Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Beatles - The First Compilation Albums

The Beatles have been the subject of many greatest-hits and thematic compilations since their breakup, and though EMI's best efforts at recycling the Fabs were the double greatest-hits albums of 1973 (The Beatles / 1962-1966, The Beatles / 1967-1970) and the 1 compilation of 2000, which gathered all of their chart-topping singles in Britain and America, I thought it would be interesting to look at their very first compilation albums in both countries, from the perspectives of the times and context of their releases.
 A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!) (1966)
The Beatles, having worked under pressure to come up with product for the 1964 and 1965 Christmas markets, had just begun recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the end of 1966 and so had nothing available for the holiday season that year.  When Brian Epstein informed Parlophone Records, the group's U.K. label, that there wouldn't be a new Beatles record for the Christmas 1966 season, Parlophone decided that then was as good a time as any to release a greatest-hits package.  Little did anyone know that that it was the perfect time for one, as Sgt. Pepper would begin the Beatles' recording careers and their music anew.
A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!) is a concise, solid look back at the Beatles' music from the mania and touring years that features sixteen tracks in all, including some of their most spirited and innovative singles ("She Loves You," "Help!", "Paperback Writer") and some of their lighter album cuts ("Michelle" and "Yesterday," both ballads from Paul McCartney), jumbled out of chronological order but still well-paced.  It ends with "I Want To Hold Your Hand," its final chord also serving to close the door on the group's earlier incantation.  Many British fans who got this album as a Christmas gift in 1966 (it wasn't issued in America) got the added joy offering many of these songs in stereo for the first time, as early Beatles singles were in mono only, but even those who got the mono version of A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!)  could now appreciate just how far the Beatles had come in the three years this LP spans by hearing their best work all at once.  The Brits also got a bonus - the group's cover of Larry Williams' "Bad Boy," originally taped for and included on an American album issued in 1965 but which hadn't been released in the U.K.  On the plus side, it was worth having a key example of the Beatles' abilities to redo American rock and roll; on the minus side, it led to the dreaded recording-industry standard of the "bonus track," a previously unavailable song that would be included on a greatest-hits album to attract completists who already had the hits.  A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!) was still a worthy effort, indicative of how George Martin could assemble a retrospective disc that honored his artists' work with taste and dignity.

The Beatles Again (1970)
The Beatles' first American compilation album, however, isn't as consistent.  Released in early 1970 to make the Beatles' Apple label, then under the control of noted con man Allen Klein, some money as Abbey Road was tumbling down the charts and an album from the Get Back / Let It Be sessions had yet to be finalized, The Beatles Again - soon re-titled Hey Jude to capitalize on that song's inclusion on the record - is comprised of singles that had never been on a Capitol or Apple LP in the U.S.  Not only is the song selection diffuse, the sequencing yaws between chronological order and aesthetic concerns.  ("Lady Madonna" immediately followed by "Revolution"?)  Eight of the ten songs on The Beatles Again are from the post-Rubber Soul era, with two tracks from A Hard Day's Night, "Can't But Me Love" and "I Should Have Known Better" (the soundtrack album to the Beatles' first movie had been issued in the U.S. by Capitol's sister label, United Artists Records).  The LP starts off with these two songs, and they don't exactly gel with the rest of the disc.
Klein didn't even bother to be comprehensive for The Beatles Again, ignoring George Harrison's "The Inner Light" (the B-side of "Lady Madonna") and the single release version of "Get Back," and some fans noted that he didn't even bother to take the opportunity to rescue two Please Please Me cuts overlooked earlier by Capitol ("Misery," "There's a Place") from American perdition.  As with A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!) in the mother country, though, The Beatles Again offered listeners their first chance to listen to stereo mixes of singles previously unavailable in stereo, so hearing the added bite of the treble of "Rain," the added richness of the bass in "Paperback Writer," or the extra crispness of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" probably tided over a lot of American fans patiently waiting for new material.  But not as much as hearing "Hey Jude" in its majestic, symphonic glory.  Robert Christgau summed up this LP for most Beatles fans: "A commercial ripoff it is, pastiching together singles separated by over five years. And I could care less. Show me an album featuring songs as good as "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Should Have Known Better" and "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" and "Don't Let Me Down" and I'll show you . . . Yesterday and Today."
And, to be fair, The Beatles Again, by gathering all of these songs in one place, simplified things for fans striving for completion.  But despite the stellar quality of the material, it showed how there was (and is) more than just throwing some great tracks together in order to do the world's greatest rock and roll band's work justice in anthologies.     

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