John McMillian -- All the Beatles Need Is More of My Money

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By John McMillian
Sunday, September 6, 2009

I was born in 1970, the year the Beatles broke up, so I missed out on the giddy anticipation that rock fans must have experienced leading up to the release of a new Beatles album. But it's fun to imagine the thrill that might have accompanied the purchase of, say, "Abbey Road" on Oct. 1, 1969, the day it hit stores in the United States. You would have admired the record's soon-to-be-iconic cover photograph, scratched away its plastic shrink-wrap and gently laid the vinyl disc on a turntable. A few friends would've been summoned for the occasion (hopefully someone would have brought some grass), and you'd be hearing "Come Together" -- its eerie bass riff and drum roll waves, followed by John Lennon's spectrally cool vocals -- for the first time.

"Abbey Road" was the last album the Beatles recorded, but of course the band has never faded from global popular culture. Their worldwide record sales are uncountable (some estimates put the number at around 1 billion), and since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales data in 1991, they've sold 58 million records. These days, despite the fact that the group's oeuvre has expanded with archival projects and a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack, it's not really possible to experience the Fab Four as altogether new, at least not in the way that one could during the mid-to-late '60s youthquake.

Wednesday, though, Beatles fans worldwide will get a chance at something novel. They'll be able to buy "The Beatles: Rock Band," an interactive video game from Harmonix -- the $250 version includes Beatles-specific equipment -- as well as CDs of a sonically upgraded British catalog.

As a virtually lifelong Beatles fan, it's likely I'll be swinging by an ATM Wednesday. But I'll be doing so grudgingly. The Beatles "shareholders" -- Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono -- are revving up a new wave of Beatlemania, but they may alienate some of the band's most serious admirers. Though I don't doubt that the video game will prove joyful to play, it can't possibly live up to its hype.

Writing in the New York Times, Seth Schiesel declared, "The Beatles: Rock Band is nothing less than a cultural watershed, one that may prove only slightly less influential than the band's famous appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1964." Considering that 73 million Americans (nearly half the country) huddled around television sets for that event -- and that almost everyone who did has never forgotten it -- the claim seems somewhere between far-fetched and ludicrous. (If, in 40 years, American history textbooks routinely describe "The Beatles: Rock Band" as a transformational moment in music, art and gender politics, I'll roll my wheelchair over to Schiesel's place and apologize.)

Others say the game promises to completely refashion the way people relate to, and even hear, the Beatles. Playing along with Beatles animations on cheap-looking plastic "instruments" is said to be a deeply immersive experience, one that truly mimics the sensation of performing live music with a band. To be successful, gamers will have to listen carefully to the components of each song -- the bass riffs, guitar licks, drum sequences and gorgeous harmonies -- and in doing so, perhaps they'll form a new appreciation for the Beatles' artistry.

But, really, "The Beatles: Rock Band" is merely an updated version of previous "Rock Band" games, featuring better music. It's not likely to deliver an aural experience that is so different from that which has always been available to any Beatles fan who focuses on the group's musicianship and songcraft, as opposed to following streams of color-coded shapes as they crash into a target on their TV screen.

Come Wednesday, most listeners are likely to be impressed by the new CDs' sound quality, which has long been in need of sprucing up. Though a few audiophiles have already raised some technical complaints about the remastering project, I have a different quibble: Beatles fans are about to be subjected to an atrocious form of price-gouging.

Beatles enthusiasts know that the group originally intended for most of their music to be heard in mono. That is not to say the mono mixes are better but rather that they are definitive. But those mixes aren't being made available for individual purchase -- only the stereo ones are. If you want to hear an updated version of the Beatles in mono, you have to buy a 12-disc box set that lists at $299. (The stereo versions of most of the CDs can be bought individually for $18.98, as well as in a 16-disc box set for $259.)

The Beatles are the most pioneering pop act in history. Now the caretakers of their legacy are further burnishing the group's reputation as innovators. I wish them well. But couldn't they be a little less mercenary about it? (I know the Beatles were never very convincing as anti-materialists, but there was a time when they maintained that Apple Corps was less a moneymaking venture than a vehicle for creative experimentation).

To realize that original vision for Apple Corps, the shareholders might consider following up on a suggestion made by the New York Times' Allan Kozinn: Why not make the component tracks for all of the unmixed sessions in the Beatles archive publicly available? In doing so, Kozinn argued, they could allow fans to create their own remixes -- not to sell, but just for fun. Such a gesture would also pay homage to a time when the Beatles were so flush, confident and secure in their sales that they sustained the illusion that they were releasing albums as if all they needed was love, not money.

mcmill@fas.harvard.edu

John McMillian is the co-editor of "The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture" and is at work on the book "Beatles vs. Stones: The History of a Legendary Rivalry."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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