The first rock LP I ever heard was Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. This was way back in 1967 or 1968, not long after it had been released and I heard it thanks to the most unlikely source, my uncle Nick.
Uncle Nick could hardly be called a rock and roll lover, nor was he great collector of records, but, attracted I think by 'When I'm 64', he bought this Beatles' album. He played it on his little monophonic record player, a Dansette or something very similar.
So my first full immersion in the music of The Beatles, apart from hearing singles – somehow a copy of 'She Loves You' turned up at my equally rock and roll averse house – and the radio or TV, was in mono. I played this record a lot for a while at the time and then drifted away from it until I was in my teens and began to seriously collect music. The first LP I have bought was a copy of Sgt. Pepper. But when I bought it in 1972, it was in stereo. As were all The Beatles' records that I subsequently bought, including the earliest ones with their very artificial sounding separation of voices and instruments. I knew there was something not quite right about the way my copy of Sgt. Pepper sounded but, without having the comparison available at that point, learned to live with it.
And that's the way it has been for the last 40 years or so. Until this week when I bought the new box set, The Beatles in Mono.
This rather beautifully produced set of CDs contains all the music of the band that was mixed for mono. These mono mixes were the ones supervised by The Beatles themselves. They gave far less thought to stereo, leaving it to producer George Martin or the engineers to mix, sometimes a long time after the original mono masters were made. This makes for all sorts of interesting differences. But more importantly, the music all the way up to and including Sgt. Pepper sounds better in mono. (The later records have a more equal blend of pros and cons.) Part of this is simply due to having a more natural balance of instruments especially in the early albums, but it's more than that. There is a punch and fire in these mono mixes that somehow gets diluted in the stereo versions. The Beatles, always tainted with the aura of being a slightly genteel rock band compared to, say, The Rolling Stones or The Who, sound positively dangerous on their harder rocking cuts.
This quite surprised me in a most pleasant way. Furthermore, when I heard the mono 'Sgt. Pepper' again after all those decades, I realised that it is quite a different record in many ways. Here the mono mix contains numerous sonic differences, most strikingly on 'She's Leaving Home' that now plays at a half-tone higher and sounds vastly better for it, snappier and not nearly so lugubrious. The mono mix is the way it should sound, and I'm going to be playing the stereo more for the curiosity value than anything else from now on.
If I listened more to headphones like the 90% of my fellow passengers on the morning train, I could see that the mono might not appeal. But I don't. I play music in the car, or on the hi-fi in the bedroom, or on computer speakers. In these situations this mono reigns unchallenged.
I found it strangely ironic that a recording technology that was once considered a relic of less sophisticated age is making such a comeback. Apparently The Beatles in Mono has sold and sold. I'm certainly sold on it once again.