Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 9: ‘Yesterday and Today’


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

This particular installment of  Turn Left at Greenland also happens to be Psychobabble's 100th post on The Beatles. Fab!

More than six months had past since Rubber Soul. Despite the massive artistic bounds The Beatles had clearly taken with their latest record, Capitol remained tone-deaf to the fact that they were more than just another pop group. The Beatles were not exclusive victims to Capitol’s nearsightedness. Execs were so skeptical of The Beach Boys’ recent fun and sun-shunning Pet Sounds that they didn’t wait two months before following it with the more commercial, infinitely less artful Best of The Beach Boys, a sheer slap in the face for Brian Wilson who’d put so much of his heart and soul into the album he admitted Rubber Soul had inspired.

We’re deeply into 1966 now. We’ve passed Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde and Aftermath. Yet it would take the musical H-bomb Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to convince all for once and all that pop music was not disposable product (at least, not all of it). In the meantime, it was business as usual for the old-school suits still bent on cashing in every dime before the pop fad petered out. Only such clueless individuals could not be anticipating what The Beatles had in store after their finest record yet. What they had in store is the record now widely regarded as their best. Revolver both seems a companion-piece to Rubber Soul (in The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison said he considered the records a sort of two-volume set) with its like-minded freshness, Swinging London sophistication, and winking drugginess, and a leaps-and-bounds progression past the simplicity and romance of Rubber Soul. Revolver is far more experimental, far more lyrically and musically varied, darker, weirder, wilder. As it lacks any unifying Sgt. Pepper’s–style “concept album” gimmick, one can understand why it did not make as much of a resounding impact despite the inclusion of “Eleanor Rigby”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Yellow Submarine”, and “Love You To”. It did not self-consciously announce itself as art (though Klauss Voormann’s brilliant, brooding cover illustration came real close to doing that) as Pepper’s did. So it was treated as just another really great pop album from the really great Beatles and would continue to be regarded that way for decades.



While The Beatles were taking too long with their latest really great pop record for Capitol’s liking, it was time to get some new product on American streets. In the vaults were a couple of leftovers from Help! (“Yesterday” and “Act Naturally”), four from Rubber Soul (“Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, “If I Needed Someone”, and “What Goes On”), and that album’s companion single (“Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out”). With the latest single—“Paperback Writer” and “Rain”—the tally comes to ten tracks. Almost, but not quite enough for a proper Capitol LP.

Who knows why The Beatles' latest 45 was left off “Yesterday”… and Today?

Bizarrely that new major single was not under consideration for Capitol’s making-time record of the summer of ’66. Instead, Brian Epstein was informed he’d have to hand over three of the six completed tracks from The Beatles’ current sessions. As Robert Rodriguez explains in Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘N’ Roll, “It was George Martin’s unenviable task to choose which songs to throw onto the cobbled-together Yesterday and Today.” Rodriguez speculates that Martin selected the tracks he selected because “Taxman” was so obvious a record-starter, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To” would have sounded wrong alongside numbers as ancient as “Act Naturally” and “Yesterday”. So Martin slipped the remaining completed tracks to Capitol: “Doctor Robert”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, and “I’m Only Sleeping”. 11 tracks. Done.

Well, not quite. There was still much hi-jinks to happen. Our old nemesis Dave Dexter, Jr., had to smear his echo all over the Revolver early birds, all of which appear in rushed duophonic mixes  on the stereo LP (the most celebrated difference being the alternate backwards guitar snippets in “I’m Only Sleeping”). Plus, a cover had to be shot. And this is where Yesterday and Today veers from Beatles VI-style curio to full-blown “bigger than Jesus” infamy. Australian photographer Robert Whitaker draped the Fab Four in butcher smocks and raw meat, gave them some dirty baby doll parts to play with, and told them to say “cheese.” What did it all mean? According to Rodriguez, Whitaker basically had a shitload of artistic pretensions. The guy who’d shot the chummy “Beatles for All Seasons” pics on the cover of Beatles ’65 was now drawing inspiration from his dreams and conceiving a Fab Four triptych called “A Somnambulant Adventure”, one panel of which would show the world’s most popular band posing with dolls and pork. Ringo was under the impression it had more personal connotations, a statement on the way Capitol chopped up The Beatles’ “babies” (their LPs) as if they were nothing more than meat products. Paul liked to believe it was some sort of criticism of the Vietnam War. John thought it was a protest against boring photo shoots. George just thought it was gross.

Copies of “Yesterday”… and Today with original butcher sleeve are currently selling on ebay for $3,500. In 2006, a sealed copy went at auction for $39,000.

So did the retailers and radio stations that received advance shipments of Yesterday and Today. The outcry was so overwhelmingly negative that Capitol went into crisis mode, pasting an innocuous Whitaker shot of the guys posing around a steamer trunk, which had already been under consideration for the cover anyway (Rodriguez says Capitol’s art department, made up of folks a lot hipper than Dexter, selected the dicier butcher sleeve), over about 750,000 copies of the controversial cover. Instant collector’s item (at least for anyone who could steam off the “steamer trunk” photo without damaging the valuable butcher one beneath).

And so we have the one and only Beatles album more famous for its cover than its music. But what of its music? Sure, it’s a hodgepodge culled from three rather distinct albums. It is the only Beatles single-disc LP with the distinction of having two lead vocals by Ringo and the only one that initially lost money (because of the cover debacle). It has no UK counterpart whatsoever. It was created for purely commercial purposes. As we shall see in the next installment of “Turn Left at Greenland”, it single-handedly hobbled The Beatles’ best album for millions of Americans. Duly noted.

Yesterday and Today is still a charming artifact of The Beatles in the midst of their most astounding progression. Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver are all well removed from the “Yeah, yeah, yeah” mop tops of the early days of Beatlemania. They also precede the self-conscious artiness of Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, “The White Album”, and Abbey Road. As different as the albums that constitute Yesterday and Today are, they all find The Beatles advancing naturally and with great humor. “A string quartet on ‘Yesterday’?” says Paul. “Sure, let’s give it a shot.” “Oh those backwards vocals sounded so groovy on ‘Rain’,” says George. “Let’s see what happens if we do the same thing to my guitar on ‘I’m Only Sleeping’.” “Ha!” laughs John. “I’m gonna write a song about me drug dealer! Or maybe ‘Doctor Robert’ is really about meself.”

I remember first studying the back cover of Yesterday and Today in the Caldor department store and realizing I needed it immediately. Not for the well-familiar “Yesterday” or “Day Tripper” or “We Can Work It Out” or “Nowhere Man” or “Drive My Car”, all of which I already owned on Beatles 1962-1966, but for “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Act Naturally”, and “And Your Bird Can Sing”, which were familiar to me from watching the campy “Beatles Cartoon” MTV was rerunning on Saturday Mornings (the latter song even served as the series’ theme song during its weird final season). Since all of those other songs were featured on the cartoon, too, I thought of Yesterday and Today as a veritable soundtrack album. In the months before I learned The Beatles never wanted to release an album called Yesterday and Today, it was one of my very favorite albums by them. My affection for it lives on even as I’m grateful I discovered it in 1987 when it’s usefulness was about to expire as the UK editions of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver were finally going to see wide release in the U.S., also making an even more troubled Capitol album obsolete…


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