In Music, the Exception Becomes the Rule

In his book “The Classical Style,” Charles Rosen makes a cool point. He sets it up by saying:

“The history of an artistic ‘language’… cannot be understood in the same way as the history of a language used for everyday conversation. In the history of English, for example, one man’s speech is as good as another’s. It is the picture of the whole that counts, and not the interest, grace, or profundity of the individual example.”
In other words, together we all create what is known as the English language.

But music, he says:

“…stands the history of a language on its head: it is now the mass of speakers that are judged by their relation to the single one, and the individual statement that provides the norm and takes precedence over general usage.”
In other words, individual artists define what is known as the music of a particular time.
He makes his point in reference to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; but the same thing could easily be said about The Beatles and their definitive role in popular music of the 20th Century.

The Beatles: Masters

The Beatles’ recordings arguably demonstrate the limit of what is possible in their particular form of both songwriting and record-making, and so I was pretty skeptical when I heard that remastered versions of all of their records were coming out.

I find it hard to swallow the idea that new technology (that didn’t exist when the Beatles made their recordings) can somehow improve upon the work they did. The limitations that inhered in the original records can’t be looked at simply as obstacles; they were a part of the actual art. The distortions, flaws and frequency constraints of their technology were the very materials that made up the records, just as much as the ranges and timbres of the instruments or of the Beatles’ voices were.

Pre-Masters? De-Masters?

And yet, although I grew up listening to my parents’ vinyl copies, which came out during the Beatles’ career, I listened to second-generation cassette versions and 1980’s CD versions of the Beatles’ records more than anything else. So it’s not like I can claim that the versions I am used to are closer to some ideal original version than the new remasters are.

And to further complicate things, Apple has also released a box set of remastered mono versions of the albums. Since the Beatles’ generally only stuck around for the mono mixing sessions and let others handle the stereo mixes, should we consider these mono versions to be the definitive ones?

The deeper we go, the more distant an answer becomes. And if you want to get really serious about this, consider that each stereo system, iPod, or turntable performs the source material in a unique way; and so even if we could find the definitive version of something, it would never sound the same twice.

The Beatles: Good

I still don’t put much stock in the idea that today’s technology can improve on yesterday’s art, but I actually don’t think that point really applies here.

What strikes me more is this. There aren’t many artists whose recordings are interesting in the first place, and there are still fewer whose recordings can retain their power in so many various versions, whether the mono vinyl, the 80’s CDs, the 70’s cassette played in an old-fashioned tape player on the middle seat of a rented car on a summer vacation, or new remastered digital versions.

Whatever form is closest to what the Beatles heard (and it’s probably some version of the vinyl, since they worked exclusively on analog media), the recordings they made are pretty much spectacular in any form.

The remasters seem to have been done very conscientiously, and they are worth hearing for sure. I hear things that weren’t audible in the other versions I’ve encountered, and it’s interesting. Some mistakes and flaws are more apparent, actually, but the music retains its power and charm.

I suppose that’s how it works with any masterpiece.


