by Bob Gendron
Every Beatles album through The White Album was mixed with the purpose of being heard in mono. Capitol’s remasters mark the initial occasion of Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles for Sale being available on disc in a stereo mix; the converse is true for Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles.
Specifically, the group’s early records tend to sound unnatural in stereo, as the hard panning seems forced and artificial—which, in actuality, it is. In mono, the Beatles’ music thrives from ultra-dynamic front-to-back layering that, intentionally or not, often gives the impression of a stereo mix. The changes wrought by the remasters are dramatic.
Please Please Me is distinguished by a previously vacant fullness, richness, and enormity. There’s discernible air and echo around the swooping vocals on “Misery,” and resolute imaging on “I Saw Her Standing There”—quite a thrill. And the bottom end—quite possibly the single-biggest enhancement on all of the remasters—registers with a forceful thump rather than a dull, empty thud. No longer an undefined aural morass, “Twist and Shout” explodes with a clean yet musical clarity, the singing more distinctive and immediate, the instruments possessing true timbres and resonant clatter. And who ever notices the expressive “Yeah!” at the end of the take?
Similarly, the mono With the Beatles unfolds with ear-bending vibrancy and liveliness. The rolling vocal harmonizing on “All My Loving” astounds. Across-the-board upgrades in airiness, dimensionality, depth, size, and Paul McCartney’s vastly underrated bass lines are detectable on every song. And whether it’s the now-noticeable presence of the piano or the wonderfully rattling chords on “Money,” or discernible rhythmic rumble on “Hold Me Tight,” the record has received a startling facelift that even Hollywood’s most expensive plastic surgeon wouldn’t be able to configure. With the band long faulted for being too sweet, the mono remasters open up space for the argument that the Beatles possessed an edge—if not a slight mean streak (witness the 3-D imaging of “No Reply” off Beatles for Sale).
Vocal precision, smoothness, and extension become even more pronounced on Help! and Rubber Soul. Ditto for the realistic bottom end, long absent on most Beatles recordings. McCartney’s bass and Ringo Starr’s percussion ride side-by-side, and smart albeit illuminating shades and accents—the tambourine on “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the twangy pitch of the guitar strings on “Ticket to Ride,” the breathlessness of Lennon’s singing on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the natural fade-out on “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Lennon’s sucking of air through his teeth on “Girl,” the barbershop-quartet swoons during “Michelle”—emerge with breathtaking clarity. Enmeshed with the song as a whole, Starr’s Hammond organ playing on “I’m Looking Through You” now comes across as an integral part of the arrangement.
Revolver marks the point at which the mono-versus-stereo debates begin to get interesting. Admittedly, the backward tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows” sound cooler in stereo. In addition, stereo is how most listeners are accustomed to hearing music; for some, mono seems bare. Yet all that’s sacrificed with the latter versus stereo is a larger soundstage, a perceived sense of “hugeness,” and the security of familiarity; mono mixes exhibit an organic presence, naturalness, purity, and outright musicality that render moot any tradeoff. The horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” have never emitted such boldness or pizzazz; the transparency of the chords during “Here, There and Everywhere” and movement of the bounding piano in “Good Day Sunshine” are utterly staggering. Pure genius.
And yet, the mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s trumps the stereo in several regards. In stereo, “She’s Leaving” runs slower and lower in pitch; the laughter in “Within You Without You” is quieter at the end; McCartney’s scatting is hardly audible on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”; the psychedelic phrasing on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” isn’t as clear. Such discrepancies owe to the time lapses that occurred between the mono and stereo mixes as well as the full (or partial) participation of the band and George Martin, both of which favored mono.
Accordingly, the stereo version of The White Album boasts life-size images and discerningly more pronounced frequency extension than its mono counterpart. The immersive experience gives birth to underexposed intricacies (the single snare drum strike that parallels the “shot” in “Rocky Raccoon”), defined footprints (McCartney’s bass purrs and growls), and completely new sounds (“Revolution 1” has what seems to be a horn—who knew?). Differences still abound. The mono version of “Helter Skelter” is shorter, sped up, and without Starr’s renowned “blisters on my fingers” comment. The aircraft effects during “Back in the U.S.S.R.” vary, and there are fewer grunts in “Piggies.” Due such distinctions—and no clear-cut winner between the two versions, although stereo does seem to have the edge—both versions are considered “authentic.”
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