Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020
“‘Revolution’ was a heavy record [in mono]…stereo turned it into a piece of ice cream.” — J. Lennon.
Hmmm…no mono Beatles on Spotify? Mono Beach Boys, sure. Mono (early) Stones, even. But no mono Beatles.
As I was making my playlists, it came to my attention that the Beatles catalog on Spotify was available only in stereo. This is not a big deal to most people. Two separate channels of sound emerging from two speakers (or headphones or earbuds or “airpods”) to create a kind of audio widescreen is the primary way music has been listened to for over fifty years now. I was certainly reared on stereo recordings of the Beatles (via their American albums, see below.) But that wasn’t always the case, and when you’re talking about recording artists of the caliber of the Beatles, there should at least be a conversation about what kind of mixing better suits their music.
Mixing a song is a vital part of the recording process. Vocals and instruments are initially recorded across multiple tracks of audio tape, and a good mix ensures the sounds are properly balanced against each other. You can write a great song, perform it flawlessly in the studio…but a bad mix can ruin it. The Beatles and their producer George Martin lavished hours of attention on the monaural (single audio channel) mixes of their songs, because that’s how 90% of their initial audience would hear the music until about 1968 or so. Through one-speaker portable record players, one-speaker transistor radios, one-speaker car radios, one-speaker jukeboxes. “Stereo” in the 1960s was for classical music freaks, jazzbos, and “hi-fi” fanatics with record players housed in polished wooden cabinets the size of Buicks, and shelves groaning with “LPs.” The Beatles did release their stuff in stereo, but stereo mixing was usually a hurried afterthought. The Beatles did not bother to attend their stereo mixing sessions. Even George Martin would sometimes skip out, leaving it in the hands of assistants.
As stereo pushed out mono by the end of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ catalog stayed in print, selling quite well, and demand kept the record plants pressing out vinyl. As a kid, I was still buying factory-fresh, brand new copies of Beatles albums in record stores as late as 1988. All stereo by then, and the vinyl LP’s center label was no longer the classic Capitol Records black ringed by a rainbow, but an ugly, bruised purple (indicating a re-issue pressed between 1977 and 1983).
Work had been done on more careful stereo re-mixing in dribs and drabs beginning in the late 60s and through the 70s, and by the time I heard the stuff in the 80s, it sounded fine. Some horrible over-separation had been fixed, Dave Dexter’s dated, splashy reverb (again, see below) had been cleaned up, and stereo is how my ears were raised on Beatles music. (My generation of re-issues had “New Improved Full Dimensional Stereo” written proudly across the top of the jacket). When the Beatles’ catalog was reissued on compact disc in 1987, the stereo versions of the UK albums were made official canon, and anything still out there in mono — along with the old American albums — vanished. (The Beatles themselves still didn’t like the fresh stereo mixes the CDs were given. They’ve been re-mastered and improved since, but if you were to ask the Fab Four themselves — mono forever, baby.)
In the early 2000s, demand for the release of the original mono mixes by Beatles purists grew, and their wish was granted. In 2009, The Beatles in Mono CD box set was released. Every song re-mastered in their original, glorious mono. Even as a 13-disc collection that sold for as much as my first car, it made #40 on the album charts. I didn’t rush out and buy it, but I knew someone who did, and he was nice enough to loan it to me for a good long time. And…I still prefer stereo. I guess I’m a philistine. But for playlist-assembly purposes, it would have been nice for Spotify to offer the option. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve heard that the mono stuff was on Spotify briefly, but removed. (And if you think my stuff is over-detailed, at least one entire book has been written about the differences between the Beatles’ mono and stereo mixes.)
Another thing now available on CD but not on Spotify is the early Beatles albums as issued in the U.S. by Capitol Records.
The Beatles’ American albums on Capitol were often quite different from the “official” British releases on Parlophone from 1964 through ‘66, and were pretty much the only way American consumers could experience the band’s pre-1967 material for over twenty years. They are not included on Spotify. Like the mono thing, this doesn’t bother most listeners. The British albums were how the band intended their stuff to be presented anyway, and the group was generally horrified by Capitol’s seemingly careless re-sequencing and repackaging.
