Friday, October 9, 2020
The Beatles: 1962-1966 / 1967-1970
No sooner had Allen Klein gained his enviable position as the Beatles' business manager than the band began to disintegrate, in large part because of Paul McCartney's disapproval of his involvement. Upon their official breakup in 1970, Klein was left in control of a dizzying asset -- maybe the most valuable catalog in rock music -- but little opportunity to exploit it, with the former Beatles and Apple's inclination being to concentrate on their respective solo careers. At some point in late 1972, a bootleg compilation of Beatles music called Alpha Omega miraculously managed to take up advertising real estate on TV and radio; it was propagated in flagrant violation of copyright law by the dubiously named label "Audiotape Inc." and was comprised of four records of seemingly randomly selected Beatles and related songs, ranging from "Act Naturally" to "Penny Lane" to "Maybe I'm Amazed," all in something akin to alphabetical order. After filing the obvious lawsuit, Apple evidently saw that the wild success of the $14 package indicated a market already in place for a career-spanning Beatles compilation.
Thus was born the so-called "Red" and "Blue" albums, sold separately with two LPs each, a greatest hits collection of sorts that attempts to weave the complex narrative of the Beatles' seven-plus years in the international spotlight via their singles and other key tracks, assembled in chronological order within a pair of handsome, color-coded packages, complete with lyrics on the inner sleeves. The Beatles' own contributions were limited; George Harrison is said to have had some hand in choosing songs, which is surprising, and John offered up the notion of harnessing the unused Get Back cover photo to provide young Beatles-slightly less young Beatles contrast on the front and back covers. Apart from the ludicrous font on the band's name and album titles, it's all aged very well aesthetically.
As a compilation, the sets certainly serve their purpose; they're a wonderful introduction to the group, and there's no sense equivocating that, and they remain reasonably fun to listen to even for seasoned fans, though both have rather considerable (and annoyingly avoidable) problems that will be apparent to anyone who's a serious follower of the group, as they probably were to everyone who lived through the Beatles' era and had stayed awake through all of it. But hand this much to Klein: this is a notoriously difficult band to "compile," despite the fact that nearly all of their singles were massively successful and the exclusion of many of their hits from LPs would seem to make for a really ideal starting point for an exquisite best-of. Heard today, the subsequent attempts at giving the Beatles the single-disc summary treatment -- 20 Greatest Hits (1982) and Beatles 1 (2000) -- both seem facile, the band's eccentricities sanded down into convenience. It takes a set nearly three times as long to come anywhere close to delivering the goods, and even then you're left contemplating all that's missing.
Adding signature album tracks and a few b-sides to the rundown of the Beatles' singles is, all that said, a noble enough idea. Beatles songs that were buried on LPs in the '60s are as famous as other bands' biggest hits, plus the freewheeling style of the compilation gets around the U.S.-UK divide by incorporating many of the songs that Capitol released as singles sans band approval, like "Nowhere Man," "Eight Days a Week," "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road." It's a solid narrative, and it's also significant as the only time that Apple has succeeded in putting all 26 of the Beatles' official A-sides in one place, which is something that needed to happen in a more concise manner for decades (in mono, which this isn't) and now probably never will, 7" boxed sets aside.
I can certainly attest myself to how formative these two albums can be; I have fond memories of my brother's copy of the Red album that otherwise predate my interest in the Beatles. When I got the pair for Christmas roundabout first grade, it felt like an absolute bounty; I loved studying the songwriting credits and the lyrics, and of course hearing all of these great songs, many of them familiar to me and some of them not; my favorite part was the third and fourth sides of the Red album, unsurprising since Rubber Soul would eventually be one of my favorite albums of all time.
But this brings us to what makes the set rather unbalanced and odd, and I don't know that there exists a satisfactory explanation for what happened here. Just to start with the Red album and its most obvious problem, Rubber Soul is almost comically overrepresented; nearly half of the British version of the LP is included, and while all of the selections are infallible (yeah, even "Michelle," I'm fully grown up now), it marks the first point at which the collection feels vaguely indulgent. I have no objections to screeching the parade of hits to a halt so we can hear John Lennon's psychodramas from his peak year as a composer play out in some of the most sophisticated songs he ever wrote ("In My Life," "Girl," "Norwegian Wood"), but you're left wondering why the rest of the Beatles' albums are almost fully ignored. If you disregard songs that were hits outside the UK, the "deep cuts" included on the Red album are "All My Loving" (a standard, thus an obvious choice) from With the Beatles, "And I Love Her" (ditto, and a ballad to smartly change the pace) from A Hard Day's Night, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" (iconic, makes sense) from Help!, and nothing (hits aside) from Please Please Me, Beatles for Sale, or -- and here's where it gets a little egregious -- Revolver. The only two songs from Revolver we get are both sides of the attendant single, "Eleanor Rigby" c/w "Yellow Submarine," which is, given the logical precedent set just beforehand, appalling.
