The earlier part of The Beatles’ career – which, of course, was when ‘Beatlemania’ actually happened – has never really seemed to get very much in the way of attention outside of space-filling interviewees blathering on about how everyone used to scream and shout when George Lennon and Freddie Starr came on the television, every last droning blowhard who once ate something that nobody in Liverpool has ever actually called fish and chips within sixty feet of the Liverpool Institute staking their claim as the ‘Fifth Beatle’, and dullards in music magazines sliding off the edge of the page while going on and on and on and on about how they were a ‘great live band’.
This is frustrating as they were so much more than just a ‘great live band’, and so much more than just a ‘band’ full stop, and the centre of a phenomenon that defined the modern world like few others and certainly did not ‘properly’ begin with the release of Rubber Soul. Even the idea that it was their first ‘proper’ ‘album’ is thrown into question when you consider just how sharp and coherent A Hard Day’s Night in particular is; it may not have had a ‘concept’ that wasn’t or backwards voices that said “I was looking at the crisp range and I thought why not have me own range of crisps?” when played forwards at 45rpm, but it still packs a wallop when played from start to finish.
In fact, it’s A Hard Day’s Night more than anything else that underlines why the sheer exhilarating chaos of the early days of The Beatles needs a good deal more unravelling and contextualising than it ever seems to get. The American version of the album – which for a significant period of time was the only version that a significant proportion of their audience knew – dropped five of the tracks and replaced them with some of George Martin’s splendid instrumental Beatle renditions from the movie’s soundtrack. You’ll still find its similarly rearranged cover design referenced in the likes of The Simpsons, but the album itself at least in that form has almost been entirely airbrushed from history in the name of ‘authenticity’. This was true of over half of their albums – including Rubber Soul – and arguably never more significantly than in the case of Meet The Beatles!, the substantially overhauled version of With The Beatles that was specifically created to introduce them to post-JFK excitement-hungry teenagers watching Bill Murray The K on American Bandstand or something. I’m not entirely sure what this light-hearted comparison of the mono and stereo versions of both albums was originally written for – though the structure suggests it was a music magazine that ended up not running it for whatever reason (unless anyone knows different?) – but you can find much more about my fascination with the early part of The Beatles’ career in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Before ‘the album’ became a viable art form, output-hungry American record labels used to chop and change releases by the latest British pop sensations in the hope of artificially creating two albums out of one, effectively hoodwinking British Invasion-obsessed youngsters into parting with twice as much cash for oddly titled and musically incoherent efforts called things like Hey It’s England’s Rolling Stones and A Birthday Beatle For You. Needless to say, The Beatles’ early albums – up to and including Revolver – rarely bore any relation to the original in their American versions, giving rise to a weird alternate history of a story you thought you knew only too well. A particularly severe mangling of official second album With The Beatles – running to a mere twenty seven minutes – was how Capitol chose to introduce those crazy Beatle Boys to the American public.
Admittedly, on first glance, you wouldn’t really be able to tell the two apart. The cover is pretty much identical to the iconic nasally-advantaged imagery of With The Beatles, but look closer and you’ll notice that it has subtle ‘blue’ tint to prevent Stateside pop fans from getting confused and hyperventilating on the freeway or something, and a standard issue ‘Original Cast Of West Side Story Sing Songs From Seven Brides For Seven Brothers‘-type strap across the top. Also, it’s ‘the first album by England’s phenomenal pop combo’, apparently. Meanwhile, the back cover boasts (if that’s the right word) seemingly endless sleevenotes by one Rory Guy – apparently a highbrow pundit who had his name removed lest his association with those goddamn moptops led to him being expelled from ‘classical’ – about how ‘today there isn’t a Britisher who doesn’t know their names’ and ‘only a hermit could be unaware of The Beatles’, accompanied by some Beatlemania-gauging facts and figures.
The facts and figures we’re interested in, though, are exactly which songs ended up on which version – it was released in Mono and Stereo – of Meet The Beatles!, and whether, cultural context aside, either of them are worth paying that much attention to. So, roll up, roll u-… hang on, wrong album. Even weirder story, that one…
1. I Want To Hold Your Hand
The fifth UK single and the first US single becomes the first track on the first US album based on the second UK album. Confused? You will be. Everyone knows how this goes (unless you’ve spent your entire existence wearing special ‘Beatle-blocker’ attachments), so there’s little point going on about it, apart from to say that on this album it appears in a rare ‘fake stereo’ incarnation. Not exactly high on the list of must-hear rarities.
