Some fans have greeted The U.S. Albums, Capitol/Universal Music Group’s collection of 13 Beatles albums modeled after the American-only releases, with outrage. The key to understanding why lies in the phrase “modeled after.” The only truly authentic U.S. album in the set (in terms of audio presentation) isn’t even a Beatles album, it’s the novelty, spoken-word release The Beatles’ Story (1964). The mixes available on CD since 1987 represent The Beatles as the band members and producer George Martin want to be heard. Capitol Records sliced-and-diced those albums from 1964 to ‘66, lopping off songs, adding single-only tunes to others, basically ruining their integrity. Adding insult to injury, Capitol executive/producer Dave Dexter Jr. changed the very sound of the music, liberally applying reverb to many recordings and creating fake stereo, duophonic mixes of others. Aside from a couple dozen or so George Martin-prepared alternate mixes, the uniquely U.S. mixes have been replaced by the 2009 remasters.
Driven primarily by nostalgia, many first-generation Beatle fans have craved these altered versions on CD ever since the official versions replaced them worldwide. Never mind the fact that the U.K. versions of those early albums (they were more or less standardized beginning with Sgt. Pepper, though the U.S. Magical Mystery Tour was the exception where Capitol’s patchwork was adopted worldwide) generally contained 14 tracks whereas the U.S. ones had 11 or 12. Never mind the fact that The Beatles U.K. albums stand as the most remarkably clear-cut artistic progression ever recorded by a rock band. Never mind the fact that the Capitol albums were originally mastered using second-, third-, or even fourth-generation tapes. Nostalgia is nostalgia. Fans’ demands were partially fulfilled in 2004 with The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 and again in 2006 with Vol. 2. These only contained eight albums though, leaving several uniquely Americanized albums in the lurch.
To be fair, the U.S. versions do provide an alternate listening experience for serious fans. The hideous, out-of-phase duophonic mixes in particular make for an interesting curiosity. A third volume of The Capitol Albums would’ve taken care of the holes in the Americanized catalog, but instead it was announced that The U.S. Albums would package the whole lot in one box set. But, as already stated, the albums on this set would be mainly comprised of the original U.K. mixes heard on the 2009 stereo and mono reissues. It’s easy to understand why many fans feel misled. At the same time, it’s equally easy to see Apple’s (i.e. The Beatles and their management) position. Just because an outside party decided to “improve” upon their purposefully-designed albums by re-sequencing and remixing them (from inferior master tapes, no less) doesn’t mean they should necessarily be preserved forever.
At any rate, The U.S. Albums offers very cool reproductions of the original album art, including a gatefold sleeve for Help! and the “butcher cover” for Yesterday and Today. A “paste-over” sticker of the latter’s replacement artwork is included as well. The CDs themselves are well-protected, with each disc in a plastic sleeve (just like the 2009 The Beatles in Mono box set). There are also paper dust jackets for each disc, also replicating the original Capitol (or for A Hard Day’s Night, United Artists) design. Mono and stereo mixes (in that order) are included for each album (save The Beatles’ Story and stereo-only Hey Jude). And although most of the included, authentically U.S.-only mixes aren’t exactly essential, they do make for a cool game of “spot the differences” (single- vs. double-tracked vocals on “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell,” false start on “I’m Looking Through You,” an extra verse in “I’ll Cry Instead,” to name a few of the prominent ones). Sadly, not quite all of the Martin-provide U.S. anomalies are included (see this for a good list of what is and isn’t included). As for the fidelity, if you already have the ’09 releases you know what to expect. The only real difference is that in ’09, the mono mixes were mastered at a slightly lower volume level than the stereo. Here they are equal.
As for the U.S. track lists, taken at face value not one of them is preferable to their U.K. counterpart. Hey Jude was, in 1970, a decent compilation of mostly non-album singles, but in the CD era it was rendered obsolete by Past Masters. The soundtracks for A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were marred by crappy instrumental pieces not performed by The Beatles (because it wasn’t part of either Capitol Albums box set, the former’s instrumentals make their CD debut here). Even though Dave Marsh sang the praises of The Beatles 2nd Album in 2007 in a book of the same name, just take a look at its lineup: 11 songs, only five of which are Lennon/McCartney originals, and a sole McCartney lead vocal (“Long Tall Sally”). The mono mixes here for “You Can’t Do That,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “I Call Your Name” are unique, but aside from that anyone with the ’09 releases can assemble their own 2nd Album (or any other playlist, for that matter).
While the majority of fans and critics agree that the original U.K. configurations are preferable, it should be pointed out that there is one album often singled out as an exception: Rubber Soul. Capitol’s Dave Dexter Jr. made changes to the Beatles’ official version, cutting four songs and replacing them with two from another album. If any U.S. variation is specifically singled out for praise, it’s this one. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The reason most often cited is that Dexter’s track list changes made the album more of a unified folk rock statement. Two Help! tracks were used, with “I’ve Just Seen a Face” leading off side one and “It’s Only Love” kicking off side two of the original LP.
In the process, a kick-ass rocker (“Drive My Car”), one of John Lennon’s most thoughtful compositions (“Nowhere Man”), arguably George Harrison’s first true classic original (“If I Needed Someone”), and Ringo Starr’s feature (“What Goes On”) were all cut. What a joke. Are there really people who believe this hatchet job improves the original album? Revolver’s edit is at least as bad, losing three classic Lennon cuts (“I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing”) and replacing them with nothing. What is, in its true U.K. form, the Beatles’ most democratic album becomes, in the U.S. version, woefully unbalanced with only two Lennon songs left. Because there are no unique mixes on the American Revolver, it’s literally just the original album minus three songs. At least Yesterday and Today, the compilation upon which the excised Rubber Soul and Revolver tracks were dumped, has a few unique mixes (though unused alternate stereo mixes for “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Doctor Robert” do not turn up on the new U.S. Albums CD).
Anyone who can honestly say any given U.S. Beatles album improves upon a U.K. one (excluding Magical Mystery Tour, not part of this set, which wasn’t even a full album in the U.K. to begin with) is expressing an opinion clouded by nostalgia. Those who wish to tinker with The Beatles track lists are free to do so with their 2009 albums. The results, with the exception of a couple dozen unique (but not terribly different) mixes, will sound the same (fidelity-wise) as what’s heard on The U.S. Albums. Obvious and much-appreciated care was invested in the packaging of the new reissues, but it’s clear there aren’t too many more ways this body of work can be re-released.