I see some hands going up. Stones fanatics are no doubt asking, 22? The band released eight studio albums in England on the Decca label, starting with the 1964 and '65 sets each called The Rolling Stones and continuing with Out of Our Heads, Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet, and Let It Bleed. But the Remastered Series is drawn primarily from the '60s catalog of Decca's American counterpart at the time, London. So we get three extra pastiches born in the U.S.A.-12x5, December's Children (and Everybody's), and Flowers. Add to that the best-of sets: the single-disc Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) and Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), followed by the double-disc Hot Rocks 1964-1971 and More Hot Rocks (Big Hits & Fazed Cookies). Add to that the compilations put together by the label that assumed control of the '60s Stones and now brings us the Remastered Series, ABKCO: Metamorphosis and the triple-disc Singles Collection: The London Years. Don't forget the live albums Got Live If You Want It! and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! And as a supplement to the American catalog, we also get the original U.K. releases of Out of Our Heads, Aftermath, and Between the Buttons.
Some of you may be asking, isn't Super Audio CD a multichannel format? Yes, but it's not multichannel-only. DVD-Audio has been devoted to surround sound from the get-go, but SACD was launched with stereo titles. Even though more and more titles today are multichannel, the format still supports high-resolution stereo-only releases. And to its credit, ABKCO decided that, instead of remixing the Stones in surround, it would first overhaul the original stereo (and mono) recordings. After all, that hasn't been done since 1986, the first and only time the recordings were issued on plain-vanilla CD.
A lot of good this does me, you may be protesting, if I don't have an SACD player! Good news: these discs are hybrid SACDs, which means they have a separate CD layer for plain-vanilla CD players. So (the thinking goes) enjoy the Stones right now, and when you upgrade to SACD, you'll be ready to roll.
Of course, the backers of SACD would get great satisfaction if the Remastered Series itself prompted you to upgrade. And I must say, it's a move you gotta consider-because these 22 releases, graded as a whole, sound truly excellent.
This is not to say that every SACD represents a "quantum leap" over the old CDs, as MTV's Kurt Loder claimed-when he had only a sampler to go by. Sure, newly remastered tracks on any format often sound wonderful when you haven't listened to the previous versions in a while. But surprise! Some of the Stones CDs, despite being 16 years old, sound quite decent. They were all stamped "Digitally Remastered from Original Master Recordings," and though we now know that, in some cases, this meant "from the LP production masters" rather than "from the original master tapes," they weren't as lifeless as some discs that appeared three years earlier at the dawn of CD.
However, 90% of the music on the SACDs is from the original master tapes, thanks to dogged research by the engineer of the series, Steve Rosenthal. And all of the music was remastered by the esteemed Bob Ludwig. Make no mistake: their handiwork is often plainly clear, especially on the first few albums, where the bass is not just boosted but rejuvenated in both firmness and depth. Meanwhile, the urgent acoustic guitars on "Not Fade Away" are almost tactile. The twang-bang electric solo on "Now I've Got a Witness" has marvelous presence. And the charging drums of "Surprise, Surprise" revel in the vivid sound of sticks on skins.
Overall, this early material now breathes fully on SACD. The raucous "Get Off of My Cloud," for instance, gets a wider soundstage without losing any of its energy. And if you're not SACD-capable yet, rest assured that the young Stones-and all the discs here-will still sound fresher in your CD player than the 1986 discs do. But to get the full DSD effect, you'll have to become a 2002, SACD Man.
There are other sonic highlights as the years go by: the blast of "She Said Yeah," the richness of the vocals on "She Smiled Sweetly," the definition in the strings and the magnetic motion of the rhythm section on "She's a Rainbow." But the material that comes across best may be 1968's Beggars Banquet. From the natural warmth of the acoustic guitars on "No Expectations" to the sharp details in the hard-rock abandon of "Stray Cat Blues," the SACD is remarkably faithful to the realism of Jimmy Miller's original production. "Sympathy for the Devil" is especially breathtaking, not only for the glorious interweaving of percussion, bass, and guitar but also for the sense of space between the instruments-the feeling that, even in "mere" stereo, the musicians are set up all around your listening room.
The mono tracks in the series don't need to apologize either, as they pack a sonic punch. That said, Rosenthal has hunted down some revelatory stereo mixes-true stereo, that is, not the reprocessed stereo of yore-for several songs, including "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and "Honky Tonk Women." My favorite has to be "It's All Over Now." It's a thrill to hear the big bass at left and that insane guitar solo at right, and to pick out the individual vocal-harmony lines of those still-Glimmer-Twins-in-their-eyes, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
On the other hand, what's up with the always stereo "Ruby Tuesday"? The Baroque instruments do sound great, and the whole track has impressive resonance-but each time the chorus comes in, the heart-tugging harmonies drop way down. On previous versions, they're solidly upfront. Whatever the reason, it's a disappointing change.
