Beatles in Vegas Against Long Odds

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June 25, 2006

Beatles in Vegas Against Long Odds

IT’S the Beatles! Live in Las Vegas! This week, and for the foreseeable future!

Well, O.K., it’s not actually the Beatles performing live. After all, two of the Fab Four, John Lennon and George Harrison, are no longer among us. And although their surviving partners, both musical (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) and marital (Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison), are expected to be in the audience at the Mirage on June 30, when Cirque du Soleil opens “Love,” its ambitious fantasy tribute to the band, there won’t be so much as a Beatle cameo or a new song.

Still, Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian acrobatic troupe, and Apple, the company the Beatles started in 1967 to oversee their creative interests, have joined forces for this $150 million production, and they are billing it as “a timeless, three-dimensional” Beatles experience that, as one of its principals describes it, will “make the audience feel as though they are actually in the theater with the band.”

Promised too is a new soundtrack. Apple has given the show’s two music directors — Sir George Martin, who produced the Beatles’ original recordings, and his son Giles, who has worked with Elvis Costello and Kate Bush — free run of the band’s session tapes. Most Beatles fans would rather the tapes were mined for previously unreleased songs and upgrades of the standard albums. But as Giles explains, “Apple’s idea was that Cirque shouldn’t just be performing to a CD.” He adds, “It had to be something more unusual, a new way of hearing this music.”

What the Martins produced was a 90-minute soundtrack in which classic Beatles songs are remixed in surround sound, sometimes combining standard versions with outtakes, and even creating mash-ups, or versions in which riffs, vocal lines, guitar solos or sitar drones from one song are interposed on another. Next month the pair will return to London to remix the music again for a soundtrack album.

What’s truly odd about all his, to longtime Beatles watchers, is Apple’s enthusiasm for such innovation. For much of the last 36 years, Apple — whose four directors are the band members and their heirs — has been a barricaded fortress from which volleys of lawsuits are regularly launched. Its response to requests to use Beatles recordings in theatrical productions and films has generally been a firm no. And in its zeal to protect the Beatles’ name, work and trademarks, Apple has sued everyone from the producers of the late-1970’s hit “Beatlemania” to Apple Computer. So what’s going on here? Isn’t the soundtrack to “Love” akin to what Apple so vehemently opposed in 2004, when Danger Mouse created “The Grey Album,” a mash-up of Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and the Beatles’ “White Album”? For that matter, aren’t these mash-ups exactly what Internet-based Beatles fan groups have done, often brilliantly, though necessarily flying well below Apple’s radar, on underground collections like “Mutation” and the three volumes of “Tuned to a Natural E,” which can be found on various download sites?

Could it be that in allowing Cirque du Soleil to base a series of fantasy tableaus on Beatles music, and in letting the Martins take such liberties with the recordings, a usually cautious company is diving headlong into the 21st century? Has it awakened to an era in which promiscuous remixing has made the notion of a “definitive text” seem quaintly academic?

On the other hand, when Apple sics its lawyers on unauthorized use of the Beatles’ music, is it really protecting the integrity of the group’s work and image, or is it saying “We own the Beatles name and music, and therefore only we can compromise its integrity?”

WHEN the Beatles started Apple, they described it as the antithesis of the corporate entertainment world: a haven where musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers and artists of all kinds could find support for their projects. Along with the Beatles’ last four albums, the company released a magnificently eclectic catalog and a handful of films. But the open-door policy didn’t last long: a parade of hucksters and freeloaders quickly drained the company’s resources.

When the Beatles went supernova in 1970, Apple absorbed the immediate shock.

Sir Paul, hoping to extricate himself from the partnership, at first sued to have the company dissolved, but later reconsidered its usefulness. And for the next 19 years a tangle of lawsuits — the Beatles against one another, and the Beatles and Apple against EMI Records — were about all that Apple produced.

Those suits were settled in November 1989, and the terms were not made public. One detail leaked out, though: EMI would maintain its ownership of the recordings the Beatles made for the company between 1962 and 1970 but could not release anything without Apple’s approval. At first Apple exerted this control vigorously, refusing to release anything on CD beyond the standard British albums, released in 1987.

