Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Beatles capsules: compilations 1966-1986

Once again I've broken all my promises about taking care of this blog -- you'll just have to believe me that I've continued to work diligently behind the scenes. Here is a post I wrote some time ago; if you're sick of Beatles minutiae, I do apologize and I am going to try my best to sail fervently through the rest of the work I'm doing for this project. At any rate, what you're seeing here is in some ways the ugliest detritus of the Beatles' recorded legacy: the LPs and tapes that littered the marketplace without the band's approval up through the uniform worldwide standardization of their catalog (mostly lining up with the original British releases) and their label Apple's reassertion of artistic control over the group's releases in the late 1980s. If bitching about bad greatest-hits sets isn't the sort of thing that intrigues you, you can skip this post; but if you're like me and get weirdly absorbed in this sort of thing, read onward.

The Beatles: A Collection of Beatles Oldies (Parlophone 1963-66/1966) [r]
Boasting kitschy "Swinging London" packaging with a touch of classed-up retro, this was the first album-length "greatest hits" package released under the Beatles' name, though it only appeared in shops in the UK where it was meant by EMI to stave off complaints about the long lapse of new Beatles material since Revolver. (This was the period when band breakup rumors were particularly fervent, thanks to both the hiatus and the discontinuation of touring.) For British fans who undoubtedly had all of the singles and albums already, it did offer a couple of important features: the first domestic release of the formerly U.S-only Larry Williams cover "Bad Boy" (originally released on Capitol's Beatles VI on the other side of the pond), which is good but incongruous when put up against a bunch of million-selling original singles; and first-time stereo mixes (prepped by George Martin) of a number of songs that had only been audible on 7" EPs and singles and were therefore strictly mono up to now. It's of course been superseded a hundred times over now, but as a semi-canon original Parlophone release (though the Beatles weren't directly involved with it), it's somewhat interesting, especially as a fairly lengthy taking-stock of the catalog at approximately the halfway point. Boasting all of the A-sides through "Eleanor Rigby"/"Yellow Submarine" save the first two (both from Please Please Me and apparently seen as such relics of a bygone time that they didn't merit inclusion) plus the (in England) LP-only Paul serenades "Michelle" and "Yesterday," the compilation hung in for a couple of decades before finally getting deleted and is obviously musically flawless.

The Beatles: Rock 'n' Roll Music (Parlophone/Capitol 1962-70/1976)
When Apple Records (temporarily) ceased as an entity in the mid-1970s and three out of four Beatles left EMI altogether, the label immediately set about pilfering the goods from the catalog sans band approval, and the four of them were all quite displeased with the kitschy cover art and track selection on this very silly double-album, which nevertheless became a huge seller and spawned a belated hit single in the form of formerly buried Revolver cut "Got to Get You into My Life." The emphasis is on fast-and-furious material, though the harder rock of the band's later years is only scantily touched on. The Capitol version is significant for featuring several George Martin remixes of early Beatles cuts, because he was displeased with the use of old twintrack stereo mixes. As he was working in the States, the tapes he used were Capitol's masters so they're not from the original tapes and thus aren't really canon mixes, but for curious listeners, they are "Twist and Shout," "I Saw Her Standing There," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Boys" and "Roll Over Beethoven"; all have channels switched and some slight rebalancing plus the usual extra Capitol reverb. The British version uses the original EMI tapes, not remixed; it's significant as the first stereo appearance in the UK of the entire Long Tall Sally EP. Content-wise, it's hard to object to loud fast Beatles, but it's an oddly uneven experience given the supposed consistency of tone, and it comes close enough to avoiding overlap with the Red and Blue albums that it's kind of annoying when it does repeat selections from those LPs. But it's not a bad listen, just a wildly unnecessary one.

The Beatles: Love Songs (Parlophone/Capitol 1962-70/1977)
The intimate double-album slow-dance variant on Rock 'n' Roll Music, this pretentiously packaged -- with a gatefold that resizes a Richard Avedon Beatles portrait in proportion with their supposed importance! -- compilation starts to take the notion of "themed" Beatles discs to an extreme. And many of the songs don't exactly fit; how exactly are "For No One" and "She's Leaving Home" love songs? There's also considerable overlap with the Red and Blue albums. But as a fairly pedestrian Beatles playlist it's perfectly enjoyable; it's not mysterious how it managed to sell three million copies in America. But today, it is wholly frivolous. (It stayed in print on cassette until well into the '90s; for whatever purpose you might imagine it holding in your personal life, I propose Let's Get It On instead.) Weird mix notes: there's a new bass-heavy, vocal-centered version of "Girl" that's never appeared anywhere else, and a mysterious "Norwegian Wood" that may just be heavily processed mono. "Yes It Is" and "This Boy" appear in fake stereo, with the extant stereo mixes still elusive at this stage; and "P.S. I Love You" is fake stereo by (in EMI's definition) necessity. Again, it's a superfluous release, but no one's going to be angry if you take it out and play it even now.

