The Beatles:: Love (Album Review)
In about 2002, the bootleg mash-up was big news. A hopelessly named phenomenon that involved producers illegally mixing two unlikely old records together to make a third, the mash-up made celebrities of some strange figures – Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and secretive producer Richard X among them – but the Beatles may have been the sub-genre’s true stars. They were involved both in its artistic zenith – the Grey Album, on which Danger Mouse pitted Jay-Z’s rapping against music from the White Album – and the moment when mash-ups meandered into pointlessness: Go Home Productions’ Paperback Believer, which used two fantastic records, Paperback Writer and the Monkees’ Daydream Believer, to make a noticeably less brilliant third.
Their bootleg explosion did not escape Paul McCartney’s attention: mash-up producer Freelance Hellraiser DJed on his last world tour. Three years on, with the phenomenon entirely out of puff, the Beatles have finally released their own 80-minute mash-up, remixed by George Martin’s son Giles for the Cirque de Soleil show currently wowing Las Vegas tourists.
Any notion of four mop-topped figures trying to clamber aboard a bandwagon that left town some time ago is blown away by the opportunity Love presents to hear their music in vastly-improved sound quality: even if you don’t have the requisite equipment for surround sound. At risk of straying into the grim territory of What Hi-Fi? magazine, the original Beatles’ albums were released on CD in 1988, with digital technology in its infancy. They sound tinny and desperately malnourished by today’s standards. They should have been remastered, but they haven’t; largely, you suspect, so Apple can flog one canny repackage after another, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later, the people who buy them will fork out again for the definite article.
Aside from a lovely new string arrangement on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the only thing the Martins have added are sound effects. Some of these are fair enough – the vocals from Because float hazily amid bucolic chirping – but others are worryingly prosaic. When Henry the Horse dances a waltz in Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!, his arrival is heralded by neighing: useful clarification for those listeners under the misapprehension that when John Lennon sang about Henry the Horse, he was referring to a squirrel. Worse, the guitar figure from Julia is overlaid with an ambulance’s siren. As anyone who has read the late Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head knows, Julia may be the most emotionally complex Beatles track of all, an outpouring of Oedipal longing wrapped up in a tender expression of new love. If you stick an ambulance siren on it, you suggest it’s just a song about John Lennon’s mum getting run over, which isn’t the same thing at all.
In theory, Love’s other big idea – overlaying sections of different Beatles songs to create new pieces of music – is more controversial, but the results are largely fantastic. Overlaying Mr. Kite’s closing bars with the churning coda of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) cleverly highlights the similarity between the swirling, cut-up calliope of the former and Paul McCartney’s remarkable shivering bassline on the latter. The drums from Tomorrow Never Knows are matched to Within You Without You: suddenly, Sgt Pepper’s most ethereal moment sounds claustrophobic, oppressive and nasty. This seems weirdly fitting, given that the song’s lyric features a 24-year-old millionaire smugly congratulating himself for being so much more civilised and enlightened than everyone else.
It’s debatable whether I Wanna Hold Your Hand – recorded specifically to sound fantastic blaring from a Dansette or a transistor radio’s solitary, tinny speaker – gains much from being remixed into 5.1 surround sound, but elsewhere, the benefits of the sonic upgrade ring out. The quiver of desperation in Lennon’s voice on Help! is almost unbearable. The thwack of strings against guitar neck adds an undercurrent of anger and frustration to Yesterday. But no one profits quite like Ringo Starr. Strawberry Fields Forever’s thunderous finale now sounds like something produced by the Chemical Brothers, but it’s the bits you’ve never noticed that really give you pause. Who – other than Ringo, obviously – previously paid any attention to the fills on Here Comes the Sun or the scampering hi-hat patterns that decorate Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds?
You could, of course, have discovered this without anyone mashing up anything. The question of whether anybody would listen to Love more than once if the original Beatles albums were available in equivalent sound quality is a nice one. But it doesn’t seem to matter much when you can almost feel the spit flying from John Lennon’s mouth during Revolution, or when A Day in the Life’s orchestral swell comes surging from the speakers. After all, it’s hard to ask questions when your breath has been taken away.