Monday, March 10, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 3: ‘The Beatles Second Album’


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

Not even three months passed between the releases of The Beatles first and second LPs on Capitol. During that time they’d dug their Cuban heels deep in American soil by rocking “The Ed Sullivan Show” for 73 million viewers on February 9, 1964.  On March 2, they started shooting their first feature film, which would ultimately prove the guys’ prowess across media. So would John Lennon’s book of fanciful gobbledygook, In His Own Write, published March 23, and selling a reported 90,000 copies in the U.S. in its first print. During that period, American shops were flooded with Beatles merchandise licensed by Brian Epstein’s Seltaeb merchandising company and otherwise: shirts and suits and badges and dolls and wigs. With such mad demand for anything and everything Beatles, one could hardly expect Capitol to keep its latest and hugest property in reserve—certainly not when all this Beatlemania hoo-ha would likely flash out as quickly as it stormed in. Bundling up the five leftover covers from With The Beatles that didn’t make it to Meet The Beatles!, both sides of their second U.S. number one single, side B of their third one, side B of their third UK single, and Side A of the as yet unreleased Long Tall Sally EP (marking the first time fresh Beatles material would reach the states before Britain), Capitol’s Dave Dexter, Jr., had enough material for an all new hodgepodge at the ready.

It took a lot of raw material to make The Beatles Second Album

The ever-so imaginatively titled The Beatles Second Album showed all the signs of its hasty assembly. It is the first U.S. album with no UK equivalent (though certainly not the last). For the first and final time, covers would outnumber originals on LP. The five originals are all strong—and at least “She Loves You” and “You Can’t Do That” are monumental—but the fact that John is the prominent voice on all of them, and the sole composer of two (“You Can’t Do That” and “I Call Your Name”), sketches an imbalanced picture. Today The Second Album feels like a dry run for Rock & Roll Music, half of its tracks finding a home on Capitol’s double-LP compilation of 1976. There is none of the stylistic variety of Please Please Me, With The Beatles, or Meet The Beatles! this time; no show tunes, no light ballads. The B-side “I’ll Get You” provides a moment of relative respite, though with a chorus trembling on the precipice of feverishness, it’s hardly another “P.S. I Love You” or “Till There was You”. The Miracles cover “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is even slower and more melancholic, but this time Lennon does not hold the reins on his full fire, shouting with the desperation he expressed on his rockers. So as Meet The Beatles! showcased John, Paul and George as new pop craftsmen, The Second Album celebrates them as house-burning rock and rollers worthy of stomping in the steps of Chuck Berry, Barrett Strong, and Little Richard. While I personally feel its preponderance of covers makes it a bit less interesting than Meet, Second has its share of devotees, inspiring AllMusic’s Bruce Elder to declare it The Beatles’ “best pure rock & roll album.” Back in the nineties, future U.S. Albums notator, Bill Flanagan, pleaded with Neil Aspinall to release it—if no other Capitol album— on CD. The head of Apple Corps. apparently never even heard of the album, scoffing, “You mean Capitol actually put out an LP called The Beatles Second Album?” No one has ever defended that lazy title.

If anything reins in The Beatles Second Album, it is Dexter’s usual monkeying with the sound. One interesting, and rather nice, addition is the extra blasts of harmonica edited into “Thank You Girl”. The additional harmonica contributes additional color to this joyous pop rocker. Otherwise, the alterations are indefensible. The tracks are more trebly. The immediacy of most is muddied with Dexter’s beloved reverb. The cowbell on “I Call Your Name” makes an early entry. Their original tapes lost or stolen, “I’ll Get You” and “She Loves You” were not available for stereo remixing, so fake stereo had to suffice. “You Can’t Do That” is slowed down rather painfully (the UK mix falls squarely in the key of G; the U.S. one falls in the crack between F# and G). This had to have been a mistake made in haste; even one as blinkered as Dexter could not have thought such sluggishness a more commercial “improvement.” Well, at least he didn’t shuffle The Beatles’ fiery originals with a bunch of Muzak instrumentals. That wouldn’t happen for another two whole months when United Artists Records got in on the free-for-all, further jumbling The Beatles’ presentation in the U.S.
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