One After 9-9-09

The Beatles Rock Band really is Harmonix’s masterpiece, and should be required for anyone who still doubts the appeal of grown-ups playing with plastic guitars.

I can tell you the first CD I ever owned: it was the White Album, and I got Abbey Road at the same time, but I opened the White Album first because it was my birthday, and I wanted to hear “Birthday.” It was 1987, and the CD releases of the Beatles catalog were being promoted as A Very Big Deal, with people going on about all the subtle nuances they’d never been able to hear before.

I can also tell you when and where I first bought Revolver: it was at Downtown Records in Athens, GA, around 1991, and I bought it on cassette to listen to in my car, and I was convinced that I’d gotten hold of some super-exclusive collector’s edition with an all-instrumental version of “Taxman” until I realized that it was just that the right speaker on my car stereo had given out again.

I’d only call myself a “moderate” fan of the Beatles — I’ve listened to the White Album and Abbey Road about a billion times since 1987, but there are still plenty of songs by the group that I never heard before tonight — and I can still vividly remember all the details about my first exposure to each of their albums. There are bands I like at least as much — Led Zeppelin and the Pixies, to name two — but I couldn’t tell you anything about the first time I heard Physical Graffiti or where I bought my copy of Surfer Rosa.

And the reason for that is the Beatles have always been presented as a phenomenon more than as a band. People have been going back and forth on the merits of their music for as long as I’ve been alive: for everyone who claims that they’re the greatest musicians of the 20th century, there’s somebody else who complains that they’re just an overrated pop group that in 2009 have become completely irrelevant. Whatever you think of their music — and personally, I’m closer to the “brilliant composers” end of the spectrum than the “overrated pop band” end — it’s only part of what makes the band such a big deal, still relevant 40 years later. Because the Beatles were talented musicians, ridiculously talented and versatile composers, and innovative geniuses (with George Martin) at audio engineering. But I’d say their real genius was in self-promotion.

The current round of hype is over the release of The Beatles Rock Band and remastered versions of all the Beatles’ albums. There are already CD releases for all the records, plus the red & blue greatest hits compilations, plus the number 1 records compilation, plus the Love remixes. And of course, people don’t really buy CDs anymore, and for the past couple of years, websites have been predicting the imminent release of the entire catalog as downloadables any second now. So the question is what the NPR music blog asked back in April when the remasters were first announced: does anyone other than Baby Boomers and obsessive Beatles fanatics really care?

Well, I’m still young enough to have missed the first couple decades of Beatlemania, and I’ve never really been an obsessive fan, but I still cared enough to double-dip on the remasters of a few of the records (Revolver, the White Album, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and Past Masters, in case anyone’s curious). I didn’t think I’d be able to hear a dramatic difference, and I’m not that interested in the potential for downloadables, either. But the music’s always been just one part of the appeal. I can’t listen to anything from Abbey Road without picturing… well, Paul’s Boutique first, but after that: the album cover. I can’t hear “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” without seeing the band in their Sgt. Pepper costumes. Listening to “If I Fell” makes me think of the scene from the A Hard Day’s Night movie (which, incidentally, I believed was a documentary until I was in college). Or the cartoon series version of Ringo. Or the Yellow Submarine versions of the band. Or the suits and the unified bow at the end of the Ed Sullivan Show. Or the “bug music!” parody versions from “The Flintstones” who just sang “yeah yeah yeah” over and over again.

The image has always been as much a part of the mystique as the music itself. And the remasters do a great job of perpetuating that image. The packaging is very faithful to that of the original albums (at least, so I’m told: since I wasn’t there to see the originals, I have to take some things on faith, as you would with any religion). They’re filled with pictures, and each has new liner notes to put the record in context and remind you just how important it was to the development of 20th century civilization. Plus there’s a “mini-documentary” on each disc, a short video with more audio clips of interviews and even more pictures. If they’d been released in the 90s, they would’ve been perfect examples of how to do “multimedia” right. In 2009, though, they’re kind of like advertising for Coca-Cola: they won’t necessarily show you anything you didn’t already know, but they’re more a reminder that The Beatles Exist and They Are a Very Important Part of Your Life.

As for the recordings themselves: my prediction was right; I’m not enough of an audiophile to be able to tell much difference between these and the 1987 versions. I finally went through and did a track-by-track comparison, and could hear a slight improvement in clarity on some of Revolver and Abbey Road, but I still don’t know if that was just the placebo effect. It’s a lot more noticeable on older tracks from Past Masters, especially “From Me To You” and “I Feel Fine;” on those, the remasters are much better. That’s as technical as I get, I’m afraid: to my ears, there’s just a little bit more clarity, the instruments are a little bit more separated, and the bass and drums are a little more prominent. (I’ve read some reviews that say the difference is like night and day, so by no means trust my judgement!) I’m still enough of a fan to appreciate having the “definitive” versions, and the packaging is so well-done I don’t regret buying a single one of them. I feel like Rip Torn’s character in Men In Black: I’m resigned to having to buy a new copy of the White Album every so often.

