Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

The Beatles' US Albums: How the classics were butchered

As a box-set of The Beatles' US albums is released, Andy Gill laments America's cavalier approach to the Fab Four's classics

They should have known better: the controversial cover of the Beatles' 1966 album 'Yesterday and Today', released by Capitol in the US
They should have known better: the controversial cover of the Beatles' 1966 album 'Yesterday and Today', released by Capitol in the US

If George Bernard Shaw was correct in asserting that Britain and America were two countries "separated by a common language", then the new box set of The US Albums by The Beatles offers the musical confirmation. Released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the group's first visit to America these albums are available in the UK for the first time, and provide a revelatory eye-opener to the differences with which the two countries regarded this musical phenomenon.

America had been slow to latch on to The Beatles – EMI's Stateside partner Capitol had passed on the opportunity to release their early singles, which consequently appeared on the independent Vee-Jay – and were suddenly forced to play catch-up when "I Want to Hold Your Hand" catapulted the group into the American limelight in 1964. Alongside a flurry of hit singles, they ransacked The Beatles' back catalogue to create a completely new series of albums for this vast new virgin market, displaying a total disregard for the band's original intentions.

By the end of that year, The Beatles had released a total of four albums in the UK, depicting a clear progression from the enthusiastic rock'n'soul covers and tyro songwriting efforts of Please Please Me and With the Beatles to the blossoming triumph of A Hard Day's Night and the folk-influenced thoughtfulness of Beatles for Sale. Capitol, by contrast, had flooded the market with no fewer than six albums in one year, blurring the group's clear career-arc with a series of seemingly randomly sequenced collections culled from all points of their history.

It was a feeding-frenzy of unmitigated Capitol-ist crassness that can only have bewildered a fanbase already caught in a feverish lather of Beatlemania. Then to confuse matters further, they began 1965 by returning to the well yet again for The Early Beatles, in a year when the group were scaling the heights of Help! and Rubber Soul.

The two soundtrack albums are perhaps the most shameless desecrations, each taking just the first side of the equivalent British release and padding it out with incidental film music and instrumental versions of songs already featured on the album – great for karaoke, perhaps, but offering no impression of the extraordinary achievement of A Hard Day's Night in particular, the first album to feature just Lennon-McCartney material.

Not only were the contents different, but in many cases the actual music was substantially different from the British releases in sonic terms, the American mixes imposing extra compression and delay – especially on the vocals – to suit Stateside tastes, and creating bizarre "Duophonic" fake-stereo mixes from mono tracks EQ'd to favour different instruments, which were then presented in separate channels. The Beatles themselves were understandably dismayed with Capitol's cavalier attitude to sequencing, as tracks were ruthlessly harvested from parent albums to expand the amount of available product. Hence, perhaps, the notorious "Butcher's Block" cover - the boys in white lab coats, smilingly holding bloody cuts of meat and dismembered baby dolls, a clear image of "killing our babies" – which they presented as the cover for Yesterday and Today, a bizarre mélange of two tracks from Help!, four from Rubber Soul, and three from the yet-to-be-released Revolver, all excised from the American albums, plus two non-album singles.

When retailers objected to this tasteless item in their racks, Capitol swiftly recalled the album and pasted more anodyne covers over the offending photo, creating instant collectors' items. That album does, however, point to the greatest calumnies visited upon The Beatles' output by their American label, by diminishing the impact of both Rubber Soul and Revolver, still regarded by many as among the greatest albums ever recorded. Rather than the full banquets afforded British listeners, which left no doubt that the band was heading in a range of directions previously unheard in pop music, the Americans had to make do with bowdlerised versions only partially indicative of the group's extraordinary diversity.

The Beatles' 'The US Albums' is out on Monday

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