Back to Mono button

This button came with Phil Spector's boxed set.

For those of us who started out buying 45s in the Sixties, and maybe for those who were buying the last of the 78s in the Fifties, the term "stereo" used to be synonymous with "$1.00 extra", and more often than not we didn't have the additional dollar, and besides our miserable phonographs wouldn't play them properly anyway.

Even then, though, when we were exposed to the Proper Music Systems, usually encased in about 100 kg of furniture, we were duly impressed by how those stereo records sounded, and we filed away a mental note to the effect that stereo was something to be aspired to, once we got rid of our existing crappy record players.
Came the Seventies, and suddenly there were no monophonic records anymore: everything was stereo, and we were assured in the fine print that we could play it on "modern", presumably meaning "non-crappy", mono equipment. We saved our nickels, including the one that used to be taped to the tone arm, and eventually got stereo gear with real two-channel headphones. And, of course, we were duly impressed. Not everything sounded as good as we wanted it to — there was still a lot of stuff "electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo", unconvincing simulation though it was — but hey, we had turned the audio corner, and we'd never have to listen to that mono stuff again.
How wrong we were. Here we are, rolling over the turn of the century, and there's more mono now than there was in 1964. As vinyl became the turf of digiphobes and collectors, a surprisingly large number of reissue CDs started turning up in monophonic sound, even of material that was released in stereo in the dollar-more days.
Sometimes, it's defensible. A great many songs were simply not mixed well for stereo; the production emphasis was on the single, which was invariably mono, and the stereo mix was done almost as an afterthought. A prime example is the Supremes' "Love Child" (Motown 1135). In mono, it's one of the fiercest singles Berry Gordy and company ever made. In stereo, with Mary and Cindy way off to the left, Diana all alone in the middle, and the drums mixed somewhere to the right of Jesse Helms, it's flatter than last month's Pepsi.
Some producers simply had no interest in stereo. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound came off as a lot more porous when divided in two. And Brian Wilson, an unfortunate soul with true monaural hearing, did arguably his best work in mono, though the new stereo mix of Pet Sounds, done under his supervision, is stunning.
And sometimes the stereo version of a hit single was somehow not quite the way we remembered the single. The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" (Colgems 66-1002, B-side of "I'm a Believer", but which charted in its own right) was as punchy as the best Paul Revere and the Raiders records, which made sense, since the Raiders recorded it first. In stereo, not only does it suffer from a lack of punch, but the instrumental break after the first verse is truncated, throwing off the rhythm. Unfortunately, this was the only version of "Steppin' Stone" in release for years and years, until Rhino, which had acquired the Monkees masters, put the proper 45 version on a Greatest Hits CD (R2 72190, 1995).
So there is still some reason for mono, and while it perhaps doesn't do a great deal for your five-plus-one-channel home theater system, it can be artistically valid. Some reissue producers out there — for example, John Sellards of the VanMeter label — insist that to the extent the mono version reflects the wishes of the performers and producers, it should be reissued in preference to the stereo version. Allen Klein's Abkco Music, which owns the American rights to all the early Rolling Stones material, claimed that their mostly-mono issues reflected an aesthetic judgment, mostly by erstwhile Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham. Having heard "Satisfaction" (London 9766) in its extant stereo mix, which banishes the sterling Wyman-Watts rhythm section to the far left and leaves the right side gasping for breath, I'd find it hard to disagree. Perhaps, though, they've changed their mind; Abkco will be reissuing their portion of the Stones catalog in the summer of 2002 with some previously-unreleased stereo mixes, "Satisfaction" included, which I hope will sell well enough to recover their costs.
And that, as Frank Zappa might have said, is the crux of the biscuit. Record companies, at least since the end of the Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders series, are not in the business to lose money, and the serious stereo buffs show up way below the marketers' radar. Even Rhino, which built its reputation for high-quality reissues on its ability to find missing master tapes, even to remix for stereo where needed, seems content these days to dish up the same old mono. Still, in the age of the Compact Disc, and with DVDs just over the horizon, we've gotten an amazing number of high-quality reissues over the years, and I don't think the well has run dry. Yet.
For example: Not so long ago, one of the new arrivals at my listening post was Taragon's reissue (1025) of the late Dusty Springfield's first two Philips LPs, which includes the first appearance anywhere of the US 45 version of "I Only Want to Be with You" in stereo. It wasn't simply a matter of prying the master tape out of Polygram, either, since apparently there wasn't any such tape. To pull it off, reissue producer (and Taragon/CDMO boss) Eliot Goshman had to find a stereo version of the backing track and superimpose the vocals upon it — from two different tapes running in synchronization. Tying knots in spaghetti looks simple by comparison, especially since no two tapes on earth were recorded at exactly the same speed, and what's more, tapes have this irritating tendency to stretch. Also in stores now from Taragon is a compilation (1029) from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's Red Bird and Blue Cat labels, catalogs which have been generally ill-served in previous reissues.
Also mining the vaults for stereo gold is Varèse Vintage, a sideline of the established Varèse Sarabande soundtrack-and-show-tunes label, run by Cary Mansfield. Unlike Taragon, where the boss does the bulk of the heavy lifting himself, Mansfield calls upon a pool of producers to assemble some spiffy packages. Among the ongoing series are Collector's Essentials, compiled by radio personality Dick Bartley, and the Stereo Oldies discs produced in association with Discoveries magazine. Like Eliot Goshman, the Varèse crew have discovered the joys of sync-ups; the new Bartley The All-Time Greatest Girl Groups disc (302 066 110-2) contains nifty stereo assemblages of "He's So Fine" (the Chiffons) and "Sally Go 'Round The Roses" (the Jaynetts). "Sally" has been out in stereo before, but the insistent organ part, presumably added to the single mix at the last moment, was always missing. For this project, Dave Daugherty took the existing two-track — vocals on the left, instruments on the right — and basically wedged the organ stuff into the middle of the sound field. The results weren't entirely seamless, and to some extent, the new mix lacks the atmosphere and the tension of the mono original, but this is by far the cleanest "Sally" yet. Whether we truly want really clean oldies — the new "Dancing In The Street" on this set is so pristine as to border on sterility, and God knows what would happen if the early Shel Talmy-produced Kinks stuff were to be de-grunged — is another topic entirely.
Further exploration: The quintessential resource for the stereo fan has been Mike Callahan's Both Sides Now newsletter. Mr Callahan has retired from the scene, though his Web site will continue for the foreseeable future.

Updated 24 July 2002

Thanks to Luke Pacholski.


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