How did Capitol Records’ Beatles discography come about, and how and why did they make the decisions they did? It’s complicated, and sometimes their choices are logical, and the results work. Sometimes they seem clueless and totally wrong-headed.
In the early 1960s, pop music (and I’m using that term generically in the more universal sense of the era) was mostly about singles. The music itself was considered ephemeral and disposable by the record label bosses, best offered on fifty-nine cent, two-sided 45s — affordable on a teenagers’ allowance, and easy for radio disc jockeys to give a quick spin. Albums were for more established performers. They were an investment — for both the labels and consumers. If your record company wanted you to put out an album, that means you were expected to stick around awhile (and pay dividends).
But British and American attitudes toward including single releases on albums were in opposite corners. As a general rule, British consumers felt ripped off if they bought a single, then found that same song taking up space on an album. They already own the song, and resented having to pay for it twice. (The rule was not written in stone, and was broken here and there for various commercial reasons.) In America, having a hit single (or two) on an album was considered a bonus, and made the album worth buying. Throw an LP onto the turntable and hear your favorite radio hit, surrounded by other stuff by the same artist. And no need to get up to flip it over or change records after three minutes. It’s on a long-player! Let the side run for fifteen or even twenty luxurious minutes! Who cares if you bought the single earlier? Give it to your kid sister. (Americans were presumed to have a little more disposable cash.)
British albums were all about value for money. They were almost always fourteen tracks, pretty much the most you could fit onto two sides of vinyl. The U.S. was a little stingier. If an album was longer than twelve tracks, the record company was forced to pay the recording artist a higher royalty rate. So hardly any U.S. albums went longer than twelve songs. In fact, most stopped at eleven, just in case.
When the British Invasion was kicked off by the Beatles, it was quickly realized that the differences in American and British policies for marketing and selling music meant a fortune could be made by the U.S. record companies. With shorter track lists and no qualms about including singles, American labels could squeeze out two or even three albums for every one of the British releases. And if all those albums sold like hotcakes…you do the math.
Two schools of thought have emerged over Capitol’s Beatles albums:
So it’s Artistic “Butchery” vs. Boomer Nostalgia
The butcher-in-chief was Dave Dexter Jr., the head of Capitol Records’ esteemed A&R (Artists & Repertoire) department, and gatekeeper extraordinaire. An unrepentant jazz snob who openly sneered at anything he considered disposable pop music for teeny-boppers, the crew-cutted, straight-as-an-arrow Dexter (born 1915) saw Capitol as a “class” label showcasing prestige adult artists such as Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee (whom John Lennon insisted on referring to as “Peggy Leg”), and the like.
In fairness, no one could have had the clairvoyance to foresee the massive changes that would be wrought by the Beatles all that far in advance. But Dexter seemed particularly close-minded, and resisted longer than he probably should have. Jesus, he already allowed Capitol to stoop to signing the goddamn Beach Boys, wasn’t that enough to placate the bubblegum set? He may have had his justifiable reasons for being suspicious of the Beatles’ initial appeal to the American market, and he may not have been wrong in every instance going forward once they did take on the Beatles. But let’s face it — the guy always came off as an unlikeable crank (even Sinatra eventually barred him from his sessions), and didn’t help himself very much with his churlish, defensive public statements after the fact. (He may have also had his reasons for being churlish. Did he go down in history as someone who worked tirelessly for almost twenty years to build Capitol’s unimpeachable reputation as a prestige label? No, he lived the rest of his life known primarily for being the rock & roll-despising, fossilized ol’ fuddy-dud who didn’t like the Beatles and tried to keep them off his label. He was lambasted about it pretty regularly until the day he died.)
I really wish the old fella had lived to see his label proudly add the Butthole Surfers to their roster.
