When The Beatles were butchered

By Andy GIll

They didn't get it - Andy Gill looks at America and the Fab Four.

The Beatles were dismayed at the way their US label treated them, and hit back with a bizarre album cover.
The Beatles were dismayed at the way their US label treated them, and hit back with a bizarre album cover.

If George Bernard Shaw was correct in saying Britain and America were two countries separated by a common language, then the new box set of The US Albums by The Beatles is the musical confirmation.

Released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the group's first visit to America these albums are available in the United Kingdom - and New Zealand - for the first time, and provide a revelatory eye-opener to the different ways in which the two countries regarded this musical phenomenon.

America was slow to latch on to The Beatles - EMI's American partner, Capitol, passed on the opportunity to release their early singles, which consequently appeared on the independent Vee-Jay - and was forced to play catch-up when I Want to Hold Your Hand catapulted the group into the American limelight in 1964.

As well as issuing a flurry of hit singles, Capitol ransacked The Beatles' back catalogue to create a new series of albums for this vast virgin market, displaying a total disregard for the band's original intentions.

By the end of that year, The Beatles had released 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 flooded the market with 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, Capitol 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 only 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.

It might have been great for karaoke, perhaps, but it gave no impression of the extraordinary achievement of A Hard Day's Night in particular, the first album to contain only Lennon-McCartney material.

Not only were the track contents different from the British releases, but in many cases the music was substantially different from the British releases in sonic terms.

The American mixes imposed extra compression and delay - especially on the vocals - to suit US listeners' tastes, and created bizarre Duophonic fake-stereo mixes from mono tracks equalised 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 melange 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 having this tasteless item in their racks, Capitol recalled the album and pasted more anodyne covers over the offending photo, creating instant collectors items.

Because of the way in which it diminishes the impact of both Rubber Soul and Revolver - still regarded by many as among the greatest albums ever recorded - Yesterday and Today is the greatest outrage visited upon The Beatles output by their American label.

Rather than the full banquets given to British listeners, which left no doubt that the band was heading in directions previously unheard in pop music, the Americans had to make do with bowdlerised versions only partially showing the group's extraordinary diversity.

What: The Beatles' The US Albums re-release
When: Out now

- Independent

- NZ Herald

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