  1. jes
    September 25, 2009 at 8:28pm
    listening to Revolver mono remaster now - my overall impression of the remasters I've listened to so far (mono and stereo) is that they sound a little, ummm, softer than the versions I'm used to? maybe all that cleaning up took too much grit away?
  2. kumbatx
    September 26, 2009 at 7:01am
    I have not purchased the newly remastered recordings, and I doubt I will any time soon, mainly because I'm perfectly content with the digital recordings I listen to now. Regardless, I agree with your perspective completely. A comparable phenomenon exists in literature. Many years ago Vintage began publishing new versions of Faulkner's novels edited by Noel Polk. Polk's philosophy is that his versions are as William Faulkner intended rather than as the original publisher intended. Polk used Faulkner's original handwritten pages as the basis for the new versions. Very few people took issue with Polk's efforts, probably because millions of people don't read Faulkner on a daily basis. (If Faulkner were as popular as The Beatles. An interesting thought.) But, consider this. Polk's versions of Faulkner's novels are now the only versions available at book stores and have become the accepted standards. While it is true that many people will cling to their LPs, tapes, and older CDs the remastered versions will become the accepted standards of future generations. Amazon or whoever will not carry the older versions alongside the remastered ones (except among the used vendors, maybe). This is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm sure the remastered versions offer us something new, but do they necessarily earn the right to replace all that came before?
  3. John F. Loder
    September 26, 2009 at 3:23pm
    Very nice collection. I cannot help but wish you had material from two of russia's top bands : aria, and kipelov.
  4. Tomek
    September 27, 2009 at 8:25pm
    Hi. This is not too related, I'm sorry. Would you ever considering offering a special pandoraone feature? It would be cool if I could explore stations by adding elements. For example. I like syncopation, so i could combine "beats made for dancing" and "syncopation". I'm sure it could be done in some way that protects the genome property right, and also would only be some reworking. It would be very cool if you would consider. Thanks! -Tomek.
  5. Beth
    September 28, 2009 at 7:32am
    Another unrelated comment: Are audio ads becoming more and more frequent, or am I crazy? I've had an ad every 4-5 songs, whereas before, it was one every 9-10 or more. This is as bad as Yahoo radio, sadly. :(
  6. toemoss
    September 28, 2009 at 8:08am
    I fear I must disagree with Mr. Zapruder. The members of the Beatles did not integrate the pop, hiss or 'grit' into their work any more than Shakespeare, Joyce, or Frost integrated broken pencil leads, running out of ink, or poor quality paper into their works. It is a nuisance to be minimized & the result tolerated. Had they access to digital media, do you really think they would have chosen vinyl or magnetic tapes? I am certain that the quality of their work was paramount, as with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. They tolerated the medium because it was all they had. Nostalgia may make us fondly wistful towards vinyl's weaknesses, but to think the creators would prefer it is questionable at best. The innovators and shapers of art invariably use the most up to date media available, and curse the results just as invariably. toemoss.
  7. Jessica Deal
    September 28, 2009 at 3:58pm
    I agree that the Beatles sound great in any format, but it just seems like you're taken back in time when you hear them on vinyl. That's what I've always loved about oldies... the fact that they sound old.
  8. Michael Zapruder
    September 28, 2009 at 4:21pm
    I'm not sure with whom you disagree, toemoss, but I don't think it's me :-) . I don't have black and white views about the relative merits of analog vs digital media. each has its place, its strengths and weaknesses. my point was not that the limitations of 1960's media and technology are responsible for the excellence of the beatles' work. And I'm definitely not saying that the beatles' work is excellent because it's on tape. I was saying that, in the (possibly futile) search for the "most authentic" reproduction of the beatles' work, it makes sense to stay as close to the media in which they worked, and to which they reacted as they made mix decisions and so on. this is out of respect for the fact that the beatles and george martin were masters. that level of mastery (in record-making) is inseparable from the media that is used. they made the definitive works of their era, which happened to be on tape and vinyl. so, although it's likely that they would have made the definitive digital works had they worked in that medium, they didn't. since the very idea of remasters is to get closer to the sounds that the artists were going for - to restore the music, as it were - it seems uncontroversial to say that in this case vinyl verions probably do that. the beatles worked on tape, making masters to be pressed on vinyl, and they were arguably the best record-makers of that form. I think they had clear ideas of what they were making. as an aside, it's a false comparison to say that pens and paper are to writing as mixing boards, instruments and tape are to recording. the product of the author's pen or typewriter is almost never the actual work that the public sees - it is the master composition from which a final, edited and typeset version is printed and bound. the product of the musician's work in the studio, by contrast, is the definitive version of the work.
  9. maria angelozzi
    September 29, 2009 at 9:36am
    Hi Michael, That was very well stated certainly enjoyed reading your view, thanks for sharing!
  10. Ads For Feelings
    September 30, 2009 at 2:03am
    Can we use this forum to decode Beatles lyrics? "The movement you need is on your shoulder": Paul subconsciously predicting young Julian's first swimming lesson. Thoughts?
  11. Handy zubehor
    October 08, 2009 at 4:13am
    These are really amazing tunes. It dazzled me. No matter what they oldies or new ones they all sounds perfect.
  12. dave
    October 13, 2009 at 11:21am
    yet another unrelated comment. It may be said that hundreds and hundreds of bands, some of which I listen to all go back to Beatles roots. However, I don't see why 7/10 times I see a Beatles song played second on the playlist when I listen to a station. We listen to A LOT of pandora in my workplace, tastes as diverse as Meshugga to Neil Young, The Roots to Talib Qwali and the Beatles pop up on every station once or twice a day! We wonder if Paul or Ringo have controling interests in pandora ? it gets ridiculous some days.
  13. Jan
    October 19, 2009 at 8:46am
    Great idea! Thanks for providing an option to to local and sat radio. Not since mtv's 120 min.s has there been a better vehicle for alt., indie music.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Please complete all required fields.
Required fields marked with *. No worries, your email address will not be published.
Leave a reply