Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bittersweet Symphony: The Beatles U.S. Albums Box Set

This past Tuesday, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' invasion of America in February 1964, Capitol Records released The U.S. Albums, a 13-CD Beatles collection that spans from 1964’s Meet The Beatles! to 1970’s Hey Jude. While many fans back in 2009 already shelled out a fair chunk of cash for the official U.K. remastered stereo CDs and the subsequent box set of the mono versions, The U.S. Albums can seem like a redundant cash grab. But these albums actually differed considerably from the band’s U.K. versions, including having different track lists, song mixes, album titles, and even cover art. For those of us who grew up in North America during the Sixties, these were the albums we knew, and the history we were familiar with. The albums presented here are also in both mono and stereo, with the exception of the embarrassingly fawning 2-LP documentary, The Beatles’ Story, and Hey Jude, a collection of mostly unreleased singles, which are in stereo only.

But there are a number of issues that bring a sour taste to this spirit of celebration. To begin with, Capitol had already released two box sets (The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 & 2) containing their first eight American albums a decade ago. So why didn't they just put out Volume 3 to fill out the rest? For those of us who bought those sets, we now have to repurchase them to get the remaining discs. On top of that, do we really need The Beatles' Story added instead of, say, The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which was only made available on LP? Hey Jude is also not a Capitol album, but an Apple product devised by then manager Allen Klein in 1969 after he'd negotiated a new contract for the band and wanted to massage the deal. The only reason it's being included here is because of the inclusion of tracks like "Paperback Writer," "Hey Jude" and "Lady Madonna." So why not then include in the box set Rarities (which is a Capitol release and collects the magical "There's a Place" and "Misery" that were missing on The Early Beatles, as well as "The Inner Light" (the B-side of "Lady Madonna"), and the rare promotional single "Penny Lane" that featured the French horn coda at the end)? But what is worse: Capitol has decided in this new box to largely ignore the original American mixes and use the 2009 ones instead. Even if the 2009 versions sound better, and they do, we are just re-purchasing what we already bought a few years ago. Whatever you think of the altered sound of the North American albums (with their added reverb, duophonic simulated stereo, and remixed songs), you're supposed to be paying tribute to one culture's way of hearing and remembering the past. As always, when it comes to The Beatles' catalogue, Capitol Records finds new and imaginative ways to botch things up. And they've done it right from the beginning just before the group landed in New York to change the world almost half a century ago. 

In 1964, America was within The Beatles' sights. It was the land of dreams. But it wouldn't be the land where they would go to be buried like all the other British acts. What stood in their way was Capitol Records who had been ignoring all their singles. The group lacked a foothold in the very country whose music made their own possible. The Beatles remained adamant, however, insisting that they weren't going to America until they had a #1 song there. Unfortunately, their manager Brian Epstein had already booked the band for The Ed Sullivan Show, North America's most popular TV variety show, in February, to follow with a concert in Washington, and a separate date at Carnegie Hall. Ed Sullivan had witnessed the delirious reaction to the group firsthand, when he was in the U.K. earlier in the year at Heathrow Airport. The Beatles were returning to a rousing homecoming after a show in Sweden. Sullivan was stunned at the furor and assumed it must be for someone from the Royal Family. When one of the kids told him that all the excitement was for this new pop group, Sullivan gambled that they just might grab the spotlight on his own show. He contacted Brian Epstein and booked them for his Sunday night program for three appearances – two live and one taped where the group would get paid $10,000.

The Beatles arrive in America
While all the deals were falling into place, The Beatles were playing a series of shows at the L'Olympia in Paris. But they found that there wasn't a mob of Brigitte Bardots chasing them through the City of Light, or young girls screaming their names. Instead, it was a collection of hysterical young boys. The ability to cross gender lines in their music, covering girl group songs especially, had now broadened their appeal beyond imagination, making it possible for Beatlemania to include everyone. One night, while coming home from their second show, they got the news they'd been hoping to hear, but never expected. As if by pure serendipity, plus some much needed luck, a song they released in England a few months earlier, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," had just gone to #1 in the United States. It was no less ironic that the song's title seemed an enticing invitation. It was as if an appealing stranger was calling out to you from across the water.