John is my favorite Beatle and this portion of this compilation may have had a hand in that, but it's not difficult to make out that there's some sort of grudge-holding in place here when, apart from "Eleanor Rigby," none of Paul's signature, startling accomplishments from Revolver -- an album as culturally vital, if not as good, as Rubber Soul -- make their way onto this record, which they would certainly improve. And there's definitely time. (The Red album's other great flaw is that it's very, very short; the total runtime is just over an hour, so long enough to require two LPs but short enough to easily fit on CD, but the tracklist and double-disc division was left intact when the album moved to that format. There was talk of preserving the integrity of the original release, which seems daft for a cash-in greatest hits set.)
Things get a little hairier on the Blue album, which makes a better case that the last few years of the '60s found the band in decline than Greil Marcus ever could; comparing the two releases, there's no question which one has stronger material, and it really seems that this impression could be avoided with a few better choices here and there. It starts with the biggest bang possible, the band's absolute peak: "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," as infallible a moment of impassioned high art as the body of pop music contains. George Martin used to grumble about regretting that those two songs were excluded from Sgt. Pepper, but like their positioning on Capitol's Magical Mystery Tour LP, their inclusion here immediately followed by four selections from Pepper really emphasizes how comparatievly facile that material is, not that it isn't fun or -- in the proper context -- engaging. "A Day in the Life" obviously comes closest but even it is clearly a step down from the single in terms of profundity and beauty, plus it sounds very strange when couched between "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and the inevitable "All You Need Is Love."
Mystery Tour itself is overrepresented; neither the gimmicky title track nor the perfectly fine "The Fool on the Hill" really belong on a best-of, though the compilers are correct to feature "I Am the Walrus." That's one of a rather surprising number of b-sides that make the cut here, although this one, "Revolution" and especially "Don't Let Me Down" are difficult to dispute, all serving to emphasize how frequently Lennon's songs were relegated to the flip in these years. "Old Brown Shoe" feels a little more dubious; to be perfectly honest, it had been so long since I played this record that I was genuinely surprised when it and "The Fool on the Hill" cued up -- they really really feel like oddball choices. (Note also that Klein renders his own American compilation Hey Jude, a mere three years old at this point, almost completely superfluous; only "Rain" and "I Should Have Known Better" fail to appear on either Red or Blue.)
I don't quite know what the right way is to quickly summarize an album as deftly paced and cacophonous with ideas as the White Album, but what I do know is that the three-song token gesture of "Back in the U.S.S.R."-"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"-"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" is probably the worst conceivable way to go. Side Four basically constructs itself with the last couple of singles, the last U.S.-only hit ("The Long and Winding Road"), a wisely measured "Here Comes the Sun" and the somewhat bewildering "Octopus's Garden" and "Across the Universe" continuing the broad strangeness of these two sets right up to the end. But these criticisms are, of course, based on a level of knowledge that the target audience of Beatle novices won't have, and even the most offbeat selection here is possessed of a rather innate appeal that has survived the years well, the genuinely touching "Octopus's Garden" included. As a sort of four-disc Tower of Song, this whole enterprise says a great deal about the Beatles' achievement; with no covers whatsoever, it can be heard as a sort of celebration of the band's purity of songcraft. Except for "From Me to You," "Hello, Goodbye" and "All You Need Is Love," no song on either set is less than very good, and there was no getting around those. The records' utility is more dubious for longtime fans, but many will likely retain a certain nostalgia for them, and they remain a good way to run through all of the popular hits with a few enjoyable sidelines. It's the best "greatest hits" compilation of the Beatles we've got, and the best we're ever likely to get. But... you know... I'm sure you don't need to be told this, but get the fucking albums for chrissake.