Gradually Apple began to relent. Two popular early-1970’s compilations, known as the “Red” and “Blue” albums (officially, “1962-1966” and “1966-1970”) were reissued on CD in 1993. More recently Apple and EMI have collaborated on new compilations, like “1,” a collection of Beatles No. 1 hits, as well as “The Capitol Versions,” two boxed sets (so far) of the group’s recordings in the configurations that Capitol (EMI’s American arm) released in the 1960’s.

Meanwhile Apple undertook archival projects, including “The Beatles at the BBC” and “The Beatles Anthology,” a multimedia autobiography that included a 10-hour video, a book and six CD’s of unreleased recordings. The reissue of the Beatles’ cartoon film, “Yellow Submarine,” in 1999, brought with it a fully reconceived soundtrack album, “Yellow Submarine Songtrack,” and in 2003 Apple addressed the Beatles’ mixed feelings about Phil Spector’s production of the “Let It Be” album by releasing the stripped-down “Let It Be … Naked.”

But those were in-house projects. Proposals from outside continued to find their way into the dustbin at Apple’s London offices, until Guy Laliberté, Cirque du Soleil’s founder, discovered the secret weapon: friendship with a former Beatle, in this case George Harrison. In 2000 they began discussing a a collaboration using the Beatles’ music. After Harrison died, in November 2001, Apple kept the project going. It expects “Love” to run for at least 10 years, packing 2,000 people into the theater twice a night, five nights a week, with ticket prices ranging from $69 to $150.

If the shows sell out, it would be like the Beatles filling Shea Stadium nearly 10 times a year, without having to tune up. Or even turn up.

IN the world of Beatles obsessives, the response to “Love” has been a shrug. A Las Vegas spectacular? Isn’t that a little … Fat-Period Elvis? And a soundtrack of mash-ups?

Beatles fans just want the Beatles. They want things they haven’t seen or heard, and they want the music they have heard to sound better than it does on the available CD’s. They want Apple to remaster the classic albums, and they want those albums in surround mixes. Some fans would like to see the recordings available for download. (In court papers filed during the company’s lawsuit against Apple Computer, Neil Aspinall, the Beatles former road manager who now runs Apple’s daily operations, said a remixing project was under way, and that the group’s recordings wouldn’t be made available online until that process was finished. He said nothing about when that might be.)

They also want Apple to release projects that have long sat on its shelf, like the revamped video of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert, and an expanded, bonus-packed DVD of the group’s last film, “Let It Be.” And how about a collection of the promotional films the group made in the 1960’s? Or DVD’s of Beatles concerts that were televised in Paris, Munich and Tokyo? Or the CD version of the 1964 and 1965 Hollywood Bowl concerts? Or the fabled 27-minute outtake of “Helter Skelter” and the avant-garde “Carnival of Light” collage, created for a London “happening” in 1967? For Beatles fans an extravaganza like “Love” looks like an unnecessary sideshow.

But they are in for a tremendous surprise.

A couple of weeks ago Giles Martin stopped in New York on his way to London, and invited me to hear his “Love” mixes on a five-channel surround system at Magno Studios. I was knocked out by some, but I was absolutely floored by the pristine quality and fine definition of the sound. With the compression of the original 1960’s productions stripped away, voices and instruments seem real, as if they were in the room. The new mixes wrap you in the group’s arrangements and let you hear long-buried interplay that illuminates the Beatles’ brilliance. This is a level of detail that simply hasn’t been heard outside the Abbey Road studios until now.

On “Yesterday” you can hear Paul McCartney’s pick hitting the strings of his guitar and the strings snapping against the neck. The guitar solo and the orchestral strings on “Something” had similar clarity and presence, and in the surround version of “I Am the Walrus” the whole kaleidoscope of textures — including an extraordinarily crisp drum sound — made the song quirkier than ever.

