The Beatles Mono Reviews 1 – Mono Masters

An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback

The Beatles In Mono box set

The Beatles In Mono box set

I’ll be writing more Hyperpost later – at least my reply to pillock, possibly some more posts, but a suggestion I made on Twitter and which seemed to be received quite well was that I review the Beatles mono box set at a rate of one album per week.

When the Beatles’ back catalogue was finally issued on CD in 1987, the decision was made (quite rightly) to stick to the original British tracklistings of the albums, except for Magical Mystery Tour, which in the US had been expanded from an EP to an album with the inclusion of some non-album singles. However, the Beatles also released a lot of songs during their career that were never on a proper album – these were collected into the two-disc Past Masters set.

For the mono box set, Past Masters has been slightly rejigged. Three tracks that are on the stereo version – The Ballad Of John & Yoko, Old Brown Shoe and the single mix of Let It Be – were never mixed in mono, so these have been left out. In their place are the four songs from Yellow Submarine that never appeared on any other album, in previously unreleased vintage mono mixes.

While at first a collection of non-album tracks might sound inessential, in fact Past Masters and Mono Masters contain many of the Beatles’ best-known and most-loved songs – along with the B-sides and German language versions and covers of old Larry Williams songs are hits like She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Paperback Writer and Hey Jude.

At first I thought the first disc of the mono masters collection would be of less interest than the second – and I do find myself listening to the second far more – but in fact it’s prompted some rethinking on my part. The first disc consists of tracks from 1962 through early 65, including most of the early hits – Love Me Do, She Loves You, From Me To You, I Want To Hold Your Hand and I Feel Fine are all on here.

The sound quality is a huge improvement over the previous issues – how much of the difference in listening experience is due to mono/stereo or due to remastering is hard to guess, but one can make out elements like Paul’s basslines much more clearly, and likewise John’s rhythm guitar is much more audible (John’s rhythm guitar was always a casualty of bad mastering, being usually quite close to the high hat in both rhythm and frequency range). A ton of little elements I’d never noticed come out even on these, comparatively primitive, recordings (listen for example for the tiny ‘whooping’ effect at the end of I Feel Fine).

The mono mixes also sound a lot more of their time than the stereo mixes. In the early 60s, mono mixes were the ones used for radio play, and were mixed with that in mind, rather than for listening on good equipment. As a result, they had a huge amount of compression whacked on them (though not nearly as much as the frankly ugly amounts used as a matter of course today) to cut through the static, and extra reverb to make them sound ‘bigger’. Listening to these records in these mixes, for the first time in decades the Beatles are occupying the same sonic world as their contemporaries – far more than the weedy-sounding stereo mixes, these sound like they’re from the same time as the Beach Boys or Motown records with which they were competing in the charts.

But the really interesting thing to me is the very early singles – She Loves You, From Me To You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, plus the B-sides like Thank You Girl and how they sound in mono compared to the stereo versions. (These may have been mono on Past Masters originally too – I’m unsure – but my listening to these tracks was primarily on stereo vinyl rather than the original CD issue).

Before, I’d always compared the harmonies on these – primarily Lennon-composed – songs to the Everly Brothers, who *were* clearly an influence, especially on McCartney’s occasional bluegrass-tinged keening. But listening to the mono mixes, there’s far, far less separation between the two lead singers – McCartney matches up to Lennon so closely that it sounds more like double-tracking than conventional harmony vocals. (Remember that before the Beatles ever went into the studio, those two had spent more than five years singing together).

And this got me thinking – the close-harmony style on these early singles was dropped at almost exactly the same time that Lennon discovered double tracking, late 1964. Lennon always hated his own voice, and after this point never (except for the odd live track) allowed any of his vocals to go out without some form of trickery, be it double-tracking, ADT, the ludicrous amounts of reverb Spector slathered over his solo recordings, going through a Leslie speaker or all of the above.

Were these early doubled vocals an attempt by Lennon effectively to double-track himself live (and their live harmony workouts, whether ballads like To Know Him Is To Love Him or rockers like Some Other Guy, were all Lennon-led – McCartney and Harrison were far more likely to introduce solo numbers) to disguise his own voice?

If so, that would be interesting, because Lennon, more than any other songwriter of the time except maybe Brian Wilson, was primarily a chordal rather than melodic composer – his melodies are almost all implied by harmonies, with the lead vocal tending to sit around in a very small range. That kind of songwriting is most suited to close-harmony songs like This Boy or Yes It Is (both included on this CD).

