Mixing a whole: the pros and cons of remixing The Beatles

Late last year,  the Harrison estate finally confirmed long-running speculation about the release of an expanded set to mark the 50th anniversary of George’s first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. Details of what it will contain and when it will come out (we are already past the anniversary date) are still to emerge, but we do know that the original album has been remixed. This, of course, plays to the rather schizophrenic view of the album among some fans. I’m forever reading people saying that this is the best Beatles solo album of all, and others proclaiming (often in the same breath) that it sounds terrible. It’s that evil Phil Spector again. The producer many hold accountable for “ruining” the multi-million selling Let It Be album with his meddling and overdubs was apparently also responsible for masterminding the recording of George’s most successful and acclaimed work, while simultaneously making it sound lousy by swathing it in his trademark  lush, orchestral ‘Wall of Sound’. Hmm. Even the official announcement quoted George’s son Dhani as saying: “Making this album sound clearer was always one of my dad’s greatest wishes and it was something we were working on together right up until he passed.” Putting aside the fact that George did reissue the album shortly before he died and chose not to tinker with the mix, what do we have in store when this set does eventually appear (which I’m betting will be closer to the 51st anniversary than the 50th)?

The new mix of ‘All Things Must Pass’

As a taster, a remix of the title track (one of the greatest of all Harrisongs) was made available on streaming and download platforms in November. Like other recent Beatles revamps (which I’ll come onto shortly), it sounds louder, with the instruments more clearly defined (especially the strings), and the vocals and drums more prominent. I could certainly hear a couple of little nuances in George’s vocal which weren’t evident before. So, a little different to the version we’ve all grown up with, but better? Improved? I wouldn’t say so. You see, I love All Things Must Pass just the way it is, Wall of Sound and all. You may say it’s bloated, overstuffed and mushy; I’d say it’s rich, epic and rammed  with goodies. In fact, it’s Spector’s Wagnerian production touches which help bestow some of the songs with the sense of grandeur they deserve (and it’s only one aspect of the record – as with Let It Be, it’s often overlooked that many of the tracks have much sparser, more low-key arrangements, according to their needs). In my book, it’s always sounded great. If there’s a record which is better produced than ‘My Sweet Lord’, for example, I’ve yet to hear it. Yes, you could argue some parts could be mixed further forward – I do concede there is some fine guitar playing from George here and there which is a little buried – but it’s swings and roundabouts. The point is, this is how George wanted it to sound at the time he made it.

Remixing, it would appear, is the new frontier when it comes to managing and marketing The Beatles’ group and solo catalogues. After all, if you haven’t got much in the way of new material left to put out (though that is seriously debatable), what better way of making people buy what they already own again – and possibly attract new fans – than to tweak the recordings, and make them sound different? Remastering – in other words, giving them a sonic upgrade – no longer seems to be enough; now we’re wading into the more murky waters of changing the way the songs sound. Think of it as being similar to making the grass in a painting by Constable a darker green, or giving the lines in a Van Gogh a bit more definition. Or, even worse, removing something from a painting altogether. Based on what we’ve heard on recent Beatles and Lennon releases, my views on this are (excuse the pun) decidedly mixed. I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud reactionary who views their recordings as some sort of untouchable, Dead Sea Scrolls, to be preserved forever in aspic. But, for the most part, the changes I’m hearing sure as hell aren’t making them sound better. In fact, I’d say they are unpicking the painstaking stitching The Beatles employed when creating their intricate tapestries. Just because modern technology allows you to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Promoting the 2017 ‘Pepper’ reissue

Aside from a some tasteful tweaks to some of John’s albums reissued in the early 2000s, the remixing juggernaut really got underway with the 50th anniversary re-release of Sgt Pepper in 2017. With the blessing of Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison, George Martin’s son and protégé Giles was given carte blanche to give the album a make-over and, I guess, freshen it up for 21st century ears. Given his loyalty to what his father had achieved in the first place, and his long-standing connection to the Beatles family, he was probably the ideal choice – they obviously trusted him not to spray-paint the Mona Lisa, as it were. And I have to say that when I first heard it, I was pleasantly surprised. He had really beefed up the sound, not only making it louder but giving the instruments and vocals more definition and space, allowing them to leap out of the speakers and fill the room – creating a more panoramic, ‘Cinemascope’ effect. Considering the whole album was created on primitive (by today’s standards) four-track recording machines, this was no mean feat. He had breathed new life into it. Many of the songs were enhanced, and I still stand by that.

Except then I started to notice things that were missing, or that were somehow gelded by the new mix. The way John and Paul’s vocals slowly drifted from left to right over the stereo ‘picture’ during the middle section of the title track – gone. The giddy, groaning ending to ‘Lovely Rita’ had lost its zip. Paul’s scorching guitar solo in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ sounded de-clawed. Worst of all – and it’s a massive failing – the rumbling, ominous orchestral cacophony which roars out of ‘A Day in the Life’ sounded hollow. By giving more clarity to the 41-piece orchestra ‘freak-out’, Martin robs it of its power, and the song is fatally hobbled as a result. Sometimes that dense packing of instruments, the way they interconnect and mesh together, is an integral part of what makes them work.

