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Decades Later, Beatles Hits Continue to Draw New Fans

September 9, 2009 at 7:51 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with NPR music critic Tim Riley about the Beatles' influence decades later.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And more now from Tim Riley. He’s a contributing music critic for NPR, journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston, and he’s the author of the book, “Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary.”

Tim, start with the new recordings. What does it mean to re-master these old albums? And why is that such a big deal in the case of the Beatles?

TIM RILEY, National Public Radio: Well, with this digital re-mastering, what you’re talking about is a major refurbishing of one of the essential milestones in the rock music catalog. And, you know, over the past half-century, we’ve watched as popular culture has gotten a lot more scholarly interest than it ever had before.

So the analogies would be, like, you know, if we’re dealing with a new version of something by Charlie Chaplin, say “City Lights” or a new print of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” the Beatle catalog really does have that kind of central prominence in rock music history.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well…

TIM RILEY: And, of course, the other thing we’re talking about — I’m sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, no, go ahead.

TIM RILEY: The other thing we’re talking about, it’s a period in music history in the 1960s when the Beatles are actually bridging an era between live performance of this music and the recorded art.

And part of what the Beatles do is they bring us into the recording era so that, by the end — they’re doing more than composing songs. They’re actually composing records. And that becomes very, very clear with this new digital re-master.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, you talk about the interest for scholars. What about the rest of us? I mean, I was reading today that, over time, worldwide, Beatles albums have sold something like 600 million copies. Everybody watching this has heard the Beatles. Most of us could sing many of their songs. What do we hear? What do we actually hear in the new recordings?

"Removing the cotton from our ears"

TIM RILEY: Right. Well, of course, there's a cynicism that's built in now to how many times you have to buy these Beatle albums, because they've been sold and resold in so many different formats.

But I'd put it this way. I think there's a really interesting irony between how far the Beatles now recede into history and yet, in terms of fidelity, we get closer and closer to the sounds that they actually made.

With this digital re-master, it's kind of like we're removing the cotton from our ears. There really is this sense of all of these familiar songs are made suddenly fresh and new again.

In that example you played of the stereo sound from "I Saw Her Standing There," one of the things that's especially vivid on this re-master is the handclaps. And you would think that would be rather minor detail and it really wouldn't make so much difference, but in the context of this recording, the hand claps actually spring out and are one of those details that give you a whole new perspective on the whole.

So this really is a case where all of these tiny little details -- the vocal inflections, the intake of breath, sometimes it's a minor little guitar squiggle that you haven't heard before -- but it really does lend to your understanding of how hard these musicians worked to make this music.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about -- well, I'll wait for you to get your earpiece in so you can hear me. Are you OK now?

TIM RILEY: Thank you. Yes.

Reaching a new generation

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the video game? How does that fit in to what you're talking about? This is clearly reaching out to a new generation, a whole new media form that the Beatles, at least in their heyday when they were recording all these things, didn't exist. So what's going on there? What do you see happening?

TIM RILEY: Well, I think it's interesting that the Beatles are embracing this new medium, because one thing that we know is that the Beatles have always had a very special, magical relationship with the children of the world. Every child who's introduced to this music responds to it almost viscerally and intuitively.

There is this wonderful child-like magic to the Beatles' work that was always there and has always been there. And a lot of people, a lot of youngsters got to know the Beatles through the children's movie "Yellow Submarine."

And so I think, in the Beatles' mind, they were thinking, well, there's this new medium, and they keep getting requests to enter new mediums, and they decided that they really like the interactive element of this video game.

And since video games are so popular and everyone was jumping into them, maybe this would be a new way to introduce the next generation to the Beatle catalog and actually get the kids to interact more with the music. And so it does provide an interesting and different new kind of platform for the future musicians to get a handle on how interesting and complicated this music can be.

The Beatles' lasting influence

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim, we just have about 30 seconds, but I want to ask you, because I saw that Paul McCartney wrote a letter to a British newspaper today saying that he never imagined that the Beatles would last even more than a couple of years. What explains the continuing interest, the continuing importance that they could pull this together so many years even later?

TIM RILEY: Well, you know, in 15 seconds, it's just remarkably interesting, sophisticated, and complicated music that's very enjoyable on the surface, but has great range and depth and poetry underneath. And I am continually amazed at how sturdy this music is.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tim Riley, thanks so much.

TIM RILEY: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: And you can learn more about the Beatles' music makeover on our "Art Beat" page at newshour.pbs.org. And you can watch video clips, including one about the making of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."