I. Meet the Beatles!
Did The Beatles save rock and roll?
If John, Paul, George and Ringo didn’t save the still-young form, they certainly gifted it with a reinvigorating, exhilarating jolt of musical euphoria the likes of which hadn’t been seen before – and hasn’t been duplicated since. The scene was early 1964. Buddy Holly was long gone, and the big hits had dried up – at the moment, at least – for Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Elvis had served his time in the Army, threatening to turn the rebellious rogue into a symbol of The Establishment. Of course, all was far from lost. The rise of the Brill Building led to some of the most well-crafted, immaculately-produced records of all time, though many of those were as indebted to classic Tin Pan Alley songwriting as to the youthful spirit of rock and roll.
Enter The Beatles. By the end of the tumultuous year, the group had charted 28 records in the U.S. Hot 100 (11 in the Top 10) and released five – count ‘em, five – albums on Capitol plus one soundtrack on United Artists. Capitol had a lot of catching up to do to sate seemingly insatiable demand for the music of the Liverpudlian quartet. Those heady early days in which The Beatles began the charge that would transform “rock and roll” into “rock” are chronicled on the splendid new 13-CD box set The U.S. Albums. It presents the unique albums released stateside between 1964 and 1966, plus one from 1970, including five which have never before appeared on CD (well, legally, anyway) anywhere in the world. [Every album in the box is also available for individual sale save The Beatles’ Story which is exclusive to the box.]
From the time The Beatles broke into the British Top 20 in late 1962 with “Love Me Do,” there was no turning back. By the end of 1963, the hard-working band had scored five singles in the U.K. Top 20, three of which went to No. 1. Debut long-player Please Please Me was No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart for 30 weeks, only finally displaced with the arrival of sophomore LP With the Beatles. The stage was set for world domination, and the key to that international success was America. But could The Beatles repeat that level of success on American shores?
Dave Dexter Jr., head of Capitol’s international A&R, had been rejecting Beatles singles since late 1962 and “Love Me Do.” Dexter’s recalcitrance led to EMI entering into early licensing agreements with labels like Swan and Vee-Jay (Remember The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons? Or Introducing…The Beatles? Altogether unsurprisingly, they’re not included in this box set!). But the executive could only ignore the future Fabs for so long. “She Loves You,” rejected by Dexter for U.S. release, had become the first British record to sell one million copies prior to its release; With the Beatles sold 500,000 copies within a week of its release date. Capitol had no choice but to pay attention to these numbers, especially given the small size of the U.K. compared to the U.S. market. When Capitol finally acquiesced and signed the lads, Dexter was the one in charge of packaging the band’s music for American audiences.
Meet the Beatles, his first newly-created U.S. album, was based on With the Beatles, the group’s second British LP. It arrived in stores on January 20, 1964, just weeks before the band debuted on the February 9 broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show. 73 million viewers tuned in, a higher number than had watched any program in television history. The reviews weren’t all glowing; in fact, many were far from it. But Beatlemania couldn’t be stopped. The ensuing frenzy was, perhaps, a manifestation of the power of the nascent youth culture, but soon the Fab Four dominated culture, period.
The American media was poised to rebel against this revolution, looking upon The Beatles’ seemingly inevitable success with curiosity and distrust. But America, still smarting from the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, was poised to accept these bright young men with all of their enormous promise, goofy humor, and messages of love and hope in their music. What wasn’t immediately evident except perhaps to the most perceptive listeners was the mélange of influences that informed The Beatles’ revolutionary sound – showtunes, music hall ballads, rockabilly, country-and-western, Brill Building pop, and rhythm and blues, to name a few. It didn’t hurt that the lads’ looks were as revolutionary as their music. They were, of course, “the whole package.” The Beatles were frequently queried about how long such success could possibly last. Even the most confident of them likely couldn’t have imagined the fact that, 50 years later, their music would remain just as beloved – perhaps even more – as during those heady days of 1964.
Meet the Beatles! didn’t disappoint…far from it. Dexter’s LP remained at No. 1 on the Billboard chart for eleven weeks, ceding only to The Beatles’ Second Album. When the United Artists soundtrack album to A Hard Day’s Night arrived, it spent 14 weeks at No. 1, the longest run of any album in 1964. Capitol’s Something New could have been considered a disappointment as it peaked at No. 2, but it was held from the top position by…A Hard Day’s Night! Beatles ’65 spent nine weeks at No. 1 and was crowned the best-selling LP of 1965. The Beatles were no flash in the pan.
After the jump: what exactly will you find in The U.S. Albums?
