The Rolling Stones in Mono, Part One: Introduction and First Thoughts

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With thanks to Laura Astley, Kate and George Astley, and Mum and Dad

In 2014 Apple/EMI released, to great acclaim, The Beatles in Mono boxed set on vinyl (fully five years after the CD equivalent). Here, at long last, was the Beatles done properly: remastered directly from analogue sources, pressed on high quality 180gm virgin vinyl, and housed in beautifully reproduced (down to the finest detail) replicas of the original LP sleeves and labels. The box is, if I may say so, vinyl porn of the highest quality and one of the jewels of my collection. It was inevitable, really, that the box would be joined by similar sets from those other artists who complete the great triumvirate of sixties pop. Sure enough, Columbia issued Bob Dylan – The Original Mono Recordings shortly after the Beatles set first appeared on CD. (Of course, I had to have that one, too – my favourite purchase of 2016.)

Now it’s the Rolling Stones’ turn to have their monaural masters collected and boxed. Released in September 2016, The Rolling Stones in Mono is a numbered, limited-edition 16xLP set comprising most (but by no means all) of the group’s 1960s studio recordings up to Let It Bleed. It comes housed in a flip-top box which is white like the Beatles and Dylan sets, and has a large glossy booklet with unpublished photos and an essay by David Fricke. The albums have been remastered by Bob Ludwig from digital transfers of, where possible, the original masters. Lacquer cutting for vinyl pressings took place at Abbey Road Studios and was performed by Alex Wharton and Sean Magee. (As a welcome bonus, it comes with a download card for a digital copy.)

Unlike the Beatles box, which stuck to the UK Parlophone discography, The Rolling Stones in Mono comprises a mixture of UK Decca and US London releases, meaning two different versions of Out of Our Heads and Aftermath, as well the US compilations 12×5, December’s Children (and Everybody’s) and Flowers. This entails a fair degree of overlap, with some songs appearing more than twice. Also unlike the Beatles’ set (which included only dedicated mono mixes) both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed are (‘Sympathy For The Devil’ aside) folded down from their respective stereo mixes. Whether the decision to include all this was done for artistic reasons, or economic ones, remains open to question. We shall see.

What makes me suspicious is the fact that the Stones’ back-catalogue has in the past been treated appallingly, with terrible transfers and brickwalled masters regularly making it onto the market and into the hands of unsuspecting buyers. With Stones product, I mean, you never quite get the same level of quality and care you do with Beatles releases. The same holds true of this set to some degree. The box is nice, for example, but less sturdy than the Beatles box, and while The Beatles in Mono came with a hardback book of coffee-table opulence, the booklet here is more like a large glossy magazine. Criticisms could also be levelled at the covers, which don’t show the same degree of dedication to period accuracy as the Beatles release. This is particularly true of the labels, which are approximations of the original, rather than accurate replicas.

Perhaps I’m being overfussy. Unless you’re wealthy enough to own mint originals, this is undoubtedly the best way to experience the group’s sixties output in physical form. As my brother said, “it’s the Stones, man, you want the whole thing to be a bit grubbier than the Beatles”.

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The ultimate flat lay

If it matters that we experience this music in mono, it is because the format dominated those glorious pop years. Stereo was still largely an audiophile’s format, confined to classical music and sound-effects records designed to show-off one’s ‘hi-fidelity’ system. The kids listened in mono, as the music of that dazzling decade blasted from the single speakers of portable record players, transistor radios, televisions, and jukeboxes. For this reason, the musicians of that era generally put far more care into mono mixes. The stereo mixes were an afterthought, often left to second or third engineers to rush out in crude, clumsy form. Sets like these are therefore the closest one can get in the 21st century to hearing the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones with something approaching the power and impact they possessed for those listeners lucky enough to have experienced this music as it happened.

Thanks to the unbelievable generosity of my nearest and dearest at Christmas, I was able to purchase The Rolling Stones in Mono shortly after the new year began. While I had already heard the music on the Beatles and Dylan boxes in one form or another, most of the music included here is entirely new to me. Urged by an online friend to write reviews of its contents for a Facebook group, I thought it might be interesting to explore the music of the Rolling Stones here, album by album, on this new blog I’ve created for vinyl-related posts.

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