Sunday, January 16, 2011

TotD #1: Rarity ≠ Quality, or Stereo vs. Mono

Thought of the Day: Rarity  ≠ Quality

This came out of a phone conversation with my friend Mike earlier today. I'd been telling him about a show I'd attended last night, and as we turned to music in general, we came to address one of the age old elitist record collecting tropes: a record's rarity. Though I'm an avid music buyer, Mike isn't. (He buys movies instead). Every so often we circle back to discussing record collector tropes like a band's indie cred, live vs. studio recordings, CDs vs. MP3s vs. LPs, and the one above: rarity. We both agreed that rare records aren't necessarily good, and that some people out there mistakenly think an out of print LP carries more worth than an in print one.

 I'm guilty of it myself; I've records which are out of print and knowing they're out of print brings me a certain joy. But a record's rarity does not necessarily mean it's any good. Too often I'll hear stuff like, "A fucking classic that's been out of print for years," and wonder if the damned thing's so good, why was it unbuyable? * I'm not one to judge music purely by sales, as a song/album/band's value depends solely on the person hearing it, but I'd figure if an album was that good, someone'd come along and reissue it.

The rarity trope extends far beyond the usual indie circles, too. Think of the mono variants of any 50s or 60s album. Consider this: in Dave Thompson's I Hate New Music, he devotes a chapter to Sgt. Pepper and writes about its revolutionary sound. "But it was John Lennon," he explains, "who probably knew what he was talking about, who said that if you haven't heard Sgt. Pepper in mono, then you haven't really heard it at all." Soon afterward he registers his (and my) frustration that Lennon's words explain why, after allthe mono Sgt. Pepper's been unavailable since 1968. Of course! It's good because it's unavailable. Right. As if it wasn't revolutionary enough in stereo.** Perhaps John was speaking facetiously. I'd like to think so, since a musician of his caliber would have certainly pulled the strings necessary to keep the mono mix in print if it sounded that good. I don't see why he couldn't have.

Or perhaps I should turn to someone who's music I enjoy even more than Lennon or the Beatles: Pete Townshend and The Who. When I came upon Pete's unofficial liner notes to Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy in The Da Capo Guide to Rock and Roll Writing, I read them with interest because I loved the record and because I wanted to hear his thoughts behind the songs. When he gets to the classic "I Can See For Miles," he mentioned how "the version here is not the mono, which is a pity because the mono makes the stereo sound the Carpenters." Again, this bothered me. Even at 16 (or however old I was at the time) I'd been listening to "Miles" for years and thought the song sounded fine. Again, why Townhend and co. would pick the supposedly inferior stereo take puzzled me: why not issue it?

This thought rested in the back of my head until last June, when I stood in Milwaukee's Bull's Eye Records, holding a mono CD of The Who Sell Out.*** Finally the chance came to hear the exalted mono mix. I bantered briefly with Luke, the store owner, about the stereo/mono story. He knew of it as well. He obligingly put the CD on the store stereo and cranked up the volume. As soon as the opening E notes sounded from the bass, I couldn't help but feel let down, anti-climactic. While yes indeed, the bass did sound louder and heavier, the song didn't sound any wilder than it always did. I don't know what I was expecting, but I like to think Townhend knows what he's talking about more than Lennon does, and I'd thought "Miles" would live up to his claim. It didn't. I told Luke as much and he nodded in agreement. Buying the mono The Who Sell Out didn't happen that day because despite my deep love for The Who, I didn't feel the need to own another copy of Sell Out just yet.****

To go back to the mono Sgt. Pepper, I haven't heard it, but I figure it's not going to instantly change my opinion of it. Nor will I take any time to look for it. I see no need to pay an exorbitant amount of money for record I don't play much anyway.

One final thought: Just to give the other side of the stereo/mono debate: listen to "Mother's Little Helper" from the Rolling Stones. The mono mix is on Hot Rocks and the stereo mix is on Aftermath. I prefer the mono--note on the stereo mix how the recurring sitar lick is placed in the right channel with Jagger's vocal. The left channel has all the other instruments. Now turn to the mono mix: the sitar's not off by itself, but smashed in with rest of the track. The song sounds leaner and more powerful. The sitar also sounds like an integral part of the track and not an add on, as it does on the stereo.


* I understand that money plays an important role here. As old punk records aren't exactly chart-toppers, no one stands to make a fortune on reissuing The Kids or Code of Honor/Sick Pleasure.

** For the record, even though I respect Sgt. Pepper for its historical and cultural value, I don't care for many of its songs outside of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life." It does feature some bad ass cover art, though.

***Despite having the ability to access this album (and stuff like it) Napster, Limewire, Kazaa, et al, I never did. Not sure why.

****In the course of typing this post, I punched up the song on iTunes and found I had acquired the mono version. As I listened again, I noticed the mono features a slightly treblier, spikier guitar sound. Still, I found the stereo version better because of the separation between the left and right channels. Having the drums off to the side works for the song, as does the stereo pans during the guitar break. It adds to the song's atmosphere of paranoia and revenge.

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