Controversy surrounds Beatles CD's
By Michael Walker and David Handelman
April 23, 1987
he widely heralded first four Beatles compact discs have been selling briskly, yet only a few days after their debut, a controversy was brewing about the decision to release the CDs in mono. A March 1st New York TImes interview with Beatles producer George Martin raised some unsettling questions about Capitol/EMI's actions regarding the world's most valuable rock & roll archives. Some consumers, unhappy with the mono sound (no mention of which appeared on the packaging) were already selling their CDs to secondhand stores. Others complained that since the albums were so short, the CDs should have been released as twofors or with both the stereo and mono mixes.
Capitol/EMI issued the first four British titles -- Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale -- in mono, contending that when recorded in 1962 and 1963, the albums were mixed for mono, then the industry standard. In an interview including in a press kit for the CDs, George Martin said, "The first Beatles records were mono records, they were not stereo records and never intended to be." This party line was echoed in most press coverage. Yet the interview also made clear that none of the surviving Beatles had heard the CDs or had anything to do with the decision. Martin also admitted that "there might be a case for issuing the last two of the four in stereo."
Beatles collectors claim that 1963 EMI trade advertisements prove that the first two albums were available in both mono and some form of stereo. Recording engineer Ed Stasium, who has worked with Talking Heads and Mick Jagger, was in line at Tower Records in New York at 9:00 a.m. the day the CDs went on sale. He took them home and was dismayed. "Beatles for Sale and A Hard Day's Night had good stereo mixes. I don't think it's fair to spend all this money and get mono." Stasium performed in-studio testing that revealed audible noise from mono reprocessing on the Hard Day's Night disc, suggesting that the music may not be, as EMI's chairman of the board, Bhaskar Menon, had claimed, "an absolute replication of the masters approved by the Beatles and George martin when the records were first put out."
Events leading up to the February 26th release suggest that the real reason EMI put out all four CDs in mono is that it simply ran out of time. According to Rupert Perry, the managing director of EMI Records U.K., "The stereo-mono issue was not an issue until the very last moment." Last October, when it finally had the plant capacity to manufacture enough Beatles CDs to meet demand, Capitol devised a gradual, chronological release plan that centered on the release of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band CD in June on the twentieth anniversary of the original album's release.
Last summer, EMI contacted producer Geoff Emerick, who worked with Martin as an engineer at most of the Beatles' sessions, and asked him to make test CD mixes of several Beatles tracks, including some from the first four albums. Emerick says he sent the completed tapes -- to EMI in London, where they were compiled on a test CD alongside the original stereo mixes.
Emerick heard nothing more until December, when he was told that EMI had listened to the test CD and that his version sounded "atrocious." He later learned that a technical error in transferring his mixes had caused them to sound quieter than the original mixes. Even though the error was caught and corrected, Emerick says by then it was too late for him to complete remixes. "EMI had them in their possession for six months," he says, "and the whole thing still got fouled up."
Having rejected Emerick's work, EMI played the original stereo mixes on CD for George Martin in December. He told them these songs were "mock stereo," meaning they had been recorded on two-track, with voices on one side and music on the other, only for the purposes of making a mono mix. Martin recalls, "I said, 'Don't, for Christ's sake, issue these, because I've had to live with them for twenty years and I don't want to live with them for the next twenty.'"
"As far as I was concerned," says Petty, "he was talking about all four records." But Martin told the Times that he advised EMI that "the first two should go out in mono, and if they had to issue the others in stereo, the mixes should be cleaned up or re-equalized for CD. Unfortunately, there was a deadline to be met, so they said, 'Look, we'll release all four in mono, and if you like, perhaps you can prepare stereo mixes [of the other two] later on.'"
Why wasn't Martin consulted earlier? "They had various egos to deal with," says Martin, "and I guess they thought by getting Geoff to do something, they could either accept or reject it without raising too many hackles. By not asking me, I guess they were avoiding something." (In 1976, when EMI released the Rock 'n' Roll Music collection, Martin was consulted and was so unhappy with the early stereo mixes that he remixed many of them.) "I was quite surprised EMI asked me to listen to the CDs," he adds. "And to be honest, I thought they were going to ignore my opinion."
According to Perry, EMI at first saw no need to contact martin because the company wasn't even aware of the stereo-mono issue. But once Martin made his preference known, EMI, fearing criticism, went with the mono mixes. "Our problem was that if we delayed any further [to remix for stereo]," says Perry, "we would have missed the magic Sgt. Pepper date."
Many Beatlephiles contend that EMI has a history of botching Beatles releases. "When they put out Rarities [a 1980 collection]," says Bill King, the publisher of Beatlefan, "they lost the master of 'Love Me Do' and had to take it off an album." Despite EMI's claims that the mono mixes are historically accurate, Perry now says there is still a possibility of releasing stereo CDs of A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale after the initial set of the thirteen original British albums is out.
Although all parties agree that the remaining nine titles all had "genuine" stereo mixes -- and EMI is issuing these CDs in stereo -- each album through Yellow Submarine came out in England in both mono and stereo, with radically different mixes and alternate vocals.
Many observers are critical of EMI's current plan to issue two compilation CDs that will gather the thirty-seven songs from various singles and EPs that never appeared on albums in Britain, including such classics as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You" and most of the songs on the American Magical Mystery Tour LP. Some have suggested that EMI could have stuck them on the existing CDs as bonus tracks.
"We fully realized that whatever we did, we're going to come under criticism," says Perry. "None of us can win in this. The most important thing is that at the end of the day, they're in the marketplace, the music is there to be enjoyed." But to the dissatisfaction of many, it's only there in mono.