The Beatles: Rarities [UK] (Parlophone 1963-69/1978)
I've wasted a lot of mental energy trying to figure this one out, and now you can share my burden. This is an (evidently) band-approved compilation that ostensibly packages together all of the Beatles' b-sides and other non-album slash non-hit ephemera; since it was originally a supplement with the huge Beatles Collection LP boxed set, you'd think it would serve the purpose of incorporating everything not on the eleven canon albums plus Yellow Submarine, but in fact it excludes every song that made its way onto the Red and Blue albums and Capitol's American expansion of Magical Mystery Tour. This last part is always where I get stuck. I suppose it's a reasonable assumption that a fan who cared enough to get the enormous box would already have the greatest hits collections, but it still feels weird that they bothered at all with a catch-all if it was going to be as limited in scope as this is, and if MMT was going to be retroactively considered as part of the British discography, why was it left out of the set? So under the theory that you have the box and Red and Blue albums but not Tour, you're missing all the film songs plus "Baby You're a Rich Man." (You're also missing the original 7" version of "Love Me Do" with Ringo on drums, but it's unclear if that was a deliberate oversight or a question of availability since the master was lost.) Moreover, it's weird that one of the Beatles' EPs of exclusively original material (Long Tall Sally) is acknowledged and the other isn't. It's just an erratic way of handling this issue, and the sequencing ("This Boy" into "The Inner Light" into "I'll Get You") isn't very good. The quality of material is almost uniformly high ("their b-sides are better than most bands' A-sides" is a cliché and it's 100% true), though, and it's a fair bet that many British fans had never heard the charity version of "Across the Universe" or the two German songs.

The other big problem with this release is that most of the songs are mono mixes whereas the Collection box is stereo, so if you're trying to put together an complete all-analog collection of the Beatles' catalog, this record will not help you.

The Beatles: Rarities [U.S.] (Capitol 1962-70/1980)
Of all the weird things Capitol and EMI did with the Beatles' catalog in the decade after their breakup, this particular creation stands up as the weirdest and, in retrospect, most incomprehensible -- but also oddly fascinating. Inspired by the UK release of the same title (above) but geared toward American fans for whom the catalog was quite different-looking, with its standardization still seven years in the future, the record gathers all of the Beatles' masters that weren't included on any of the band's Capitol LPs. However, this actually only constitutes seven tracks if you consider the regular American studio albums from Meet the Beatles! through Hey Jude and Let It Be plus the Red and Blue albums: the single version of "Love Me Do" (heard for the first time ever in America), "The Inner Light" (in mono here, uncollected b-side), "Sie Liebt Dich" (stereo, only available prior to this on a somewhat rare Swan single), the charity version of "Across the Universe" (stereo, also previously unissued altogether in the U.S.), "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" (uncollected b-side), "Misery" and "There's a Place." Those last two will seem like especially bizarre inclusions to a modern fan raised on the canon albums, and even most American fans would've known them well from the brisk-selling non-Capitol album Introducing the Beatles as well as a quickly withdrawn budget-line single from Capitol a few years later, but because the label left them off the semi-Introducing repackage The Early Beatles, this is their only appearance on a Capitol LP. It's very surreal to think of a masterpiece like "There's a Place" relegated to obscurity status, but contemporary reviews of the record took note of the two Please Please Me chestnuts as the best reason to buy it.

