1962 - 1966 (a.k.a. The Red Album)
I like to call “The Red Album” the angst-free Beatles.
It’s not that the Beatles were completely carefree during 1962-66, the period covered on the album. They were dealing with all of the problems that come with love, business, drugs and unprecedented fame. But the songs presented here capture the period before love, business, drugs and unprecedented fame began to tear the band apart.
The album and its companion, “The Blue Album” that covers the band’s greatest hits from 1967-1970, were released in 1973—three years after the group broke up. But listening to “The Red Album”, it’s easy to pretend that the Beatles are still together and that fans are only a tour away from seeing the band perform live in their hometown.
In addition to angst-free Beatles, “The Red Album” also lacks any of the classic rock ‘n’ roll cover songs that played a such prominent role in the group’s early days. Any energy the album lost by leaving “Twist and Shout” on the cutting room floor is more than made up for by the chance to listen to John Lennon and Paul McCartney evolve as songwriters—and the band evolve musically—without the work of other artists getting in the way.
In the beginning, it was all about simplicity. There is no complicated mythology behind songs like “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do”. The songs are credited to Lennon and McCartney and the words and music were true collaborations between the two. The songs are personal only to the point that they are universal—after, all what guy doesn’t want to hold his crush’s hand? The Beatles’ early work is all about clever wordplay, just-right guitar chords and throwaway lyrics becoming words that stick with you for days because the three voices singing them sound so right together (Sorry Ringo.)
It makes perfect sense that the first half of “The Red Album” ends with “Yesterday”. Though lyrically straightforward, the song is worlds away from those that come before it on this album. It was written solely by McCartney and he is the only member of the group to appear in the recording. “Yesterday” is a prediction of the group’s future. It represents the point where there was no longer any question of the Beatles’ success being about the right group coming along at the right time with the right haircut. This is when the band began to elevate itself to the next level. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that “Yesterday” is my least favorite Beatles song. I skip it every time I listen to Help. But I listened to it over and over as part of “The Red Album” and there’s no doubt in my mind that it belongs there.)
The album’s latter half contains a few tastes of the early Beatles including “Help” and “Day Tripper”. They fit here—but as stark contrasts to the more complex, experimental work the group began to embrace. Although “Norwegian Wood” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” are credited to Lennon/McCartney, there is no question that they are Lennon songs. The reverse is true for “Eleanor Rigby” and “Michelle”—officially, the songs are collaborations but clearly belong to McCartney. Lennon was the outspoken controversial face of the Beatles and his songs are equally in your face; he makes no effort to hide his feelings. McCartney was always more of an enigma. So too, are his songs. You’ve got to dig behind layers of made-up personas to find allusions to real life. But these songs are also the beginning of the end, the point where the band stopped being about collaboration and started being about three members working to give the fourth what he wanted.
The end of “The Red Album” also marks the end of the Beatles as a touring band. Their final tour began in August 1966, a week before the release of Revolver, which includes “Yellow Submarine,” the last song on “The Red Album”. The group could play “Yellow Submarine” live—but it could never sound the way it does in the recording, as if the band were actually playing inside what the song eventually became, a psychedelic cartoon.
The only thing that isn’t timeless about “The Red Album” is the concept. When the album was first released in the 1970s there were only two ways to get a greatest hits compilation—buy the one released by the band or spend days holed up in a room outfitted with the right recording equipment. Now any music fan can create his or her own greatest hits mix CD in seconds; witness this essay, which was written to the accompaniment of a “Red Album” iTunes playlist that took less than five minutes to create. In about one hour, The Red Album tells the story of the Beatles’ rise to fame. It’s a tale worth playing straight through.