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The Beatles, The Beatles in Mono

The Beatles, and The Beatles in Mono (Capitol / EMI)

Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Oct. 2, 2009

Box Sets

The Beatles

(Capitol/EMI)

The Beatles in Mono

(EMI)

"Clearly in the Sixties, mono was king. Even in 1967, when the Beatles were at the height of their experimentation in the studio, the mono mix of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was their absolute priority. That is the important point about this period of transition; until the 1969 release of the Yellow Submarine album, each Beatles LP had a unique mono and stereo mix."

What's in a mix? Only music. According to the booklet intro of The Beatles in Mono, the band personally oversaw the mixing of its Summer of Love earth-shaker, Sgt. Peppers, but only monophonically, defined by Merriam-Webster's as "involving a single transmission path." The stereophonic mix ("constituting a three-dimensional effect of auditory perspective") was relegated to Beatles' sound designer George Martin and his team of engineers. "For whatever reasons," states The Beatles in Mono booklet, "this stereo mix is remarkably different."

With 10 of the Fab Four's 13 albums privy to two unique mixes, Sgt. Peppers isn't alone in its dichotomy. Differences between the Beatles' two behemoth box sets of remastered catalog play out like Civil War North/South politics.

The Beatles stereophonic black box hordes all 13 LPs, plus a 2-CD gather-all of singles, B-sides, and EP tracks (Past Masters). All feature expanded gatefold artwork and a 3½-minute featurette on the making of the album (also compiled onto one DVD). All are available individually. The Beatles in Mono fits the group's 10 albums through The White Album, and the accompanying 2-CD Mono Masters, into a much smaller, lighter, white box whose individual titles aren't sold separately. Minisleeves render original album credits microscopic even though the stereo set reprints them with additional details. Except for Sgt. Peppers, the stereo liner notes are mostly inadequate.

The informational crossover between the two collections, and the paucity of additional materials on The Beatles in Mono, gives the distinct impression that if you bought white, you already own big black. At a combined price of $500, however, that's not a viable option for most Beatlemaniacs. Why weren't both mixes combined into one brick-house box?

Please Please Me, released March 1963 in the UK, opens on a barely contained throb of leather and bass, "I Saw Her Standing There," Paul McCartney unbound. In mono, hand clap-claps repeat in the magic middle spot between your speakers, while John, Paul, George, and Ringo's high "wu" harmonies tickle your long donkey ears. John Lennon's Svengali vocals on "Anna (Go to Him)" flirts statutory, but the gang's bop-shoo-op behind Ringo Starr's smashing vocals and beats on "Boys" gives Lennon's larynx shred on "Twist and Shout" a run for its Ferris Bueller.

"Twist and Shout" in stereo separates Lennon and the harmonies in one channel and the rhythm track on the other. Please Please Me in stereo is swallowed whole into this Continental Divide and reduces the Beatles' debut to sounding – as was the early process of converting mono mixes to stereo – heartbreakingly formulaic. "The music released in stereo was mostly aimed at an affluent adult audience and was usually serious (classical or jazz) or light ('easy listening')," points out the Mono box's liner notes.

Apply all that to sophomore slump With the Beatles, November 1963, in which Lennon-led rocker "It Won't Be Long" bursts mono on a mangler riff, Starr's kit knockabout, and McCartney's wildcat harmonies. Its stereo counterpart devolves into left/right channel segregation, but this time the isolation of McCartney's vocals on "Till There Was You" works, while "Please Mister Postman" improves in the channel crowding. Bo Diddley-esque Lennon-McCartney original "Hold Me Tight" gains density in stereo, and a cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" almost tips the scales in favor of stereo.

First masterpiece, A Hard Day's Night, July 1964, marquees every song composed by Lennon-McCartney (last until Rubber Soul), its A-side written for the lads' film debut and the B-side collecting the B-sides. From George Harrison's jangling 12-string Rickenbacker on the title sprint to Lennon-McCartney's vocal pingpong on "Any Time at All" – leading the B-side's "also-rans" along with the acoustic inevitability of "Things We Said Today" – A Hard Day's Night zips incandescent. The stereo mix may be livelier, but likelier it's simply the more familiar mix.

Beatles for Sale, December 1964, yielded its investment in seven days of recording eight originals and six covers, long-player four being the first Liverpudlian effort calling for stereo to match the autumnal colors on the album sleeve. Lennon delivering Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" verges on clunky, but that's its joy – the ramshackle breaks in the group leader's voice. Harrison's harmony on "I'll Follow the Sun" is exquisite, while Lennon and McCartney buddying up Buddy Holly's "Words of Love" slays. Stereo warms warmer fare ("Mr. Moonlight"), but it's dryer lint where it demands edge ("Kansas City"). The album's altarpiece, "Eight Days a Week," sells stereo, but that's anathema to Starr's rockabillying "Honey Don't."

