Stereophonic LPs started to become generally available in 1958, and it took about a decade after that for most record labels to stop producing both stereo and monophonic versions of their new releases. During that time, the availability of both formats created many, often inadvertent variations in the musical content on the vinyl, due to anything from the specific requirements of the format to simply careless mixing of one version or the other.
This was particularly the case in the early days of stereo, as companies scrambled as quickly as possible to meet the demands of audiophiles -- the music sometimes ended up being a completely different recording, re-done in stereo. For some releases, companies mangled existing older mono recordings with various pseudo stereo processes, and in many cases those albums are far inferior to the basic mono sound.
Along the way, the mono/stereo divide ended up creating different listening experiences for many classic albums, ones that record nerds are still comparing several decades later. The eternal question remains: "Which one sounds better?" Sometimes one version does sound clearly better, and occasionally hidden gems are found when looking for contrasts.
Here are a few recent experiments of my own which all go against the grain of my mono partisanship!
Butterfield Blues Band: East-West
BBB's second album is one for which I've always been a mono partisan, purchasing numerous cheap copies over the years trying to find one that isn't torched. I finally sprung for a relatively unscathed stereo copy -- and I have to admit, it's a far punchier mix than the mono, which sounds crisp but in comparison also very compressed. The stereo separation is well done and rarely distractingly separated, and allows the listener to really clearly hear who's playing what during the longer tracks' dueling solos. (Elektra, 1966)
The Beatles: Something New
The Liverpudlians' American catalog is already a notorious den of variations from the original U.K. releases, even before considering sonic differences. In general, the pre-Revolver Capitol releases in the U.S. have tons of reverb added to the usually "dry" sound of the original recordings. The mono and stereo versions also tend to sound startlingly different, with the former often being slightly more faithful to the U.K. versions. Something New is already a mash-up job of leftover A Hard Day's Night U.K. album tracks not used on the U.S. movie sound track (controlled by United Artists for many years), a couple songs that were on the movie soundtrack, and some stray singles. Comparing two mid-'60s pressings, the stereo version is a much brighter, more open and natural-sounding mix than the mono, with its fairly poor mixing job on which everything sounds flat, muddy and claustrophobically squashed together with excessive echo. I've observed that sound quality on Capitol '60s discs that were big hits varies widely, so it's very possible the copy I have used a worn-out stamper, which would at least account for the lifeless sound quality. Probably the most significant oddity here for Beatles fans is that the mono version has a different vocal track inserted in the middle of the bridge "When I Get Home." On the stereo version, there's also a bit of stray studio chatter before the vocals come in on "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand," which is a dreaded "all the vocals on one side, all the music on the other" mix -- thankfully, the only time that happens on Something New. Also, the piano is much more prominent (and the rhythm guitar buried) in the stereo version of "Slow Down." On the mono, the line on "If I Fell" where Paul's voice breaks has been fixed with an overdub! (Capitol, 1965)
The Tokens: It's a Happening World
The Tokens first and only album for WB was released in between albums for their own label, BT Puppy. I've had the mono version for years, and always thought it sounded passable. However the stereo version of this disc might as well be a different album; the Tokens intricate vocal harmonies and unique arrangements are served far better via the stereo mix rather than the mono, which in retrospect sounds as if it's probably just a stereo fold-down. It's a Happening World is a perfect example of stereo being used as well as it could be to bring out the best in the songs, particularly on the Tokens' excursions into pop-psych. In this case the result is often so different sonically than the mono that the use of stereo could be considered part of the music rather than just a fancier technology. (Warner Brothers, 1967)
The Blues Project: Live at the Cafe Au Go Go
Despite their name, The Blues Project was always more of a rock than blues band. On their debut album, the band comes across like a peculiarly gifted teen garage outfit. That impression is aided by the fact that the group wasn't really writing songs yet by the time this live set was recorded, with only a lone credit to Andy Kulberg keeping this from being all covers. Unlike those garage teenagers, The Blues Project's members included some ringers with previous recording experience and the chops to slow things down without sounding lame (as on a nice reading of Donovan's "Catch the Wind"). However, this album's best moments are the amped up R&B numbers sung by Tommy Flanders, who had already left the band by the time it was released. Au Go Go is another case where I've always ignored the stereo version due to the horrendous stereo of the band's classic follow-up album, Projections. Therefore, the stereo mix for Au Go Go was a surprise. The engineers apparently took the time to properly match the mixes for the two versions, so it's not a lot different sonically than the mono, which, considering this was on an MGM-distributed label, is near-shocking. The music on the stereo has slightly more bite, but the vocals on the Flanders-sung cuts are also occasionally a tad buried, sounding like he's singing from behind the stage or something. Overall, though, this is a case where both versions sound fine and really aren't much different to listen to, beyond the addition of a well-done stereo mix. The one trick is finding a copy that's not trashed, which I still haven't accomplished. This album actually came out twice due to a label name change, and has the usual Verve Folkways vs. Forecast discographical issues -- Forecast catalog numbers appearing with Folkways logos, Folkways pressings showing up in Forecast jackets, etc. Neither copy I currently have matches up correctly. (Verve Folkways, 1966).