At one level, one would have to be a collector, an Anglophile, or a 1960s pop culture enthusiast to consider this 14-CD set a good deal. In the U.K., the EP ("extended play" single), which contains more tracks than an ordinary single and fewer than an album, has always been a far more popular format than it is in the U.S. During their heyday, the Beatles regularly released EPs in Great Britain, a total of 13 of them, in fact, between June 1963 and December of 1967, and they're all assembled in this box, complete with original art and sleeves in miniature. What that means, of course, is that you get a bunch of CDs, each of which only has four songs on it. That's not an easy way to enjoy the music contained herein, so on a practical level this box has its limitations. But on another level, it's an interesting way to hear and understand the way in which the group's music not only was sold, but the way in which it changed the way people bought music and listened to it.
The recording history of the Beatles is usually defined by their 45-rpm singles and their 33-and-a-third-rpm LP releases, for the obvious reason that these were the dominant formats, both in England and the United States as well as the rest of the world, and were the most enduring as well. As referenced above, however, in England the group also managed to release 13 EP 45s, single-sized discs that contained four songs each, between 1963 and 1967. A byproduct of the battle between the single and LP formats, the EP was an awkward compromise, during an era in which most listeners -- outside of the specialized fields of jazz fans, classical music aficionados, and stereo and hi-fi enthusiasts -- tended to reserve their purchasing of LPs to special occasions, such as Christmas or as birthday presents. That went triple for teenagers -- only Elvis Presley's LPs sold especially well among early rock & rollers -- and was even more true in England, where, in an economy that remained stunted by World War II for decades afterwards, there was far less disposable cash among the middle and working classes than there was in America. The Beatles would go a long way toward changing those buying habits on both sides of the Atlantic, simply by making their LPs too good and substantial to be ignored, even by casual fans. But when they started out, EMI in England had every reason to include EPs on their schedule of releases by the group, because of the huge gap between single purchasers and album buyers, comprising millions of teenagers. (There were also two EPs released during their early period of American fame, neither of which sold especially well.)
In England, the single and the LP were considered distinctly separate entities -- the EP was where they met. Whereas it could take a year -- or many years in the Beatles' case -- for a group's hit singles to be compiled on an album in England, an EP released four or five months after a single might contain the same hit, presented with three additional songs, usually culled from album sessions. They were a way of reselling earlier hits, getting them back into the commerce stream for new fans, and also getting a second use out of tracks that had already appeared on LP, as well as presenting an artist's work in new contexts. A few acts did make something out of the format -- the Rolling Stones, during 1964 and early 1965, found them an excellent vehicle for their stylings of American rock & roll numbers and blues standards that weren't quite worthy of inclusion on an LP, or commercial enough to drive a single's A-side. It bought them time between proper singles and full albums, and served as an outlet for their early, non-original repertoire before the Jagger-Richards songwriting team got up to speed. It also allowed them to present a bracing portion of a live set on the Got Live If You Want It! EP, without committing themselves to a full LP.
The Animals, whose in-house songwriting was also limited and whose repertoire was heavily weighted toward R&B standards, were probably more comfortable working in the four-song EP format than on 12- or 14-song LPs; their EP releases gave them a chance to sell their harder R&B and blues sides (which would end up on their albums) alongside reissues of the somewhat poppier single A-sides favored by their producer, Mickie Most. And Gerry & the Pacemakers, whose in-house songwriting was also a limited quantity, also made better use of the EP format than the LP, releasing most of their music on the former while issuing no more than a pair of LPs -- an inimitable live set, as fine as any full LP they ever did, was immortalized on their EP Gerry in California, near the end of their hitmaking years.
The Beatles had none of these shortcomings, and their EPs were a different story. With one exception, they were more a matter of marketing by their label than a creative canvas for the group, although one can be certain that Beatles members (and certainly their manager, Brian Epstein) had some control over how they were designed and released. Although the group would eventually be responsible for making LP purchases routine for teenagers as well as adults, when they started out there were still millions of Britons who didn't purchase LPs except at Christmas, if then. The Beatles' first EP, Twist and Shout, appeared in July of 1963, repackaging four songs from the winter of 1962-1963, but it did more than that -- for listeners who might only have known "Please Please Me" from the album of that name, or the group's singles from the radio, this platter focused on distinctly different but equally valid and compelling songs off the debut album, starting with the raw, hard-rocking "Twist and Shout" that closed the album, and surrounded it with three of the prettiest harmony numbers off the LP, showcasing the singing of three group members. All of this was aimed at that portion of a public who were still discovering the group and who might not have known these varied aspects of the Beatles' work.
Their second EP, The Beatles' Hits, showed up in September to help bridge the gap between the Please Please Me and With the Beatles albums, and the run-up to the release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- it compiled three early hits and a B-side, only one of which had appeared previously on LP. This all may seem like ancient history in the 21st century, but in 1963 there were still a lot of people discovering the group for the first time as the calendar advanced, and these releases gave them something to buy, months after those singles were gone from stores. The Beatles (No. 1), issued in November, did the same thing with four songs from Please Please Me in the midst of the unprecedented success of With the Beatles and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." These releases, in mono, were also very popular in a time when most pop listeners had not quite yet embraced stereo -- they were a lot less expensive than the LPs but, at eight to ten minutes in running time, offered a lot more music than a single.
All My Loving, the following February, threw together tracks off the two prior LPs, intermingling the choicer rock & roll and the ballads. One reason why these releases were never issued in America -- where EPs were never very popular -- was that in the United States Beatles LPs sold extremely well, as did almost all of the releases involving the group, and between radio stations, parties, dances, and every other place where records were played, it seemed like every Beatles album song was getting lots of exposure all of the time. In England, however, there was still a point to exposing the band's work in different combinations and focuses -- each successive EP, if not a great creative endeavor, spotlighted sides of the group from the immediate past that were either worth revisiting or overlooked, in part, amid the success of whatever single was out. And whether by design or happenstance, most of their EPs contained at least one song that made it into their concert repertoire (which, after 1963, never contained more than a dozen numbers).
Eventually, these discs became superfluous, as the group's audience got into the habit of buying LPs, and as the Beatles began writing songs that were more difficult to compile this way. A 17-month gap separated their next-to-last from their last EP -- Nowhere Man, reissuing one side of the double-sided hit single and three cuts off of Rubber Soul, showed up in July of 1966; after that had come the Sgt. Pepper's album and a bunch of singles, before running up against the Magical Mystery Tour film. The latter only yielded 19 minutes of Beatles songs, enough for one side of an LP but too much for an EP -- so they made it a unique double-disc EP for British release in December of 1967. It's arguable that the Yellow Submarine soundtrack should have been treated similarly, but instead the Beatles followed the format that had worked in America with their soundtracks, grouping the band's songs with instrumental soundtrack music from the movie. The EP was mostly consigned to history by then, due in part to the Beatles' success in making the LP so substantial.
By the time the Magical Mystery Tour EP came out, stereo sound was available in the format, and this box contains that EP in both its stereo and mono versions. The whole release is enjoyable, especially for listeners with carousel or other multi-disc format players. Collectors will also appreciate the packaging -- the Beatles' EPs might not have been as creative as the Stones' work in the format, but the photography and design (complete with annotation, which wasn't common on these discs) were some of the handsomest seen in the format, and the glossy, stiff-paper reproduction here is especially pleasing to the eye. It's intended for specialized tastes and listeners, and might well bug the hell out of casual fans, except for the packaging, but it is never less than interesting for the serious listener or collector.