. You don't know what you're missing. Nowhere man, the world is at your command. He's as blind as...
WARD: And hey, they were writing protest songs too. So, realizing that folk and rock could coexist peacefully in my life, I continued with both. But unlike with the Rolling Stones, I never went backwards into the Beatles' catalog and never paid it much attention. I was far more interested in the innovations they were coming up with, which always seemed to be just in advance of the rest of the world catching on.
Like everyone else, I celebrated "Sgt. Pepper" and wondered about "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane." But suddenly, there were so many interesting groups that the Beatles just became one of them.
For me, this changed in 1969. I'd been writing for a new magazine called Rolling Stone, and they asked me to review the new Beatles album, which was a real honor. They didn't even know its name, but within a few days I did. In a move that's inconceivable now, Capitol Records sent me a copy of "Abbey Road" three weeks before it was going to be released so I could listen to it and write about it, which I did.
The thing was, though, I didn't like it. Surely, I wrote, they must have enough talent and intelligence to do better than this. And so Rolling Stone, which could have scooped the world, held on to the review until someone could be found to write a very positive one. I don't even think I listened to "Let It Be" when it came out, and then the Beatles were history.
And so, my record collection, and then my CD collection, was Beatle-deficient until just recently. When the remasters were announced, I decided this was my opportunity to re-hear the Beatles in their totality, from their first recording session to their last. And if the mastering job was as good as it should be, maybe I'd actually hear them for the first time. American pressings were notoriously bad, and I could never afford the British ones.
(Soundbite of song "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here I stand head in hand. Turn my face to the wall. If she's gone I can't go on. Feelin' two-foot small. Everywhere people stare each and every day. I can see them laugh at me. And I hear them say. Hey, you've got to hide your love away. Hey, you've got to hide your love away. How can I even...
WARD: The first good thing about the remasters is they follow the British releases. American publishing fees limited the number of songs on an album, so until "Sgt. Pepper," all the Beatles albums were missing tracks. This meant that odd compilations were released from time to time, albums made up of tracks from here and there. So "Beatles For Sale" and the original "Help" album are far more coherent artistic statements than their American equivalents, "Beatles '65" and the American "Help" soundtrack.
The curve of the band's development was suddenly clearer to me, and "Rubber Soul" didn't seem like such a radical move in context: it was a natural musical progression, and somewhere along the way they'd learned to write decent lyrics.
The second good thing about the remasters, of course, is the remastering. Meet the Beatles, warts and all. Not only do the chiming guitars chime brilliantly and Ringo's drums go off like bombs, but the occasional mistake shines through, and the really bad stuff, like the White Album's "Revolution 9," is there for all to hear, the emperor standing naked.
But there isn't much really bad stuff, although the White Album could use a good edit down to one disc, and the new sound quality seems to me to be the best these recordings have ever sounded and that's without hearing the mono mixes, which in some cases are probably even better.
And the third good thing, of course, is that it's all here. A double disc called Past Masters collects all the stuff that wasn't on albums, from the early singles to the utterly redundant B-side "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)." The black box is like a coffin, or maybe an archive box which closes with a satisfying magnetic clunk. Here are the Beatles, it says. Make of them what you will. Millions have and millions will. I finally got to hear it all, and I have to say: I like them better than ever.
BIANCULLI: Ed Ward lives in the south of France.