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On Christmas Day last year, music fans around the world eagerly anticipated what they thought would be the last release by the greatest band of all time: After years of negotiating and positioning by the band's publishers, The Beatles' catalog was finally released on streaming services. But the songs that were finally made available for instant listening were the same versions we've been bringing out of our physical media for decades now.
Forty-six years after the band's breakup, do The Beatles have any more surprises left to uncover? Are there really any other goosebumps to be raised for the first time?
Well, what if we told you that you could listen to The Beatles for the first time all over again?
Sure, the past few years have been rife with remixes, remasters, reimaginings and various rejiggerings of The Beatles catalog from Apple/Capitol (the son of George Martin, Giles, tinkered with 5.1 remixes in "Beatles +1"), Cirque de Soleil (the "Love" soundtrack) and others. But perhaps no Beatle-reframing endeavor is as irreverent — and definitely not as unauthorized — as the one that's underway in a tidy house tucked away in Little Rock's Briarwood neighborhood. For the last decade, the mad genius behind this project, Dr. Daniel J. Whelan, chair of the department of politics and international relations at Hendrix College, has been meticulously reconstructing, remixing and remastering, part-by-part, every song of every album of the entire Beatles catalog.
Now, when we say "remix," most folks think of the club mix of a pop song or maybe a chopped-and-screwed version of a hip-hop track. Instead of reimagining Beatles songs, Whelan works at a more fundamental level, changing the volume and tonal levels of instrumental and vocal tracks, and sometimes outright reinserting takes that had been vetoed.
For some, there can never be a more perfect version of The Beatles' albums than the ones we've grown up with. But there's some validity to the notion that the stereo mixes made by George Martin weren't ideal. Stereo was a relatively new invention at the time The Beatles were releasing albums, and Martin's stereo mixes were pretty mundane, bifurcating the instrumental landscape by simply panning half of the noises into the left channel and the other half into the right. This is why, if you listen to Beatles albums on headphones, they tend to sound a little flat. You can hear all the instruments and vocals perfectly, but there's no variety or nuance to how the instruments are placed in the stereo field.
"On any basic two-channel stereo recording from the '60s, you'll have four or eight instrument or vocal tracks that are mixed into the left and right channels," Whelan explains. "Some instruments you can only hear in either the left or right, others you can hear in both. So, I might take the drum track that was previously in the left channel and move it to the 'center.' Listening to Whelan's remixes, you get a much more evenly distributed stereo sound, and you can hear — and often, even tactilely feel the difference, as if you're more enveloped by the individual instruments and vocal lines.
Beyond that, he also overturns some of those original editing decisions, changing the shape of many songs by coaxing out instruments that were once buried in the mix; a hidden conga track emerges from "I Want You/She's So Heavy." What sounds like a single guitar in "Revolution" is revealed to be two intercoiled riffs when panned to different channels. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" becomes even more trippy as Harrison's tambura swirls around left to right, right to left. Originally, "Strawberry Fields Forever" fades out and then resurfaces at the end, but Whelan was able to find the missing bit and reinsert it.
Why, you ask? Because he can. Isn't this heresy, though? Maybe, but it's also pretty fun and revealing.
What began with a practical need to convert his vinyl collection to digital files gave way to a realization that the software he was using could also be used for audio editing. With that, he started working with his brother, Michael, on a pet project that started when they were kids: mining myriad bootlegs and rarities releases on vinyl, reel-to-reel, cassette, etc., to reassemble the pieces of the great lost Beatles album, "Get Back."
"When Michael was in high school, in 1969, he heard WBCN Boston playing unfinished recordings from the "Get Back" sessions," Whelan said. "When 'Let It Be' came out, he realized it wasn't the same as what he heard on the radio. So, he started looking for bootlegs."
These legendary "Get Back" sessions — recorded in January 1969 and yielding 402 songs, mostly the skiffle, R&B and country covers that made up the band's early barroom days — were originally undertaken as a loose attempt to strip the band down and "get back" to their roots. Ultimately these sessions were released as "Let It Be," complete with a "Wall of Sound" maximalist Phil Spector treatment, giving The Beatles' final album, and their catalog, a sense of unresolved tension.
"Of course I was a fan of The Beatles, but I wasn't as into the 'Get Back' stuff as Michael. I think once I started putting it all together and looking at the history of how and why this stuff was recorded, that changed," Whelan said. "In order to appreciate how The Beatles got from the White Album to 'Abbey Road,' you have to understand how the 'Get Back' sessions helped them to learn how to play together as a band again."
Whelan's talking about the drawn out "ending" of The Beatles, a story too long and acrimonious to tell here, simultaneously fascinating and depressing. With various members of the band quitting on more than one occasion, there were many points when it seemed like the band would never play together again. They stuck with it, though, and it was worth it — for fans, anyway. Two of the greatest moments of the band's career probably never would have happened without the struggles of the "Get Back" sessions: the "rooftop concert," the last time the band performed together live; and "The End," the final "Abbey Road" track featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison all playing together and taking turns soloing.
The Whelan brothers' 37-year Holy Grail quest to produce an ideal version of "Get Back" with all the pieces remains unfinished, but it has allowed Whelan to amass tracks from the other Beatles albums, alternate versions, bootlegs, etc., which he's used to remix some of those songs. For a while, Whelan's remix project was secondary to his work on "Get Back," but eventually this side quest found a floodgate opened up by the release of a video game.
In 2007, "Rock Band" allowed musicians and nonmusicians alike to unite with plastic electronics in hand and pretend to be rock stars while watching avatar versions of themselves in poorly animated arenas, covering such classics as Mountain's ''Mississippi Queen" or, say, Coheed and Cambria's "Welcome Home." One of the unintended consequences of this moment in pop culture was that isolated instrument tracks called "stem files" were embedded in the game's code, and entry-level hackers could easily locate and isolate those files so that anyone could listen to the solo bass or guitar tracks to more easily pick out the notes. Or, if they wanted, to create new mixes of old classics. The release of a "Rock Band" expansion that featured exclusively Beatles songs finally gave Whelan access to all those clean, high-quality stem files, the raw material he needed to remix entire albums.
Whelan's mixing of The Beatles gave him the experience to start mixing and mastering original music from local bands as well, working on releases from Swampbird, The Uh Huhs and Tsar Bomba. (Full disclosure: James Szenher played bass and guitar for Tsar Bomba).
Words don't really do this kind of thing justice, so mark your calendar. You can hear Whelan's remixes in person at an Arkansas Times happy-hour listening party at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23, at The Joint. Free admission.