Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Mono Box

Although I wouldn’t consider myself a “hard core” fan (the designation suggests a degree of irrational obsession), out of curiosity I nonetheless was compelled to purchase the recently issued, and unfortunately rather expensive, Beatles box set, The Beatles in Mono. The box contains the first 10 albums in remastered (as opposed to remixed) mono—Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let It Be were recorded in stereo—as well as a double album of singles and EPs collectively referred to as “Mono Masters.” I happen to agree with those reviewers—meaning the reviewers I’ve happened to have read—that these remastered albums sound fresher and cleaner than any previous issues of the Beatles on CD, and exhibit a heretofore unrealized dynamic range (on CD). Most of these same reviewers agree that the mono versions of the albums collected here are the best the Beatles have sounded on CD, and I have no reason to dispute that assertion—or any interest to dispute it, for that matter. As is quite well known, the stereo mixes were often done days, sometimes weeks after the initial mono mix, and could include different takes by the engineers doing the overdubs. It is also well known that the Beatles’ U.S. recordings evolved from the British releases, revealing the rather banal insight that the two countries, at least for the greater part of the decade of the 1960s, approached rock ‘n’ roll recording quite differently. As Dave Marsh observes in his excellent 2007 book, The Beatles’ Second Album, “In almost all cases, the process by which the 14 songs that were standard on the UK albums were whittled down to the US standard of 12 (or fewer) was haphazardly done by people with no ear whatsoever for what might have been a group’s musical breakthroughs or signature performances” (p. 6).

Yet the bowdlerizations of the Beatles’ albums for U.S. release isn’t what primarily interests me. Most reviewers have suggested, implicitly or explicitly, that the virtue of The Beatles in Mono is that it both recovers and restores the band’s musical breakthroughs and signature performances (to use Marsh's formulation) for the digital era. It also reveals something else about the Beatles, something that tends to be ignored in order to extol the range of their genius. The fact that the Beatles were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet Earth from 1964-69 hardly needs to be restated yet again; rather, what needs to be said is that the effect of so-called “show business” on the Beatles was entirely salubrious. My point is best expressed by analogy, and I’ll quote here jazz critic and historian James Lincoln Collier writing on Duke Ellington:

Ellington thus was deeply enmeshed in the entertainment industry, and the symbiosis had a direct and dramatic effect on his career as a composer. Ellington admitted that he was more prone to look for good times than sit at the piano and write. “Without a deadline, baby, I can’t finish nothing,” he once said. . . . [W]ithout [song publisher Irving] Mills, Ellington would have recorded a lot less than he did. Mills needed tunes to publish and he needed to get the tunes he published recorded. Ellington was . . . eager to establish himself as a songwriter, because there was far more money in writing hit tunes than there was in leading a dance orchestra. The system was circular: it was not economical to go into the studio to cut one tune. You needed at least two to make up a recording, and in fact it was the usual practice to record four or even more at a session.

The consequence was that Ellington was forced to produce a steady freshet of new works. In 1926 and 1927, Ellington had only a hazy grasp of music theory. But, with his great, if untrained, musical intelligence, he began to work out his own methods of composition, in which he would enter the studio with scraps and pieces of music in hand, and develop something on the spot. . . . In sum, a great deal of Ellington’s music, including many of the treasures we revere today, was produced solely to meet the demands of the entertainment industry the Ellington orchestra was part of. . . . Ellington learned by doing; by 1940, when he was turning out some of the greatest works in jazz history . . . he was the undisputed master of the short jazz composition. And he had learned his craft because show business had forced him to do it. (Jazz: The American Theme Song, pp. 107-09)

Mutatis mutandis, what Collier observes about Duke Ellington is true of the Beatles and especially of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. Albums they made, but the Beatles métier was the single: the bulk of their best music, especially the early breakthrough singles, was made under the duress of what Collier above refers to as “show business” pressures. After 1966’s Revolver, when they turned their energies to more ambitious, album-oriented “conceptual” works such as Sgt. Pepper’s (and therefore freed of the pressures that drove their early career), despite the time and money they lavished upon them, they became musically less compelling and innovative. It is true that Sgt. Pepper’s, along with albums such as Magical Mystery Tour, have their defenders, but few rock critics would trade these records’ experimentalism and grandiosity for the musical breakthroughs found on Rubber Soul and Revolver, to name a couple of examples. Make no mistake: I love the sheer musical diversity of The Beatles (aka “The White Album”) and still cherish the copy of Abbey Road I purchased with a pocketful of quarters and a couple of half-dollars (my allowance) forty years ago last month. I'm not trying to diminish the artistry of these records (and even if I wanted to, I couldn't), but make the point that the musical achievement these albums represent did not simply emerge out of the Beatles' musical imagination, but were, as James Lincoln Collier observes of Duke Ellington, forced out of them by the entertainment industry of which they were a part. The Beatles in Mono allows us to map that development in their first sonic realizations.