Despite the sales boom for the compact disc versions of the first four Beatles albums, a highly vocal corps of Beatlephiles is upset that the CDs were issued in their original mono mixes, rather than in stereo.
After all, they maintain, the albums were originally released in both mono and stereo. So why aren't the stereo versions available now in CD? Is Capitol/EMI just tricking fans into buying the mono versions now, only to release the stereo editions later? And how come the boxes don't tell consumers that the CDs are mono?
"I'm not upset about the quality of the (mono) sound, although I think people should be able to choose between the stereo and the mono for themselves," said Los Angeles recording engineer Brad Pinkstaff, a veteran of sessions with Led Zeppelin and Dave Mason. "It's not that I want my money back; I want (stereo). They should have it both ways at this point--stereo and mono."
He won't get any satisfaction from George Martin, however. "I'm enjoying the furor over it, actually," the 61-year-old Beatles' record producer said by phone from his Air Studios in London.
"I make no apologies for them. . . .," he said. "I've had scores of letters saying how wonderful the CDs are, and I've had people stop me on the street saying how good they sound. It's very gratifying."
If Martin is gratified, it's because he's the one responsible for the mono release. Capitol/EMI was planning to release the four CDs in their old stereo form until Martin balked.
Martin, who produced all the Beatles albums except "Let It Be," argued that stereo mixes of the albums lack the same freshness and punch as the mono. Indeed, he said, they weren't even true stereo, and were mixed and issued without his or the Beatles' approval.
In any case, the mono-stereo debate apparently hasn't hurt sales of the first Beatles CDs to be released in the United States. The group's "Please Please Me," "With the Beatles," "A Hard Day's Night" and "Beatles for Sale" are the four best-selling CDs in the country. Capitol/EMI reports that more than 250,000 copies of each were sent to retailers in February, and reorders have been pouring in.
Martin is more sympathetic to complaints that the CD packages (save for a fraction produced at EMI's West Germany plant) don't indicate that these are mono versions. As a local record store owner said about the absence of labeling, "People think there's something underhanded going on."
Suggested Martin: "I think they (Capitol/EMI) had already committed themselves to the issue, and had already printed up and designed the sleeves by the time they played me those ghastly stereo records.
"I then said, 'If you do this (issue the stereo), I'm going to tell people that you're wrong.' They went around and quickly changed them. So to change all the other stuff (packaging) would have cost a great deal of money. That's my guess. . . . I think they should have marked them mono."
A Capitol/EMI staffer, requesting anonymity, explained that the company is "not in the habit of putting 'mono' or 'stereo' on the disc or box." But he admitted that there are some second thoughts about the matter: "We're now not sure the issue was addressed as maybe it should have been. Maybe in the future we will consider adding a sticker saying 'mono' on the outside."
Why did Martin feel so strongly about the mono versions?
In the early days, he said, Beatles recording budgets were small and stereo was a new recording technique--in Martin's words, "a rather delicate little thing which technical people loved, but wasn't for the rock 'n' roll market."
The group's first two LPs ("Please Please Me" and "With the Beatles") were recorded using two tracks--voices on one, instruments on the other--strictly to "give me a better mono sound," he said.
Though he and the Beatles preferred the records in mono, there was some consumer demand for stereo versions--and Capitol/EMI made them available. But it wasn't stereo as we know it today, Martin said.
"What existed was a divided form of mono, which later--not done by me or the Beatles--was put out in a stereo form with voices on one side and a backing track on the other," he said. "And it was an adaptation of that which Capitol was going to issue for compact disc, which I stopped."
The "Hard Day's Night" and "Beatles for Sale" albums were also recorded for mono, but with four-track machines instead of two. The stereo versions of those records are still too unsophisticated for Martin's taste ("good stereo" Beatles LPs, he said, began with "Revolver" in 1966). But they are better, he allowed, than the stereo of the first two LPs.
As a result, Martin said that if there was an overwhelming public demand, he would remix "A Hard Day's Night" and "Beatles for Sale" in a "good stereo" for CD.