Now the fun begins…let’s go down the rabbit-hole of Capitol’s thought process (or sometimes lack thereof), and try to follow the logic of how they reworked the material the Beatles were sending them from jolly old England. (Warning: I did all this out of sheer boredom during quarantine. If you’re not really into the Beatles, you’ll be bored too. Sorry, but I had to do it.)
EMI was a huge global conglomerate — it owned the Beatles’ British record label, Parlophone, whom the band worked directly for. It also owned Capitol Records in the U.S. Officially, EMI could not dictate to Capitol as to what recordings to release, but it could “strongly suggest.” Being a British-based company, however, it was normally content to let the Capitol executives and A&R people make those calls — they knew their market better.
Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.
On September 4, 1962, the Beatles, newly-signed as Parlophone artists, went into the EMI Studios on Abbey Road in suburban London and recorded their first single — Love Me Do (I). Ringo had only been their drummer for a few weeks. The band did their first EMI recording back in June with Pete Best still on drums*. George Martin was thoroughly unimpressed with the drummer, and Best was promptly discarded by the group. (Martin’s judgment was the final straw for the limited skills of Best. The Beatles had been angling to get Ringo on board for months by then.) Ringo, vast improvement that he was, was an unknown quantity to Martin at that point, but he allowed them to go ahead and record the song with Ringo on drums.
Martin had a nagging feeling they could do better, and with another session already booked for a week later, he hired a session drummer, Andy White.
On September 11, the band recorded the single’s B-side — P.S. I Love You, with White on drums and Ringo on maracas. Martin had them re-record the A-side with White on drums and Ringo on tambourine. Now, we have Love Me Do (II).
After some consideration, Martin decided to indulge his new charges and allowed the original recording with Ringo’s drumming to go out as the single. Love Me Do (I) / P.S. I Love You was released on Parlophone in the UK on October 5, 1962. It went to #17 in the British charts. Good enough for EMI to suggest it to Capitol. Dexter heard the harmonica and immediately turned it down. To Dexter’s mind, harmonicas were strictly blues or hillbilly instruments, completely unsuitable for a commercial pop recording. Plus, he resented EMI pushing a bunch of long-haired limey freaks on him.
(Harmonica was a distinctive element to several of the early Beatles songs. The reason for its fairly quick disappearance is simple. Lennon admitted he “just kept forgetting to bring one to the sessions.” Plus, they thought of it as a “gimmick,” and they were always resistant to that kind of thing)
Martin evidently re-considered yet again. Only the initial pressing of the original British single contained Love Me Do (I). All subsequent released versions and re-issues were Love Me Do (II), with Ringo’s prominent tambourine.
The second single, Please Please Me / Ask Me Why, was recorded in November (no more session drummers) and released by Parlophone on January 11, 1963. It went to #1 (on one British chart). Capitol again declined to release it. This time, EMI decided to shop it around to other labels. They licensed it to the American blues/R&B label Vee-Jay, who put it out in the U.S. in February…and it tanked. Vee-Jay continued to claim the right of first refusal on their material anyway.
The success of the group in the UK meant that it was time for a full-length album. They already had four songs in the can. The no-singles-on-albums rule was waived since this was their first time out with a long-player, and they wanted the safety net of some proven material. So on February 11, 1963, the Beatles recorded a whopping ten more songs in a single, all-day session. There were four more Lennon/McCartney originals — I Saw Her Standing There, Misery, Do You Want To Know A Secret, and There’s A Place, and six covers they they’d played hundreds of times in their club era and could knock out quickly as the clock ticked — Anna (Go To Him), Chains, Boys, Baby It’s You, A Taste Of Honey, and Twist And Shout.