2. I Saw Her Standing There
Here’s the b-side of that second US single, originally the first track on the first UK album. Well, we did say it was going to get more confusing. Again, it’s probably a bit too well known to really warrant further discussion, though the mono version of the album apparently features a rare mono mix made by simply combining both stereo channels into one. Save your money.
3. This Boy
The doo-wop friendly b-side of the original UK I Want To Hold Your Hand, once again presented here in completist-exciting ‘fake stereo’ uninterestingness. One of the uncelebrated gems of the early Beatles catalogue, and indeed the one that controversially saw Lennon & McCartney named ‘Composers of the Year’ by The Times, though perhaps better known in its George Martin-shepherded instrumental version as heard in the bit in A Hard Day’s Night where Ringo goes for a stroll through some bins.
4. It Won’t Be Long
Finally we’re on to the first track of With The Beatles proper, and it’s the one that should have seen their ‘Composers of the Year’ award taken away, as it’s pretty much a jumbled-up retread of all of their hit singles to date (along with, erm, The Rutles’ Hold My Hand). Apparently Bob Dylan liked the ‘chords’.
5. All I’ve Got To Do
We’re still on a proper tracklisting trajectory with this Lennon-instigated number suitabky specifically written for the ‘American market’, in that it contains references to phoning a girl when at that time all British citizens had one phone between two and they had to go to a special ‘Phone Emporium’ to use it anyway, and even that caused Tony Hancock to roll his eyes at the relentless march of modernity. A pretty good song, mind you.
6. All My Loving
Side One closes with the Beatles song that everyone thinks was a single even though it actually wasn’t, and the best song on this album (and, for that matter, on With The Beatles) by some considerable distance. Everything that was great about pre-Swinging London Sixties Pop in two minutes flat. Pinky And Perky’s version is better, though.
1. Don’t Bother Me
More by accident than design, Side Two opens with a George Harrison number; his first released composition in fact. ‘The Quiet One’ was already starting to add a bit of colour and variety to Beatle releases with his moodier and more introspective compositions, and it’s this understated minor key marvel, more than anything else on the album, that points the way towards the music that they would go on to make.
2. Little Child
Written for Ringo but sung by Lennon, the song that even Paul McCartney describes as ‘filler’ fails to impress on any level, despite it apparently having taken them an unprecedented three recording sessions to get a satisfactory performance on tape. The lyrics, meanwhile, are probably best skirted over.
3. Till There Was You
A Merseybeated-up rendition of a number originally from striped-blazers-ahoy Broadway musical The Music Man, and doubtless included to emphasise the Fab Four’s versatility as all-round entertainers. What was old Ed thinking?
4. Hold Me Tight
Space-saving begins in earnest as the fun but workmanlike covers of Please Mr. Postman and Roll Over Beethoven are dropped from the running order, and instead it’s straight on to a straight-ahead rocker that both Lennon and McCartney are on record as having hated. Well, at least it’s not an uninspired amble through somebody else’s song.
5. I Wanna Be Your Man
A cover of You Really Got A Hold On Me gets the boot – like all of the jettisoned With The Beatles tracks, it would show up Stateside on The Beatles’ Second Album a mere three months later – and instead here’s an uninspired amble through a song that they gave to somebody else. Argue if you must, but there’s really no way a polite hello-all-our-pals-at-the-Royal-Variety-performance Ringo-sung original could compete with the ferocious Rolling Stones snarl released a couple of weeks earlier.
6. Not A Second Time
It’s bye bye to a retread of forgotten rock’n’roll hit Devil In Her Heart by forgotten rock’n’rollers The Dovays, skipping ahead to this celebrated bit of moodiness with George Martin doing some conspicuously weird piano. With The Beatles‘ one halfway decent cover version Money is lopped off the end too, meaning that this is by default the last track of Meet The Beatles!, and the first proper American Beatles album ends not with a raucous rock’n’roll thud but with a hastily-executed fade-out. Still, it clearly left them wanting more…
Buy A Book!
Heaven knows what Capitol would have done with the legendary unreleased 1967 electronic Beatles track Carnival Of Light, but there’s a huge feature on it in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The once-essential documentary The Compleat Beatles – now as airbrushed from history as Meet The Beatles! – was one of Paul Abbott’s choices on Looks Unfamiliar; you can listen to it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.