I was raised on The Beatles. Quite literally: when I was six, my parents locked me in the basement with the proviso that they’d be back “in a little while.” Three years later, they still hadn’t returned, though by then I was supporting myself and the house payments with my numbers and protection rackets around the neighborhood. But what a record collection down there! My father was a Beatles connoisseur, so he owned every album, single, compilation, or piece of stray memorabilia. The walls were decorated with Beatle prints and paintings, while guitars and keyboards were collected in a makeshift studio in one corner. I’ve been told that when I was a baby our house caught fire and my father made several trips in and out of the blaze to retrieve the whole collection (including Ringo solo albums) before he turned his attention to my crib in the crumbling nursery. While I only received major burns and some smoke inhalation issues that still plague me today, the collection was preserved wholly intact. I loved those albums. I used to play them endlessly, poring over the covers and liner notes, staring at the spinning rainbows and green apples, recognizing songs by the grooves in the vinyl. The back of Pepper helped to teach me how to read, so I was one of the only kids who knew how to spell “plasticine.”
So I shared in some way my Beatles experience with the first generation of American fans. Capitol Records dismantled the original UK albums for US release, cutting down overall lengths and including singles and EP tracks in order to effectively double the amount of Beatle album product on the market. This resulted in some wholly unique albums (Yesterday…And Today) as well as others that were signficantly changed in tone (Rubber Soul). The Beatles didn’t agree to these changes and may not have even been fully aware of them; listen to a concert recording with their familiar song introduction (“We’d like to carry on with a number…”) followed by confusion over its corresponding album.
When the catalog was released on CD in 1987, many American fans were introduced for the first time to the original albums. Big revelations: A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were real albums, not just piecemeal soundtrack affairs, while beloved records like Beatles ’65 and Yesterday…And Today simply ceased to exist. The sound itself wasn’t altered (except for some George Martin remixing of Help and Rubber Soul) but most fans were happy just to have clean, scratch free recordings of the proper UK albums in a format in which “Octupus’s Garden” could be skipped with a simple press of a button. In 2009, the whole catalog was remastered and repackaged with such attention and care that even the most notoriously fickle Beatle fans were impressed. More importantly, we received The Beatles In Mono box set, an absolutely stunning package of the original albums in glorious mono sound. That set is so awe inspiring that I suspect it could probably be employed to settle tensions in the Middle East – just air drop crates of them down there and let mono White Album do the rest. But what about those American albums? Should they just be consigned to a collectible Beatle corner on Ebay? Do we really want to live in a world without Beatles VI?
So now we have been graced with the The US Albums box set, replicating at least physically the original American Capitol albums. It’s a fine package, containing each album in miniature on CD, complete with Capitol inner sleeves and even the infamous butcher cover. There has been some controversy over the mixes, as many of the tracks do not replicate the original American versions, having been culled from the ’09 remasters. The early Capitol albums were treated with extra reverb or doubled mono tracks to replicate true stereo. These mixes are sonically inferior, but there have been some cries of protests over their authenticity. Furthermore, since these are primarily the same mixes as the previous box sets, aren’t we just paying for the same songs with different packaging? A fair point, but consider: we’ve all been buying these same songs again and again for years. We’re Beatles fans – it’s what we do. Reel Music anyone? Love Songs? Red and Blue double albums? The question is whether we really want the inferior mixes of the early sixties that were originally intended for transistor radios of teenage America.
This controversy seems to be largely theoretical. In the few cases where the American mixes were used, the sound clanks awkwardly: listen to the reverb drenched mono “She’s A Woman” from Beatles ’65, the way the choppy rhythm guitar and driving ride cymbal rhythm are nearly lost in cavernous echo. The minor variations of the backwards guitar in the various mixes of “I’m Only Sleeping” are negligible, and the truly significant differences like the false start of “I’m Looking Through You” from the US Rubber Soul have been included. We’ve also been given both mono and stereo mixes of each album, an absolutely essential element for discerning fans. My own preferences for mono and stereo mixes vary from album to album and even song to song, so it’s great to have them both on each disc. One might argue that the set should have included Magical Mystery Tour, which was technically an American release. But we did get the classic Hey Jude album! And the awful The Beatles’ Story!
