Note: I made revisions to this review on Sept. 12th, having spent more time with the mono box.
Obviously the Beatles are not particularly obscure, but these patron saints of psychedelia deserve at least a little monkey luv at the Psychedelic Garage with their remasters. We'll focus our psychedelic lens starting with "Rubber Soul" and continue through to "Abbey Road," bypassing "Yellow Submarine" because it's not worth it, and "Let It Be" simply because I don't like that album. I've heard most of the stereo remasters at this point, and the sound is quite sterling (I'm patiently waiting for my mono box to show up in the mail, but I have heard them all in Ebbett's form). All the bass missing from the 87' discs have returned, sometimes with a vengeance. I had to flat line the bass listening to "Abbey Road" in my Volkswagen Beetle, whose sound system usually annoys me due to lack of bass. There is some grunge back in the voices, which helps McCartney sound a little more human in those cheeseball moments of his ("Your Mother Should Know," "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da," and the list disturbingly goes on), makes Lennon sound more awesome, and Harrison spacier. Of course in the stereo versions allow for greater clarity in the instrumentation and allows the listener to have greater appreciation for the arrangements. Still, the Beatles were mostly involved with the mono mixes up until around the "White Album," and I'm greatly looking forward to the denser, but in my opinion generally more interesting mono mixes.
The mono set finally came in the mail, and sounds quite phenomenal. They didn't compress and limit and throw all the sound into the red, so it has a very smooth, quarter inch tape sound that the stereo remasters lack (and makes it sound firmly of 60's vintage). The liner notes for the mono are pretty impressive as well, even more so than the stereo version, whch I still enjoyed. Rubber Soul and Help! also include the 1965 stereo mixes. They're not too far off from Martin's 87' mixes, but they do benefit from the more appropriate remastering.
For those of you still stewing over which mix to go for, here are a few of my album-by-album notes:
The rockers like "Drive My Car" and "Run For Your Life" end up with a much sharper edge in the mono mix. Still, this album tends to be known for its folk rock cuts (especially in the U.S. version, which isn't part of either set). The stereo gives them a little more of an open, 'playing folk in the field' sort of sound, which is likely appealing for many of you. I still have to give my vote to the mono, which has a more claustrophobic, darker sound. I like my folk-rock a little hairier. Anyway, those of you sticking with the mono disc still get the 65' stereo mix, which is pretty oddball, but not as different from the 87' mix as some would have you believe. both of them feature hard stereo separation, which is a major pet peeve of mine.
I'm pretty split over which mix of this I prefer. In the column for stereo is "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." The mono mix of "She Said She Said" annoyingly brings down the instruments when the vocals come in. Maybe I'm too OCD, but this almost ruins the mono album for me. "Tomorrow Never Knows" works pretty well either way, but I can't deny that the swirling sound effects in stereo is a major plus. Mono manages to add focus and aggression to rockers like "Taxman" and even "Doctor Robert" that the stereo lacks. "Eleanor Rigby" works a lot better when Paul and the strings are not in separate channels as they are in stereo, and in general George's Indian excursions, like "Love to You" here, work much better in mono. Sitar and tabla work much better when not spread out.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Y'know, I always thought that this album was waaay overrated until I heard the mono mix. Now it stays in contention for my favorite Beatles album. I will give that "A Day in the Life" works better in kaleidoscopic stereo, but the rest of it deserves to be heard in mono. The title tracks rock much harder in mono, as do "Getting Better" and "Lovely Rita." "She's Leaving Home" runs a touch faster and mono, giving it a grace completely lacking in stereo, the version on which I always found the track a drag. Paul knew what he was doing here- it just doesn't sound like that in stereo. Well, almost. I have trouble dealing with "When I'm Sixty-Four" in either mix. Lennon fares well in mono as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" becomes, like, eight times more psychedelic and "Mr. Kite" is much groovier as well. "Within You Without You" is far more focused in mono, and I no longer consider it a dull excursion as I did with the stereo version. All in all, I'd call the mono a psychedelic masterpiece while the stereo strikes me as a mere shadow.
Magical Mystery Tour
I guess that the EMI engineers had figured out the whole psychedelic mixing thing by this time as the stereo version is generally listenable. The only major flaws are that "I Am the Walrus" infamously switches to mono since the "King Lear" broadcast at the end would otherwise be impossible, and "Baby You're a Rich Man" sounds pretty thin to my ears. Still, I feel like the mono has a groovier vibe - especially for the actual soundtrack songs and "Penny Lane," which comes across too cutesy for me in stereo. Although "Blue Jay Way" loses some elements in the mono, the mysterious vibe comes across just as well, if not better than the stereo track. There is something to be said for the wide open instrumentation of "Strawberry Fields Forever," but in the end I still prefer mono. Basically, this album is a toss-up in the sound debate. Oh yeah, I know the picture cover is incorrect; I just like the EP version better.
By this time the Beatles were taking more of an interest in the stereo mixes, and some of those were even created before the mono mix. In fact "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9" (the latter of which I actually LOVE) never saw mono mixes and the ones on the mono album are simply fold-downs of the stereo (meaning both tracks are simply shoved together). The mono mix does sound more like a cohesive band than the stereo mix, which led most listeners to assume that the songs were basically solo pieces. There are many differences in the mix, for examples the extra bit at the end of "Helter Skelter" is missing in mono (including the famous shout of "I've got blisters on me fingers!"), and the mono "Good Night" goes straight into the orchestration, while the stereo fades it in. In general, I feel that Lennon's and Harrison's tracks, especially "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "I'm So Tired," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and "Cry Baby Cry," tend to have superior mono mixes, while McCartney's and the sole Ringo track are better in stereo. Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By" is sped up and mono and it sounds like he's been snorting helium. In general, the stereo is perfect for cruising in your car or listening on the hi-fi, while the mono is great for a different perspective and headphone listening. For this one, you may very well need both.
This album never had a proper mono mix (there are a few rare fold-down mono mixes), so at least there's no problem deciding which one to go for. I will say that I never really 'got' this album with my 87' CD, but with the improved sound I totally dig it. The fantastic arranging of the side two suite comes to light, and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" becomes dynamic proto-metal as opposed to the monolithic slab of dung I always took it for. I've also found myself listening to "Mean Mr. Mustard" repeatedly, which could cause insanity since it's only one minute long.
I'm totally biased here. Since these are the singles, it seems to me that the mono tracks are the definitive ones simply as AM radio stations in the 60's could only play mono. Of course, with the mono edition you miss out on the great "Ballad of John & Yoko/Old Brown Shoe Single," as well as the superior single version of "Let It Be," which only saw stereo mixes, but you do get the Beatles' tracks from "Yellow Submarine" in never released mono mixes. Harrison's tracks there really flower in mono, and "It's All Too Much" strangely comes across a little more like the Steve Hillage cover from 1976. That's pretty groovy. Meanwhile, "Don't Let Me Down" has a lot more power with the stereo version. With either edition, you get my sentimental favorite Beatles song in mono, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)."