They are the greatest pop culture phenomenon of our lifetime and the ongoing artistic touchstone for rock music. But by the 21st century, the Beatles have become synonymous with music industry greed; they are a cash cow milked annually for the progressively lactose-intolerant.
They are the greatest pop culture phenomenon of our lifetime and the ongoing artistic touchstone for rock music. But by the 21st century, the Beatles have become synonymous with music industry greed; they are a cash cow milked annually for the progressively lactose-intolerant. Beginning with the two-disc Live at the BBC archive released 10 years ago, the Apple Corporation (the Beatles' business entity) and EMI Records have overseen a continuous onslaught of product that revisits and reconfigures the finite output of the Beatles, each release more obviously pandering to the almighty dollar than the last. Including the exhaustive multimedia Anthology project, the remixed Yellow Submarine Songtrack compilation, the landmark hits package The Beatles 1, and finally, last year's inessential reworking of the band's weakest album, Let It Be... Naked, these releases have succeeded in alienating much of the target audience, especially those still waiting for re-release of the official catalog albums. After all, 17 long years have passed since the initial mastering of the albums for compact disc, which just happens to be the same length of time between those releases and the Beatles' acrimonious breakup in 1970 -- in other words, an entire generation has passed, or with regard to the improvements in digital technology, a veritable eon.
The release of this year's The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 simply adds insult to injury for the patient fan. While many younger converts may not even be aware that all of the Beatles' releases in the U.S. prior to 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured different track listings, titles, artwork, and in some cases, sound mixes from their respective British counterparts, the bulk of stateside Beatles enthusiasts had to accept the digital Beatles in entirely new and unfamiliar configurations. Most American fans were aided through the transition, knowing that the worldwide standardization of the catalog was faithful to the original artistic vision of the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, but the dissenting nostalgist contingent out there refused to shut up, and EMI spent the better part of two decades justifying their decision not to placate them. And, thus confronted by the barren holiday season of 2004 with no new Beatles product to promote, a box set featuring remastered releases of the first four U.S. albums must have all of a sudden seemed like a fantastic idea to the opportunist record company. The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 not only caters to the loud nostalgists, it successfully suckers the die-hards clamoring for audio upgrades while presenting itself as a historically pure artifact. The albums presented here aren't simply remastered; each one includes both stereo and mono mixes, faithful to the options available in the mid-'60s. Therefore, much of this material appears in stereo for the first time on CD, a fact likely to become the definitive selling point for fans uncertain about throwing more money into the bottomless corporate repository.
Thankfully, Apple and EMI seem aware of the nostalgic nature of the release and have relegated it to a handsome, if not lavish, gift set, rather than flooding the racks with individual CD releases that would overly complicate the streamlined Beatles discography and intimidate the welcome influx of annual newcomers. However, the box set has been typically supported by the kind of ubiquitous, media-saturating promotional push only afforded to Beatles product, clearly intending to snag an audience beyond the baby-boomers who asked for it in the first place. Careful examination of the four records included here from a non-nostalgic perspective reveals The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 to be just a bit more than the sum of its parts; its generous, though flawed, selection of songs makes for the best single package available for understanding and appreciating the early "pop" Beatles, an undertaking that can prove challenging even to the most vocal supporters of late achievements like Abbey Road or The White Album.
Released in January 1964, the first disc in the set, Meet the Beatles! remains the quintessential catalyst of the fad known as Beatlemania, and the best argument for the band's massive popularity at the time. Simply put, the sophistication and sexuality insinuated under the surface of a number of otherwise innocent-sounding puppy-love anthems was able to subtly uncork teenage girls without their full awareness. Barring the obvious pop concession of "Till There Was You" from the then-current musical/movie The Music Man, the record is a comprehensive sampling of Lennon/McCartney originals plus one Harrison track, heavy on the rocking duets ("I Want to Hold Your Hand", "It Won't Be Long") and romantic sentiments ("All My Loving") that defined the band's early sound. In fact, Meet the Beatles! corresponds most with the traditional image of the band performing happily on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring elements mostly appropriated from their American rock-and-roll influences matched perfectly with undeniably charismatic performances. Each Beatle is also featured in the solo spotlight at least once, as to differentiate the musical personalities that would continue to develop over the years: John as sensitive and defiant ("Not a Second Time"), Paul as emotionally robust and melodic ("Till There Was You"), George as fluid and introspective ("Don't Bother Me"), and Ringo, with his lower voice and limited range, as rootsy, mature, and straightforward ("I Wanna Be Your Man").
