Chances are that if you were an American who came of age during the Beatles’ pop-messianic heyday, you didn’t start hearing them as they — and producer George Martin — intended until 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In other words, 3½ years after “She Loves You” had tumbled into the world as the band’s first legit masterpiece. The reason? Quite simply, Capitol Records, the Beatles’ US label, and a most nettlesome label at that.
As the band started having success in England over the course of 1963, their British label, Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI, began offering Beatles discs to its US counterpart, Capitol. Hearing nothing, really, to compare this music to, and deciding that anything unique must be faddish and therefore not commercially viable, Capitol essentially told Martin and his Liverpool quartet to take a walk, which they did, selling the music to smaller labels like Indiana’s Vee-Jay. Without much in the way of backing and promotional budget on that label, material like “From Me to You” hung in limbo, waiting for a proper chance out in the world —
The result: the first US visit in February 1964, global domination, and a spate of albums — the 13 collected here — that the Beatles themselves had next to nothing to do with conceiving, assembling, or ordering.
Anyone whose listening career has placed a goodly amount of its focus on the Beatles’ first seven UK albums — which were released for the first time on CD in the late 1980s — ranging from 1963’s “Please Please Me” to 1966’s “Revolver” is in for some disorientation here, albeit of an innocuous, pleasant variety.
The ear has certain expectations. It wants, for instance, to hear the opening sturm und drang piano thrash of “Money” after the bittersweet major vs. minor key drama of “Not a Second Time,” as on the Beatles’ second UK album, “With the Beatles.” And “With the Beatles” itself, a sophisticated piece of pepped-up rhythm and blues, always sounds like a boon companion to its predecessor, “Please Please Me,” but consider their American cousins, “Meet the Beatles!” and “The Beatles’ Second Album” (vanilla titles being something of a Capitol speciality).
This newly released and handsome box set, “The Beatles: The U.S. Albums,” includes stereo and mono mixes (the Beatles themselves were mono men until ’68), and both LPs shrink the number of songs and fly in singles, something the Beatles were always loath to do. “Meet” features “I Saw Her Standing There” off of “Please Please Me,” but here it’s the second song, following after “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Meaning, the Beatles’ US album career does not begin with a counted in “one-two-three-fauh!” to signify the inevitable march on history. Oh no.
One could make the case that “Second” was the first power-pop album, but the soundtrack to “A Hard Day’s Night” is more notable for long-time collectors in that it features the orchestral recordings from the film that have never made it to CD. They have a kind of Vince Guaraldi/”Peanuts” charm to them — very nostalgia friendly. “Something New” rounds up a lot of the rest of the UK “A Hard Day’s Night,” while “Beatles ’65” is the “Beatles for Sale” analogue. The band would joke, on tour, about how a given song was from “Beatles ’64” or “Beatles VII.” They had no clue. “The Early Beatles” — from March ’65, at that — is a “Please Please Me” retread, with a “Beatles for Sale” cover. Got that? “Beatles VI” and “Help!” are like a combo of the UK version of the latter and a mishmash of incidental film music, and “Rubber Soul” and “Yesterday and Today” serve as a joint comp of ’65 sessions with (oh yeah) one of rock’s top five or six albums buried within that combined output. In following, 1966’s “Revolver” — arguably the best album anyone has ever made in its UK form — is shortened by three tracks. Take that, Beatles.
“Hey Jude” is a charming curio from 1970, whose material ranges from the title track to 1964’s “I Should Have Known Better.” Weirdly, it works, in the fashion of those old Beatles bootlegs like “Ultra Rare Trax” that leapt from year to year, easy peasy. And then there is “The Beatles’ Story,” from 1964, a spoken-word disc that features a lot of uptight guys trying to figure out how this band had become so massive. The consensus? They weren’t like anyone else. And when the resistance to that withers, there is no ceiling. Which is just one reason we’re still getting boxes like this, 50-plus years later. (Out now)
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.