It may well be that Lennon’s entire musical style stemmed, ultimately, from a desire to hide his own voice. Lennon’s self-loathing may have made him the songwriter he became…

The second disc, which covers late 65 through 1969, is by far the better disc musically. It also improves over its Past Masters counterpart as far as sequencing goes. On Past Masters, because of the 1967 non-album tracks all being included on Magical Mystery Tour, we jump straight from Rain‘s 1966 proto-psychedelia to Lady Madonna from 1968, and from there on we’re in their retro-rocker period – Get Back, Revolution and the band generally ‘getting back to their roots’, pretty much ignoring the psych element that stayed with them for the rest of their career.

In Mono Masters on the other hand, the presence of the four Yellow Submarine songs (three of them Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour castoffs from 1967) means that the two other psych songs on the CD – The Inner Light and Across The Universe – sound far less like weird stylistic dead ends than an integral part of the band’s late style.

Starting with the Going To A Go-Go riff of Day Tripper, we’re treated to four of the greatest tracks of all time – Day Tripper, We Can Work It Out, Paperback Writer and Rain. All of these are punchier and thicker sounding than their previous releases.

The songs all show the extra care that went into the mono mixes – Paperback Writer, for example, has a huge slab of reverb on the ‘writer’ at the end of each verse, getting bigger with every repetition, which is absent from the much less dynamic stereo mix, and the bass is much more prominent. Mono also covers up faults better than stereo – if you listen to the stereo mix, it’s much easier to pick out John and George’s muffled laughs at the absurdity of their Beach Boys parody vocals, due to the separation of elements.

But at the same time there are huge benefits that can be found not from the mono mix, but just from the clarity of the new remasters – even listening to this at work, on a computer with a £2 pair of headphones, I was able to pick out Ringo clicking in the vocalists in the a capella sections with his sticks, which I’d never heard before. (The ‘fuckin’ ‘ell’ John mutters in Hey Jude is now almost as audible as the lead vocal).

But of course that clarity would be nothing without the musical quality to make it worthwhile. And this has some of the best tracks ever recorded – Day Tripper combining Motown with casual nastiness, We Can Work It Out with its drop into harmonium-led waltz time, Paperback Writer, possibly the only truly funny comedy song ever to reach number one, Rain with its entirely unique soundscape, Hey Jude, Revolution, Don’t Let Me Down, Hey Bulldog, Across The Universe

Incidentally, speaking of Rain, one huge benefit that the new Rock Band game may have is to stop the underrating of Ringo. A friend had been making the usual jokes about Ringo (“Not even the best drummer in the Beatles”) on Twitter on Wednesday. On Thursday, after playing the game, she said “Actually, he was a pretty good drummer – some of those parts are very hard”. Maybe now people are actually trying to play along with him, they’ll realise what an incredible player he was.

The fact is, Ringo’s bad reputation comes from two different sources – in the very early 60s, it was customary for recording drummers to lock in their kick drum with the bass, at least in the UK – a style which the Beatles, with their love of records featuring the Funk Brothers or the MGs and their looser rhythm sections, broke almost from the start. Meanwhile in the 80s and the time of ‘sonic power’, and the love of drum machines over human players, it became customary to think of machine-like efficiency as the be-all and end-all of drumming (this is a time when Phil Collins was actually regarded as someone to look up to!)

Ringo’s loose, laid-back style would never appeal to those who look for rigidity and precision in their music, but it’s warm, and human, and imaginative. There are tons of little fills and touches all over the place which are the sign of a true musician, simultaneously ensuring there’s always something interesting to listen to, but always keeping it tasteful and never pushing himself to the fore. On these remasters, with their increased clarity, Ringo’s contribution is even more obvious than it already was. The man has endured decades of mockery for being, in a band with two flamboyant geniuses and a third singer-songwriter who was capable of moments of brilliance, the non-writing down-to-earth member. People with tin ears who haven’t a thousandth of the man’s talent have spent decades laughing at him for perceived faults which didn’t exist (much like the legendary Doctor Who ‘wobbly sets’ – except that sets did wobble about once a decade in Doctor Who, which is far less often than Ringo dropped a beat).

While the Beatles would never have been as huge as they were without John and Paul constantly trying to top their previous songwriting, they would never have had any hits at all without the steady, unassuming, rock-solid drumbeat that powered all their singles. Maybe these reissues will cause the general public to finally reappraise Ringo’s playing.

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15 Responses to The Beatles Mono Reviews 1 – Mono Masters

  1. Fascinating theory about Lennon’s composition style! I’ve read the bit in Geoff Emerick’s book and elsewhere about him trying to cloak his voice in studio tricks but never considered the possible implications of it on the songwriting level.