But I’ll skip the downloadable versions. And the iTunes and Amazon MP3 releases, if they ever happen, aren’t what will render these CD remasters obsolete. If there were any doubt that we’re now living in The Mysterious Future, then get this: the best testament to the legacy of the Beatles, and the best way to expose new people to their music, isn’t a bunch of pristine re-releases of the music itself. It’s a videogame.

It’s been months since I listened to any of the Beatles music, and even longer since I played Rock Band. But it was pretty much guaranteed I was going to get The Beatles Rock Band as soon as I saw the greatest cinematic in the history of videogames. And that video pretty much sums up the game.

Now, I don’t want to over-sell it, because the game doesn’t ever quite reach the level of imagery that you see in that video. It’s still Rock Band with The Beatles music, just like it says on the box. But it’s full of the spirit of that video; it’s full of all the iconic images you’d associate with the band, and everything that makes The Beatles such a big deal to people. And, somewhat surprisingly, what makes The Beatles perfect for a videogame like this. There are other bands with big catalogs of music that’d be a lot of fun to play (I’ve seen frequent requests for Led Zeppelin Rock Band, and I’d undoubtedly play it), but I can’t think of any other band that has as much fantastic imagery associated with it, as much legend and hype surrounding it, and that fits so well into a Story Mode.

You follow the band through the key moments in their career: early gigs, the Ed Sullivan show, stadium concerts in New York and Tokyo, studio recording at Abbey Road, and their rooftop concert for Let it Be. Most of us were first exposed to their music long after even the hype had already died down, so we’ve seen and heard everything mashed together out of sequence. Playing through story mode was the first time I got a real idea of the band’s progression, and I was surprised at how moved I was by it. When I finished the first show at Budokan, and the achievement “The Final Tour” popped up, I actually said “No!” They’d just gotten started, they can’t be breaking up already!

As you go along, you’ll unlock pictures and accompanying facts about the band, the first time I’ve actually been interested in the unlockables in a game like this. I don’t know if they’d be old news to long-time fans, but they were new to me, and more satisfying than liner notes because I had to work to see them. And as you go from venue to venue, there’s a great transition sequence that combines still photos with animated album covers, kind of a pictorial overview of what the band was doing in between shows. I will admit to getting goosebumps when the cover of Revolver appeared.

Once they leave live shows and go to the studio, the game breaks from Rock Band tradition and starts presenting what they call “dreamscapes.” It sounded like a corny idea from the initial marketing, but after trying it, I’ll just say this: if you can play “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” without grinning like an idiot at everything that goes on, then I’m sorry, but you have no soul. Even better is “Here Comes the Sun.” That’s already a dangerously uplifting song, but actually playing along with it while watching the band in a sunlit field seems to inject euphoria directly into your brain. The game’s full of little uplifting moments like that: John Lennon calling his part out from inside the submarine in “Yellow Submarine,” the band dancing together at the end of “Hello Goodbye,” and pretty much every single moment in “Dear Prudence.”

I do have a couple of complaints. My favorite Beatles song is “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but instead of the original version, they used the weird remix with “Within You Without You” from the Cirque du Soleil Love show. The downloadable content (which I’m already going to buy without hesitation, in case it wasn’t obvious) is going to be in the form of whole albums, so I’m hoping a full release of Revolver will fix that. My other gripe is something they really couldn’t fix: I’ve always hated Let it Be. So the last section of the game is kind of a downer; I wish they’d at least included “Two of Us” and “Across the Universe.” But I will say that “Dig a Pony” isn’t quite as annoying when you’re playing along.

And I don’t want to spoil the game for anybody (they break up!) but I will say that the end is perfect.

The Beatles Rock Band would be impressive enough just for being a pitch-perfect history of, celebration of, and introduction to The Beatles. But even more than that, it’s the perfect vindication for the whole genre of music games that Harmonix created. Obviously, the games have sold so spectacularly well that they don’t really need to be defended any more than The Beatles’ significance needs to be defended. But you’ll still see people dismissing the games as nothing more than a waste of time playing with plastic guitars instead of investing in a real instrument and playing real music. The problem with that is that I don’t believe Guitar Hero and Rock Band were ever really about making music. They’re about enjoying music. Appreciating it in a way you can’t with just an album with liner notes explaining the significance of the music and how it’s constructed, or watching a video of the band’s interpretation of the song.

The game’s easier than other versions of Rock Band; I’m pretty lousy at these games, and I got through the whole story with five stars on every song at medium difficulty. But I don’t believe it’s because The Beatles music is simpler than the tracks they have in other versions. I suspect it’s because the game was designed to be accessible. It’s for all of us who’ve listened to the songs and tapped out drum beats or hummed the bass line or sung along in the car, approximating the harmonies as well as we could hear them.

I’ve heard reviews of the CD remasters claim that the individual voices and instruments are easier to make out in the new versions; I wasn’t able to hear it. But playing the game, I was able to see bass or guitar parts separated out on screen. I’ve read comments on line where people say they have a new respect for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, now that they’ve gotten an idea of how complex their parts really are and how much is going on in each song. Some of these songs I’ve heard hundreds of times before, but it’s really no exaggeration to say that playing along, mashing big colored buttons on a toy guitar along with a grossly simplified version of the real music, is like hearing the songs for the first time.