The Beatles I Grew Up With

Tower’s going-out-of-business sale is now at 30% off everything, which means that even the outrageously priced $18.99 CDs are about the same price they’d be on sale at J&R. There’s still a lot of selection, so it’s worth a visit. (DVDs are on sale too but after dropping mumble dollars on CDs I decided I didn’t need to buy any movies.)

The main thing I got was the Capitol Albums, two boxed sets of the original Beatles albums as they were released in the U.S. The Beatles were my first love musically (not counting Johnny Cash, whose San Quentin album was the first adult record I owned, but whose albums I didn’t start buying with my own money until many years later), and like anyone who grew up in the U.S. before the CD era, the albums that I bought were very different from the ones in record stores now. The Beatles’ U.S. record company took the five albums they released in the U.K. in 1964-65 and turned them into eight albums, each with only 11 or 12 tracks versus the 14 on the originals.

Nothing like The Beatles had happened before, and nothing would again. It was the end of the era where artists would have so little control over their work that albums could be changed arbitrarily, and the beginning of the modern music marketing machine. The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. was the first time record-label promotion had succeeded on such an enormous scale, taking them from being virtual unknowns in the U.S. in late 1963, to occupying the top five spots on the Billboard charts in April of 1964. No one has dominated the charts like that since, largely because no record company since has flooded the market with so much music so quickly. Capitol released a new Beatles album every three months for two years. Those were the albums that introduced U.S. fans to their music, the albums that I grew up buying and listening to. And now here they are on CD, packaged in miniature versions of the album covers I pored over as a child.

For years, my purist cooler-than-thou self rejected these corporate reshufflings of the Beatles’ original vision, but listening to them now, I feel like I’m back home again. Those early albums were record-company constructions even in England, with the Beatles not gaining full creative control of their work until the mid-sixties. And all questions of artistic integrity aside, “Kansas City” will never be a song on Help!. It is and always will be the first track on Beatles VI, a magnificent U.S. album comprised mostly of songs from Beatles For Sale and the U.K. Help! that had not been included on other U.S. albums.

Beatles VI means a lot to me for a couple of reasons. It was one of the first Beatles albums I got — my grandmother bought it for me in the spring of 1977, when I had the chicken pox, and I played it incessantly, to the point that when I hear “Eight Days a Week” I am always expecting “You Like Me Too Much” to be next, even though they were on different albums originally.

And two of the songs on that album were recorded the day I was born. Capitol didn’t have enough leftover tracks for a full album, so the Beatles went into the studio on May 10, 1965, and recorded smoking versions of two songs by the magnificent (and now sadly obscure) R&B singer Larry Williams: “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Bad Boy.” The latter didn’t appear on a British album until 1966, when it showed up as the only new track on a crappy compilation released because the Beatles didn’t have a new album for Christmas that year.

Capitol’s reshuffling of songs is generally considered artistic butchery — the controversial “butcher cover” album photo was their ironic commentary on the Yesterday and Today album, which consisted of songs taken off Help, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Yesterday and Today is not included in this set, and neither is the U.S. Revolver, a brutally truncated version of the Beatles’ best album. The U.S. version of Help! is even worse than its lackluster British original, containing only seven Beatles songs on it, padded out with throwaway instrumental music.

But some of the U.S. albums are better. The Beatles’ British label, Parlophone, did not release songs on albums if they’d already been released as singles, under the logic that consumers shouldn’t have to buy songs twice. As a result, many of the Beatles’ greatest songs aren’t on any of the original U.K. albums. You have to buy greatest-hits collections to get them, but then you don’t hear them in the context of the music they were recording at the time.

Capitol, of course, had no such compunctions, resulting in stronger albums. Meet the Beatles opens with the exuberant “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” one of the greatest pop singles ever recorded; the U.K. equivalent, With the Beatles, opens with the justifiably obscure “It Won’t Be Long.”

I never got used to “I’ve Just Seen a Face” being sandwiched between “Tell Me What You See” and “Yesterday” on side two of the British Help!, but always associate it with Rubber Soul, where it made a much better album opener than the droning “Drive My Car.” I got that album in the summer of 1977 when my grandmother (my father’s mother, as opposed to my mother’s mother who bought me Beatles VI) found an original copy of the U.S. mono album at a garage sale and bought it for me. Having an original mono version meant that I did not have the false-start version of “I’m Looking Through You” that most U.S. listeners grew up with.

But I have it now. Each CD in these sets contains the original album twice, once in stereo and once in mono. Those mixes were done independently and were often quite different; that false-start exists only in the stereo mix. Only a Beatles geek would really care, but I am an unabashed Beatles geek. We geeks are still waiting for CD releases of the mono White Album (very different from the stereo version) and the mono Sergeant Pepper. Also left unreleased (probably deliberately) are the truncated Revolver and Yesterday and Today, but those later U.S. albums had little redeeming value.

It’s a thrill to hear these albums again. It takes me back, making me remember that I bought Help! with money I earned shoveling snow; that Something New was a gift from the same grandmother who gave me Beatles VI, given for some reason in late August, just before the start of eighth grade; that my dad drove me halfway across Staten Island to a record store in Great Kills because a Beatles album was on sale for $1.99. It makes me remember buying records in Korvette’s and Major’s, with letter-codes instead of prices on the sleeves, and going to Record Baron on Forest Avenue with my friend Kris when albums cost $5.99 ($6.47 with tax), a sum that had to be saved up. And when I finally bought the last of the 18 U.S. albums (Hey Jude, another U.S. only compilation), I posed for a long-lost photo with them all spread out on the living room floor in order of purchase.

But tonight is not about The Beatles, it’s about American roots music — I’m off the Sheriff Sessions for a full night of great bluegrass, old-time and traditional country.

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