Help! (August 1965) divides into halves same as A Hard Day's Night, the mono/stereo delineation almost as black and white. In stereo, the title track's Technicolor exclamation parallels the Beatles' sophomore screen smash, vocals dashing through the labyrinths of stereo, though the mono mix stabilizes the musical matte to where acoustic guitar sits right at your campfire. In mono, McCartney's vocals on "The Night Before" don't hang with that delicious fake stereo echo. Lennon's husky "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is all vocal in mono, and hypnotically so. Same for Harrison's Caribbean-spiced pop hot plate "I Need You." "Another Girl" again stabilizes voices in mono, but "You're Going to Lose That Girl" has island accents begging for stereo. In all cases, it's obvious the difference between the two paths. In mono, you choose what to accentuate. In stereo, everything gets its 15 seconds of fame.

Rubber Soul, December 1965, like Help!, actually offers three mixes to choose from; the mono disc shares its run time with the original stereo mix, while the new stereo CD remasters the 1987 remix given to the Beatles digital rollout by George Martin. As immediate as the mono mix is, "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" beginning its tangy acoustic in one channel and Harrison's sitar coming in on the other doesn't fall in the forest unheard. That separation undercuts Lennon's "In My Life," but Harrison favors division on "Think for Yourself." Ultimately, the same platter spins at varying speeds: one a post-folk songwriting masterpiece (mono); the other its proto-psychedelic mirror image (stereo).

Revolver, August 1966, remains Harrison's bull's-eye, opening on his wicked "Taxman," going full-on Lucy in the sky with diamonds on his sitar/tabla hash "Love You To," and closing on his Middle Eastern-scarring of Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows." Mono mixes far more feral (the all-to-the-fore push of "And Your Bird Can Sing"), but consistent with the era's consciousness expansion, stereo's 3-CD effect expands Revolver's caliber. Mono's corrosive, but Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" dreams in color, and "Yellow Submarine" sails cartoon hues.

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1967, gains mass in mono, the guitar strangle at the end of "With a Little Help From My Friends" buried by stereo. In fact, contrary to common sense, Peppers' sonic carnival mashed into what sounds like a single television speaker ultimately makes up for the album's McCartneyland in Orlando calliope. In mono, instrumental passages jump out where previously they melted into the rainbow along with Lennon's overall presence past "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life." Revolutionary at release, Sgt. Peppers in mono is no less a revelation, somehow helping contain the album's kaleidoscopic burst by adding a clustering edge that neutralizes its otherwise shrill clown mask.

Magical Mystery Tour, December 1967, or Sgt. Peppers Part 2: McCartneyland TV, beyond Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," clumps up with Yellow Submarine, January 1969, as a hits collection falling between the band's final two masterpieces. Mono/stereo Magical Mystery Tour – who cares? Yellow Submarine, meanwhile, stereo only, splits sides with its film score, though the growling and barking "Walrus" sequel of sorts, "Hey Bulldog," latches onto your leg. Harrison rebounds from Sgt. Peppers with peak Indian mysticism, "Only a Northern Song" and mulchy jam "It's All Too Much."

The Beatles (The White Album), November 1968, screams for its own anthology to delineate the differences between the mono and stereo mixes of the double-album mind-blower. Suffice it to say, 30 tracks – 30 life-sustaining worlds revolving around a single sun – concentrate massive universal forces into the gravitational inescapability of a white whole. Monophonically, it maintains an almost Appalachian murder ballad tension ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Piggies," "Helter Skelter"), while its stereo masterwork reveals the scrawls on the walls ("Revolution 1," "Revolution 9") as written in blood. Pick your poison.

Abbey Road, September 1969, reassembles its very DNA as remastered. Whereas before the Beatles' swan songs tubed a river of melody and harmony, now Abbey Road's musical blueprint becomes visible to the ear. Not only is the unvarnished timbre of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" finally that of a serial killer, the ditty's tuba – previously mere bass muddle – now blorts discernible notes. That bass needs to turn down on "Here Comes the Sun," even as McCartney's accents on "Oh! Darling" top out the other end of the spectrum. "Octopus's Garden" slices mollusk-beak guitar as clear as the band's harmonies in the crystalline chorus. Side two follows suite.

Let It Be, released May 1970, yet fought through prior to Abbey Road and then "completely remixed, edited and compiled" by Phil Spector "in just over a week," whether in its existing stereo, or later Naked, still points the Beatles in one direction ultimately, thanks of course to its notorious wall-of-sound producer: Back to Mono.

(Both) ****


The Beatles Mixtape

Please Please Me: mono

With the Beatles: mono

A Hard Day's Night: stereo

Beatles for Sale: either

Help!: stereo

Rubber Soul: both

Revolver: stereo

Sgt. Peppers: mono

Magical Mystery Tour: neither

The White Album: each

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