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.