The Beatles Remasters: Rubber Soul Revisited

9-9-9 has arrived, but are the remasters essential oil or snake oil?

All of my formative musical memories pivot around the Beatles. Having been born in the wake of their bitter demise they were, for me, always something which had happened in the past; the black and white footage making the few short years between their split and my discovering them seem like aeons. It was a literal discovery too, aged about five or six I worked out how to stack 7” singles on a dusty Dansette player and off I went. Early favourites included Ken Dodd’s Tears, the mighty Telstar and the ShadowsDance On. None of this could prepare me, however, for when the needle dropped, crackled and popped onto the screaming, visceral howl of McCartney as he tore into the rock an roll blast of I’m Down. For quite some time the band, having little media to guide me, remained an enigma; existing largely within those vinyl grooves and flooding through that tiny speaker.

Rooting around the house, jumble sales and fetes enabled me to grow quite a collection of these precious singles, of no financial value but of huge cultural significance for this boy; I lived and breathed those records and not even the hyper real colourful teddy boy stylings of Showaddywaddy could tempt me from them. Eventually, of course, I got to see the Beatles movies and put faces to those magical names Lennon & McCartney and, more than that, I put personalities to them all. That was it, hooked for life. There were rude awakenings to come though and before I hit my tenth birthday Lennon was shot dead in cold blood. I remember the heartbreak clearly, surely that man who I had been carefully taping being interviewed by Andy Peebles on Radio 1 only a couple of days before couldn’t be dead, could he? In the space of just four years I had discovered the band, pored over every note of music they released and then seen Lennon, my sneering hero, murdered. And they say the teenage years are difficult!

Compact Discs arrived during my teenage years and were meant to save the world from the dreadful chore of changing records, of skips, jumps and hiss. They lived up to some of the hype but, well, I found that my cd player lacked that overheating Bakelite smell of the Dansette and, worst of all, the Beatles just didn’t sound magical anymore. The reverberating A string whose feedback heralds the introduction to I Feel Fine no longer hit my gut as well as my ears, the bass was lost and, well, everything else was just rendered a flat and disappointing. So you’ll understand my excitement when faced with the prospect of laying my hands on some properly mastered, old school mono versions of my oldest friends. I was found in a semi-trance in my pyjamas by the front-door this morning chanting the chorus of Please Mr Postman. This is a big deal. The seal is now broken – have prayers been answered? Find out here as The Music Fix verdict falls upon the remastering of Rubber Soul.

Let’s get the 1987 compact discs out of the way. They were abysmal and thus there’s no point in comparing the new Mono Remaster to them, so this article is going to look at how that mono remaster stacks up against the stereo remaster. The 2009 disc also contains a copy of the original stereo mix of the album but we’ll ignore that as it is merely additional complication.

I’m going to take it as read that you are aware of Rubber Soul and therefore will not attempt to review it. It is acknowledged as one of the greatest albums of the 20th century and I don’t think that a Music Fix award of either 1/10 or 11/10 is going to upset the order of the universe. Continuing on that line, this is no hyper sensitive audiophile review, just a comparison on a half decent stereo set up.

Drive My Car
This is unquestionably a hands down win for the stereo remaster. It may lack the authentic single speaker sound but the bass response is out of this world. The mono is perhaps more immediate and in your face but the stereo just gets into a phenomenal groove which is irresistible.

Norwegian Wood
Interestingly there’s very little to choose between the two mixes with the mono displaying a bassline as vital as that of the stereo. If there’s anything to choose between them then maybe the mono edges it as a more intimate experience. You can feel those harmonic twangs of the sitar as if they are in the room with you.

You Won’t See Me
I’ll chalk this one up to the mono set as it retains an essential sense of urgency to the song through its tight, compressed sound which is somehow given too much space and freedom in the stereo mix. The developing theme here is that, in all cases, both mixes are infinitely better than anything that’s gone before on a digital format and have their own distinct charms.

Nowhere Man
There’s stark difference here but, as ever, it is a matter of taste. The mono master does it for me as it totally immerses the listener whereas the stereo splitting of the vocals over to the right somehow diminishes the power of the song. What you lose in immediacy you gain in definition of the instrumentation on the stereo mix.

Think For Yourself
With another rumbling, groovy bassline and prototype Harrison psychedelic vocals this song was made for stereo and the mono mix just doesn’t compete at all.

The Word
The jagged, glassy stabs of guitar which punctuate this number are, to these ears, far more suited to the direct attack of that classic mono mix.

The stereo mix has greater definition and separation of the backing vocals but it adds little to the experience.

What Goes On
Quite shocking differences here, with the stereo mix lifting a fog from atop the chiming country guitar licks which are almost obscured in the mono mix.

As with Nowhere Man you find greater definition on the stereo mix but the intimacy and semi-claustrophobic feel of the mono mix wins hands down.

I’m Looking Through You
Not one of their most subtle numbers and thus is well suited to the punchy drive of the mono format. The stereo mix is limp by comparison.

In My Life
Unlike Girl the stereo mix does the most justice to this touching Lennon number, the space and separation apparently suited to the reflective nature of the song.

Maybe I’m just too rooted in the old fashioned Beatles sound but the separation of the guitar licks in the stereo mix is just far too stark and detracts from the holistic experience of the song. Mono all the way here.

If I Needed Someone
The chiming guitars seem to have a greater vibrancy on the stereo mix but I’m not sold on the experience, common to the whole album, of hearing the vocals predominantly on the right of the mix. It clearly sounds fantastic in both modes but I think I’m starting to come down on the side of mono, at least for Rubber Soul

Run For Your Life
This brash, almost retro number for a rapidly developing band was literally made for mono and the stereo mix is just superfluous.

So, in conclusion, mono isn’t going to be for everyone and, if we are honest, most of us who’ve gone for the Mono set will inevitably end up getting the Stereo remasters too. Listen to I’m Down in Mono and you can’t help be immediately caught up in the vortex of excitement and pure rock n roll adrenaline of the moment but the further you delve into the career of the Fab Four and the less relevant the Mono mix becomes. Rubber Soul packs a punch in mono but, in all honesty, the Stereo Remaster is equally special. Choosing between which of the two to play is going to be the killer; mono is how I remember them, but stereo is maybe how I’ll largely listen to them in future. Bottom line; if you are serious about the Beatles then you need the Mono set which, as it says on the box, is the closest you can get to hearing the authentic sound of the Beatles.

Steven Burnett

Updated: Sep 09, 2009

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