The remastered version of the Beatles’ seminal 1966 LP, plucked from a lavish new box set, reflects the band’s own emphasis on mono over stereo in the studio, having been cut, we are told, from ‘the original master tapes’ using ‘a completely analogue signal path’, together with packaging that replicates the ‘artwork and construction of the original’. But, I ask here, does all this really make such a huge difference to our appreciation of the album?
I was convinced that the September release of a 14LP box set of remastered Beatles recordings in mono constituted, as a Hollywood announcer might put it, the most important vinyl-record event of the year. This is because it provided a chance to experience how fans originally listened to the Beatles back in the sixties, according to how George Martin and ‘the boys’ intended the songs to sound, not being in any way enamoured by the advent of stereo, which they felt needlessly filtered sound through two channels when one was just fine. It also negates having to wander around record fairs and second-hand shops in search of highly-priced, pre-digital versions of the mono albums (not that this is a particular chore), only to find them severely scratched through wear and tear. I was, however, alarmed by the £288 price tag on the box set (as anyone on my kind of wages would be!), being significantly relieved to find later that I could buy the records individually. I therefore resolved to start with the band’s seventh LP release, eager to hear just how enhanced this ‘studio album’ now sounds, after having spent over twenty years listening to the digitalised stereo version on CD – the wrong version of the album, as it turns out!
Once I got hold of the rebooted Revolver LP, all wrapped in plastic, I was majorly impressed to see the iconic Klaus Voormann-designed 12-inch record sleeve as an exact replica of the original 60s version that was pressed on the Parlophone label, a wrap-around sleeve, no less, with flaps that are glued with paste, for extra durability. I am a sucker for contemporary detail on old record sleeves too, so appreciated the reinstatement of an advert for ‘New Emitex record cleaner’, which, it says, ensures ‘groove cleanliness’, though I have heard many say that the product was actually a smelly and oily cloth that used to rub dirt into your grooves rather than collect it! I was also pleased to see an insert resembling a certificate of authenticity – actually a ‘mastering note’ – which makes the record seem all the more momentous and important, particularly by informing you that the mastering engineer on the project ‘made constant reference to the notes made by the cutting engineer for the first pressing of the LP’. The all-important word ‘mono’ is further printed on the top-right corner of the sleeve, with it all being enough to make you think, “Flipping heck, this has got to be just about the ultimate as far as authentic Beatles records are concerned!” And it probably is.
Ahead of giving the shiny 180-gram record a spin, I made a point of buying a new stylus for my record player for the first time in ages, such is the magnitude of the occasion. It was a shame, then, that I ended up completely snapping the arm in half in the process of inserting it, having to glue it back together again as best I could (remembering that some aspects of analogue I am quite happy to consign to the past!). And then, as I came closer to playing the disc, my thoughts turned to the circumstances surrounding my first ever listen to the album: on a borrowed cassette tape during my fresher year at college, when a ‘mate’ of mine called Dennis, a Pink Floyd fan with an extremely irritating habit of laughing through his nose, told me forcibly that the only good song the Beatles ever did was ‘Eleanor Rigby’, while reminding me constantly of the existence of ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (the tosser). I then journeyed to my 40s listening to the CD version, as distasteful as this seems to be now, engaging in sound that came from a digital source (ugh!), and which was packaged in a horrible plastic case, with a tiny booklet that split the photo of the four Beatles all sharing a joke, from the original LP, disdainfully into three. Yes, three!
Putting the dark days of CD behind me, the first thing to notice upon playing the analogue-sourced mono record is that Paul McCartney’s wonderfully inventive bass playing on ‘Taxman’ (which I often feel makes the song, anyway), sounds a lot fuller and upfront without the stereo separation, having that sense of reverb around the room that you simply don’t get on digital formats. The guitars also sound a lot more immediate and louder while George Harrison complains about the tax collector, as they do on all the rock tracks, in fact, most markedly ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Dr Robert’. It also quickly becomes clear that this version of the album actually contains different mixes of individual songs (already apparent on the CD mono box set of 2009, I know), together with alternate overdubbing, editing and playing times. And from having listened to the record repeatedly through October, I am now in a good position to remark upon the most exciting of these differences, in order of excitement…
On probably my favourite song on the album, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, there is a backwards guitar effect that is completely missing from the stereo version, at the point where John Lennon sings ‘lying there and staring at the ceiling’. On ‘Yellow Submarine’ also, the one and only track on the record that my three-year-old daughter will tolerate, Lennon comes in with his megaphone vocal a whole line earlier than we are used to (at a ‘life of ease’). On ‘Taxman’, as well, the cowbells come in a few lines of verse earlier than on the stereo. And in ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, Paul’s stab at a Motown-style song, there is a completely different fadeout altogether, featuring an alternate lead vocal track, which I much prefer, actually, because in the stereo version the singer does seem to disappear very suddenly. On the other hand, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ feels like a bit of a letdown without the tape loops going from speaker to speaker in the usual stereophonic manner, because it almost seems natural that they should do this. The bass on it sounds absolutely fantastic though.
It would take an audiophile of the highest order, with an immensely expensive hi-fi, to appreciate fully whether the remastered LP teases out ‘more of the content of the audio on the master tapes’, as has been claimed, but I have no doubt that the album generally sounds more organic, purer and (if you will) detailed in this form. In any case, it is an absolute thrill to listen to the disc in the knowledge that this is the album the Fab Four themselves worked painstakingly towards at Abbey Road, while obviously benefiting from more durable vinyl and improved audio equipment than in those days. In the process, I also gained a renewed appreciation for such features of the LP as Ringo’s stupendous drumming on ‘She Said She Said’ and Paul’s vibrant harmonies on ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’. But I have, unfortunately, come to look upon the fake count-in and coughing noise at the start of ‘Taxman’ in a more negative light than previously, seeing how this has come to be much imitated by awful bands such as Oasis over the years, to give the impression of some kind of rawness or spontaneity to songs recorded in the studio, notably on the execrable Be Here Now. We can’t really blame the Beatles for that though!
All in all, this whole remastering business has been completely worthwhile, and there is no doubt that I will work on getting the other 13 mono LPs from the box set before I am too old – and I suggest you do too. I may not chuck out my Beatles collection on stereo CD just yet, but I have a good mind to! Perhaps I’ll put them in the loft.