Beatles in Mono: Sgt. Pepper Lives, At Last
There’s nothing simple about what the Beatles are releasing today. You may feel like there’s a lot of studying to be done, in fact, in order to understand it all.
Basically, there are two box sets: one in mono, one in stereo. This is because back in 1987, when the only set of Beatles CDs were released prior to today, the mixes were all screwed up. The stereo wasn’t true stereo, the mono wasn’t true mono. And, on top of that, the mastering ‘ think of it as shellacking ‘ wasn’t nearly as good is it is now.
The Beatles Mono Box Set is already sold out, but Capitol/Apple is going to make some more. In the meantime, what you can buy today is the Stereo Box Set. All the Beatles albums are now remastered in perfect stereo, not something created by “folding in” or “folding out” mono mixes.
Confused? I haven’t heard the stereo box yet, but I have heard the mono one. In particular, the mono box focuses on “Sgt. Pepper.” That’s because for reasons no one can explain, the guys only stuck around for the mono mix back in 1967, and never worked on the stereo one. Stereo was new then, and there were complications. The stereo version of “Sgt. Pepper” on CD which we’re all used to sounds fine, and a remastered version will sound even better. But the mono is another story.
The mono CD of “Sgt. Pepper,” from a listen last night, seems like the Holy Grail of all today’s Beatles releases. From beginning to end, it is a different experience. In the stereo CD (I’m using a U.K. reissue from a few years ago that has a slipcover and a fold out inside with album notes, of all things) it’s as if you’re looking at something through binoculars, but you have to look one eye at a time. The sound is separated, without much logic, so some of it is coming out of one speaker, and some from the other.
In mono, “Sgt. Pepper” is seen through the binoculars, but the experience is akin to making the two eyes come together. There is no separation. It’s all one picture. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” rocks. “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life” are symphonic masterpieces. You can hear the carnival sounds as intended on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” For some reason, the stereo mix of “Fixing a Hole” has some weird, loud clapping. It’s muted in mono, where it should be. And in the stereo version of the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise at the end of the album, Paul cannot be heard at all. It turns out he’s singing loudly on the mono master. Who knew? I’ll bet even McCartney forgot.
So do order the Mono Box Set. Neither “Abbey Road” nor “Let it Be” are in it, because they were recorded only in stereo. But the box is a gem. And the stereo box? It’s going to be a must have, in order to replace all the 1987 CDs. In my collection they will be boxed up and put away. Not just a new generation will discover the Beatles, but the original fans are going to love hearing the best pop music ever as it should have been.
Kudos by the way to Jeff Jones, who took over the whole Beatles catalog of recorded music after the legendary Neil Aspinall retired. Neil was a purist, and was slow to make changes or fiddle with conventional Beatles wisdom. That was fine for its time. Jones, who came from Sony’s Legacy label, has done the impossible. The Beatles should be happy, especially Ringo. You can finally hear what a great drummer he is, and how he made these tracks singular, monumental achievements.
And oh yeah, Beatles Rock Star, the video game, is out today. But that’s another story.