UNDERRATED / It's the real thing

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The Independent Culture
John Lennon for a time wore a badge saying 'Back to mono'. It was about the only one of his slogans that was completely ignored. People could accept bed-ins, performances in bags, even that war was over. But back to mono? The guy had flipped.

For years I, like most people, thought it strange that a mono button was still included on hi-fi equipment. Alongside the bass, treble, super bass, and graphic equaliser, it sat forlornly, untouched and unloved; an anachronistic folly.

Then a couple of weeks ago there occurred one of those unforeseen events that alter attitudes. A speaker broke. For a while it was fascinating hearing just one side of the studio. 'All My Loving' sans Paul McCartney really was a very basic guitar track indeed.

But eventually, starved of woofer and with only the occasional tweeter, I hesitantly approached the button that had not been touched since it left its maker. Pretty soon all the occupants of my lounge wanted to dance. Suddenly we were hearing rock 'n' roll again as nature intended. Intended for mono.

While it might be perverse to pretend that stereo can be beaten on music that is engineered for it, namely most music since the mid- Sixties, it has given an unrealistically clean and pure sound to the more fundamental kinds of rock music, which have been artificially separated on to different tracks to bring stereo where stereo never existed.

I urge you to play anything that can be classed as rock 'n' roll with your mono button pushed in. You can hear the sweat as the vocals, guitars and drums compete for attention in the atmosphere of a heaving dance hall, rather than the antiseptic studio sound of vocal in the right speaker and a three-chord Johnny failing the audition in the left - a sure antidote to adrenalin.

Listen to Roy Orbison's 'Oh Pretty Woman' on mono, the aching voice rising in anguish above a backing band whose competing energy conveys the power of excitement behind his pain; then switch to stereo and there is a lone piano tinkling sedately in one speaker, competent if unimaginative percussion in another and the driving force is lost. Using stereo for rock 'n' roll was like dressing the Beatles in suits and ties. It's clean, it's pure, it appeals to the mums and dads, but the rawness is lost for ever.

It's not just rock 'n' roll that has fallen victim to three decades of anti-mono snobbery. I often play my Tito Gobbi / Maria Callas recording of Rigoletto to friends. They marvel at its dramatic quality, can be moved (literally) to tears by the pain of the jester's desperate pleas to his daughter in their poignant duets. Yet inevitably I find they have gone out and bought a more modern recording with a different cast.

Why? Because Callas and Gobbi were recorded in mono. We have been conditioned to shrink from that word. Vinyl can still be trendy, black-and-white cinema arty, but mono is just inferior. I shall have to try and coin an equivalent musical phrase to film noir to give it back its street cred. Sound originale perhaps.

Try it. My broken speaker is now fixed but I press the mono button for anything recorded earlier than 1965, because that's what nature intended.

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