As the Rolling Stones kickoff their “Licks” world tour in Boston this week, patience is finally paying off for fans who were driven out of their heads over the years by the woeful state of the band’s back catalog of 1960s albums.
Key works have long been unavailable on CD, while the albums that are available sounded awful: not surprising since the product on the shelves was transferred to CD back in 1986 when the technology was still in its infancy.
But satisfaction has arrived with the recent ABKCO Records release of 22 remastered albums, the fruits of a 10-year restoration project for which no expense was spared.
These are no ordinary discs either: they are Super Audio CDs (SACD), which occupy a niche targeted at audiophiles. They can be played on both SACD players and regular CD players.
For the first time, fans will be able to hear the seminal 1968 release “Beggars Banquet” at the correct – faster – speed; 1969’s “Let It Bleed” without gaps between the tracks, as (apparently) originally intended; and the 1975 oddities collection “Metamorphosis,” which has never been issued on CD.
The series includes the U.S. and British versions of most of the band’s albums, which often had different track listings and art work. Thus, completists can listen to both versions of 1965’s “Out of Our Heads,” 1966’s “Aftermath” and 1967’s “Between the Buttons.” (Generally, the original U.S. versions included songs released as singles, while the long-deleted British versions have additional tracks.)
Strangely, the series does not include the group’s first two British albums, 1964’s “The Rolling Stones” and 1965’s “The Rolling Stones No. 2.” ABKCO senior vice president Jody Klein said, “It is certainly on the table of things to do.”
Similarly, ABKCO is considering issuing some EPs on CD for the first time, though the tracks from those records are available on other releases, such as the 1972 compilation “More Hot Rocks,” which is part of the new series.
“CIRCUS” IS COMING TO DVD
ABKCO, which owns the rights to the band’s recordings through 1971, also is partnering with the Stones’ current label, Virgin Records, on a two-CD compilation “40 Licks” due out Oct. 1 in North America.
Additionally, it is finalizing content for a DVD version of the aborted 1968 TV special “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” possibly due next year.
But as for brand new albums featuring never-before-heard versions of previously released material, don’t hold your breath.
“The recordings exist, there are alternate versions, various takes, but at the moment there are no planned releases,” said Klein, whose father, Allen Klein, owns ABKCO and once managed the Stones.
For years, the Stones and ABKCO endured a frosty relationship, since ABKCO ended up with all their lucrative 1960s copyrights, but things have begun to thaw in the last decade. The band opened up its own archive of master tapes for the project, and Klein said the members were happy with the reissues. Still ABKCO is wary of stirring up any problems.
Asked whether the reissues make it easier to detect out-of-tune guitars or flat notes, Klein said it was “unfair” to talk about such things, “because we’re super sensitive to it.”
Klein’s sensitivity fueled the reissue program in the first place. He used to wake up at night in a cold sweat worrying that the Rolling Stones’ master tapes might be decaying in the vaults. As it turns out, the tapes were in remarkable shape, but an archiving process was still necessary.
Teams of engineers in Britain and America sifted through miles of tapes, and ABKCO also bought tapes on the black market, hoping (to no avail) they might be original masters.
A SHORTER “BANQUET”
When the team played the original master for “Beggars Banquet,” which features “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” they discovered a big boo-boo. During its sole playback at the time, when a production tape was cut, the machine was running at a fast speed. When the new tape was played on a machine set at the correct speed, it played slow – and every album cut since 1968 has been at the wrong speed.
Not that the difference is noticeable: the original album clocks in at 40:36, the remastered version at 39:49.
The reissue of 1969’s “Let It Bleed” does not have gaps between the tracks. This is how the original master presented the songs, and the pauses were later inserted by the mastering company. It’s unclear what the artists’ intent was since the band has never said the songs were supposed to be contiguous. Klein referred all questions to the Stones, and a band spokesman passed the matter back to Klein.
Reviewers have raved about the clarity of the sound, with Mick Jagger’s vocals being singled out for praise. Paradoxically, the Stones’ recordings were always supposed to be gritty, with the vocals deliberately buried in the mix.
Klein said the remastering team bent over backward to retain the integrity and rawness of the original singles and albums.
“This was a restoration project to restore to the original look and feel,” he said. “It was not to create a new sound, a new the-way-we-feel Mick’s voice should appear or sound. If it sounds more vibrant, it’s because it was on the tapes, it was how it was transferred and it’s this wonderful technology. It’s not because someone came up with a new concept on how to present the band.”
The other albums in the SACD reissue series are the U.S. debut “England’s Newest Hitmakers” (1964), “12×5” (1964), “The Rolling Stones, Now!” (1965), “December’s Children (and Everybody’s)” (1965), and “Their Satanic Majesties Request” (1965); the live albums “Got Live If You Want It!” (1966) and “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” (1970) and the compilations “Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)” (1966, U.S.), “Flowers” (1967), “Through the Past, Darkly” (1969), “Hot Rocks” (1972) and “The Rolling Stones Singles Collection – The London Years” (1989).