Meet the Beatles! is a stunning experience, and as such, its reconfiguration from its UK equivalent (their second album With the Beatles) is particularly understandable. Capitol Records, a subsidiary of EMI not yet confident in their option to release the Beatles' records in the States, had licensed the band's 1963 debut to a small Chicago company and, in the face of the Beatlemania explosion, needed a knockout for their own Beatles debut. By withholding five of the record's cover versions and replacing them at the beginning with the truly era-defining breakthrough single ("I Want to Hold Your Hand") and its flipsides from both countries ("I Saw Her Standing There" and "This Boy"), Meet the Beatles! becomes lean and commercial, perfectly balancing its heightened impact with the integrity of the original album, as the remainder of its contents are featured in the same fundamental running order. The stereo mixes featured here on CD for the first time are technically the dodgiest in the set, primarily because Capitol would often manufacture their own stereo masters from the mono by splitting the frequencies, low to high, from left to right, and then drenching the whole recording in echo to maximize the "bleed" of the sound from one channel to the other. This technique was applied most commonly to singles, as these tracks were not repeated on album in the UK, and subsequently were not included in batches of album stereo masters. For example, a point-to-point comparison of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to its proper stereo version on Past Masters, Volume One indicates that the new version clearly benefits from the clarity and depth of a remaster, but features an overall mix that is muddy and cavernous when it should sound precise and punchy.
Money (That's What They Want)
By April 1964, Beatlemania had overtaken the country, the Beatles legendarily held all top five positions on the singles chart at once, and Capitol chose to cash in on the furor by releasing The Beatles' Second Album. The record demonstrates, more than any other, the disorganized nature of the American releases; sadly, it establishes the poor hodge-podge pattern that Capitol would continue to follow for the next three years, with very little regard to the band's artistic intention. As the shadow to Meet the Beatles!, it doesn't have a UK equivalent to guide its aesthetic, and because six of the eleven tracks are cover versions, it does little to demonstrate the growing artistry of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team. Meanwhile, three of the originals included are older single sides ("Thank You Girl", "She Loves You", "I'll Get You"), while a fourth ("I Call Your Name") is an old song that Lennon revived for the UK-only Long Tall Sally EP, effectively showing a step backward in their creative development. Ironically, the celebrated "She Loves You" had recently caught fire with the public and was now known as the band's follow-up to "I Want to Hold Your Hand". But in reality, the Beatles were on the cusp of their major pop masterwork as composers (A Hard Day's Night), though this is indeterminable based on the contents of The Beatles' Second Album.
Instead, the record focuses on incendiary performances. The Beatles were deeply devoted to such precursors as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Smokey Robinson, and the material of these artists often generated an unbridled passion in the band that was frequently constricted by self-consciousness when they concentrated on their own work. Advertised on the cover, "Roll Over Beethoven" earned its position at the top of the album not because it is a particularly amazing rendition, but to capitalize on the fan interest it had garnered as a single in Canada. The track focuses primarily on Harrison, whose enthusiastic vocals and guitar work are nearly overshadowed by the chorus of handclaps that propel the song forth and make it one of the Beatles' faster, more energetic dance numbers. Even more worthy of special attention, and a Beatles live favorite for many years, the electrifying "Long Tall Sally" places McCartney right alongside his heroes, rather than anywhere beneath them. The track may be especially effective for new fans, who know McCartney more for his easygoing pop tendencies rather than such hard-rocking, rollicking numbers. Ultimately, though, The Beatles' Second Album tends to be dominated by Lennon, whose takes on formative Motown hits like "Money" and "Please Mr. Postman" offer the best combination of throat-tearing raucousness and soulful longing that the Beatles have to offer.
Sonically, the second album offers little beyond the flaws of Meet the Beatles!. Four of the tracks (all Beatles originals) suffer from the cloudy "fake" stereo technique found on the U.S. debut, including the only officially released stereo version of "She Loves You" to date. Again, the covers fare better, but only as far as the original two-track recordings will take them. The channel separation still seems rather thin, and though liberal amounts of echo attempt to remedy this, the most notable increase in the Beatles' recording sophistication would happen with their third full-length release.
Can't Buy "Can't Buy Me Love"
Something New should have been the band's next great artistic leap forward, as well as its significant advance in studio complexity. After all, the album from which it drew its material in the U.K. represented the first all-new collection of Beatles songs since the band's meteoric worldwide ascent. However, Capitol had once again shot itself in the foot. Prior to the band's breakthrough, the label executives had signed the rights to the soundtrack for a proposed Beatles motion picture over to the film's production company, United Artists. And though Capitol had also retained the rights to release the songs from the film, United Artists released their A Hard Day's Night soundtrack ahead of schedule and subsequently conquered the market. Capitol, then, was forced to replace key tracks on Something New, such as the recent chart-toppers, "Can't Buy Me Love" and the film's title track, in order to prevent the release of a redundant LP. The subsequent absence of these tracks is this box set's greatest flaw, crippling a near-perfect document of 1964's Beatlemania outbreak. Interestingly, EMI has owned the United Artists Records roster since 1979, when it reissued the soundtrack on Capitol, and thus could have included it in this set; instead, those itchy nostalgists can probably expect a future release of The UA Album, Vol. 1.