Meet The Beatles (1964)
The album that conquered America, god bless it. Side one already feels like a greatest hits set, quite an achievement for a debut. These songs stormed onto American radio, inspiring screaming girls and serious musicians alike. Even Dylan loved it, although he confused “I can’t hide” with “I get high” – good thing he turned the boys on later that year. How many kids just skipped side two? Probably lots, but I like it a bunch. George’s grouchy “Don’t Bother Me” provides a nice contrast from the relentlessly upbeat tone, before we move into lesser known stuff like “Little Child” and “Hold Me Tight” (the first of two McCartney tunes with that title, the second one relegated to the medley on Red Rose Speedway). These songs are packed with melodies and clever arrangement nuances – that’s why this stuff still sounds vital today. Compare this version of “I Wanna Be Your Man” with the Stones’ sloppy attempt to see just how far ahead they were musically. I still miss the goofy charm of the covers from the UK debut, which were an integral part of the character of the early Beatles sound. At least we get Paul’s schmaltzy “‘Til There Was You,” performed with a winking sort of sincerity and a softer complexity that stands out in among pounding rockers on the rest of the album. Time has probably diminished some of the edgy intensity of this set, and it suffers from a slightly samey sound of that insistent ride cymbal rhythm, but it’s Meet The Beatles. It’s great.
The Beatles’ Second Album (1964)
Tailored for the American market, full of covers aimed at the radio, this is another big departure from the UK canon. I love it. It’s fun and loose, with a mix of covers, singles, and one of the best tracks from the UK A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack (“You Can’t Do That”). This plays as a far better album than the US debut, particularly with the high energy runs through American rock (“You Really Got A Hold On Me.” “Roll Over Beethoven”) and some of their funkiest originals of that period. “You Can’t Do That” is one of John’s finest early songs, a snarling mix of frustration and self doubt; listen to the way the accusations of the verses are contrasted with the apprehensive bridge (“But if they’d seen you talking that way/They’d laugh in my face”). I love “I Call Your Name,” with that neat change in the middle eight and very Beatle-y vocal melody (“I’m not gonna may-ay-ake it/I’m not that kind of man”). Side two opens with Paul’s propulsive “Long Tall Sally,” which captures the wild energy of their live performances – these boys are not just pop craftsmen, they know how to scream their rock ‘n roll. “Thank You Girl” and “I’ll Get You” teach a generation how to harmonize like real men. “She Loves You” is a fitting finale, a final burst of energy that feels like a summation of the high energy spirit of this album. Stick with mono with this one, as the final two tracks don’t have stereo mixes and the sound of the whole album is punchier and more cohesive in its mono incarnation.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Somehow this American resequencing turns one of the finest Beatles albums into one of the least essential. The original UK album was practically a Lennon solo album, probably his most cohesive song cycle until his solo debut in 1970. This US album was a United Artists soundtrack release which kept the key tracks from the film interspersed with big band instrumentals like “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy).” So this ends up feeling more like a movie tie-in rather than the real artistic achievement of the original UK album. Still, the instrumental “I Should Have Known Better” is groovy with its horns and jazz guitars – it reminds me of Zappa’s orchestral reinterpretations of his own material. I also prefer the iconic American cover art over the collage of portraits on the UK album. Do we need the mawkish string laden instrumental version of “And I Love Her”? No, we don’t. But this is a fun album that flows fairly well, as the instrumentals stay close to the Beatle originals. The film itself seems quaint today, save for Ringo’s poignant rock kicking riverside scene. Because he was the actor of the group…
Something New (1964)
The cover always looked to me like the boys were playing in a bowling alley somewhere, the whole place overrun with screaming girls while the shoe attendant hides behind his desk. The back to back opening “I’ll Cry Instead” and “Things We Said Today” is my favorite opening any Capitol album, with John’s characteristically bitter song plumbing the depths of anger and doubt, while Paul’s incorporates some of his classiest melodic turns. These are the sort of songs that make you pick up a guitar to figure out how they did that. Huge differences in mono vs stereo: mono “Slow Down” sounds like a raging Bonneville swerving recklessly through traffic (as it should) while the stereo mix is more like a bicycle, seemingly devoid of Ringo’s drums; similarly “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” is far better in mono, even if it’s still neat to pick out the funky rhythm guitar work in stereo. I do prefer the more expansive stereo mix of “And I Love Her,” where details like the spainish guitar, wood block hits, and occasionally single tracked vocals (“Bright are the stars that shine”) stand out much more. As always the choice for Ringo’s vocal turn is perfectly sardonic with “Matchbox”: “Let me be your little dog, ’til your big dog comes.” And the German “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is a neat little bit of self reference, recalling their Hamburg roots, with those perfect harmonies still shining through.
