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Back to Mono: Dylan, Doors Reissues Unearth Classic Sound

Fans can hear Sixties discs as originally intended on new sets

Bob Dylan
Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images
September 30, 2010

On a new nine-CD box set, fans will finally hear Bob Dylan's early music the way Dylan intended it to be heard. The Original Mono Recordings, out next month, includes the mono versions of his first eight albums, from 1962's Bob Dylan through 1968's John Wesley Harding. "You won't hear things leap at you that you would in stereo," says a source close to the Dylan camp. "You might hear less of things. On 'Like a Rolling Stone,' you hear less organ. These represent Bob's first records in their truest, original form — the form he thought he was making them in."

Last year's Beatles in Mono box, which sold 52,000 copies, demonstrated a surprising new demand for mono versions of classic albums. Its success has paved the way for a mono gold rush: the Dylan box, 2011 compilations of Phil Spector and Roy Orbison, and upcoming mono reissues of classic albums by the Doors (The Doors), the Yardbirds (Little Games) and John Mayall (Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton). The format even inspired a new album, John Mellencamp's No Better Than This, recorded in mono at historic locales around the country, like Sun Studio in Memphis. "You hear the full attack of the band," says Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek of his band's reissue. "It's like being stabbed in the head with a spear. That's what I love about mono — it's full bore."

Until about 1968, bands focused on the mono mixes of their albums largely because radio broadcasts were in that format. Stereo versions were available but were often afterthoughts in which an engineer would place the vocals in one speaker and the instruments in the other. "At the beginning, mono was all [Beatles producer] George Martin was thinking about," says engineer Allan Rouse, who worked on the Beatles box. "Teenagers who were buying the Beatles were only going to listen on their little record player in mono."

In some cases, the original versions of albums are strikingly dissimilar from the stereo takes most fans know now. The mono mix of Sgt. Pepper has different song endings (more guitar toward the end of the title track) and varied tempos (a slightly faster "She's Leaving Home"). "I'm Only Sleeping," from Revolver, has additional backward guitar. Because of these distinctions, some original vinyl pressings have become collector's items — like the single version of Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul," which features a completely different Neil Young guitar solo, or the Byrds' mono Younger Than Yesterday, which has added percussion.

Like the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl, mono reissues appeal mostly to hardcore fans: Two of the bestselling monos on the reissue label Sundazed — Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and Traffic's Heaven Is in Your Mind — have sold tens of thousands of copies each. But for those fans, mono is a more accurate depiction of a group's sound. "When you hear a band playing live, the vocals don't come out of a left speaker and the instruments out of the right," says Sundazed Owner Bob Irwin. "If you want to hear a band playing together, that's mono."

This is a story from the September 30th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

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