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Meet (and be) the Beatles

The Fab Four are reintroduced in remastered CDs and a Rock Band video game edition.

August 30, 2009|Randy Lewis

Allan Rouse and Guy Massey beamed confident smiles recently in Capitol Records' Studio C in Hollywood, where the senior studio engineers for Capitol's U.K. parent company, EMI Records, supervised a preview of the top-secret project they've been working on for the last four years.

Massey punched "play" on a CD containing portions of 14 Beatles songs and watched three visitors' faces light up as they first heard tracks as they sounded on the 1987 CDs that brought the Fab Four's catalog into the digital age, then listened to spruced-up CD remasters the rest of the world will get to hear when they're released Sept. 9.

Across town in Santa Monica a few weeks later, the Cheshire cat grins looked curiously similar on three representatives demoing MTV Networks' "The Beatles: Rock Band." Two strapped on replicas of Paul McCartney's Hofner bass and John Lennon's Rickenbacker guitar, the third pulling up a stool behind an electronic drum kit emulating Ringo Starr's Ludwig set and delved into the new video game, which, not coincidentally, hits the market the same day as the new CDs.

The hosts' confident enthusiasm stems from their awareness that even though nearly 40 years have elapsed since the Beatles' acrimonious breakup, the harmony they created on record, in concert and on film maintains a remarkable hold on pop music lovers worldwide.

Separate teams have been quietly yet feverishly at work for years on the two projects that promise to ramp up Beatlemania again for yet another generation. The main projects take contrasting approaches: The group's recorded past is being faithfully refurbished in CDs that may serve as a last hurrah for a format in decline, while the video game fancifully springboards the group into the world of interactive game play, and symbolically, into the entertainment future.

Retailers have been taking advance orders for the individual CDs, box sets and Rock Band for months, and it's a good bet that the Beatles will appear near the top of sales charts one more time.

They have never fully slipped from the public consciousness, helped along by a carefully considered stream of new projects. The group's albums have sold nearly 58 million copies in the years since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking actual retail sales in 1991. The remastered CDs and Rock Band, along with a Beatles edition of Trivial Pursuit and several other related products, are the most ambitious coordinated effort to reinvigorate the franchise. Adding to the momentum is the recent news that director Robert Zemeckis is negotiating to make a new version of the 1968 animated film "Yellow Submarine."

The Beatles: Rock Band, with a list price of $250, introduces the world's bestselling pop group to the world of interactive gaming. That world has been dominated by young male enthusiasts, but it's increasingly drawing in their parents and grandparents as classic rock, pop and country source material has been included in the ever-expanding trove of songs used in Rock Band, which was developed by MTV's Cambridge, Mass.-based game producer Harmonix, and in its competitor, Guitar Hero.

What the remastered Beatles CDs offer, beyond just the opportunity for EMI and Capitol to pump up their profits -- they're being issued as individual CDs and in two box sets: one with all the mono mixes (listing for $299), the other with the stereo versions ($259) -- is a fresh listen to music that's been omnipresent for nearly half a century.

The box of mono releases is considered the definitive record of their music, because the group and their producer, George Martin, created everything through "The Beatles," a.k.a. the White Album in 1968, to be heard in mono. Stereo mixes of those recordings were typically created as an afterthought, and the Beatles often weren't present when those versions were done.

The Fab Four's recorded output spanned just seven years and 13 studio albums, a canon that is pop music's answer to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those albums document the Beatles' transformation from a group of lads passionately bashing out their versions of favorite American R&B and rock tunes into pop's most successful and influential songwriting team as well as one of its most accomplished teams of recording studio innovators.

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Remastering masters

Rouse and Massey have been working on Beatles projects on and off for a dozen years or more.

The team has earned the support of surviving members McCartney and Starr as well as Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison who took over their husbands' interests in Apple Corps, the company the Beatles launched to control their business affairs and that still approves all Beatles projects. The principles are commonly referred to as "the shareholders" by those working on these projects.

"They trust this team," said Apple chief Jeff Jones during the remaster preview in June. "They've been doing this for a long time."

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