Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why You Need to Buy the Original Album

I am not a big fan of greatest hits compilations. They simply do not work at all in the field of Jazz music and are generally woefully inadequate for any musical artist of any depth. This is because, with the great artists, there are often far better tracks that never get chosen for the compilation albums and which furthermore, never even make it onto the radio.

Let's take a look at the Beatles second U.K. album, With the Beatles, which is somewhat similar to the American vinyl LP, Meet the Beatles!.

This album is especially noteworthy for its fascinating album cover, which shows a photographic and psychological depth that we would come to expect from future Beatles' albums. Four faces, partially in shadow--how well do we know them--are we with them or not? Only partially?

Meet the Beatles is one of the few pre-Revolver American albums that actually has almost the same exact album cover as its U.K. forebear. Until recently, it was not available on CD, but Capitol has recently re-issued some of the early American Beatles albums on CD, although the catch is that you have to buy a package of four at a time, meaning at a cost of some $40 to $70!

For most Beatle fans, the U.K. versions are probably the ones to buy as they contain more tracks and are closer to the Beatles' original artistic conception in terms of lay-out and mixing, while the American versions had fewer cuts and may be mixed in what many call "false stereo."

I believe that the Capitol box sets of the American albums contain both stereo and mono versions of their first 8 American albums and so, if you want early Beatles in stereo, this may be your only option. And just to make things even more confusing, for those who listen to L.P.'s, the American versions may sound better on an excellent rig due to their having fewer cuts, as vinyl L.P. quality can be impacted by the length of an album side, but this is not really a consideration for CD purchasers.

Also, simply in terms of which album has the stronger cuts, there is little doubt that Meet the Beatles! is the stronger album, as it includes two all-time Beatles classics, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There, while deleting Money and You've Really Got a Hold on Me.

The early American versions of the Beatles albums generally follow this same pattern, that of having fewer but often stronger cuts, which was due to the fact that British albums generally contained 3 extra cuts, giving them more breadth, but at times also more filler. Beatles '65 is arguably also better than its British forebear, Beatles For Sale, and some fans prefer the American Rubber Soul to the British version.

The American Revolver is a travesty and is to be avoided at all costs, however.

Two other major exceptions, are the film soundtracks from A Hard Day's Night and Help!, which are vastly superior in the U.K. format because the American albums were truncated and then filled out with orchestral theme music. You cannot fully understand how great the Beatles were without hearing A Hard Day's Night and Help! in the U.K. format, as these were their first albums which were great, great works as an integrated whole, not merely a collection of tracks, setting the path for Rubber Soul and then Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Now, the Beatles actually did a far better job in terms of marketing compilation records than most groups. Their Red and Blue Albums (1962-1966 and 1967-1970) actually include a fair number of songs that were either B-sides or not necessarily hits, but With the Beatles is almost untouched. Only one track, All My Loving, is included.

Opinions differ, as one reviewer does select this as the best track from With the Beatles, , and it certainly was the biggest hit from the record. Probably, the next most well-known song on the record is Till There Was You, followed by I Wanna Be Your Man. These were all Lennon/McCartney standards(although Till There Was You was actually a cover) and I understand the bias in terms of airplay and marketing towards these three standards, but in my humble opinion, these are just about the weakest tracks on the record.

With the Beatles is a pretty great record, but to a casual fan perusing the CD bins, it probably is not so apparent. I doubt many Beatle fans think All My Loving is close to being an essential Beatles track, unless said fan also loves Michelle and Honey Pie. The song simply is too saccharine for my tastes, but there are some real gems here.

Much of this album's charm comes not from hits per se, but from the Beatles' individual performances and the way the songs complement each other on the record.

Starting off, It Won't Be Long is a great track, with a startling amount of energy, akin to Twist and Shout or I Saw Her Standing There. It Won't Be Long is an essential track.

All I've Got to Do is another essential track. Lennon's vocal performance is amazing and I think in general, With the Beatles emphasizes the Beatles' vocal talents more than just about any other album of theirs.

Don't Bother Me is Harrison's first credit and amounts to a pretty decent start and would later be featured in the film A Hard Day's Night, albeit without credit, as the film attributed all the tunes to Lennon and McCartney. It's not Harrison's best song, but far better than say, I, Me, Mine and the lyrical depth is quite interesting given that this is during the Beatles' early period, where most of their songs were still love songs and Don''t Bother Me is basically an anti-love song and points towards the superior If I Needed Someone in terms of meaning.

The album meanders a little with a couple of weak (by Beatle standards) cuts like Little Child and Hold Me Tight and a couple of somewhat pedestrian covers--Please Mr. Postman and Roll Over Beethoven, but then picks up steam again with Lennon's rendition of Smokey Robinson's You've Really Got a Hold on Me.

Lennon grabs this song by the throat and really puts in a great performance and shows why so many expected so much more from his 1970's rock and roll cover album with Phil Spector.

We then have the so-so tracks of I Wanna Be Your Man, Devil in Her Heart, and Not a Second Time, which are not the best of the Beatles by any measure.

Luckily, we have another fantastic cover to close things out and once again it is Lennon doing Money--"that's what I want," a raucous and exciting end to a somewhat uneven album by Beatle standards. Most of the highlights here are from Lennon, and to a lesser extent, from Harrison and this is why With the Beatles is a step down from the truly great Beatles' classics, all of which had far better participation from Sir Paul.

So, we see, that the cuts that really are exciting and show off the Beatles's talents, are the lesser-known ones such as It Won't Be Long, All I've Got to Do, Don't Bother Me, You've Really Got a Hold on Me and Money. And although the American public's exposure to the Beatles' singles was more compressed, they essentially agreed that With the Beatles was essentially devoid of any interesting singles, as only two songs, All My Loving and Roll Over Beethoven even charted in the U.S. and neither made the top 40.

Considering the Beatles' first two albums, I would say that neither Please, Please Me, nor With the Beatles is really a great Beatles album but I would diverge with many critics and pick With the Beatles as the superior of the two, because it is noteworthy for showing just how talented they were and what heights lay just around the corner.

I have previously tried to rank the Beatles' U.K. studio albums which is a difficult endeavor because they are so uniformly excellent, and I still think this is pretty much how I feel, although I believe you can make convincing arguments that any of the top seven below is, in fact, their "best" album. That is how good and how consistent they were. The bottom four albums listed below are arguably better than anything ever done by the Byrds, or the Monkees, who were their chief American rivals during the 60's, or even by the Beach Boys, unless you count Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds, or the Beach Boy's early 1970's work, which is far superior to their 1960's stuff.

1. Rubber Soul
2. Sgt. Pepper's
3. Abbey Road
4. The White Album
5. Revolver
6. Help!
7. A Hard Day's Night
8. With the Beatles
9. Let it Be
10. Beatles for Sale
11. Please Please Me

Critics can quibble and Beatle fans change their opinions all the time as to which of their albums is "best" but looking back from the time of With tthe Beatles, the Beatles' soon-to-be-released albums associated with their films, A Hard Day's Night and Help! were arguably going to be the best work they ever did.

So, getting back to the original point of this post (maybe I need an editor), when you are looking at great groups like the Beatles and the Stones, you have to buy the studio albums. There just are too many great tracks that you will miss otherwise.

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