When the Beatles' albums were reissued on CD in 1987, the group seized the opportunity to standardize their catalog internationally, choosing to release the British version of their LPs on CD in every territory throughout the world. From their standpoint, it made sense creatively, since these were the albums they intended to make, and it also made sense from a consumer standpoint, since these British LPs were longer than their foreign counterparts, particularly the American LPs released between 1964 and 1965. While the reasoning behind the move was sound, it was controversial in America, since the vast majority of their audience there not only grew up on the U.S. versions, they may not have even been aware that there were great differences in how the music was issued in both the U.S. and U.K. up until Sgt. Pepper in 1967. To make matters even more complicated, the first four albums -- 1963's Please Please Me through 1964's Beatles for Sale -- were released in mono on CD, which was like pouring salt into the wounds for American fans: not only could they not get the versions they grew up with, they didn't even sound the same.
The Beatles were hardly the only British rock & roll band to have its LPs released in different incarnations in the U.S. During the height of the British Invasion in the mid-'60s, it was standard practice for U.S. record labels to shuffle songs between records, either to help promote singles or squeeze out as much product as they could out of a limited number of songs, and since LPs were released in both mono and stereo mixes, there several different variations of the basic album on the marketplace. This was done without the artist's consent, and the Beatles protested the issue with the notorious "butcher" cover of the U.S. album Yesterday...and Today, where the Fab Four dressed up in butchers coats surrounded by decapitated baby dolls and raw meat -- not a subtle criticism, but not an inaccurate one, either. After Sgt. Pepper ushered in the album rock era, this practice faded away. Years later, in the thick of the CD reissue boom, there was heavy nostalgia among record collectors for these American and British and stereo and mono variants, which led to '90s reissues of classic '60s rock albums containing both the stereo and mono mixes, or individual reissues of the U.S. and U.K. versions of particular albums. The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Animals, and many other peers of the Beatles were given reissues of these variants, but not the Beatles themselves, even though these were among the most requested reissues and were among the most interesting of these variations. Interesting is a word that cuts both ways -- they were interesting because they were popular, the records that brought Beatlemania to America, but interesting because they were wrong-headed, sometimes in their sequencing but often in their mixes. Under the supervision of Capitol executive Dave Dexter -- who initially rejected the Beatles for Capitol -- the original mixes were given ludicrous layers of echo on the stereo versions that changed the feel of the albums.
To those legions of American fans, it didn't matter that these American versions didn't sound as good, weren't approved by the band, and offered less value for the money, or that they could assemble the albums on CD-Rs or iPods. These were the versions that they grew up with, and they wanted them on CD, so they bought bootlegs of these albums at exorbitant prices. The heart wants what the heart wants, apparently. After years of being stuck at this impasse, Capitol suddenly announced in the fall of 2004 that the first four American albums -- Meet the Beatles!, Second Album, Something New, Beatles '65 -- would be released as a box set for the holiday season, containing stereo and mono mixes of each album. Fans in the U.S. celebrated, although there still was lingering controversy among some fans about whether they should be even be reissued or not, since they were not what the band wanted. This ignored a couple of facts. First, there was a market out there for these, one primed by reissues of other band's albums and one that had to turn to bootleggers because it wasn't getting what it wanted. Second, these are historical artifacts that deserve to be officially released on CD -- if the Stones' hodgepodge Flowers is on CD, Meet the Beatles! should be out as well. Third, the Beatles' catalog is in desperate need of remastering, so any new versions are welcome. That final point is the sticking issue for most hardcore fans, particularly outside of the U.S.: why remaster the bastardizations while leaving the originals in print with subpar sound? It's a fair criticism, and hopefully it's one that will be addressed soon, since every one of the Beatles' albums needs new remastering, something that's all the more evident after hearing this box set. Sonically, this set is brighter, fuller than the 1987 issues. Thing is, these aren't necessarily the mixes that you'd want to have remastered. While the mono mixes are more or less the same (only the hardcore will hear the differences), many of the stereo mixes are either fake mixes or are balanced so awkwardly they might as well be phony. Most egregiously, the stereo Second Album is drowning in echo; it sounds as if it were mastered inside a cavernous tank. However, Something New and Beatles '65 have mixes that are close to true stereo, even if they still can sound heavy and off-balance.
While the sound of the mixes on the American LPs simply isn't as good as the mixes on the British LPs, it has to be said that there's something admirable in preserving the original U.S. records on CD -- after all, nostalgia is the primary reason for this release, so why not go the whole hog and put out the albums in the same cruddy versions as they originally appeared? It not only satisfies baby boomers' longing for the initial rush of Beatlemania, it's instructive for all the Beatles fans who came later, since it is definitive proof that, yes, these records did sound worse, even if the sequencing on the individual albums did have some worth (Meet the Beatles! is an excellent summary of their first two records, Second Album is a terrific all-out rock & roll album, Beatles '65 is Beatles for Sale with the considerable benefit of the "I Feel Fine"/"She's a Woman" single; only Something New sounds incoherent). Having these albums out on CD doesn't diminish the Beatles' catalog and in fact helps fill out a crucial part of their story. It's good to have the American LPs on CD -- and if the title of Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 is to be believed, the rest will follow in the near future -- but it's hard not to wish that the packaging were a little classier. The box set is smaller than a book-sized box and it holds a small cardboard box creased in the middle that's the size of a CD when folded in two, but it always pops open and there's no writing on the spine of the box or on the mini-LP jackets for the four individual CDs, so it can't be put on the shelf (and, frankly, if it were on the shelf, there's nowhere to put the box). Then, the booklet is designed like a coffee table book, with the obligatory essay from Beatles expert/scholar Mark Lewisohn that's not only way too brief, it never mentions the considerable controversy over Dave Dexter's mixes.
Ultimately, this is all nitpicking, since what counts is that the American LPs are out on CD in accurate mixes, sounding better than they ever did. Which leaves a final crucial point: if these LPs have been given remasters but the corresponding British albums have not, why not release remasters of the U.K. LPs at the same time?