The discs contained in The U.S. Albums are the records that ushered in the British Invasion, yet their importance wasn’t always recognized. When The Beatles’ recordings came to CD for the first time in 1987, the U.S. releases were almost completely ignored, as Apple Corps favored an approach to standardize the catalogue with the U.K. albums – which, it’s paramount to note, were the only versions completely created and sanctioned by the band and their producer, George Martin. One U.S. release did “make the cut” – Capitol’s Magical Mystery Tour, which explains its absence from The U.S. Albums. Martin also remixed two albums, Help! and Rubber Soul, to provide more natural stereo soundscapes.
Capitol’s American creations were, after all, cobbled together from various U.K. releases, and even when albums bore the same titles as their British counterparts, the material was still often quite different. For one thing, the U.S. albums were limited to twelve tracks, whereas their British counterparts boasted fourteen. Capitol also desired to place on albums the non-LP singles recorded by The Beatles overseas. The British A Hard Day’s Night and Help! LPs were all-Beatles, all-the-time. Their American counterparts subbed out numerous cuts for instrumental, orchestral tracks. It wasn’t until 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that The Beatles finally were able to demand that their original albums – created and sequenced by the band and their producer in the U.K. – be released worldwide, untouched.
The differences between the U.S. and U.K. releases extended beyond repertoire. Dexter had frequently altered Martin’s original mixes, adding reverb to several tracks and simulating stereo via Capitol’s “Duophonic” process on other tracks. Apple delivered on the promise of CD releases for the familiar U.S. titles in 2004 with The Capitol Albums Vol. 1, containing Meet the Beatles!, The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New and Beatles ’65 on CD for the first time. A second volume followed in 2006 with The Early Beatles, Beatles VI, and the U.S. versions of Help! and Rubber Soul. Both of these box sets retained all of Capitol’s mixes, including the “fake stereo” duophonic tracks.
Clearly, Apple felt the 50th anniversary of the Fabs’ American arrival warranted an upgrade for these beloved albums. In addition to re-presenting those already reissued via The Capitol Albums Vols. 1 and 2, the new set premieres the five albums never before on CD – the United Artists soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the audio documentary The Beatles’ Story (1964), Yesterday and Today (1966), the U.S. Revolver (1966) and Hey Jude (1970). Every album in the box includes both mono and stereo mixes save the stereo-only Beatles Story and Hey Jude. Make no mistake: this set is every bit as lavish as its historically-significant (and still exciting and vibrant) music deserves.
However, the set is not without controversy. The decision was made by Apple not to replicate the original U.S. albums’ often-dodgy mixes, but rather to use their track listings as a jumping-on point to recreate the albums anew for 2014. The band’s preferred mixes – as remastered for the core catalogue in 2009 – provide the basis for The U.S. Albums. For the most part, that is. (More on that later.) All of the “duophonic”/fake stereo mixes are absent here, replaced with true stereo versions. The tracks subjected to additional reverb by Capitol have been largely stripped of it. The mono tracks which were “folded down” from stereo have been replaced with true mono versions. George Martin’s 1987 mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul have been utilized, as well, rather than the originals. Now, here’s the “most part” part. The 2009 remasters have undergone further audio tweaking and subtle volume adjustments. Producers have also chosen to preserve certain unique U.S. mixes and edits in both the mono and stereo portions of the albums while others have been overlooked. (For those who are interested, the Usenet Guide to Beatles Recording Variations is one particularly valuable resource in determining what’s what, and a page of a lengthy thread here might also prove helpful.) The box’s notes indicate that “the original U.S. albums were used as models and set the overall direction for the process” of assembling this set.
Your level of devotion to authenticity will likely determine your mileage concerning this set which has been assembled and remastered, in part, by Greg Calbi of Sterling Sound. (Remastering for the set is credited to Paul Hicks, Sean Magee, Guy Massey, Sam Okell, Steve Rooke and Greg Calbi, under the supervision of Steve Berkowitz.) The U.S. Albums raises a question that periodically occurs when considering reissues and catalogue titles: Is it more important that a reissue reflect an original recording, however flawed, or strive for the best possible sound and quality? Frank Zappa famously re-recorded parts of his released albums when revisiting them for compact disc. Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones are among the artists who have prepared previously unreleased material for CD by re-recording vocal and instrumental parts decades later. The last round of American reissues of Frank Sinatra’s Reprise catalogue extensively remixed the original recordings. In the case of The Beatles, few would argue – though a cursory look around the Internet will easily turn up those few – that true stereo sounds better than “fake” duophonic, or that true mono beats “fold downs.” Likewise, most would agree with George Martin that The Beatles’ Abbey Road-made recordings didn’t need any additional reverb (reportedly added to achieve a more “American” studio sound). Should Capitol and Apple have replaced those mixes here, given that they were the mixes with which these tracks were introduced to the American public? Each person reading this might well have a different answer, but if you’re looking for the best sounding versions of these songs and not necessarily the versions you heard in the sixties, you will, indeed, find them here.