The album came out on Parlophone on March 22, 1963 and was titled Please Please Me after their #1 single. The 14-song track list was every official EMI Beatles recording in existence up to that point (not counting the now-shelved first version of “Love Me Do”): I Saw Her Standing There / Misery / Anna (Go To Him) / Chains / Boys / Ask Me Why / Please Please Me / Love Me Do (II) / P.S. I Love You / Baby It’s You / Do You Want To Know A Secret / A Taste Of Honey / There’s A Place / Twist And Shout
The third British single — From Me To You / Thank You Girl — came out on April 11, 1963, resulting in a second #1. Vee-Jay put it out in May, and it was initially another bust. But through the summer, it got some traction on a few major radio stations, and climbed to #116 on the American charts by August.
Vee-Jay planned to release the Please Please Me album under the title Introducing…The Beatles in the U.S. in July of 1963, minus the title single and its flipside, to make it a 12-song album in the American tradition. But financial mismanagement in Vee-Jay’s front office caused this and a few other releases to be canceled or postponed.
The fourth British single was She Loves You / I’ll Get You, out on August 23, 1963. Yet another #1. Vee Jay’s problems meant that EMI offered the single to another label, the tiny Swan Records. Swan put out the single in the U.S. in September. This time, people were starting to take notice. The “Beatlemania” phenomenon in Britain was getting coverage in the U.S. news media. The songs were starting to move the needle on American radio. Not much, but enough for trendsetters to sense something afoot. Some (younger) staffers at Capitol were starting to ask questions as to why they weren’t jumping on this.
When the fifth single, I Want To Hold Your Hand / This Boy came out on Parlophone on November 29, 1963 and was even more of a monster hit than all that came before, Capitol Records made its move. They eagerly agreed to put out the single, and scheduled a mid-January 1964 release with a big promotional push. The release date was moved up to the day after Christmas because the rumble of American demand for the group had grown to a roar when imported copies of the single began burning up the airwaves, especially in D.C. and New York. The song came out, America loved it, the fuse was lit, and the Beatles (and Capitol) were on their way to taking over America. (Responsibility for finally accepting the Beatles is disputed. Dexter claims he was happy to do it because he could clearly hear I Want To Hold Your Hand would be a hit. Capitol Records president Alan Livingston says Dexter was still dragging his feet, and was pretty much given a direct order to handle the band’s American output.)
The week before I Want To Hold Your Hand, Parlophone released the Beatles’ second British album, With The Beatles, with a track list consisting of eight originals and six covers: It Won’t Be Long / All I’ve Got To Do / All My Loving / Don’t Bother Me / Little Child / Till There Was You / Please Mr. Postman / Roll Over Beethoven / Hold Me Tight / You Really Got A Hold On Me / I Wanna Be Your Man / Devil In Her Heart / Not A Second Time / Money (That’s What I Want), recorded piecemeal through the summer and fall of ’63, whenever they could grab studio time between increasingly frequent UK concerts and package tours.
Whether he was holding his nose about it or not, the Beatles were now on Dave Dexter’s plate, and it was up to him to present them to America to their best possible advantage.
I’ll let John Montagna of Culture Sonar explain Dexter’s motives in a little more detail:
“Dex understood the American record market. He knew that the UK Beatles albums, with their subtle, artsy cover photos and astute liner notes would not grab the attention of American teenagers. He replaced them with splashy photo collages and BIG, BOLD TYPE, USUALLY IN ALL CAPS, WITH ADJECTIVES LIKE “ELECTRIFYING” AND “PHENOMENAL” AND PLENTY OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!! He also tweaked the music itself, changing the EQ and adding reverb and compression to make The Beatles positively jump out of American transistor radios…”
With the very first single, Dexter was already shaking things up. He didn’t want the flipside of their first chance to make an impact on the U.S. market to be a slow ballad like This Boy. It needed to be high energy (!!) I Saw Her Standing There was chosen to back I Want To Hold Your Hand. Technically, I Saw Her Standing There was still licensed to Vee-Jay. EMI didn’t see it that way, stating that Vee-Jay’s repeated non-payment of royalties nullified the agreement. The case headed to court, where it would remain for the better part of a year.
With the first American single out, and a smashing success, Capitol turned its attention to putting out the group’s first album. As of the end of 1963, they had 28 album tracks and 6 songs from stand-alone single releases, for a total of 34 to choose from.
