A few years ago a “stereo” version of the classic Pet Sounds was released. The remarkable thing was that it was a work overseen by the brilliant Brian Wilson, producer and co-author of the original (mono) album. What’s even more remarkable is that Brian Wilson can only hear through one ear! So most of the old Beach Boys music was never in stereo, for this very reason.
Now, the stereo version of Pet Sounds was great. They did a great job, because it was really understated. I recently picked up a four-disc boxed set called The Motown Box. I adore old Motown tracks, music that will doubtless never be equaled in popular music. It’s a great set to have, and they did a thoughtful job putting together the set.
However, they made one mistake. The stereo. Most of these were never released in stereo, so the producers of the box set took the liberty of going back to the four track versions and making their own stereo “versions” of these songs, to put on the box set. Unfortunately, they took a lot of liberties with these versions. A good example is the clapping that kicks off “Where Did Our Love Go,” the immortal track by Diana Ross and The Supremes. Apparently eight claps in sequence is in and of itself too boring for contemporary audiences, so in this version the claps pan from left to right and back again, before the song starts. Many, many tracks in the box set do this sort of thing.
Why? Is a lack of stereo that much of a problem? Would folks feel like they weren’t getting their money’s worth if the discs weren’t in stereo? Would they feel as though one of their speakers was being wasted? Somehow I doubt this, I doubt that most would even notice that the songs were in mono. Myself, I only notice when the claps run from one side to the other. It’s a distraction! I should also point out that in the process the balance of the mixes has changed, in some cases quite significantly. The immortal “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder has so much more bass and background vocals that it just doesn’t sound as exciting.
The real point of stereo audio (to a purist, anyway) is to simulate the presence of performers on a stage. To make the recording seem a bit more real. And that’s what’s so great about the re-release of Pet Sounds. It brings you a little closer to the performance itself. But this box set fails to do so, forcing you to imagine a small crowd of clapping performers dashing madly from one side of the stage to the other. I doubt The Supremes did this on stage.
Maybe it’s just not a fair comparison, but those old records sound so damn much better.