In its final form, Something New still carries eight new somethings written by the Beatles, plus the remaining pair of cover versions from the Long Tall Sally EP, and a novel, yet dull, German version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." While Meet the Beatles! featured Lennon and McCartney as a songwriting team, nearly content to ape their influences, Something New launches the individual artistic trajectories of both writers, illustrated best by the extraordinary twin ballads revisited from the film soundtrack. Lennon's "If I Fell" and McCartney's "And I Love Her" may share the same delicate mood and melodicism, but the former song emphasizes vulnerability in contrast to the latter's romantic confidence. McCartney's other major contribution is "Things We Said Today," another strong ballad that manages to be lovely without approaching the cloying heights he would achieve within the following year. The rest of the new material showcases Lennon at a career songwriting peak. "When I Get Home" is a gritty, Motown-styled number that would set the bar for the Rolling Stones two years into the future, while "Any Time at All" takes the urgency of the earlier "It Won't Be Long" into slower, more deliberate territory. Capitol's replacement tracks actually detract from the album's Lennon/McCartney feel, as the covers are both mid-tempo piano boogie pieces that sound dated -- at least Carl Perkins' "Matchbox" champions a rare Ringo vocal. The German track is another example of Capitol regurgitating product for a buck, as the English-language version had finally just fallen off the charts; it acts as a sorry stand-in for the memorable, upbeat "I Should Have Known Better." But despite the obvious superiority of the original UK A Hard Day's Night album, Something New may be required listening on the strength of its stereo mixes. With no "fake" stereo techniques in evidence, and source material recorded directly to four-track, allowing fuller, busier multi-channel activity, the album sounds phenomenal.
Beatles for Sale, Half Off
In today's music industry, three albums, a feature film, and four chart-topping singles is enough activity from one artist to fill a decade. But back at the end of the summer in 1964, EMI pressured the Beatles into the studio to produce yet another album, just in time for the Christmas market. Creatively spent, and exhausted from the whirlwind, Lennon and McCartney could only generate ten new original songs, two of which ("I Feel Fine" and "She's a Woman") were culled for single release before the album. Then, according to Capitol's own logic and established pattern, the subsequent Beatles '65 should have comprised the remaining track from A Hard Day's Night ("I'll Be Back"), both sides of the aforementioned single, which had since hit number one, and the other eight Lennon/McCartney originals. The new songs all shared either a downcast or reflective mood, with Lennon contributing the particularly introspective "No Reply", "I'm a Loser", and "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", and McCartney laying the groundwork for James Taylor's entire career with the gentle "I'll Follow the Sun." The end result may have been not only a high point in the rapidly growing Beatles catalog, but a contender for their strongest album.
Of course, the executives at Capitol were completely unpredictable, or maybe far too reliable in their whimsy. The Beatles had completed their recording sessions in the UK by quickly knocking off a half-dozen newly recorded cover versions, mostly live staples by the usual suspects: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and even two more songs by Carl Perkins. The resulting UK album (Beatles for Sale) suffered from an incoherence that Capitol could have fixed, but the track listing for its American counterpart appears to have been drawn out of a hat. Named to ensure sales into the New Year, Beatles '65 marks the point at which the U.S. albums dropped any pretense of artistic organization. It maintains the new originals/old covers dichotomy -- haphazardly including both Perkins tracks -- and even reintroduces the shoddy echo-laden stereo mixes that Something New had thankfully avoided. "I Feel Fine" remains one of the Beatles' greatest songs, but its charmingly fuzzy veneer is sadly muddled in audio soup. Confusing and directionless, Beatles '65 is simply not intended for a Beatles neophyte, but as Beatles for Sale was the last of the worldwide CD releases mastered strictly in mono, die-hards may now enjoy hearing the excellent stereo versions of lesser-known classics that this counterpart has to offer.
Let It Be... Forgotten
Capitol's tendency to recompile and recycle continued to degrade the astonishing output of the Beatles, as it does to this very day. In early 1965, the Beatles' "fifth" album was released: a mere repackaging of their 1963 debut -- now back in Capitol's possession -- with commonly available songs inexplicably removed! The other half of Beatles for Sale appeared next as Beatles VI, while Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver were eventually chopped up and reprocessed, allowing the Bride of Frankenstein to be made from their leftovers, Yesterday and Today. Certainly, Apple and EMI will turn their attention to these, as a second box set, just in time for the holiday season in 2005 but why? Even though The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 serves as both a memory piece for nostalgists and a time capsule for new listeners, its purpose as a holdover, to reiterate that the Beatles catalog is in dire need of remastering, is only temporary. And as all post-1964 Beatles material is already available in stereo, the nostalgists need to just let go.
Otherwise, where will it end? With the rumored upcoming SACD reissues? The reintroduction of non-essential compilations like Reel Music? An anniversary edition of Abbey Road reproduced with twice as much gloss? Or perhaps The White Album redesigned into separate Lennon and McCartney solo albums?
To truly preserve and commemorate the Beatles, the focus needs to return to the men and their music the way it was intended to be. Historically speaking, the band should outlive the fad.