Four lads, seven years, and 54 of the greatest songs ever
There are purists out there who will argue very fervently against the very idea of compilation albums. They will hold the studio album—long accepted as the primary method of presenting popular (particularly rock) music in long-form to the masses—up as an immutable concept, one that should not be diminished or desecrated by taking select components out and mixing them together with selections from other albums to create something aimed primarily at impulse-buyers and cautious neophytes, the sort of people who refuse to hold the album in the same regard. To pick apart albums for incorporation into a best-of/greatest hits/singles collection would not only remove songs from their proper context, it would strip a band down into an easy-to-digest Cliff Notes format, hitting all the main points while obscuring the finer details. With that in mind, it would be a particular affront to summarize the musical output of the Beatles—not only widely accepted as the greatest rock group ever, but one of the epochal artists in all of modern art—into this perceived lesser format.
Yet, here are a few good reasons why a Beatles compilation should exist. Firstly, while the Beatles assuredly helped spearhead the concept of the pop album as Art, they were also a stunning singles band, responsible for numerous brilliant flipsides that never found their way onto a long-player. Perhaps more importantly, not everything the Beatles recorded was great, or even good. Even their finest albums had one or two duff tracks that are eternally skipped over even by diehards (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, I’m looking at you). Naturally, it’d be nice to be able to indulge in the highlights, particularly if you find yourself stuck somewhere with only a few records to choose from (yes, there are still people out there without MP3 players—don’t ever forget it). Furthermore, there will always be future generations who will need a proper, functional introduction to the Fab Four’s music, and they won’t all have parents or older siblings with copies of Abbey Road or Revolver laying about to act as a road map.
Still, care needs to be taken when figuring out how to assemble the perfect Beatles compilation. The multi-million unit-shifting 2000 release 1 appeared a good idea on paper—compile all the Beatles’ chart-toppers into one hits-packed disc—but it ultimately comes up short, given that its remit dictated the exclusion of essential album cuts, overwhelmingly favored John Lennon-fronted material in its first half and that by Paul McCartney in the latter end, and omitted the band’s masterpiece, the 1967 single “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Crucially, 1 demonstrates that a solitary disc is simply not enough space to cram the story of the Beatles into. Sure, it’s rather unreasonable to demand people buy five or six albums from the outset if they want to see what all the fuss about these lads from Liverpool, England is all about, but even one 80-minute CD is too limited a scope to effectively convey the quartet’s stylistic breadth as well as include all the mandatory hits.
That’s why the double-CD sets 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 (colloquially referred to as the “Red” and “Blue” albums due to their packaging colors, respectively) remain the ultimate assemblage of the utter best of the Beatles’ magnificent catalog. Originally released in 1973 and now reissued by the band’s boutique label Apple as part of its extensive remastering campaign (in the sort of tight, environmentally-friendly slipcases that nevertheless invite the threat of packaging tears every time one attempts to remove a disc), both collections were sorted out by Beatles manager Allen Klein, who rounded up all the band’s canonical self-penned singles and cherry-picked the highlights of its album cuts. His choices remain impeccable: you can quibble that these sets don’t include your favorite Beatles tune (it doesn’t include mine), but all the group’s high points are accounted for and each album save for the underwhelming Yellow Submarine soundtrack is represented. Expansive without being unwieldy, the combined sets yield a sum total of over two-and-a-half hours of music spread over four CDs. That’s admittedly still a ton of music to get through, but it’s realistically as ruthless an approach to trimming the band’s output down one can implement without excluding anything vital.