The Beatles’ Story (1964)
An odd audio documentary produced and narrated by a staid bunch of industry pros with an ignorant, condescending tone. This was a cash in, designed to take advantage of the passing fad of Beatlemania. My father was too hip to own this album, but I got suckered in just like lots of other kids and got my parents to buy me this one with expectations for some big revelations or maybe some live music. This was a hard lesson in the realities of cold capitalism – it’s a drag, all the way through. This is a double album – albeit a brief one – with a skeletal Beatle “biography” on each side, padded with silly newsreel commentary on their haircuts and such. There are several different narrators in among the poorly edited newsclips and you can imagine each guy in his white shirt and black tie, balding hair, and thick black framed glasses reading his copy. In the “John Lennon” track, the narrator blithely reads a quote from Beatle John: “‘Politics? They have no message for me, nor any of our group.'” Isn’t that special? These narrators sound like they detest Beatlemania. The part I’ll always remember is the one narrator who scoffs with a cutting tone: “What if there had been no Brian Epstein, no George Martin, no Capitol Records, no lady luck?” Well, how about the songs, pal? This may be an accurate curio of the period, but it’s not an interesting listen. It’s infuriating actually, and it still reminds me of that hollow feeling when I was little and I first played this thing. We really could have used a live document in this album slot in the box set. I’m not crazy about Hollywood Bowl, but I’ll take it over this bullshit any day.
Beatles ’65 (1965)
This is one of my father’s favorites – the umbrella album. Mainly culled from the UK Beatles For Sale, this one takes the rockabilly feel (“Honey Don’t,” “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”) with a punchier, more succinct flow than the occasionally draggy original. I like how we get “I’ll Be Back” from the UK Hard Day’s Night, which really matches the sullen feel of this material and works as a narrative companion piece to “No Reply.” “Baby’s In Black” is a tough song to sing and play – that bridge, man. The boys played that song all the time, even in their waning live performance years. I like it a lot, but it’s the vocal performance more than the song itself that makes it special. We also have both sides of the “I Feel Fine”/”She’s A Woman” single, a big breakthrough presaging their riffy mid-period sound. These are the unique US mixes, so mono “I Feel Fine” sounds like the boys are playing at the other end of an empty arena, which considerably weakens that driving rhythm. And anyone who actually prefers the American mix of “She’s A Woman” is nuts. Most of this album sounds much better in stereo anyway, but I do like the tighter mono mixes of “Baby’s In Black” and “Mr Moonlight.” But who cares? It’s Beatles ’65 – it’s all good.
The Early Beatles (1965)
My father didn’t have this album – we had the Vee Jay Introducing The Beatles, which covered much of the same material. That album was much closer to the UK Please Please Me, plus it had “Misery,” which has been omitted here. Why? I love that song, with John wailing through his flu: “The world is treating me bad!” So this is the only album of the bunch that I’m really hearing for the first time. Why is “Twist And Shout” placed second? I don’t get that at all, and don’t really care for that song much either (although it would have made for a better closer to Meet than “Not A Second Time”). I really love this early stuff, but it’s the fun performances more than the songs that make it so listenable. “A Taste Of Honey” is just a bad, gaudy song, but their wryly dramatic reading of it is infectious; see also “Boys,” and “Anna (Go To Him).” Even the originals evince some of these garish influences: the vocals in “Ask Me Why,” Paul’s crooning bridge in “PS I Love You.” The best of the Beatle tunes is “Please Please Me,” though this version is the one without the vocal mistake that my dad used to point out to me when I was little. So The Early Beatles is an irrelevant album, wholly inferior to the UK Please Please Me.