Written and recorded in the late fall of 1963, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the greeting card that made Beatlemania an international phenomenon. "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You" had prepared British audiences for this pure explosion of happiness. But never before had vocal harmonies, so rich in texture, been delivered with such volume, such determination, and such ecstasy. Composed by Lennon and McCartney in the den of Jane Asher's home on Wimpole Street, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was written by two men, who described their method, as closely playing into each other's noses. According to Gordon Waller (of Peter & Gordon), who was present the day Lennon and McCartney wrote it, Lennon was on a pedal organ and McCartney on piano. When McCartney hit a chord on the piano, it immediately grabbed Lennon. The two men kept finding lost chords that became a perfect fit for their song. As they wrote, they kept reaching the peak of pop's greatest appeal: the joy of surrendering to irresistible and fleeting elation. "It was, and remains, a great song, a joyous, reassuring sentiment riding gently atop an exuberantly beautiful melody," Martin Goldsmith wrote in The Beatles Come to America. "The words may be simple, but they express tender longing and the heartfelt magic of human touch in a sentiment both innocent and profoundly worldly." 

Part of the song's greatness did lie in the smooth transitions between the descending phrases that begin the song, when the singer starts to tell his girl what he wants her to know. At which point, according to Goldsmith, "the melody leaps up an entire octave to land joyfully on the word 'hand,' the punch line of the song. The first lines are all breathless anticipation, and when the central idea of the lover's message is delivered, it comes bursting out in a manner that transcends everything that comes before." Their fifth single was hugely anticipated in Britain with advance orders of over 940,000 two days before it was released on November 29. The factory pressing alone was an unprecedented 500,000 copies in pre-release. A week after "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hit the shops, it entered the UK pop charts at #1, where it would stay for six weeks. By the end of the year, it sold 1,250,00, making "I Want to Hold Your Hand" the second-highest top selling single of the year  right behind "She Loves You." 

Journalist Tom Wolfe once proclaimed that The Beatles wanted to hold your hand, while The Rolling Stones would burn down your town. Besides deliberately misreading the song, in order to indulge in self-conscious literary hyperbole, Wolfe misses the point. If you were to superficially compare "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to, say, The Rolling Stones' cover of Muddy Waters' classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You," The Beatles appear to be catering only to teeny-bopper conventions. When The Stones perform Muddy Waters, the sentiment is blatant, so deliberately clear, that there's no room for romantic mystery. "I Just Want to Make Love to You" is as dynamically straightforward a blues song about the satisfactions of sexual intercourse as you're likely to find anywhere. But "I Want to Hold Your Hand" carries much more of an emotional charge because it expresses and explores the anticipation of romantic excitement just before consummation. Their song communicates the exhilarating expectancy of sex, while delving into the beguiling bliss of imagining such carnal pleasures existing. The Beatles make it very clear that holding your hand is only the beginning of the story.

