Naysaying the Naysayers: The Beatles' CDs by the Numbers

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tony Sachs Drinker of Spirits, Listener of Music, Watcher of Baseball, Writer of Words

This isn't for those music fans who pre-ordered the newly remastered Beatles CDs the instant they were offered. It's not for the people who have double-checked their stereos to make sure they're properly wired to capture every nuance of newly-tweaked sound. And it's certainly not for the folks who, when they heard that the Fabs' catalog was going to be reissued in both stereo and mono, didn't think twice about buying both boxes.

No, this is for that small but stubborn minority of naysayers who rolled their eyes when they heard that the Beatles' recorded legacy was being given a state-of-the-art sonic overhaul for the first time in more than two decades. "Ripoff artists," they snorted. "They keep repackaging the same music over and over again."

Well, you know what, naysayers? You're wrong.

Let's look at it by the numbers. In the CD era, EMI has released 14 Beatles albums, not counting the straight CD reissues of the original British LPs in 1987. Of the fourteen, five consist partly or entirely of previously unreleased music (Live At The BBC, Anthology 1, 2, 3, and Let It Be... Naked). Two are collections of singles and rarities that weren't included on the British albums (Past Masters Vols. 1 & 2). Three are well-thought out, fairly comprehensive greatest hits collections (the CD versions of the classic "red" and "blue" LPs, which were originally released in 1973, and 1).

Which leaves a grand total of four questionable Beatles releases over more than a quarter century. These include:

The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, featuring the American mixes, sequencing and artwork of the early Beatles' LPs in both stereo and mono, which American fans had been requesting for years;

Yellow Submarine Songtrack, which jettisoned the incidental music from the 1968 film in favor of more Beatles songs;

and Love, the inessential but interesting 2006 mash-up collection with absolutely stellar remixing and remastering.

And not a skimpy, ten-song compilation in the batch. By comparison, in the '90s alone, RCA released over 50 Elvis CDs, a good chunk of 'em short collections of random hits, and Frank Sinatra's various labels put out over 30 "new" collections of his -- some essential, many pointless. The Rolling Stones' 1971 album Sticky Fingers has, by my count, been issued on CD a half dozen times with assorted packaging and remastering variations since the mid '80s.

And let's not forget that unlike Elvis, Ol' Blue Eyes, the Stones and too many other artists to count, the Beatles have never committed the cardinal sin of baiting a greatest hits CD with one or two unreleased tracks to get all the die-hard fans to buy it. In fact, they've only put out one single-disc greatest hits CD, the aptly-titled 1, which not coincidentally has become one of the biggest selling albums of the decade. But do they get any credit for keeping their oeuvre down to manageable levels and not exploiting their audience? Not hardly.

So why do the Beatles get such a bad rap for supposedly abusing their legacy? Maybe it's because, when they put out a "new" record, it's handled with enough care, as far as production, packaging and promotion are concerned, so that it inevitably sells well. Take, for instance, the seemingly pointless Yellow Submarine Songtrack, released in 1999. On closer inspection, it had a lot going for it. Not only did it expand an album that was originally six songs and a side of George Martin's orchestral music into a tasty 15-track collection, but it also was remixed and remastered so that it had the best sound of any Beatles CD to date. And as a result, it made the Top 20 of Billboard's album chart. The Who (to randomly name another classic British rock band), on the other hand, have had more greatest hits albums come out than you can shake a Rickenbacker at, so when they put out a "new" compilation, it's hardly earth-shattering news.

To be fair, I agree with the many fans who are grumbling that the Beatles' CDs have room for both the stereo and mono mixes on one disc, and are questioning both the band and EMI for putting the mono discs in a separate, limited-edition, mucho-expensive box. But let's be honest -- unless you're a hardcore Beatlefreak, do you really care about stereo vs. mono mixes? I mean, nobody's putting a gun to your head to make you buy 'em both. And given EMI's stellar track record in handling the their biggest cash cow, I'm willing to let this one slide.

So hopefully, when you're reading about Wednesday's Beatle-CD-mania, you'll remember this little math lesson -- and give a last listen to your crappy-sounding first generation Fab Four discs -- before you go around poo-poohing the news.