Like this photo, the 2019 remix puts a different slant on ‘Abbey Road’

This problem is even more pronounced on the 2019 remix of Abbey Road. This was the album which George Martin saw as his masterpiece, from a production point of view, and is generally regarded as the most ‘modern’ sounding of all Beatles records. Playing around with the structure of the songs was always going to be risky, and so it proved. It’s typified by how Giles approached ‘Something’, one of the most beautifully arranged and produced of all Fabs songs, with all its constituent parts melding together like a perfectly crafted Swiss watch. By bringing everything forward and separating them out, he has disrupted that delicate harmony. The strings, for example, now sound disconnected from the rest of the track. The rhythm guitar part sticks out like a sore thumb instead of blending in with everything else, and the cranked-up vocals and drums overpower everything else in the middle-eight section. Elsewhere on the album you can hear little bits and pieces which may have been obscured or downplayed before, but I’m not sure they add much to the listening experience – just the opposite, in fact. In ‘Come Together’, for example, pushing John’s buzzing guitar higher in the mix unbalances the song in my opinion. And worse, part of his vocal during the fade-out seems to have disappeared altogether. In ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, as with ‘A Day in the Life’, the layering of guitars, synthesisers and white noise which builds up to a thundering crescendo has lost some of its visceral impact. And while it’s harder to put my finger on, the imperious suite of songs which makes up the second half of the record just doesn’t sound the same. The one notable exception to all this dubious tampering is the new mix of ‘Oh! Darling’, which actually carries more of a punch and sounds terrific.

Of course, the ‘problem’ may lie with me, rather than the shiny new mixes. I’ve been listening to this music for my entire adult life, and expect things to sound a certain way, with everything in a certain place. I guess it’s a bit like coming home after a holiday and finding someone has moved all  your furniture around, and even added some new curtains. It probably meets the trendy tastes of some interior designer, but isn’t what you’re used to or what you’re comfortable with. Maybe some people had the same reaction when music switched from mono to stereo (and some people still prefer mono mixes), I don’t know. Maybe it won’t even be noticeable on phones or small portable speakers, it may even make the songs sound better on those devices. But if you want to listen to the albums on big speakers or a decent pair of headphones, much of it just doesn’t sound right. Crucially – and I keep coming back to this – they don’t sound how The Beatles and George Martin intended.

This comes more sharply into focus when you get to the most recent Lennon reissues. When 1971’s Imagine album was reissued for the umpteenth time in 2018, we were given what was entitled the ‘Ultimate Mix’ – and, to be honest, it wasn’t half bad. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the most most satisfying Beatles-related remix so far. Like the best moments on the Sgt Pepper revamp, the songs sound largely the same, just fuller, with more presence, space and depth. They have ramped up the sound without, for the most part, sacrificing any of the textures and elements we’ve come to know and love.

The recent Lennon remix album. Truth has got little to do with it

By contrast, last year’s Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes compilation – overseen by John’s son Sean – is just horrendous. It’s so bad, I couldn’t even get all the way through it. Sticking with the art metaphor, it’s like they’ve scribbled on earrings, tattoos and a hipster beard onto the Mona Lisa in a bid to make her look more contemporary. Or to put it another way, by eradicating some of the blurring of the colours, they’ve made her look wan and washed-out. On tracks like ‘Mind Games’ and ‘#9 Dream’, the drums and vocals have been pushed to the fore, rendering the songs clunky and wrecking the subtlety of the original arrangements. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, which always had something of a messy production, sounds far worse now it’s been ‘cleaned up’ and sanitised. And, ironically, the more modern-sounding numbers from Double Fantasy – like ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’ – have been stripped of their production sheen and just sound rougher. Like you’ve pulled off the cover of your laptop to reveal all the wires and circuits creating the magic which appears on its screen.

What is far more concerning and hard to swallow, however, is that some stuff has actually been removed by the remixing process. For example, the pulsating horns on ‘Steel and Glass’, a highlight of the song, are now nowhere to be found on the so-called ‘Ultimate Mix’. Unforgivable. And the 1973 Rock ‘n’ Roll album outtake ‘Angel Baby’ – which I’ve listed previously on this blog as my favourite cover by any of the solo Beatles – now sounds unrecognisable. From the removal of John’s charming spoken word introduction to the scaling down of the original huge-sounding brass arrangement (that man Phil Spector again), the track has been drained of life. Apologies for the metaphor overload, but it’s like a widescreen Technicolour epic has been reduced to a grainy, flickering home movie. A travesty. Even though John once said he would have liked to re-record every Beatles song, I struggle to believe he would have been on board with this. Changing the emphasis of a recording is one thing; taking out parts which the artist had put in there – in short, altering their vision of the song – is another entirely. What’s worrying is the guy behind this project, Paul Hicks, has also been in charge of overhauling All Things Must Pass. Be still my beating heart.

The new, de-horned verison ‘ Steel and Glass’. No, no, no.

Like it or not, I guess remixing is with us to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. As well as All Things Must Pass, this year is also set to bring new versions of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (which should be interesting, bearing in mind none of the songs feature more than three instruments) and, of course, Let It Be. Paul has yet to jump on the bandwagon with his reissues (with the exception of a modest remix of Tug of War in 2015), but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. I just hope the original versions do not disappear from view (though, if they do, I would imagine they will eventually be given a much trumpeted return – “the original mixes! As nature intended!”). Anyone discovering the band through these “ultimate mixes” will not only be given a distorted, inaccurate picture of what The Beatles created but – in many cases – be sold very short indeed. Cleaner isn’t always better. Sometimes music is meant to sound a little fuzzy and indistinct; sounds blending together to form something greater than the sum of their parts. And if people then start arbitrarily removing some of those parts as well, artistic integrity is one of the things which has passed away.

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