Beatles VI (1965)
Sort of like The Beatles’ Second Album II, if that makes any sense. More covers that seem intended for American radio, paired this time with some of the weakest originals in the catalog. I never cared much for “Eight Days A Week,” the only one of their singles that feels creatively uninspired. It’s hooky as always, but there’s a sense of repetition. Hey, two of the all time worst Beatles songs: George’s melodically awkward “You Like Me Too Much,” and the weary John/Paul “Tell Me What You See,” which sounds like a last minute filler track written to pad out an album. Even Paul has admitted that “Every Little Thing” was sort of a failure, intended as big single but never really coming together despite the cool timpani flourishes; “What You’re Doing” actually feels closer to a near single with its shoutalong hooks and ringing guitar riffs. Nonetheless, this relatively lesser material really works on Beatles VI, full of harmonies and jangly twelve-string riffs. Forget the US Rubber Soul – this is the album that feels right in tune with McGuinn and The Byrds. I feel like “Act Naturally” should be on this album. John’s snarling performance of “Bad Boy” is here though – when I was little I used to like how the “teacher was ready to poop.” Still, these covers are showing the strain of the schedule, as the formerly infectious charm has become more tightly wound, a bit more forced.
Again the US market gets a scattershot version of an excellent UK soundtrack album. The James Bond intro is here, but unfortunately so are the awkward instrumentals like “From Me To You Fantasy” and the Wagner quoting “In The Tyrol.” There’s no flow, no momentum at all unless you like pretentious orchestral arrangements in among your Beatles tracks. Even the sitar version of “A Hard Day’s Night” sounds bogus, far from the authentic sounds of George’s later incorporation of Indian musicians – that ain’t Shankar man, that sounds like some studio pros hooting along on recorders. I feel bad for some of these great Beatle songs spread among the dreck, so that poor “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” is buried at end between two hacky mood pieces. Shameful. I’m glad we have this one on CD for posterity, but you need the UK Help! for this material, preferably the stereo version.
Rubber Soul (1965)
The UK Rubber Soul is a stunning album of progressively funky pop rock – it flows with melody and wit, clever arrangements and exotic instrumentation. I love it. If not for a certain double white album the boys released a few years later, I would call it their best work. The Amercian Rubber Soul has garnered a reputation as a folk rock album in tune with the Byrds/Dylan sound of the period. But that’s really just a programming trick, as a few tracks have been shuffled around – the opening skiffle throwaway “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” from the UK Help!, is a great little song and a clever choice for an opener as it sets the tone for a casual acoustic album, while John’s “It’s Only Love” opens side two to similar purpose. But Rubber Soul is not really a folk album, it’s warm soulful pop – plastic soul, man. The quieter moments – “Michelle,” “In My Life” – feature really elegant arrangements while the rock stuff uses fuzz guitars and Hammond organs for an organically funky sound. But folk? Not so much, except for maybe John’s “Norwegian Wood,” an exotic, wholly unique song with a mysterious ending that still inspires narrative debate (the house burned down or just good hash?) – I don’t hear much Dylan in there, although Bob would respond with “Fourth Time Around,” which parodies the song to play up the supposed similarity. I enjoy the American mix of “I’m Looking Through You” with the false start, but overall this version pales in comparison with the UK original.
