Sunday, February 9, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 2: ‘Meet The Beatles!’

In this new monthly feature on Psychobabble, I’ll be looking at how The Beatles were presented on long-playing vinyl in the United States.

On January 10, 1964, the American public was officially introduced to The Beatles on LP. As far as Capitol Records was concerned, the kids didn’t meet the Fab Four until ten days later. Calling The Beatles’ second American album Meet The Beatles!, thereby claiming propriety over their “real” debut, was an arrogant move considering how Dave Dexter, Jr., had basically treated pop’s latest sensations like old socks up until this point. Capitol’s A&R man had rejected The Beatles time and again believing that American record buyers wouldn’t cotton to the Liverpool lads with the weird haircuts and weird suits. After Dexter passed on the surefire smash “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Brian Epstein passed on him, making his case directly to label president Alan Livingston, who displayed greater savvy by finally giving The Beatles the green light on Capitol.

And now Dexter was pretending that Introducing… The Beatles didn’t exist, that he had dibs on the guys all along. Granted, the Vee-Jay LP wasn’t the ideal introduction to The Beatles. Key songs had gotten clipped from its UK equivalent Please Please Me. An engineer had botched the count-in of “I Saw Her Standing There”. The cover was ugly. But these alterations were nothing compared to how Dexter fiddled with The Beatles’ first disc on Capitol. Its closest cousin is Parlophone’s With The Beatles. That record contained fourteen tracks, six of which being covers and none of which being singles. On Meet The Beatles! Dexter replaced five of those covers with both sides of the band’s first Capitol single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” / “I Saw Her Standing There” (it’s count-in fully intact) and the Parlophone B-Side “This Boy”. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “This Boy” were subjected to lousy duophonic mixes (highs equalized to the one channel, lows equalized to the other and run slightly out of sync in a poor simulation of stereo) on the stereo album. Dexter also brightened the sound a bit overallperhaps to keep the bass frequencies from making the needle hop off the vinyl, perhaps to give the sound more bite, perhaps bothand layered extra echo onto “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, apparently finally making this already fabulous track acceptable to his own cotton-clogged ears (nevertheless, these changes were light-handed compared to how he’d treat the next Capitol album).

So Dave Dexter, Jr.’s, vision for Meet The Beatles! was quite different from The Beatles and George Martin’s With The Beatles. Which album is better is a valid point of contention. Purists will insist that there is no comparison. With The Beatles is the record The Beatles wanted to release and is therefore intrinsically superior. For many Americans who grew up with Meet The Beatles!, With The Beatles lacks something. Hearing so many Lennon/McCartney originals (plus the very first Harrison one!) gathered in one place is exhilarating, and the three appended to the Capitol record are three of the very best they’d penned to date. The excised covers are all finely performed, well honed after many thunderous stage performances, but such a level of original songs on one album was basically unheard of on a Rock & Roll album in early ’64. Sure it was a cheat, a cagey patchwork on the part of Dexter, but most American kids didn’t know that. Without a monumental track such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or an “I Saw Her Standing There” to anchor it, With The Beatles feels a bit slight despite the inclusion of several undeniably strong tracks.

There certainly isn’t any challenge when it comes to the cover: Robert Freeman shot one of the most elegant photos ever to adorn a record sleeve. In the U.S. it was subjected to corpse-like blue tinting and junked up with an exclamation point and the usual ad-copy hysteria.

The best is “All My Loving”, a swinging, up-tempo ballad good enough to warrant single release in several markets and open The Beatles’ career-making performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” fifty years ago today. “It Won’t Be Long” is another powerful original, beginning With The Beatles with breath-snatching intensity. Moving that track to the mid-point of Side A on Meet The Beatles! diminishes its impact a bit. The decision to retain the corniest cover, the show tune “Till There Was You”, makes for a less thrilling inclusion than “Please Mr. Postman” or “Roll Over Beethoven” would have. “Not a Second Time” doesn’t make for as rousing a conclusion as “Money” had on With The Beatles, but Lennon and McCartney’s beautiful original does make for a wistful, anticipation-stoking finale similar to how Capitol would later use “Do You Want to Know a Secret” at the end of The Early Beatles, as discussed in the first episode of Turn Left at Greenland. In its own way, “Not a Second Time” ends Meet as effectively as “Money” ended With, finishing Side-B on a teasingly dark note just as the replacement of George’s cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” with his brooding original “Don’t Bother Me” begins it on one. “Not a Second Time” and “Don’t Bother Me” function as a relatively daring set of black bookends for a record intended to win a new audience, not ward them off with melancholy sentiments.

Without anything as iconic as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “I Saw Her Standing There” (or for that matter, “Love Me Do”, “Please Please Me”, and the essential cover “Twist and Shout” on The Beatles’ UK debut) With The Beatles might not have been the best way for The Beatles’ real US label to bring them out. Jam-loaded with original compositions, a clutch of them being among the band’s best early recordings, Meet The Beatles! is arguably the first sustained blast of The Beatles’ true brilliance. Its success is inarguable. A week after that “Ed Sullivan” debut, Meet The Beatles! was perched at the top of the Billboard charts and would stay there for the next eleven weeks.The Beatles were now transatlantic stars.

But what of all those With The Beatles leftovers? What of “Please Mr. Postman”, “Money”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, and the rest? Hold tight. They’d still be put to use, as we’ll see in next month’s edition of Turn Left at Greenland
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