The Please Please Me album material was considered mostly off the table (for now.) Vee-Jay saw its chance, and released those songs on their Introducing…The Beatles album on January 10, 1964. As a result, Capitol steered clear, and focused on material from the group’s second British album. So we’re down to 20 songs to choose from. Enough for a 12-song album, and 8 left to form the basis for a quickie follow-up (who knew how long the moptop fad would last?)
For their first “official” U.S. album on Capitol, they would of course include the single that broke them in the U.S., I Want To Hold Your Hand and its flipside I Saw Her Standing There. The rejected British B-side would be perfectly welcome as an album track. The remainder would be drawn from With The Beatles. Pop acts that wrote their own material were considered a rarity, so the first album would showcase original songs — with the exception of Till There Was You, a sappy ballad from The Music Man that McCartney had a soft spot for. It was hoped this song would give the album a touch of class and a little more “adult appeal.” (This was also the reason that it was one of the numbers the group chose to perform on their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.)
Meet The Beatles! (January 20, 1964)
- I Want To Hold Your Hand (1st Capitol single)
- I Saw Her Standing There (Capitol single B-side, Please Please Me)
- This Boy (UK single B-side)
- It Won’t Be Long (With The Beatles)
- All I’ve Got To Do (With The Beatles)
- All My Loving (With The Beatles)
- Don’t Bother Me (With The Beatles)
- Little Child (With The Beatles)
- Till There Was You (With The Beatles)
- Hold Me Tight (With The Beatles)
- I Wanna Be Your Man (With The Beatles)
- Not A Second Time (With The Beatles)
Meet The Beatles! (note the exclamation point) also used a tinted version of the With The Beatles cover photo, its shadowy half-faces and black turtlenecks already becoming an important part of their iconography, and added a splash more color to the graphics and lettering.
EMI’s German label, Odeon Records, insisted English-language songs would never sell in huge numbers in Germany. Under pressure from one of their largest global outlets, EMI asked the Beatles to pretty-please provide German-language versions of their two biggest sellers. Very reluctantly, they trudged into the studio on January 29, 1964 and entirely re-recorded “She Loves You” as Sie Liebt Dich, and taped new vocals over the original “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” backing track to create Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand. They refused to ever do anything like it again. (The English versions did better in Germany anyway.)
In February, after their whirlwind first visit to the U.S. and earth-shaking appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles began work on their third album, which would also be the soundtrack to their first movie to begin shooting in March.
The first fruits of these sessions went public in mid-March of 1964. For the first time, there was a simultaneous (within four days) release of an identical single in both the UK and the U.S. — Can’t Buy Me Love / You Can’t Do That
Vee-Jay spent the spring and summer frantically re-packaging and re-releasing the sixteen songs they had control over (the Please Please Me tracks and the “From Me To You” / “Thank You Girl” single) in every way they could, as they sensed (correctly) their nominal control of the material would soon be lost. They formed a subsidiary label, Tollie Records, and used it to release Twist And Shout as a single. Thanks to all of this, in the first week of April 1964, the Beatles occupied the top five spots (on four labels) on Billboard’s Hot 100 — a feat that has never come close to being repeated. 1. Can’t Buy Me Love (Capitol), 2. Twist And Shout (Tollie), 3. She Loves You (Swan), 4. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (Capitol), 5. Please Please Me (Vee-Jay).
Capitol wanted a second album out on April 10. Mixes of Can’t Buy Me Love and You Can’t Do That were prepared for Capitol’s use, but at the last minute, someone nixed Can’t Buy Me Love, probably due to its planned inclusion in the film. So Capitol had only 10 tracks to choose from.
Available songs: She Loves You and I’ll Get You (EMI’s deal with Swan was for a single release only), You Can’t Do That, Sie Liebt Dich, Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand, and the remaining tracks (all covers) from With The Beatles: Please Mr. Postman, Roll Over Beethoven, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Devil In Her Heart, and Money (That’s What I Want).