Still, that was my only big disappointment in sound over the course of these 22 titles. And Rosenthal should further be credited for actually fixing some old sonic anomalies. "Mother's Little Helper" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" were originally recorded on faulty tape machines, making the songs run a little bit slow. This has been corrected, and it gives a nice nudge to "Have You Seen" (whose lead bass is also clarified). Furthermore, the entirety of Beggars Banquet required the same adjustment. Don't worry: it's not like the Chipmunks are storming an album we thought we knew for all these years. The change in speed is small, though it's discernible in A/B comparisons-and it's welcome for an album whose vocals always seemed a tad drawly.
Thankfully, some things haven't been fixed. These are the Rolling Stones, after all, and we need them to stay dirty to a degree. So parts of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" retain the intentional distortion that the band achieved by taping certain instruments on mono cassette recorders. As Bob Ludwig has explained, he stayed faithful to the spirit of the times when he remastered these recordings for SACD. And if that spirit means raw guitars, then believe me, it's a sound that an audiophile not only can but should love.
You'll have a lot more trouble loving the packaging of the sound, which is why I'm compelled to give a separate grade for the overall concept of the Remastered Series.
Why does it get only two stars?
(1) Except for three songs added to More Hot Rocks, there are no bonus tracks. Accordingly, some of the early studio albums remain as short as 29 minutes.
(2) Except for the solid essay by Anthony DeCurtis from the original Singles Collection, there are no historical liner notes. Instead, we get the original "notes" of producer Andrew Loog Oldham-which "stand on their own," as ABKCO's Jody Klein told ICE magazine. But Oldham's ramblings stand only as an example of the worst kind of '60s jive.
(3) In a press release, ABKCO says that the albums have been "painstakingly replicated in Digipaks that capture the look of the original LPs." And they are rather nice, complete with all the photos from Big Hits 1 and the cartoon from Between the Buttons. But one panel of each three-panel foldout is used for ABKCO credits and the same self-congratulatory boilerplate. Meanwhile, "it was not possible to reproduce the original 3-D cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request"-although Virgin found it possible to put an actual zipper on the cover of its LP-replica CD of Sticky Fingers.
(4) Those three U.K. albums are here because "the repertoire is substantially different." But the U.S. and U.K. discs of Between the Buttons share 10 of 12 tracks. And the dual releases can be confusing, since the cover of the U.K. Out of Our Heads is the same as that of the U.S. December's Children.
This points up the main problem with the Remastered Series: for the most part, it's the American catalog all over again, including the repackagings that the Stones never approved. ABKCO could have done everyone a huge favor by doing what Capitol did with the Beatles in 1987: reissue only the U.K. catalog as originally conceived by the band. If ABKCO had done that, it then could have fleshed out the early albums by adding contemporaneous tracks from American LPs and British EPs. Or it could even have paired up some of those albums as twofer SACDs. It also could have given us full lyrics and track-by-track notes.
But ABKCO opted to reissue the albums "without gratuitous after-the-fact embellishment." In these days of Deluxe Edition CDs and Special Edition DVDs, a statement like that is, at best, wrong-headed.
Klein is right-on when he tells ICE that, in honoring the original mono and stereo mixes, "we consider these [recordings] to be pieces of art and are presenting them as such. No one is putting their fingerprints on this. . . . It is the Rolling Stones, Andrew Oldham, and Jimmy Miller. These are their albums." But as products, these are ABKCO's albums. The most telling proof of this is the inclusion of Metamorphosis-"never before released on CD!" As any genuine Stones fan knows, this hodgepodge of old demos and outtakes never should have been released at all, since it was less an album than a legal settlement.
So you don't have to buy all 22 titles. Focus on the eight original studio albums, realizing you'll have to settle for the American versions of the eponymous sets, which were nicknamed England's Newest Hit Makers and Now! Also get your Ya-Ya's-still one of the best live albums ever, with bass and drums now sounding tougher. Finally, head straight for the three-disc Singles Collection, which, since it was conceived in the CD era, offers playing times of 70, 70, and 50 minutes. And though you may not get absolutely everything you want, you'll get what you need - and you'll save big bucks. Then sit back and enjoy the SACDs, which are certainly worth the bucks you have spent. Because when all is said and redone and you hear the new masters, you'll be a slave to the music - just like a Stones fan should.