News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

October 28, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Drop the needle

The Beatles’ 13 original studio albums, ‘Past Masters’ compilation of non-album tracks to be reissued on vinyl LPs

Over time, excellence and nostalgia inappropriately merge in our minds. The gadgets and lifestyles of our youth clearly exceed modern ways.

Right?

Kids today will never know the joys of rotary phones, party lines, Jarts, manual steering, floppy disks, CB radios and pay toilets. Now that was living.

Seriously, most trends become obsolete for good reasons. A rare few refuse to die, rejuvenated through their pure quality. In two weeks, one of those lingering gems will re-emerge.

The Beatles’ 13 original studio albums, and a “Past Masters” compilation of non-album tracks, will be reissued on vinyl LPs on Nov. 13. The iconic band’s record labels — EMI and Apple Corps Ltd. — remastered the vintage recordings in 2009, and used those broader sound upgrades to press The Beatles’ 217-song catalog into wax. The world discovered their unmistakable music through “The Ed Sullivan Show,” AM radio and — more personally — vinyl records.

The concept of relaunching music recorded more than 40 years ago on those monstrous 12-inch, 180-gram platters seems absurdly backward. Since The Beatles disbanded in 1970, consumers’ home music libraries have undergone a technological evolution from LPs and 45s to 8-track tapes, cassettes, compact discs and, finally, digital downloads on iPods, Mp3 players, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. To the cutting-edge crowd, a reintroduction of The Beatles on vinyl probably equates to NBA players switching back to canvas sneakers.

In this case, though, excellence and nostalgia stand separately on their own. The Beatles simply sound better on vinyl, then, now, here, there and everywhere. In fact, almost any band or singer shines brighter at 33 revolutions per minute. Using techno-terminology, audiophiles can explain the superior sound resolution of old-school analog recordings, going from microphone to tape to vinyl-on-the-turntable. Digital and CDs have been trumpeted as clear and clean, but absence of pops and hiss doesn’t necessarily connote quality. The ability of the formats to store dozens, hundreds, even thousands of songs more discreetly than peach crates full of LPs is offset by the loss of vinyl’s warmer, fuller, more powerful tones.

An iTunes file can’t replicate the raw magic of “The White Album,” when the roaring jet engines at the end of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” fade into the quiet, between-song crackle of needle-in-groove vinyl, a blissful moment of sedation before the electric guitars of John Lennon and George Harrison begin chiming on “Dear Prudence.” Sonically, mankind has yet to improve upon that.

Why, then, is there no longer a CBS Records plant in Terre Haute, churning out more than 20 million LPs and 45s a year, as in its heyday?

Convenience and efficiency are the answers.

It’s hard to argue against the mobility and versatility of newer music formats. Jogging with earbuds and a fully loaded Mp3 player beats trying to strap a turntable and a gas-powered generator on your back. I fully admit to enjoying the simplicity of sliding a disc from The Beatles’ “Anthology I” into my truck’s CD player.

Still, strictly in terms of a home-stereo listening experience, dropping the needle onto the opening track of “Rubber Soul” is the way to go.

If not, why then are sales of vinyl albums rising faster than any other musical format? In 2011, according to market research firm Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl LP sales climbed 36 percent from the previous year, with 3.9 million albums sold — the most since 1991. In the first nine months of 2012, CD sales total 129.7 million units, down from 151.6 million in the same period of 2011, while digital downloads total 85.5 million, up 15.3 percent from 74.2 million. Yet, in the January-to-September span of this year, vinyl LPs sales hit 3.2 million, up 16.3 percent, and Christmas (as well as The Beatles’ catalog release) hasn’t even arrived.

Perspective is necessary, though. Despite the uptick, vinyls account for just 1.5 percent of all U.S. album sales. Turntables and vinyl copies of “Let It Be” won’t suddenly turn up on millions of holiday wish lists. (If your most recent vinyl purchase was Supertramp in 1978, be ready for an adjustment. Pre-orders of The Beatles’ LP box set currently list at $319 on Amazon.com, while individual albums range from $22 to $32.)

Nonetheless, vinyl has bridged the generation gap, because its market resurgence has been driven by curious twentysomethings and young buyers, according to industry numbers cited in Forbes magazine. The bands with the top selling vinyl albums of 2011, Rolling Stone reported, were Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons, Radiohead, Adele, Wilco and the Black Keys.

But the No. 1-seller on the LP charts last year, as well as 2009 and 2010, was …

“Abbey Road,” The Beatles’ classic from 1969.

Yes, the kids are all right.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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