Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020
Because I’m aware the upcoming multiple sections of Volume 3 will be of little interest to anyone, I am temporarily abandoning my pattern of posting only on the first Saturday of the month. The next two sections of Volume 3 will be posted over the next two weeks just to get the damn thing over with.
“‘Revolution’ was a heavy record [in mono]…stereo turned it into a piece of ice cream.” — J. Lennon.
Hmmm…no mono Beatles on Spotify? Mono Beach Boys, sure. Mono (early) Stones, even. But no mono Beatles.
As I was making my playlists, it came to my attention that the Beatles catalog on Spotify was available only in stereo. This is not a big deal to most people. Two separate channels of sound emerging from two speakers (or headphones or earbuds or “airpods”) to create a kind of audio widescreen is the primary way music has been listened to for over fifty years now. I was certainly reared on stereo recordings of the Beatles (via their American albums, see below.) But that wasn’t always the case, and when you’re talking about recording artists of the caliber of the Beatles, there should at least be a conversation about what kind of mixing better suits their music.
Mixing a song is a vital part of the recording process. Vocals and instruments are initially recorded across multiple tracks of audio tape, and a good mix ensures the sounds are properly balanced against each other. You can write a great song, perform it flawlessly in the studio…but a bad mix can ruin it. The Beatles and their producer George Martin lavished hours of attention on the monaural (single audio channel) mixes of their songs, because that’s how 90% of their initial audience would hear the music until about 1968 or so. Through one-speaker portable record players, one-speaker transistor radios, one-speaker car radios, one-speaker jukeboxes. “Stereo” in the 1960s was for classical music freaks, jazzbos, and “hi-fi” fanatics with record players housed in polished wooden cabinets the size of Buicks, and shelves groaning with “LPs.” The Beatles did release their stuff in stereo, but stereo mixing was usually a hurried afterthought. The Beatles did not bother to attend their stereo mixing sessions. Even George Martin would sometimes skip out, leaving it in the hands of assistants.
As stereo pushed out mono by the end of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ catalog stayed in print, selling quite well, and demand kept the record plants pressing out vinyl. As a kid, I was still buying factory-fresh, brand new copies of Beatles albums in record stores as late as 1988. All stereo by then, and the vinyl LP’s center label was no longer the classic Capitol Records black ringed by a rainbow, but an ugly, bruised purple (indicating a re-issue pressed between 1977 and 1983).
Work had been done on more careful stereo re-mixing in dribs and drabs beginning in the late 60s and through the 70s, and by the time I heard the stuff in the 80s, it sounded fine. Some horrible over-separation had been fixed, Dave Dexter’s dated, splashy reverb (again, see below) had been cleaned up, and stereo is how my ears were raised on Beatles music. (My generation of re-issues had “New Improved Full Dimensional Stereo” written proudly across the top of the jacket). When the Beatles’ catalog was reissued on compact disc in 1987, the stereo versions of the UK albums were made official canon, and anything still out there in mono — along with the old American albums — vanished. (The Beatles themselves still didn’t like the fresh stereo mixes the CDs were given. They’ve been re-mastered and improved since, but if you were to ask the Fab Four themselves — mono forever, baby.)
In the early 2000s, demand for the release of the original mono mixes by Beatles purists grew, and their wish was granted. In 2009, The Beatles in Mono CD box set was released. Every song re-mastered in their original, glorious mono. Even as a 13-disc collection that sold for as much as my first car, it made #40 on the album charts. I didn’t rush out and buy it, but I knew someone who did, and he was nice enough to loan it to me for a good long time. And…I still prefer stereo. I guess I’m a philistine. But for playlist-assembly purposes, it would have been nice for Spotify to offer the option. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve heard that the mono stuff was on Spotify briefly, but removed. (And if you think my stuff is over-detailed, at least one entire book has been written about the differences between the Beatles’ mono and stereo mixes.)
Another thing now available on CD but not on Spotify is the early Beatles albums as issued in the U.S. by Capitol Records.
The Beatles’ American albums on Capitol were often quite different from the “official” British releases on Parlophone from 1964 through ‘66, and were pretty much the only way American consumers could experience the band’s pre-1967 material for over twenty years. They are not included on Spotify. Like the mono thing, this doesn’t bother most listeners. The British albums were how the band intended their stuff to be presented anyway, and the group was generally horrified by Capitol’s seemingly careless re-sequencing and repackaging.
How did Capitol Records’ Beatles discography come about, and how and why did they make the decisions they did? It’s complicated, and sometimes their choices are logical, and the results work. Sometimes they seem clueless and totally wrong-headed. Continue reading