    I’ve always thought people who put Ringo down for not writing songs are just being *greedy* if nothing else — you’ve got Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison on one album, and you’re expecting *more*? And of course, I agree about the drumming itself. I know it’s cliche to point out his fills in A Day In The Life, but I can’t think of many other songs where a drum fill actually makes me feel *sad*.

    Looking forward to reading these, and listening to these someday soon. Ringo also had the benefit of great engineering; I’ve always loved the drum sound on Good Morning Good Morning.

  2. Rob Geurtsen says:

    Great review. One of the best I have read the last week or so. Even though I do not fully agree.
    Spread the news!

  3. Phil Harmer says:

    Great review, especially the bit about Ringo. Massively underrated as a musician for exactly the reasons given above. It made me laugh seeing Simon Cowell’s comments about the Beatles last week. The man certainly excels at manufactured pop (and he’s welcome to it – somehow I don’t think there will be reviews written about his contributions to the world of music 40 or 50 years from now), but his comments about Ringo say more about him than Ringo. He obviously doesn’t understand why The Beatles were a truly great band and the fact that the sum of the whole was much greatler than the individual parts.

    I’ve just bought the mono-mixes box set and am loving every moment of rediscovering the songs.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. As for Cowell, I didn’t see what he said, but I can guess. The man has absolutely nothing to do with music…
      I’ve listened to almost nothing but those CDs for the last eight days… I’ll be doing more of these reviews soon.

  4. ourboy says:

    Nice work. You spent a lot more time thinking about Mono Masters than I have so for (or probably ever will.) I’ll be reading you to see what you have to say about the other discs in the set.

    I have many feelings about the “Beatles in Mono” box set as a whole — too many to write here; nor would I hijack your post. :) All of those feelings are positive I love the Mono stuff. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say when you get to Sgt. Pepper.

    I’m glad I got ahold of the mono set. I only bought it for something like a small investment, but I think I might hang onto it. It just sounds great on nearly every song.

  5. Dhany says:

    Hey nice review, I agree with most of what you said, (Even tho´I think your lennon´s composition style theory may be a little far fetched) Anywayz, yeah Ringo is the Remasters´ winner, now we can actually hear him play. Just one thing: I wish you wrote a little about Harrison´s The Inner Light that features a slightly different intro in this CD, and that´s something pretty noticeable for most fans. Take care.

  6. James Peet says:

    Great review!

    I think your theory about John’s voice insecurities has some validity, and it’s certainly not one that I’d heard of or thought about before. I read in George Martin’s book about Sgt. Pepper that John was constantly unaware of how other people thought his voice was so good, something we all know and is plainly obvious, except to poor John.

    The remastering process has certainly benefited Ringo and Paul, for they have more prominence and potency now. I like the mono masters for many reasons, not least that they were given more attention and importance by the Beatles themselves. Has anybody ever noticed though that in “From Me To You”, just before the opening vocals, there is a “phasing” type effect? I’m not convinced this was intentional, given that experimentation with texture was a couple of years away at least.

    The Yellow Submarine tracks do give context and a more accurate depiction of their progression. I’d have the mono “Revolution” over the stereo anyday. I seem to remember reading that John thought the stereo mix to be “candy floss”!

    I’ve yet to start comparing the mono mixes with those on the cd singles box set, and certainly, I think “Strawberry Fields Forever” sounds better now and different, too.

    I read yesterday that Apple/EMI are preparing the remasters to be issued on vinyl at some point in the future. Fantastic!

    Thanks for the review, Andrew. First class!

  7. Sonia says:

    Listening to the remasters have reinforced my own opinion that Ringo is truly a great drummer- nice to have company! I think your theory about how John’s singing style preferences led to his songwriting style is spot on. Great post.

  8. Tom Wotus says:

    they could make an entire collection of their most absolutely horrific stereo mixes..ex: can’t buy me love; if i fell; tell me why; i should’ve known better(w the harmonica screwup); day tripper(way too much reverb on the vocals) ;p. writer (perhaps THE worst!! ) or else….in a perfect world…go back to multi-track session tapes, re-set the balances, etc. and fix the scewups once & for all!! This could have been done analog years ago instead of ramming digital-itis down our throats !!

  9. Sebastian Mora says:

    Only one correction, She loves you, From me to you, Thank you girl and I Want hold your hand were not primarily Lennon-composed songs. According to both, Lennon and McCartney, were written completely together, 50/50 collaborations. In fact, She loves you was Paul´s idea.

