The Beatles Get Back With New Remasters & Rock Band
Transcending time: Surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are likely to extend Beatlemania with the release Wednesday of the band's newly remastered catalog and The Beatles: Rock Band.
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
eatlemania 2.0 looks and sounds a lot like the '60s prototype. Only crisper, clearer, shinier.
The shrieking girls, the shaggy Mop Tops and their scores of indelible pop hits are digitally reborn in The Beatles: Rock Band video game, which hits store shelves Wednesday along with the band's newly remastered catalog, a long-awaited sonic upgrade of 14 titles.
"We're quite fussy," Paul McCartney tells USA TODAY, explaining why fans had to wait so long for the refurbished sounds of the iconic band that broke up nearly 40 years ago. "It's not as if we were going to crap out or sell out."
Ringo Starr serves up a cheeky pitch.
"The game is great, the music's greater and, animated, I look gorgeous!" the drummer says of his video-game debut, The Beatles' first big marketing splash since 2006's Cirque du Soleil spectacle "Love."
The masses remain mesmerized because "the music stands up," Starr says. "It's not the silly haircuts or the shoes or the suits. New generations of musicians and fans are still talking about that music."
Embedded in our cultural DNA, The Beatles (McCartney, Starr and the late John Lennon and George Harrison) have never lost their standing as the world's most influential and popular band. They've sold more records than any act in U.S. history, with 170 million shipped, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. They've sold 57.7 million albums since SoundScan began tracking U.S. sales in 1991.
The new projects required the blessings of Apple Corps "shareholders" Starr, McCartney and Beatles widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, each of whom has veto power over any band output. All four were interviewed by USA TODAY when they met in June at the E3 Expo video-game trade show for Microsoft's preview of The Beatles: Rock Band, appearing briefly before 700 reporters from around the globe.
The video game, a montage of animated performances that traces the group from its beginnings in Liverpool to its bittersweet final performance on a London rooftop in 1969, "appealed to me because it's a different way of presenting The Beatles' music, just as 'Love' is," says McCartney, 67, who arrived driving a blue Corvette, with girlfriend Nancy Shevell in tow.
"This was our first big project since 'Love,' and we were very involved," McCartney says. "The only stipulation we made was that we get it right and be the best.
"I had to get an education because I thought, 'We'll have it like Shrek or Tinker Bell,' but there are limitations to a video game," says McCartney, who had to scale back his cinematic expectations. "You walk a bit wooden. It's hard to get the eyes looking lifelike. But we kept on top of it, and it gradually got better. They worked long and hard, but they had to, because we were there with big sticks."
Nudged in part by his game-savvy son James, McCartney says he had few qualms about Rock Band's karaoke bent or cartoonish graphics.
"I realize how important this is to a generation," he says. "And behind them is the next generation. When I told people we were doing Rock Band, their eyes would light up. I could feed off their excitement.
"And this is not new for us. We were in Yellow Submarine(the Beatles-inspired 1968 animated film). I've seen myself represented in too many ways to be surprised by a video-game android.
"Our role was to get the spirit as near to the reality as we could. The music was still in the hands of Giles (Martin, son of storied Beatles producer George Martin and the producer who remixed 45 songs for the video game) and engineers who'd always been with The Beatles. There was a lot of continuity. It was as carefully crafted as our records were."
'Technology was no problem'
Starr, 69, was more finicky about sonic integrity than visual or technical sorcery.
"Even in the '60s, we were looking for new stuff, so the technology was no problem," he says. "And a lot of the footage is just made up; there weren't cameras in the studio back then. When they sent (samples of the game for viewing), there was always a disclaimer: 'Don't worry about the hands. We know they're too big.' I had no real worries.
"The only thing I had to fight for is having the microphone stand placed straight up between my legs. They had a mike at a weird angle on the tom-tom. (But) once I heard Helter Skelter, they had me. You can never doubt the music."
The game allows up to six players to form a virtual Beatles using controllers modeled on the band's own guitars, bass, drums and microphones. The faux Fabs are instructed to hit notes scrolled on screen, a task Starr actually failed when he tried the game.
"It's difficult because I'm a natural player," he says. "All the fills, I could only do them once, because where I put them is how the song felt at the time. It's easier to be the real Ringo than the game Ringo."
Ono, 76, said she was not satisfied with initial portrayals of Lennon, prompting her to demand alterations while visiting Rock Band designers in Boston late in the game's development.
"I wanted to make sure John would be represented well, and I know that John knows I did my best," says Ono, whose husband was assassinated in New York City in 1980. Ono hasn't played the game but liked "the idea of something that's fun but also peaceful."