Dave Dexter Jr.
Despite the thunderous reaction to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in Britain, Dave Dexter Jr., the A&R executive at Captiol Records in the United States, wasn't impressed. An exasperated Brian Epstein, having seen Dexter turn down every early single including "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You," demanded that Capitol Records' president Alan Livingston listen to the record himself, which eventually led to it finally being released. Despite all of Dexter's dismissals, the November 27th issue of Variety stated that the tune had been receiving large advance orders in Britain, forcing Livingston to reconsider the decision of his A&R expert. It's likely that the reason Livingston had trusted Dexter's judgment to this point was that Livingston's own musical background was equally limited. This was a man known specifically for creating Bozo the Clown, and producing children's records by Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny (with one composing credit for Tweety Bird's "I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat"). But did this ignominious oversight spell the end of Dave Dexter Jr.? Hardly. He was instead promoted to the status of issuing all The Beatles' singles and albums in the U.S. Besides picking and choosing what he deemed to be good singles (regardless of what was released in Britain), he issued albums contrary to The Beatles' U.K. originals. So the first American Beatles album he titled Meet The Beatles!, which contained most of the songs from the Beatles' second album, With The Beatles. He added the single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," its B-side "This Boy," plus "I Saw Her Standing There" (from their first U.K. album Please Please Me). Furthermore, Dexter gave himself a production credit (as he would on the next six bastardized U.S. releases). His "production" work consisted of adding reverb echo to George Martin's clean mixes and taking the mono mix of original U.K. singles to create a fake stereo sound. He did this by recording two mono versions together, slightly out of sync, then adding echo, and calling it Duophonic.

DJ Carroll James and Marsha Albert
When "I Want to Hold Your Hand" became The Beatles' first #1 song in America, it might not have ever happened if it had not been for the American TV network coverage of the mass hysteria over their show at the Winter Gardens Theatre in Bournemouth in the late fall of 1963. Marsha Albert was a teenager in Washington D.C., who just happened to see the film clip, and became so taken with their music that she phoned her local radio station, WWDC. She asked the DJ if he could play something – anything – by The Beatles. Carroll James, the DJ who took the call, was hardly a rock fan. (His taste that ran towards the current jazz pop of Nat King Cole.) He wasn't even the least bit aware of The Beatles. But he was curious enough to try and hunt down one of their songs. On a station break, he happened upon a copy of the British import of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." On a whim, he invited Albert to the station to introduce it on the air. Marsha excitedly arrived at the station to read an introduction that James had written on the back of a traffic report. Within moments, she helped launch The Beatles into the consciousness of the nation’s capital. After playing the song, James asked listeners to call in with their own responses to "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The switchboard went berserk. There wasn't a free line anywhere as people swarmed to express their enthusiasm. Not only did James play the song within the next hour, he played it every night that week while announcing it as a WDDC exclusive.

When Capitol Records caught wind of the flurry of activity at WDDC, they faced a curious problem. Although company President Alan Livingston was set to issue “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” finally overruling Dave Dexter Jr., Capitol wasn't planning to do so until January. Because of the huge demand inspired by WDDC's daily broadcast of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," they moved the date up to December 17 in the U.S. Nobody was prepared for the explosion of interest. After all, the last American #1 for a British act had been The Tornadoes with "Telstar" in 1962. Before that, you had to reach back to the non-rock of Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" in 1961, or Vera Lynn's "Auf Wiedersehen" in 1952. By January 10, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" sold its first million in the United States, just in time for The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

The albums created and collected in The U.S. Albums were to chart that intensity as America reeled from the cultural invasion from England in the coming years. But these bastardized records, with banal titles like Something New (really?), Beatles '65 and Beatles VI, demonstrated (despite all their musical excitement) that their record company used greed and negligence to cover up its lack of foresight. They exploited the cultural storm for maximum impact and profit. But issuing this new box set, in such a cavalier manner, by airbrushing some of their past sins, Capitol Records continues that dishonoured tradition of paying tribute to one of their most successful acts by taking full advantage of those who made them so.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. No-one ever mentions the Canadian albums that came out, Beatlemania! Twist & Shout! Long Tall Sally! It was on these albums that we learned song order etc. and when confronted with the imported LPs were left shaking our heads. In a good way!

  2. From Kevin Courrier: David, I owned those records, too. The Beatles came out in Canada on Capitol before the American versions did. That's because Paul White, the Canadian executive from Capitol, was from England and he knew how big they would be.

  3. I had no idea that the albums were different at the time (how small the world has become) until Expo '67 when I saw the British albums in the British Pavilion in Montreal!