  10. Sebastian Mora says:

    Another couple of corrections, Lennon didnt “discover double tracking” in late 1964. There´s plenty of double tracked vocals on With The Beatles and A Hard Day´s night.
    Some other guy was sung in unision by Paul and John not only by the latter, check the Anthology video volume one (their performance in the Cavern) if you doubt it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I didn’t say John was the only vocalist on Some Other Guy – in fact my point was that he wasn’t. Late 1964 is of course a brainfart on my part. I meant early 1964 (the close harmony style persisting on the singles a little after it ended on the albums, mostly due to inertia). That’s corrected in the book.

      As for the authorship of those early tracks, yes they were co-compositions, but they have more of Lennon’s fingerprints than McCartney’s (as can be seen in the fact that Lennon sings lead, as well as in various compositional quirks). If you compare a solo McCartney composition from the same time (say All My Loving) and a Lennon one (say It Won’t Be Long), those singles bear far more resemblance to the latter than the former.

      • Sebastian Mora says:

        Well, that’s your opinion, and I respect it, but I think is not entirely true. In my opinion, at least She loves you and Thank you Girl, lyrically and musically, sound more like McCartney early material. You have to remember Paul wrote the chorus of She Loves you and had the concept for a third party song, and then he and John wrote the rest together.
        McCartney said the initial idea for the song began with Bobby Rydell’s hit “Forget Him” with its call and response pattern, and that “as often happens, you think of one song when you write another … I’d planned an ‘answering song’ where a couple of us would sing ‘she loves you’ and the other ones would answer ‘yeah yeah’. We decided that was a crummy idea but at least we then had the idea of a song called ‘She Loves You’. So we sat in the hotel bedroom for a few hours and wrote it—John and I, sitting on twin beds with guitars.” It was completed the following day at McCartney’s family home in Forthlin Road, Liverpool.[4]
        John told Playboy: ‘It was written together. I remember it was Paul’s idea: Instead of singing ‘I love you’ again, we’d have a third party
        I think It won’t be long is not a typical example of Lennon early “solo” material. Because John admitted that It won’t be long was a conscious attempt to get the single, and I think is clear in some ways, he was trying to re-write what Paul and him did in She loves you. Also McCartney claims he co-wrote that one, even if he admits is more Lennon’s than his. So maybe some of the compositional quirks you think are Lennon’s are really McCartney’s.
        PAUL: “I was doing literature at school, so I was interested in plays on words and onomatopoeia. John didn’t do literature but he was quite well read, so he was interested in that kind of thing. Like the double meaning of ‘please’ in a line like ‘Please, lend a little ear to my pleas’ that we used in ‘Please Please Me’. We’d spot the double meaning. I think everyone did, by the way, it was not just the genius of us! In ‘It won’t be long till I belong to you’ it was that same trip. We both liked to try and get a bit of double meaning in, so that was the high spot of writing that particular song. John mainly sang it so I expect that it was his original idea but we both sat down and wrote it together. When I say ‘original idea’ I mean someone might have the first verse, which then is pretty much the maquette for the whole thing, but the second verse is always difficult because you’ve got to repeat the first verse but go somewhere new. And your inspiration’s gone by that point, so you’ve got to dig deep to push a new inspiration out to make the second verse as good as the first verse. You don’t want to just be rambling. We would often repeat the first verse. The last verse was no problem – ‘Two hours is up! C’mon, just put “Repeat 1”.’ That’s how a lot of our songs end, ‘Repeat 1′. We’d number the verses, one, two, so we’d write a couple of verses, middle, the chorus, then pretty much repeat verse one. Which was good if it was hooky, it meant that you’ve heard those lyrics twice, so we’d rammed ’em home, and it saved us having to think of a third verse”.
        Finally, John is not the only lead singer in She loves you, I want hold your hand, Thank you Girl, From me to you and I’ll get you. McCartney shares the lead vocal in all of them, he and John sing, from start to finish together, alternating unison singing with harmonies, with Paul taking, in some parts, the high harmony and John the low one ( in theory the melody), only because McCartney usually did the high stuff better and easily than Lennon. Paul and John clearly took the decision of sing those songs together because they wrote those songs together). The double tracked vocals was an available option even when they did Please Please Album (remember A Taste Of Honey), but they used it when a song was more the work of one them ( All my Loving or It won’t be long).

  11. pablo says:

    Did you notice on We can wor it out (mono masters) kind of strange sound or volume issue throgh the song?
    Something like the volume is going up and down…
    In the stereo remaster the song have always the same volume

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, I didn’t. I don’t have my copy on me to double-check, but I’ve been listening to that version for two years and I don’t remember hearing anything like that. I’ll listen out next time I play it…

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