Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Beatlemania hits U.S. on feast of the nines

Beatles fans will be shelling out upwards of $250 to obtain the new box sets that present the first remasters of that group's catalog since the 1980s. Just as the Led Zeppelin catalog was remastered for re-release in the early 1990s, and selected tracks remastered yet again for the Mothership collection in 2007, the sound of all the Beatles albums has been updated for modern listeners.

The Washington Post yesterday included two opposing articles, one in support of the Beatles tracks in mono and the other in support of them in stereo.

Also because 09.09.09 is here, a Beatles edition of the video game "Rock Band" has also arrived, ushering a new use of licensing of the band's catalog. Contributing some thoughts on this, not surprisingly, is music-industry commenter Bob Lefsetz. He says the Beatles are behind the curve in reaching out to this format, one he says "is on death watch." Lefsetz doubts this move to the "Rock Band" enterprise will create fans out of today's youth: "If you want to teach the younger generation how great the boys from Liverpool were you'll reach more of them via advertising than you will via this half-baked game."

Jimmy Page, too, was recently critical of the "Rock Band"/"Guitar Hero" format, expressing his displeasure at the thought of dads trying to be John Bonham when they're not. Page said this to the press this June while promoting his film "It Might Get Loud" along with co-star Jack White in Los Angeles. White, too, expressed his ambivalence about that style of video game, offering that he noticed "a loss of romance" when those controllers get between the music and the listener.

In one October 2008 edition of the influential Lefsetz Letter, the author railed against the band for licensing a line of footwear. It was little over a month later that I similarly criticized the Led Zeppelin activity of 2007 -- not the reunion concert but the further distillation of Zep's material via Mothership, the moves to iTunes and YouTube, the launch of the official Web site, and even the new version of The Song Remains the Same -- as the popularization of Led Zeppelin to the everyman, the gasping last breaths of any mystery once associated with Led Zeppelin.

You know, the kind of mystery we're now seeing with the arrival of Them Crooked Vultures!

But the Lefsetz Letter also featured the lengthy and reasoned reaction by Jeff Jampol, the acting manager today of the Doors, explaining his actions. It wasn't an attack, and it wasn't a defense. It was just an explanation, a history of decisions. And the more I reflect on Jampol's words in response to Lefsetz, the more I budge from that hard-lined position and realize why the footwear line and other judgment-call decisions by the Doors management were appropriate at the time -- and, by extension, why these moves undertaken every once in a while by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin are appropriate for them at those points in time.

That all being said, Lefsetz may be right about "Rock Band" as a dying art form, and Page has the right to believe it was never that great in the first place. Lefsetz often says the CD format is dead. He's even argued physical media are dead, and selling digital files is on its way out too, soon to be replaced by the format he's now championing: streaming on-demand media. Of the Beatles, Lefsetz says:

"We know that the Beatles blazed trails. Opened doors that were not even seen. Created music that you could not only sing along with, but inspired you to take up musical instruments to play. The Beatles Rock Band will inspire no one to become a musician, will turn few on to the music, because it's at least two years too late. The Beatles led, we followed. Now Apple Corps. is so tentative that it can't help but follow. Imagine the remasters on Blu-Ray. Sure, few would be able to play them, but they'd inspire the public to get Blu-Ray players just to hear them. Could have been done. Would have blown our minds. We'd have gone to friends' houses just like we did in '64, to be exposed to this magic music. But that wouldn't be expedient business. Expect the Beatles to sell MP3s when streaming is the norm. It's a bit sad. But the music, even listened to at 128kbps on cheap white earbuds, is still revelatory. It will never fade away. Unlike Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the White Album, all of the Beatles records, are not a fad. They still get our adrenaline pumping and put a smile on our face. No matter when and where we hear them. You can build edifices atop the music, but the tunes still shine, will continue to shine. Thank God."

Maybe it's just because I'm a bigger fan of Led Zeppelin than I am the Beatles, but I think whatever new medium hasn't yet arrived could be new territory for Led Zeppelin. The embalming liquid of the future that will preserve Led Zeppelin's music for eternity -- or at least until the next medium makes it obsolete. The new format that will be employed whenever Them Crooked Vultures have new music they want heard -- and, preferably, sold for profit. Because it's a business.

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