I have just finished reading the memoir, Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, by Geoff Emerick. Emerick served as the sound engineer for most of the Beatles final albums, working on all of them, except for Let It Be and later was the engineer for Paul McCartney's greatest post-Beatle album, Band on the Run.
There were a few things that really struck me from this book. The Beatles were creating music in the 1960's in a manner somewhat similar to much of what is now being done on computers. Back then the Beatles obtained similar effects by combining sounds and recordings from up to 4 different tapes.
One of the strange by-products of such recording methods is that it is possible to create a perfectly good sounding song that the band was not actually able to play all the way through in the studio without mistakes and flubs. Thus, a sound engineer could take several different sections of song run-throughs and then tape the various sections together, resulting in what appears to be a recording of a single complete song. Such an approach differs from a "live" recording in that a live recording, whether made in a studio or at a concert, will basically contain all the good and the bad playing and singing that took place and will lack over-dubs.
Thus, it has always puzzled me why the Beatles often derided the album they "made" with the title, Let It Be, because this album has many excellent songs and does not appear to be vastly inferior to their other albums. The reason is that the making of this album required much more cutting and pasting than virtually all the other Beatles albums. From what the people involved and the Beatles, themselves, have said, it appears that it took a Herculean effort by Phil Spector (yes, the same one currently on trial for murder) to present them with a decent final product. McCartney never liked the Spector-version of Let It Be and subsequently brought out his own version in 2003, called Let It Be Naked.
Yet, in spite of some similar production techniques, there obviously was much that separated the Beatles from the Brittany's and Ashley's of today's teen pop.
Nobody could ever doubt that both Lennon and McCartney could sing well and in a variety of styles. Second, Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison towards the end, were all top-notch composers who were creating the works they sang and played. Third, the Beatles made most of the decisions about what special effects to put on their records. Finally, the Beatles were all pretty good musicians. George Harrison excelled on lead guitar and McCartney was a musical virtuoso, who according to many accounts, was the best guitarist, drummer, bass player and pianist in the group. McCartney would go on to show this, by making two top-selling solo albums by himself in his basement, playing all of the instruments featured on both albums.
The Beatles reached stardom during a real flux in terms of music technology. Not only were multi-track recorders changing the way that music was made, the recent advances in stereo technology were also in play. Although stereo had been around since the late 1950's, it really did not reach extensive use until the early 1970's. Thus, most of the Beatles albums until Abbey Road and Let It Be, were originally mixed in mono, with the stereo versions being more or less an afterthought. Emerick, himself, recommended the mono versions where available.
However, since the release of most of the Beatles catalog on compact disk in 1988, people have been unable to purchase specific mono or stereo versions. Basically, the early albums were released in mono on CD and the later ones in stereo on CD. Many Beatles fans and engineers like Emerick, have specifically noted that Sgt. Pepper is far better in mono than in stereo. Those who are diehard adherents of the Beatles should keep their eyes open to see if their record company doesn't start to release the different versions.