The mixes of “Revolution” and “Come Together” are incomparably more powerful than the familiar versions. Mr. Starr’s childlike “Octopus’s Garden” gets a fantastic restructuring that begins with the string introduction to “Good Night” and then places Mr. Starr’s vocal, unaccompanied, in a foggy ambience (using effects from “Yellow Submarine” and drums from “Lovely Rita”) before the full band kicks into the more familiar arrangement. And a juxtaposition of the drum figure from “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the vocal line from “Within You, Without You” creates a link between those mystical songs, recorded nearly nine months apart.

The new recordings were made under the close watch of Apple. Sir Paul, Mr. Starr, Ms. Ono and Mrs. Harrison occasionally dropped in on the Martins to hear the mixes. “It was a little terrifying,” said the younger Mr. Martin, who is 36, born a few months before the Beatles broke up. (His father is 80.) “When Ringo came in, the first thing he said was, ‘Have you done “Octopus’s Garden” yet?’ Paul said he liked what he heard, but that we could go even farther out than we have, and we’ve gone pretty far. And we were very concerned that Yoko and Olivia feel we were treating John’s and George’s songs well, but they were both very pleased.”

Why do these recordings sound so immensely better than the standard CD’s? The Martins made the “Love” soundtrack directly from the original unmixed master tapes of the Beatles’ sessions. Because of the way recordings were made in the 1960’s, the Beatles’ music as we know it, both on LP and CD, come from tapes that were several generations removed from those session tapes, and electronically processed to make up for the limitations of 1960’s audio technology. When the Beatles’ CD’s were released, in 1987, these processed tapes were used for all but two of the albums. (Sir George Martin remixed “Rubber Soul” and “Help!”)

At the time CD mastering was in its infancy and yielded a sound that seems harsh when compared with more recent CD’s, which often rely directly on the session tapes. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Byrds and even the Monkees have seen their catalogs remastered to take these improvements into account. But not the Beatles. Their CD’s, priced at top dollar and running only about 30 harsh-sounding minutes apiece, look more squalid every year.

Collectors endlessly debate what the ideal series of remastered Beatles albums would be. Until 1999 the answer seemed clear: upgraded versions of the British albums and singles in their original stereo and mono mixes (there are often notable differences in instrumentation, edits or vocal takes), along with the handful of variant mixes released in Japan, Australia, Germany and other countries.

But the release of the “Yellow Submarine Songtrack” in 1999 made some listeners reconsider. Produced by Peter Cobbin, they were updated remixes of the session tapes. The resulting version of “Nowhere Man” was telling: in the original stereo mix, the vocals are on one channel, the instruments are on the other. Mr. Cobbin spread the sweetly harmonized vocals that open the song across the stereo image, to stunning effect. Maybe, listeners began to argue, an upgraded Beatles catalog should take the flexibility of modern mixing into account.

The “Yellow Submarine” and “Beatles Anthology” DVD’s added another complication. Some of the surround mixes were so revelatory that tech-savvy fans, knowing how long it takes Apple to do things, began creating their own surround mixes. Even though these amateur remixers don’t have access to the session masters, their versions are often surprisingly effective.

Apple should, of course, get in there with its own surround series, now that it has dangled teasers in “Yellow Submarine,” the “Beatles Anthology” and “Love.”

But if the Beatles really want to be revolutionary — and counteract Apple’s reputation for slowness and litigiousness — they should take a truly bold step: release the component tracks of their unmixed session tapes on DVD’s, with a Creative Commons copyright license that would allow fans to create their own remixes, mash-ups and recompositions for noncommercial use.

Not that they’d be the first to move in that direction. Two years ago David Bowie offered the component tracks for songs from his “Reality” album for download on his Web site and even offered prizes — including a car — to fans who created the most original mash-ups. Wired magazine has offered unmixed tracks by several bands for similar use.

The Beatles, though, could be the first major group to open its archives freely. And if Apple was really meant to be, as Paul McCartney described it in 1968, “a kind of Western Communism,” what could be a more natural expression of that ideal?



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