The Beatles

The 20 Greatest Hits

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EMI had a problem. They had the rights to the biggest group in the world ever, the Beatles, and the only way to make any new money out of them was to either rely on steady but unspectacular sales of all their catalog albums or put together a new version of a greatest-hits. When, in 1966, there was a gap in the Christmas market between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, which wouldn't appear for a further six months, they had released the compilation A Collection of Beatles Oldies, and it hadn't worked. Considering their massive popularity at the time (although there was a bit of a backlash in the U.S.), almost anything they released should have sold, but it was a complete miscalculation; either the album market was not quite mature enough to warrant greatest-hits compilations (the first such hits collection to reach the top wouldn't occur until 1968) or many fans had already bought all the singles and did not buy into an album project. They tried again in 1973, the tenth anniversary of Beatlemania, with 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, two double albums commonly known as the Red and Blue albums, and these were relatively successful, hitting the chart in the same week early in May and reaching numbers three and two, respectively. Considering this was the Beatles, however, EMI was still disappointed. They had expected to rule in the charts (if not the world) in 1973, and it hadn't quite generated the excitement they'd hoped for, but the reason for this was obvious. The Red and Blue together were prohibitively expensive. Sticking to their policy of charging full price for any Beatles product, they were priced at the highest possible level for double albums, and to buy the two together was exorbitant. So when the 20th anniversary of their first hit came along in October 1982, they prepared another series of events to dominate the charts, but yet again, it all ended rather with a whimper. The planned series of reissues, one by one of all the singles on the exact 20th anniversary started well enough with "Love Me Do" hitting number four, much better than the original number 17, but then the second single, "Please Please Me," stopped at number 29, "From Me to You" number 40, and it got progressively worse, none of the classic mid-'60s singles even reaching the top 40 throughout the 1980s. The other big project was a proper, well-researched greatest-hits package with the title leaving no doubt as to the contents, 20 Greatest Hits, and with hundreds of songs to choose from, the criteria was set for inclusion: the complete set of U.S. number one singles (of which there were exactly 20), thus excluding, of course, the U.K. number ones "From Me to You," "Yellow Submarine," "Lady Madonna," and "The Ballad of John and Yoko," but these were not considered vital to the project. Sticking with the selection criteria meant that "Please Please Me," "Magical Mystery Tour," and "Something" (the singles that topped neither the U.K. nor the U.S.) would also be absent, but again, the album didn't need those to succeed. The running order was set to follow the chronological order that the singles hit the top in the U.S. (although EMI messed up the first four tracks, leading off with "She Loves You," followed by "Love Me Do," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Can't Buy Me Love" before finally getting the order correct), and the album was released to great fanfare in mid-October 1982. It entered the chart at a disappointing number 17, peaked at number ten the following week, and 28 weeks later it was gone, never to be even issued on CD, which as a format was in its infancy. Perhaps EMI had got it wrong, and they would never be able to sell a Beatles greatest-hits compilation. They would have to wait until the 21st century to find out.

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