If you were a white American kid playing rock ’n’ roll back in the early ’60s, hearing the Beatles for the first time was a weird, funhouse-mirror-like experience.
Here were these four guys — from England of all places — singing songs by Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven”), Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally”) and Barrett Strong (“Money [That’s What I Want]”) — black artists we loved and envied so much that we imitated everything about them, from their impassioned screams and falsettos and raunchy-blues twang to their pegged pants, pointy-toed shoes and skinny ties.
How had these choirboy tea bags become so similarly possessed? Hearing them was like having our own revoicing of something that was already “other” shouted back at us across the Atlantic by kids who were also “other,” but in yet another way. Disorienting, to say the least.
And the weird part was how good they were. I mean, not only could they play all the R & B stuff, they could sing harmony like the Marvelettes (“Please Mister Postman”), croon old show tunes (“Til There Was You”) — and here was the kicker — they could write their own, zippy songs.
Obviously, something really big was happening.
The Beatles got famous in the U.K. first, where their recorded output began in 1962, whereas the first American Beatles album was not released until 1964, after they had “conquered” America with a February visit that included their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
As collectors and aficionados know, until “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967), the sequence of vinyl LPs released in the two countries — and their content and program order — were quite different.
The American albums had fewer tracks, included previously released singles, were heavily slathered in reverb (or phony “stereo”) and often included unconscionable filler and tracks released on previous albums.
In short, an embarrassing hodgepodge. That’s why, for decades, most fans have preferred the U.K. albums, which are all available in stereo and mono box sets.
But you know what? If you lived through that era, if you heard that first blast when the Beatles were fresh, perplexing and new, if you lay around listening to their LPs over and over again until the songs became imprinted on your brain — in that order — there’s probably a teensy part of you that has a hankering to hear those same records again — and not from LPs that are scuffed, scratched and scored.
Tuesday, Jan. 21, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival on American shores (a couple of weeks early, actually; they got here Feb. 7), Capitol is issuing “The Beatles: The U.S. Albums” ($159.99).
It’s all 13 of the band’s LPs, repackaged as CDs that mimic the U.S. releases — same cover art, same song sequence, same weird reverb — with the added attraction that each disc includes mono and stereo versions of each album.
The discs cover the span from the incomparably poppy “Meet the Beatles” (1964) to the darker, weirder amalgamation “Hey Jude” (1970). In between are 11 others: “The Beatles’ Second Album,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Something New,” “The Beatles Story,” “Beatles ‘65,” “The Early Beatles,” “Beatles VI,” “Help!,” “Rubber Soul,” “Yesterday and Today” and “Revolver.”
From the first three, echo-laden thrums of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) to the bass-thumping, Chuck Berry-like verses of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1970), this is the soundtrack of a generation. It’s pretty damn thrilling.
Sure, there are duds, particularly that ridiculous “documentary” “The Beatles Story” and “Help,” with its dumb movie-score tracks. But your favorites are here, too, whether it’s the straight-ahead early stuff like “I Wanna Be Your Man,” I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black”; the folksier “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Norwegian Wood”; or the layered complexity of “Taxman” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”
The box also includes a 62-page booklet, with the scandalous (and quickly pulled) original cover of “Yesterday and Today,” with the boys dressed as butchers, holding bloody dolls, as well as a solid liner note by Bill Flanagan, though the explanation of which masters were used — British or American — is very confusing.
But since the box includes the James Bond introduction to “Help” and the false start on “I’m Looking Through You,” it’s clear that at least some of the stereo mixes here are taken from the U.S. Capitol masters.
But most listeners won’t care about that. What will delight them is that when they compare the stereo and mono mixes, they will immediately recognize which version they originally heard. Because it’s imprinted on their brains as indelibly as that first moment we all first heard the Beatles sing.
Editor’s note: The Seattle Times is collecting reader recollections of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance at Seattle Center. Add your memory here.