The Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations

Intro: What's a Variation, and Why Do We Care?

One part of being a music fan is playing favorite recordings over and over. Like many people, I've found that I have memorized many small nuances of the performance on record. Sometimes, when listening to an old song on a new disk, I'll detect a difference in what is otherwise a very familiar recording. There may be a voice or instrument in one version that is not in the other, for example. This is a variation. Just when people started noticing Beatles variations is lost in the mists of time, but by the end of the Beatles' recording career as a group in 1970, lists of variations had become a perennial topic among some fans.
One's credentials as a Beatles fan need not rest on whether one can recognize most of the variations. Plenty of genuine fans feel this is one of the most obsessive and boring topics imaginable, and would much rather discuss the meaning of the lyrics, the invention of the melody, or the relation of the song to the Beatles' lives and times. But who cares about all that, eh? No no, that's not what I mean...
The variations open the door a little bit into how the recordings were made and prepared for release. The differences tell us something about how the sound was fixed on tape and what the engineers did to make records out of them. At least, they tell us something if we care to ask how the variations happened.
Hasn't this "been done"? Well you may ask. Beatles Variations Lists have certainly appeared before. One reason to compile a list is simply to collate all the previous work on this topic. When it was suggested I put together something about variations, though, I was dissatisfied at simply rehashing old lists. Aside from the copyright violations (not that it's stopped writers of some of the books I've seen while researching this) it did seem a little boring as well. Nearly all of them are just lists.
There are two reasons I've done this.
Firstly- Collating existing lists does not result in a good list. I found by listening that many of the variations were not well described. Although I decided to be nice and not make this a catalog of the failings of other sources, a few instances are so wildly wrong that I did mention them. There were times when I wondered whether the writers had even heard the record they were describing. The amount of mindless copying from one print source to another has to be seen to be believed. I found that I had to go listen for myself, and quiz people closely to be sure they heard what they said they did on rare disks I couldn't get hold of.
Secondly- I wanted to understand why they vary. The only list that relates variations to what we know about the recording sessions is a series of articles by Steve Shorten in "The 910", which was unfortunately limited by space to highlights. As Steve noted in his first article, the publication of Mark Lewisohn's book "The Beatles Recording Sessions" in 1988 provided an important framework on which to base an improved listing of variations. For the first time, we had specific information about dates of recording (some of which had been known) and of mixing (none of which had been known, I think). This made it possible to look for variations based on how many times a song was mixed at EMI Abbey Road, instead of the hopeless method of listening to every record released in the world.
Not only is "The Beatles Recording Sessions" a goldmine of information, but Lewisohn lacked the space or inclination to apply his data to the problem of variations. He even calls some mixes unused based on nonappearance in England. Tom Bowers and I did some work on finding those in 1991, reported in the Usenet group rec.music.beatles. It became clear that most of the mixes had been used somewhere, and they accounted for some of the variations that had been spotted previously.
Mark's excellent work also provides enough information to figure out just how the variants arose. Some of them, especially the earlier ones recorded in 2-track, are editing differences, while others are differences in how the multi-track master tapes were mixed down for record.
Let me emphasize that, with just a very few exceptions, the mono version of a Beatles song is not the stereo version combined into one channel. On the contrary, George Martin mixed for mono first in almost all cases and then did a stereo mix separately. Right here we have a reason for variations, since the same edits and mixing had to be done twice. In some cases there are two or more mono or stereo mixes, providing yet more chances for variations.
The mixes were supposed to sound the same, usually. However, his practice of making separate mono and stereo mixes shows that George Martin did care about how the record would sound in both finished forms, and he may have deliberately mixed some songs differently. Other times, small things are fixed in one mix and overlooked in another, or difficult editing may be done a little better in one of the attempts. George Martin and staff weren't perfect. That they had problems mixing songs the way they wanted makes the recording process seem a little less mechanical to me.
Obviously the mono and stereo mixes of any song are different. One is mono and one is stereo! Besides that, careful comparison of the mono mix to the stereo mix played as mono would doubtless turn up some differences in emphasis. But what we're really after here in a variations list is larger game: different edits, sound mixed out in one version, different stereo images, and so on-- things that are really noticeable. Well, maybe I stretch the limits on "really noticeable" at times. Forget the ones that seem trivial to you.
Aside from the dubious contribution of Capitol Records USA, I'm not, mostly, listing atrocities performed outside EMI Abbey Road. They're not genuine, just stupid mistakes mastering records-- speed problems, premature fadeouts, defects in tapes, even editing-- and the ever-popular mock stereo. Nobody around the Beatles authorized them. Even Capitol is included just out of parochial interest to me and to the large contingent of fans in the USA-- although I could argue Capitol's work is of more than local interest since some other affiliates such as Odeon (Germany) got masters from Capitol. Capitol certainly doesn't begin and end the tampering stories-- there's that "Penny Lane" from Brazil with a line edited out for no known reason, a "Devil in her Heart" from Mexico with the very end faded off... but I digress. If you live outside the USA, I invite you to catalog your own country's label's lack of judgement.

Compiled by Joseph Brennan

The author at Abbey Road, 1985.

Find the whole thing here.