Yesterday And Today (1966)
Turn the record on its side and you’ll find one of the earliest clues of the Paul Is Dead madness. Turn the record again and they’re all upside down. Peel the artwork back and you might find the most gruesome cover artwork this side of Cannibal Corpse. But just listen and you’ll hear the best album of this box set. The riffy “Drive My Car” and “Day Tripper” bookend the album, and otherwise uncollected tracks like “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone” fit perfectly with their driving rhythms and Paul’s brilliant bass runs. Why do George’s songs always sound so grouchy? At least John’s angry stuff is always suffused with some insight. I still love “If I Needed Someone” though, as it’s George’s best pre-Indian song, and one of the catchiest of these ringing riff based tunes. Three tracks are pulled from the still unreleased Revolver: John’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Dr Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.” “Yesterday” is here too, hence the title. Somehow this one feels like a better album than the US Rubber Soul or Revolver. My father’s copy – just like everyone else’s – was peeled at the corner to see if there was a butcher cover hiding underneath. The US Albums set gives you both covers, but I actually prefer the trunk one. Love this album.
The US Revolver feels like the more experimental cousin of Yesterday…And Today, with droning raga rock of George’s “Love You Too” and the chamber piece classicism of Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby.” The full album didn’t really come to full prominence over here until the UK catalog became standard in the eighties, and lots of folks consider this one their best. I never really cared for the brittle mix and some of the tracks where the arrangements seem to overcompensate for weaker songs (“Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Love You Too”). Although “Here There And Everywhere” probably could have benefitted from a bit more production work – is it just me or is that rhythm guitar a bit sharp? But the US Revolver is an interesting story, as the cutting of the three John tracks limits his contributions to the two side closing acid freakouts “She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Tom Wolfe described how Kesey and his gang floated into that final Beatles show in San Fransisco, and they must have really recognized a fellow traveller in Lennon. Much of his material from this period is suffused with drug culture (“Ring my friend, I said you’d call…”) but the US Revolver really presents a picture of John as a far gone voyager down the same highway as the Pranksters. “Tomorrow Never Knows” used to scare me when I was little, but it’s such a transcendent recording; recall that the Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher had a hit thirty years later with what was essentially a thinly disguised cover version. Meanwhile Paul’s songwriting is blossoming, with the seemingly effortless style of “For No One.” So this Revolver is not a complete picture, but it’s an intersting listen given the context of the psychedelic era. Plus OJ Simpson titled his post-murder memoir after George’s “I Want To Tell You” – who would have thought he was a Revolver fan too?
Hey Jude (1970)
The Beatles Again? I’m not really a fan of compilations, particularly with a catalog as special as The Beatles. Years ago, fans bought the Red and Blue best of’s as either replacements for scratchy copies or for previously unavailable singles, but what’s with stuff like that 1 album? Greatest hits?It’s the bloody Beatles – every song is great! (Except for “Octupus’s Garden,” which inexplicably made it onto the Blue set.) But still I love this Hey Jude album, which actually served a purpose in its time by collecting singles into a full LP. Side one spans the charming pop of “Can’t Buy To Love” to the drowsy psychedelia of “Rain” and the overdriven Mao boogie “Revolution.” Side two collects a few more late period singles, with John’s desperate “Don’t Let Me Down” and George’s “Old Brown Shoe,” which sounds like it was recorded in shoebox. And we get one my favorite Beatles songs, the bluesy travelogue “The Ballad Of John And Yoko.” This was the final Lennon/McCartney studio collaboration and you can hear that perfect chemistry, the way Paul’s bass and harmonies propel John’s autobiographical song into something really special. So many little touches that build and build – the stabbing piano, the electric flamenco guitar runs, the Yoko bridge (“Last night the wife said…”). The song just sounds like a natural progression of what The Beatles were all about, sans psychedelia and orchestral production. We have returned to John and Paul just playing rock and roll. It perfectly caps off this whole set.
Do you really need this box set? It’s The Beatles, of course you do. I actually prefer the American versions of the material from the UK With The Beatles and Beatles For Sale with the incorporation of concurrent singles. In particular, Second Album and Beatles ’65 are far better documents to my ears, while Yesterday…And Today holds up as the most cohesive album of the whole set. Ignore the finicky controversy over the track selection – you need all this, even if you already own these mixes. Up next: the mono mixes are about to be released on vinyl, so we can all buy this stuff again.