If that’s not enough, keep in mind that the two volumes of The Capitol Albums already have preserved the original U.S. versions of all but five of this box set’s albums on CD. Of those five making their CD debuts here:
- The mono Hard Day’s Night soundtrack is accurate to the original U.S. pressing; the album was never released in true stereo, so the true stereo version here is a welcome extra.
- The Beatles’ Story, an audio documentary written by John Babcock and produced by Gary Usher and Roger Christian of Beach Boys fame, has been derived from its original Capitol stereo masters.
- The U.S. Revolver and Hey Jude (the former in both mono and stereo, the latter stereo-only) are also said to be wholly accurate to the Capitol and Apple LPs, respectively.
- That leaves Yesterday and Today as the box set’s one title that still hasn’t appeared on CD in its original form (and likely never will). The U.S. Albums version preserves unique U.S. mixes of “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” in mono, and “We Can Work It Out” and “Day Tripper” in stereo. The other eight stereo tracks have been replaced with U.K. versions (many with the 1987 remixes); the U.S. mono tracks were largely identical to the U.K. tracks to begin with, and so only “Drive My Car” and “If I Needed Someone” have been replaced with U.K. mono versions.
In short, other than Yesterday and Today, all of The Beatles’ original U.S. album configurations can now be acquired on CD.
The U.S. Albums has been designed by Meire Murakami and Mike Diehl as a companion piece to the 2009 release The Beatles in Mono. The striking slipcase box is the same size, and like that set, contains each album in deluxe Japanese-style oversized mini-LP jackets. Each jacket is individually sealed in plastic, and besides the painstakingly recreated artwork, contains replicas of the original inserts and the CD itself in an inner sleeve. Like the album art, the original labels from Capitol, Apple and United Artists have also all been recreated. (The individually-released CDs also have OBI strips; these are not included with the box set’s CDs.) Original gatefold covers have also been retained. Only the most jaded Beatlefan won’t experience at least a small thrill finally picking up A Hard Day’s Night on CD and discovering the period United Artists logo or the inner sleeve advertising albums from George Jones, Duke Ellington and Ferrante and Teicher plus the soundtracks to From Russia with Love and Never on Sunday! Even more exciting is the presentation of Yesterday and Today. At first glance you’ll notice the final “trunk” cover, but once you open the album, you’ll find that the trunk cover is a sticker, and the actual CD boasts the infamous “butcher” cover! The Capitol Albums boxes were sharply criticized for their oddly shoddy packaging; no such complaints could be leveled against this beautiful, sturdy package. A new “The Beatles 50” logo adorns the box alongside the Apple, Capitol and UMe labels, as well, signaling that future projects may be in the works for 2014.
A squarebound paperback 64-page booklet is included, which is lavishly illustrated with photographs, memorabilia and single sleeve images and original album advertisements. A page dedicated to each album preserves credits and chart positions, but individual notes aren’t made as to the origins of each track. The centerpiece of the booklet is Bill Flanagan’s thoughtful and comprehensive essay which places these albums in context and also delves into the variations between the U.S. and U.K. LPs. Some wags might note the irony of an essay beginning with “How would you feel if someone told you your memories were WRONG? The way you remember it didn’t happen – or if it did happen, it was a mistake. You’d be bothered, you’d be annoyed, you’d resent whoever was devaluing your experience.” Flanagan is, of course, referring to some American fans’ reactions when the Beatles catalogue was standardized in 1987 to the U.K. albums only. Some readers might feel “bothered, annoyed” and resentful at the liberties taken by The U.S. Albums to its source material. A second note in the booklet defends the decision as “an effort to preserve the original intentions of the band and the producers”: “While doing so [remastering from the Capitol master tapes] would have been the easiest way to go, it would not have created the best possible listening experience.” The U.S. Albums is, then, the best of both worlds – the track listings American fans remember from fifty years ago with the sound quality demanded by present-day listeners. On those counts, it succeeds mightily.
The U.S. Albums is an engrossing and sonically superior presentation worthy of the monumental, significant, and yes, fun music within its slipcase. It traces the evolution of The Beatles’ liberating sound from Motown and Chuck Berry covers and effervescent originals like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” through the creation of their own “new standards” such as “In My Life” and “Yesterday.” This is music that doesn’t grow old, music that knows no barriers. Some might prefer the “pure” remasters on The Capitol Albums Vols. 1 and 2. Those who do should hold onto those volumes and pick up the new Hard Day’s Night, Revolver and Hey Jude titles to all but complete your set. The U.S. Albums is a new, thrilling, alternative look at the essential records that ignited cultural change and brought generations apart, then together. You say you want a revolution? Look no further.