Olivia Harrison says she likewise was drawn to the game's non-violence, a departure from many top-selling video games. "You're not killing people," says Harrison, 61, whose husband died of lung cancer in 2001. "It's so uplifting. After half an hour, you're feeling good. Kids can play, and parents will tell them to turn the sound up, not down."
'I can hear them so clearly'
Though steered toward simultaneous release, the game and the remasters evolved on radically different paths.
In Beatle time, Rock Band materialized overnight. Fans started pining for a digital overhaul of the Beatles catalog soon after its transfer to CD 22 years ago. Four years ago, the shareholders signed off, and engineers at EMI's Abbey Road Studios began porting the music from analog tapes to digital files using state-of-the-art technology and vintage gear.
Renovating some of the most precious works in the history of recorded music proved more taxing than intimidating for project coordinator Allan Rouse, an Abbey Road fixture since 1971.
The process began with lengthy tests of the analog tape and the meticulous removal of a slight dust buildup.
"I'm not a marketing man," Rouse says during a listening session at a Capitol Records studio. "I tend to not care how much it's going to cost. Because of the importance of the work, we knew it wasn't going to be a quick job."
He's pleased the CDs boast the highest fidelity currently achievable, but is certain the catalog will undergo further enhancements. "We preserved the catalog for another 10, 15, perhaps 30 years, until somebody decides to remaster it because the equipment has improved again," he says.
Many fans complained that the sonic scrub was long overdue, but Harrison suggests the timing was ideal. "A lot of early remastered music sounded brittle," she says. "These are very warm and clear. They don't sound messed with. It's like they cleaned them but left the ambience."
The new versions "are more like what we heard coming out of the speakers as we made the records," McCartney says. "It's like being in the studio again. It's exciting, particularly considering the passing of John and George. I can hear them so clearly."
The iTunes question
Will we hear them online?
Every year brings fresh speculation about The Beatles inking a deal with Apple Inc.'s iTunes. While EMI and the twin Apple camps navigate a digital distribution deal, the four shareholders seem eager to join the download era.
"It's something we all want to do, but it's not entirely in our control or we would have done it," Harrison says.
If history's any guide, fans will endure a drought before the next Beatles gusher.
"We don't do that much," McCartney says. "It takes time to get things right. We are protective in that respect. It's a big responsibility to get it right, but it always was. The Beatles is worth taking that responsibility. We all take it seriously, but not too seriously. The last thing The Beatles worried about was protecting their image."
And, yeah, that all-together-now edict tends to freeze the assembly line.
"It's always been the rule," McCartney says. "If Ringo hadn't liked (the group's 1967 song) A Day in the Life, we wouldn't have made it. It can be a nuisance when it would be great to do something but so-and-so doesn't want to. It's a rule that you have to put up with and that you occasionally get pissed off about. But it works well."
The discord that torpedoed The Beatles in the late '60s is rare now, Ono says. "We're getting very mature. We don't get too excited about things from an ego point of view anymore. We're on the same page artistically. Our disagreements are usually about timing or business decisions."
(And yet, Ono stops short of calling McCartney a friend: "We've known each other for such a long time. We're not strangers. I have respect for Paul. He was John's partner.")
The four agree that regardless of how they handle the legacy, The Beatles belong to everyone.
"At the end of his life, George was just starting to accept the fact that this was never going away," Harrison says, referring to the band's immeasurable sway. "All of us have accepted that not only is it enduring, but it's growing. It's not just history, it's the culture. Who can explain why certain sounds are forever stamped in our consciousness?"
Booming sales expected
Billboard predicts the revamped CDs will trigger a retail stampede that will overtake the catalog chart's top 10, supplanting Michael Jackson. Likewise, Rock Band developer Harmonix is braced for record-breaking sales as both players and Beatle-loving non-gamers queue up.
"It's going to create a much bigger stir than people can imagine," says Beatles historian Martin Lewis, U.S. marketing strategist for the mid-'90s Beatles Anthology CDs and DVDs. "The Beatles are up there with Bibles and Shakespeare. You have to have these in your home. Boomers will replace their old copies with the remasters, and a large number of young people, the iPod generation, will want to own them, too."
Lewis isn't surprised that the biggest musical force of the 20th century is showing unparalleled prowess in the 21st.
"The mark of great art is that it transcends the time it was created and speaks to people in the future as freshly as it did the day it was created," he says. "That applies to the Marx Brothers, Scott Joplin, Charles Dickens, Ella Fitzgerald. The Beatles belong to that exceptional range of creators."
Smacked by the first wave of Beatlemania 46 years ago, McCartney expected a short ride.
"Oh, yeah, we thought a couple years, that would be it," he says. "We never thought it would last at all. You've got to ask, 'Why did it last?'
"I think the music is very well-structured, like a good house. It's going to stand for a long time. It's nice that I can sit back now and be proud of what we did. And feel very privileged to be one of four guys who did it."