BACK TO MONO! The Beatles

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The Fab Four’s belated tribute to Phil Spector (memo to newbies: kidding!) exceeds expectations on multiple levels. As a certain Beatlesfan mused, what’s so great about stereo anyway?

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

Oh, no — not another vinyl reissue of the Beatles in mono! Haven’t these albums been issued umpteen times on vinyl since the 1960s? And on CD at least twice, including the much-heralded 2009 CDs? Do we really need to have these records reissued again?

Well, yes, as it turns out. Last year’s vinyl reissues of these albums in stereo simply used the digital masters that were created for the 2009 CDs. But for these mono albums, the producers went back to the original analogue tapes, and were cut sans the use of any digital technology. When records were cut back in the ’60s, the poor quality of the standard record players most people used meant that sounds were sometimes compromised in making the transition from tape to vinyl; on the Beatles’ records, for example, the bass would be turned down, to keep the stylus from skipping. But now, due to the superior equipment available to play the albums on, you’re able to hear all kinds of things on these records that you probably missed before. Which means the hyperbole about these albums is right; it really is a different listening experience.

Like last year’s stereo set, you get ten albums: Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles (aka “The White Album”), plus a three album set with the single A- and B-sides that don’t appear on the albums, EP tracks, tracks from the Yellow Submarine film, and the original version of “Across the Universe,” which first appeared on a charity compilation. Neither Abbey Road nor Let It Be were released in mono, so they aren’t included.

I decided to listen to the albums chronologically. And the first thing I noticed when the needle went down on Please Please Me? The drums, snap snap snapping away, bursting out of the speakers with a newfound vibrancy; it certainly gave me a new appreciation for how good a drummer Ringo Starr actually is. Songs heavy on acoustic guitar sound positively gorgeous. You’d swear Paul McCartney was in the room with you when you listen to “Yesterday,” and songs like “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Julia,” and that rare take of “Across the Universe” are equally fab. And those luscious three-part harmonies on such songs as “This Boy,” “Nowhere Man,” and “Here, There and Everywhere” — ooh, they’ll make you swoon.

Mono fattens up the sound of a record — it’s music you can sink your teeth into. So of course rave ups like “Twist and Shout,” “Long Tall sally,” and “Helter Skelter” are going to sound great. What really surprised me was how hearing a song in wonderful, all encompassing mono makes even the Beatles’ lesser songs sound great — like “Hold Me Tight,” a McCartney rocker from With The Beatles notorious for its wobbly vocal (you can bet you’ll never hear it in any of McCartney’s live shows, no matter how Beatles-heavy the set lists are). Or suddenly realizing how engaging a song like “Thank You Girl” (as the B-side to “She Loves You,” it was always going to be overlooked) really is, and how “Slow Down” really roars as if the band’s once again hyped on speed as they in their pre-fame residencies in Hamburg, Germany.

And then you find yourself hearing all kinds of little things buried in previous mixes that you never knew were there. Starr plays maracas on the Beatles’ cover of “Devil in Her Heart” — who knew? And you can finally clearly hear those bongos Starr plays on “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.” There are plenty of other surprises on the mono albums too, given that not just different mixes, but different versions of songs appeared on mono and stereo editions of the same album. The backwards guitar noises in “Tomorrow Never Knows” appear in different places, as do the bird tweets in “Blackbird.” If you’ve studied these records religiously, hearing a familiar sound in an unexpected place can give you a real jolt.

And it’s the later era Beatles albums that sound especially good in mono, at least to my ears. “Eleanor Rigby” (Revolver) is almost frightening in its starkness (the restrained strings on “Yesterday” go positively Psycho on this track). The whole of Sgt. Pepper is surprisingly powerful. And The Beatles might just be the best Beatles album ever, capturing the band when they were at their most versatile: McCartney sounding sweet yet sad on his acoustic numbers (“I Will,” “Mother Nature’s Son”), but able to rock it up as well (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”); John Lennon sardonic and sarcastic (“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun”), agonized (“Yer Blues”), but still laid-back cool (“Revolution 1”); George Harrison finally unveiling a masterpiece (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), and being alternately spiritual (“Long, Long, Long”) and silly (“Savoy Truffle”), and good ol’ earnest Starr, whose pleas verge on the edge of desperation (“Don’t Pass Me By”) but who’s still able to send you off to bed with a kiss (“Good Night”). Rock and roll, blues, heavy metal, folk, even musique concrete (on “Revolution 9”) — it’s all here. If you’re going to buy only one of these mono albums, pick this one.

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Or why don’t you just splurge on the box set, which comes with a nifty 108-page hardback book. Go on. You know you want to. Aren’t those vintage ’60s albums you have starting to wear out?

The quality of this box set is such that you may find yourself thinking — what’s so great about stereo, anyway?

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