Recordings of December 1999: Who's Next & Yellow Submarine Songtrack

THE WHO: Who's Next
MCA/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 754 (gold CD). 1971/1999. The Who, Glyn Johns, prods.; Andy MacPherson, Jon Astley, engs. AAD. TT: 77:57
Performance *****
Sonics *****

THE BEATLES: Yellow Submarine Songtrack
Apple/Capitol CDP 5 21481 2 (CD). 1968/1999. George Martin, prod.; Peter Cobbin, remix eng. AAD. TT: 45:38
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The originals of these recordings document the two most influential rock groups of the 1960s just as they were transforming simple rock'n'roll into an expansive art form that anticipated just about every progression popular music has experienced since. Fortunately these two groups were able to make their music with the finest technology available. As a result, these remixes enable you to listen more closely than ever before.

Who's Next, one of the greatest albums of the rock era, featured the first use of synthesizer sequencers as part of the rhythm track, a recording practice that has become the industry standard. Its hard-rocking dynamics were well-translated on the original releases, but the subtleties revealed by Mobile Fidelity's digital transfers from the original master tapes give this music the same presence it must have had at the moment it was recorded.

The most dramatic differences can be heard in the details of some of Pete Townshend's guitar fills—on "Bargain," say—and on the songs where the electric guitar is not constantly revving through the middle range. Nicky Hopkins' piano work on "The Song is Over" is fuller and rounder, "Getting in Tune" reveals much more detail, and "Behind Blue Eyes" offers gorgeous separation of the vocal harmonies.

This version of Who's Next is expanded as well. Part of the series assembled by Who archivist Chris Charlesworth, it features material related to the Lifehouse project (a science fiction film that never got off the ground), from which Who's Next emerged. "Pure and Easy," a song central to the Lifehouse script that didn't make the original Who's Next, takes on a presence here that it has never before enjoyed on record. Keith Moon's drumming on "Baby Don't You Do It" is gloriously up-front. Who fans especially will be shocked by the depth and sonic detail of this material.

Similarly, Yellow Submarine has never before existed in the configuration found on Songtrack. In fact, the original soundtrack album introduced only four previously unreleased Beatles songs: "Hey Bulldog," "All Together Now," "It's All Too Much," and "Only a Northern Song." In England, Beatles songs from the animated film were released as an EP. The US release was an LP with six Beatles songs on side 1, and orchestral music composed, arranged, and conducted by George Martin on side 2. Suffice it to say that side 2 never got much turntable time. Songtrack augments the original release with tracks from Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Magical Mystery Tour, all of which did appear on the soundtrack of the film itself.

Although his own orchestral music is omitted, George Martin emerges as the real star here. Peter Cobbin's remixes of Martin's remastered original recordings draw attention to many of the brilliant touches Martin's production added to the overall image. Martin and the band went through many generations, mixing down from four tracks to one, then filling up the three newly available tracks, then mixing those down to another single track, and so on, to create the dense mixes they're justly famous for. Martin, the consummate sound magician, never called attention to his own hand in the work.

But Cobbin exults in revealing the behind-the-scenes workmanship. Vocals are delicately untangled and given enough distance to be individually recognizable, instrumental parts are tucked and rearranged on the soundscape. Ringo's tom-toms on the last verse of "Yellow Submarine" thump with newfound clarity. The string quartet arrangement on "Eleanor Rigby" takes on additional warmth, particularly against the fuller vocal harmonies. Originally, the quartet arrangement was a single mono track placed dead center in the mix, with Paul's lead vocal panned hard right. In the new mix the quartet is spread across the soundstage, "behind" and around Paul's vocal, which now occupies the central position. The difference ain't subtle. "Think For Yourself" deconstructs the simple brilliance of Martin's production approach to the band's basic sound, isolating guitar, vocals, and rhythm as coloristic elements that produced a monolithic illusion on more primitive equipment, but were actually assembled with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker.

Several Sgt. Pepper's songs—the title track, "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and "When I'm Sixty Four"—are cut hotter here than on the Martin remaster, and the woodwinds on "When I'm Sixty Four" are wonderfully full-figured.

The greatest moments come on the "new" songs. In the old version of "All Together Now," Paul's vocal was hard right, John's centered. In the new, Paul's and John's vocals are both centered—and how about those handclaps? "Only a Northern Song," the coda of which sounds intentionally cluttered in its original version, is now revealed to have layer on layer of surrealist sound, anticipating the "White Album." "Hey Bulldog" is revealed as a minor classic. The jigsaw nature of the piano, guitar, and bass parts comprising the song's first verse are presented in jewel-like foil. McCartney's spectacular bass line, in particular, stands out with awesome presence.

Songtrack ends with the anthemic "It's All Too Much," with its handclap rhythm track, and a magnificent extended guitar solo pitched against a honking bass figure. The coda features heraldic trumpets, overlaid guitar lines, and multiple vocals, grunts, and handclaps in an orgiastic illustration of the slogan "Too much ain't enough!"

The Beatles still win new fans every day; in dramatic fashion, this album demonstrates why.—John Swenson