Mix variations across the Beatles' catalog in the '60s are a wildly confusing topic that it took decades for fans to really get a handle on, and for many, it's all rather arcane and pointless, but in case you do care: American and British versions of these albums were constructed from each country's own extant masters. Then, when the albums were remastered for their 1993 CD release, the mixes were normalized with a few (allegedly) new mixes and edits made. Alterations were made again in 2014 for a further CD remaster (these are the versions on the streaming sites), and finally for an analog vinyl reissue in 2015. The following is a rundown of each of these major releases of these two titles. Don't ask me about cassettes and stuff, I have no idea.
U.S. 1973 vinyl Red Album: Uses the Capitol album mixes of everything, which means that "Love Me Do" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are duophonic or "fake stereo"; "Please Please Me" and "All My Loving" are Dave Dexter-enhanced stereo mixes from The Early Beatles and Meet the Beatles! respectively; "We Can Work It Out" and "Day Tripper" are the dedicated mixes George Martin made for the U.S. Yesterday and Today album; and "Paperback Writer" is the slightly different stereo mix used on Hey Jude. (This last one is disputed in some quarters.) "Help!" is the canonical stereo mix but someone neglected to lop off the pseudo-James Bond intro from the LP. This was the first U.S. LP release of "From Me to You" besides an obscure Vee Jay album so it uses the UK mix, only with channels inexplicably reversed. Finally, "I Feel Fine" appears in its reverb-drenched American mono single mix, with the stereo one being so muddy even Capitol didn't want to dredge it back up. Canon mixes otherwise.
U.S. 1973 vinyl Blue Album: All canon mixes except "I Am the Walrus" is the odd Capitol-only version with the shorter intro and "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the U.S.-exclusive alternate stereo mix. A new fake stereo mix of "Penny Lane" was made for this compilation, for some reason; and "A Day in the Life" cuts in sharply since it's a segue on Pepper, although the edit comes at a different spot than on the UK release.
UK 1973 vinyl Red Album: All the canon mixes are used except the fake stereo Please Please Me version of "Love Me Do," the fake stereo A Collection of Beatles Oldies version of "She Loves You," a unique version of "I Feel Fine" with whispering sounds at the beginning, and the U.S. stereo mix of "Day Tripper."
UK 1973 vinyl Blue Album: All canon mixes except the U.S. stereo "Strawberry Fields Forever" and a smash cut to the opening of "A Day in the Life" since it segues on the original album.
1993 CD of Red Album: When A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale were first issued as compact discs in 1987, they were both available exclusively in mono; this evidently was partially based on the misapprehension that they were twintrack recordings, although George Martin is on record as wishing to release the entire catalog only in mono. As a result, the songs from those albums that were included on the Red album were issued on CD in stereo for the first time on this compilation, but they were newly remixed (or at least rebalanced). The affected songs are "All My Loving," "Can't Buy Me Love," "A Hard Day's Night," "And I Love Her," "Eight Days a Week." Some sound identical; some have the vocals centered and employ other minor tweaks. They are not widely considered major mix variations, but they do not appear anywhere else in the band's discography, so some completists may want to hold onto this disc. As is routine for all of Apple's reissues of the catalog, the songs from Help! and Rubber Soul appear in George Martin's 1987 remixed versions; you can read about those on our remixes page.
1993 CD of Blue Album: Finally something simple -- all canon mixes except an upgrade: "A Day in the Life" with its beautiful clean acoustic guitar intro, freed from the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" fadeout and applause. This was first presented on the Imagine: John Lennon soundtrack in 1988.
2014 CD of Red Album: Reverts to the standard stereo versions of the songs except the Help! and Rubber Soul tracks which, as on the '93 disc, are George Martin's 1987 remixes; also, the first four tracks are all in mono, with "Love Me Do" presented in its LP rather than single version. (No version of the Red Album uses the correct 7" recording with Ringo on drums.)
2014 CD of Blue Album: Identical (in mix, not mastering terms) to the 1993 disc.
2015 remastered vinyl of Red Album: Sean Magee put together all-analog versions of these two albums for rerelase after the acclaim for his work on the stunning boxed set of the mono LPs. This uses the original British album master but makes two key tweaks on the first side, switching in the mono LP version of "Love Me Do" and the mono single of "She Loves You" in lieu of their fake stereo variants.
2015 remastered vinyl of Blue Album: Same as the original UK vinyl, using the same master.