They were still skirting the Vee-Jay/Please Please Me material, but were growing less reluctant to dip into it if they needed to. From Me To You was still considered too prominent a single release from Vee-Jay to use, but its B-side, Thank You Girl, wasn’t as well-known.
Even if they used Thank You Girl they were running out of songs on hand, but Capitol knew the Beatles had just recorded a batch of songs for the upcoming movie. By any chance, were there any they already knew for sure wouldn’t be in the film? Songs that they could possibly give their new best buds over at Capitol? It turns out…of course there were. On the last recording session before shooting A Hard Day’s Night, they wrapped their final soundtrack song sooner than expected. Rather than calling it an early day and heading for the pub, the hard-working band used the remaining booked studio time to knock out a cover of Little Richard’s classic Long Tall Sally (as a candidate for a possible single — John seemed quite keen on the idea in interviews at the time) and recorded their year-old original I Call Your Name, which they had given away to Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas the summer before. Now, they wanted to make their own recording of it, maybe as an extra soundtrack song if needed, maybe as a B-side to the potential “Sally” single. Bringing the total available to Capitol to 13. The German language songs were understandably skipped, and the perfect total of eleven tracks was arrived at.
A new precedent was set. American consumers would get an exclusive — new Beatles songs before the Brits!
The Beatles’ Second Album (April 10, 1964)
- Roll Over Beethoven (With The Beatles)
- Thank You Girl (UK B-side to “From Me To You”)
- You Really Got A Hold On Me (With The Beatles)
- Devil In Her Heart (With The Beatles)
- Money (That’s What I Want) (With The Beatles)
- You Can’t Do That (B-side to “Can’t Buy Me Love”)
- Long Tall Sally (Long Tall Sally EP — still unreleased in the UK)
- I Call Your Name (Long Tall Sally EP — still unreleased in the UK)
- Please Mr. Postman (With The Beatles)
- I’ll Get You (B-side to “She Loves You”)
- She Loves You (UK [Parlophone] & U.S. [Swan] single)
This is one of the times I think Capitol’s re-working really clicks — it’s a short, sweet, hard-rocking (for ‘64) party album, with packaging drenched in Dexter’s photo collages (mostly from their Ed Sullivan Show rehearsals and tapings back in February) and breathless adjectives. The album also featured Capitol’s most heavy-handed remixing and echo, and the Beatles became the first artist to replace themselves at the #1 position on the Billboard album chart.
With the Beatles deep in production on their movie through the end of April, and no plans to return to the studio until June, Capitol had to wait…impatiently. Only the German songs and fifteen Vee-Jay tracks were unused at this point. To assert their claim to the Vee-Jay material as their “intellectual property,” Capitol released the Love Me Do (II) / P.S. I Love You single on April 23. It went to #1.
As further proof that the Beatles’ U.S. wave was building even before “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” as early as October of 1963, the United Artists production company had a great and very forward-thinking idea — put up some cash to finance a Beatles movie, get exclusive distribution rights to the soundtrack album in the U.S., and split the publishing royalties with the Beatles’ American publishing company, Maclen Music Ltd. UA didn’t care a fig if the movie was any good, they just wanted the royalties on the soundtrack album. (The movie turned out to be really good.)
Capitol Records was cut out of this deal. Sort of. Not quite. More to come.
*The exact nature of this June 6 session has always been a little hazy. It was not, as is sometimes stated, an “audition,” as the Beatles had already been officially signed by Martin on the basis of recordings from a (failed) January audition for Decca Records. Nor did Martin really consider it a proper recording session for the first single. It was a kind of “get-acquainted” run-through so Martin (or Martin’s assistant Ron Richards, who supervised the bulk of the session) could assess strengths & weaknesses in person. The band played early versions of “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Ask Me Why,” and their arrangement of the old standard “Besame Mucho” as the tape ran. None of which was up to Martin’s standards (especially the drumming.)