The chronological tracklist order the sets utilize is smart and ultimately logical, illuminating the group’s snowballing artistic development throughout its career as well as accounting for the various advents made in recording technology throughout the 1960s (many pioneered by the Beatles themselves) that make songs captured to tape in 1969 sound markedly different from those laid down in 1963. It all starts inauspiciously enough with the band’s debut single “Love Me Do”, a pleasant yet slight ditty. Things really start to get cooking with the second track “Please Please Me”—where primary songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney deftly ratchet up the excitement level in a standard verse-chorus-bridge song structure—and hit the first real high-water mark with the irresistible “She Loves You”, which features a chorus for the ages. After that, it’s clear sailing through hit after hit, radio staple after radio staple, as the changes wrought throughout the band’s career unfold before the listener: songs get longer, the lyrics expand beyond love-based topics, the drums become more prominent, blues scales give way to Indian-flavored ones, those career-making harmonies become deployed less often, lead guitarist George Harrison emerges as a masterful songwriter in his own right, and so on. Although the sets were originally compiled with the vinyl format in mind—which explains why songs from the same studio album do not always follow their original sequential order and why the consummate album opening number “A Hard Day’s Night” shows up in the middle of the first CD—both compilations flow beautifully in compact disc form without the benefit of having for flip a disc over to create a break in the listening experience.
Now, you can certainly go on for days picking apart of the magic of the Beatles’ songbook (we here at PopMatters have done that very thing before) so for the purposes of this review, I’ll keep it short. The most important thing to be said is that there is not one bad song to be found within either of these sets. Even the relatively weak material (“Love Me Do”, “Octopus’s Garden”) boasts infectious melodies that stick in your head for days. Meanwhile, the cream of the material captured within these two compilations has long since been canonized in the hearts and minds of music fans everywhere. “She Loves You”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, and “Something” are impeccable pop singles, gold standards of the form to this day. “Yesterday” and “In My Life” are two of the most affecting ballads ever laid to tape. “Hey Jude”, ‘Here Comes the Sun”, and “Let It Be” are eternally life-affirming. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life” were artistic game-changers in modern music that still hold an alluring magic. “Day Tripper”, “Paperback Writer”, and “Revolution” flat-out rock like nobody’s business. And that’s roughly just a fourth of what’s to be found between these two albums.
Both compilations are indispensable for anyone with even a passing interest in rock music and who has a Beatles-sized gap in their collections. Yet, if I had to pick one over the other, I’d have to go with 1967-1970. This set presents the Beatles as full masters of the studio environment, completely unfettered by concerns over whether or not a song can be rendered in live performance. On a pure song-by-song basis, the first disc of 1967-1970 wins out against all other contenders, starting with the absolutely perfect double a-side combo of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, running through choice selections from the 1967 psychedelic touchstones Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Magical Mystery Tour EP, and capping off with the equally gripping 33 1/3 RPM vinyl mates “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”.
The much-hyped remastering of the Beatles’ music as showcased on 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 isn’t the revelation popular chatter would have you believe, in my opinion. The overall sound is slightly louder, slightly sharper, but unless you’re a devoted audiophile you’re fine sticking with your original CD pressings of these records. For those overly familiar with the band’s music to the point where every note is ingrained in the memory, any chance to hear the old magic in a different light can be a very inviting prospect. But as these sets aren’t intended for the already-converted, if you’re a Beatlemaniac already you’d be best served by picking up the individual remastered copies of your favorite albums. Still, you won’t be disappointed with the remastered results.
Critics and music aficionados can quibble about how the “Red” and “Blue” albums could be bettered for an eternity. Yes, there’s about a good dozen songs I can name off the top of my head that deserve a spot on the tracklist (for starters, the proto-metal banger “Helter Skelter” is definitely near the top of the short-list of potential inclusions, while no one should be forced to obtain the Yellow Submarine soundtrack just to get “Hey Bulldog”). Yes, 1962-1966 really should end with the game-changing psych freakout “Tomorrow Never Knows” (another regrettable omission). Yes, there’s too little from Revolver and The Beatles, and—grudging to admit—a little too much from Rubber Soul to be found here. None of that overcomes the fact that these two packages are still two of the greatest, most effective compilations ever assembled. In this pair lies the perfect summation of seven fleeting years of recording where one extraordinary group produced more quality music in such a narrow window than any other rock group before or since. These sets aren’t just the best summary of the Beatles’ output to be found, they demonstrate the pinnacle of rock music’s most heroic period of development. For those discovering the group or even rock music in general for the first time, there’s no better introduction to be found.