So how did Capitol fill out the rest of the record? With a woefully incomplete selection of mixing oddities, none of them very well-chosen; given that genuinely interesting divergences like the Matrix I version of "Tomorrow Never Knows, "All My Loving" with the hi-hat intro and "I'll Cry Instead" with a whole extra verse (the mono LPs were out of print by this stage) existed, it's peculiar that something as pointless as "And I Love Her" with an artificially extended guitar outro or a variation on "I Am the Walrus" (incorporating the extra instrumental passage before the "yellow matter custard" verse as on the American single but also extending the intro to match the canonical stereo mix) that the compilers made themselves for this release make the cut. It's also rather weird to feature certain masters just because they're mono, though admittedly this made more sense before the catalog was universally righted, as Americans really wouldn't have heard these versions of "I'm Only Sleeping," "Help!" (with John's variant lead vocal) or the three White Album songs before (because, respectively, Capitol used a different mix entirely, Capitol used a fold-down of the stereo mix, and Capitol did not issue a mono White Album), but if you're opening the can of worms to incorporate stereo-mono variations, it's strange to just go with a few random selections like this. One inclusion that is quite helpful is the promo version of "Penny Lane," here in stereo, with the extended trumpet ending, which I've always treasured ever since first hearing it on this album; and there's something enjoyably perverse about closing us out with the Inner Groove from Sgt. Pepper (not included on original American issues of that album)... but repeated just once, a two-second bite of random noise that's over as soon as it begins. The whole release is a strange, redundant listen now, but I've got a soft spot for it as one of my first windows into true Beatles minutiae (very weird that it was promoted and sold as a mainstream release when its whole parlance is very slight variants on familiar material), plus it's quite handsomely packaged and even includes a full-sized reproduction of the Butcher photo.

[Additional note: Capitol prepped slightly rebalanced remixes of the two Please Please Me tracks for this compilation, somewhat in the vein of the minor tweaking that was done on The Early Beatles for the other twintrack recordings. Neither is significant enough to seek out but if you're a completist it does sweeten the album's appeal a bit.]

The Beatles: The Beatles Ballads (Parlophone 1963-70/1980) [c]
Twenty tracks, many in their third or fourth appearance on these '70s-'80s Beatles compilations, and a particularly large overlap with Love Songs. I've never heard a copy but would assume it sounds terrible, with a running time of 59 minutes on one 12" record. Only significant insofar as it uses John Byrne's proposed cover art for the White Album when it was traveling under the speculative title A Doll's House. And on a grim note, this was the last Beatles album released during John Lennon's lifetime. It was not released at all in the U.S. and was oddly ubiquitous for some time in Australia.

The Beatles: Reel Music (Parlophone/Capitol 1964-70/1982) [c]
Probably the most cynical Beatles repackage of all, this 42-minute slapdash collection of the most famous songs from the band's five film soundtracks was designed to promote a theatrical reissue of A Hard Day's Night and resembles the sort of indignity to which Elvis Presley's music had long been subjected. All but one of the songs were previously collected on the Red and Blue albums so even the most casual fan would've had them already (the sole exception being "I Should Have Known Better," which is still far from obscure), and things like "All You Need Is Love" and "Get Back" were appearing on their fourth Beatles LPs. While the music's mostly great, the selections are deeply uninspired and obvious, and the sequencing that follows "Ticket to Ride" with "Magical Mystery Tour" at the end of Side One and such underlines just how arbitrary the endeavor is. (Perhaps noteworthy that the two songs chosen to represent Yellow Submarine are the two on that soundtrack LP that were recycled from earlier in the band's career; none of the four original contributions were good enough for Reel Music!) The only saving graces here are for hardcore collectors: there's a nice color booklet illustrated by lots of stills and lobby cards that competently runs down the Beatles' cinematic history. (Includes a large photo of Ringo, pants fallen, tied to Foot's machine in Help! that undoubtedly created a few scattered fetishists of some sort out in the world.) And the American version of the record uses a rare, otherwise unavailable remix of "I Should Have Known Better" that artificially repairs the harmonica gaffe in the song's canonical stereo mix; but really, when it comes down to it, who cares? Luckily, this was the last of the "themed" compilations.

The Beatles: 20 Greatest Hits (Parlophone/Capitol 1962-70/1982) [r]
The first single-disc Beatles best-of to span their entire career, this is a pleasant collection of their juggernaut singles, though it illustrates the problem of using charts to determine a track listing, and it's been totally forgotten and superseded in the wake of 2000's Beatles 1 CD... though I would argue it's actually a better-looking package than the later release. The British version features all their official UK number-one hits plus "Love Me Do," while the American version starts off with a bang with "She Loves You" and boasts a little more sonic variety thanks to ballads like "Yesterday" and the masterpiece "Penny Lane," which only got to #2 in England. 1 would effectively combine the two versions of the release and obviously gives a more complete picture, plus it isn't forced to use a cut-down five-minute "Hey Jude" like the American vinyl release of this. At any rate, being a non-Beatle-approved creation, it's only especially noteworthy as the answer to some trivia question about why those promo ads for 1 got it wrong when they said there'd never been a one-disc Beatles greatest hits collection before!