Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Turn Left at Greenland, Part 12: ‘Hey Jude’

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

On September 26, 1969, The Beatles released the last album all four Fabs intended to release. Abbey Road wrapped up the experience well, providing outstanding showcases for each band member: Lennon transitioned to the bloodletting of his solo career with his grungiest tracks yet, McCartney continued his obsession with lavish production with the medley that consumed Side B, Harrison contributed what may be his two signature compositions, and Starr comported himself well as rare composer of one track and rare soloist on another. That track was called “The End”, as if the finality of Abbey Road needed to be made any more explicit. It was all over but the legal matters, and there were a lot of those. If Abbey Road provided a sweetly polished finale to Beatlemania, then the lawyers, paper chasing, obligations, and conniving of the nefarious Allen Klein were the sour end.

John, George, and Ringo’s preferred manager Klein caused a lot of friction within the disintegrating band, but he is also responsible for one of the more benign obligations of The Beatles’ final days. As part of his renegotiation of the group’s Capitol contract in 1969, he promised to deliver one extra LP in the tradition of the ones the label had been conceiving since 1964, the ones I have been examining all year long in Turn Left at Greenland. Like those albums, the concept was songs that had yet to appear on a Capitol LP, and like a lot of them, there was little cohesiveness. Like them there would be controversial mixes (Lennon loathed how his “Revolution” sounded in stereo). Like them this new album would pass off singles as album tracks, and like them it would be a huge hit, effortlessly hitting number two on Billboard’s charts despite the fact that a lot of people already owned everything on it. In fact, the centerpiece of the album is The Beatles’ biggest selling single in the U.S. ever. The masterminds behind the album were so convinced that the song’s place on the LP would move units that they changed the title from The Beatles Again to Hey Jude.

By the time the title was changed to Hey Jude, lots of Beatles Again labels had already been printed. Instead of eating the cost, Apple just released early copies of Hey Jude with the irrelevant labels.

Unlike the previous Capitol exclusives, Hey Jude was not focused on a concentrated era, and so it also differs from, say, Beatles '65 or Beatles VI because it isn’t trying to fool anyone into believing it’s the latest batch of Beatles recordings. So perhaps it doesn’t quite fit Turn Left at Greenland and would be more at home in a discussion of compilations like A Collection of Beatles Oldies, 1962-1966, and 1967-1970 (all of which, incidentally, are fairly focused on a specific era). That Hey Jude now seems like a blueprint for Past Masters Vol. 2 makes its status as a clear-cut compilation all the more clear cut.

Eight of Hey Jude's ten tracks were released on the CD-era closet cleaner Past Masters Volume Two.
But it is its own beast in a sense. Hey Jude certainly is not a greatest hits album, even though “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Paperback Writer”, “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”, and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” are some of The Beatles’ biggest hits. It doesn’t do what most greatest hits albums set out to do, which is satisfyingly distilling a group’s history into a dozen-or-so key songs. There are too many gaps in the story here. There’s nothing from 1965 (even though “I’m Down” could have been included and would not end up on LP until 1976’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Music comp). 1967 is unrepresented too. Hey Jude is back heavy with tracks from the back end of The Beatles’ career.

Of course, not every compilation is a greatest hits album, but the worthwhile ones have a definite concept. As already mentioned, the concept of Hey Jude is a Capitol closet cleaning, though this does not mean all of these tracks are taking their first turns at 33 1/3 rpms. “I Should Have Known Better” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” had been released on United Artists’ A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack five years earlier, placing those two tracks in the tradition of The Early Beatles, which consisted of songs already released in the states on non-Capitol LPs.

If compiler Allan Steckler wanted to make Hey Jude’s masquerade as a non-compilation more convincing he couldn’t really pull it off anyway because there were too few candidates for inclusion. The upcoming Let It Be LP was to contain the recent past masters “Get Back” and “Across the Universe”, although they would be different versions than the ones that had already been released as a single and a compilation track, respectively. Still, even releasing different versions of these songs might have felt like a cheat (though one in keeping with “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” from Something New). “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”, which would be released just one month after Hey Jude on the B-side of the “Let It Be” single, was actually an old track from 1967. “The Inner Light”, the B-side of “Lady Madonna” was a slightly more recent piece, but its raga instrumentation makes it sound like a product of ’67. It would sound very out of place among straight-forward rockers like “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Revolution”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, and even its own A-side, “Lady Madonna”.

So what is Hey Jude? Is it a compilation? Is it the final sham in a six-year tradition of sham American albums? Capitol seems to opt for the latter, including it among all of its other non-comp LPs in the U.S. Albums box set released early this year. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because as we’ve seen over the past twelve months, The Beatles’ story on American wax has often lacked rhyme and reason. The first Rock & Roll group to really treat their albums like art had seen that art invaded by lounge instrumentals, jumbled so that their earliest recordings were released on their fifth LP, and treated as weird proper album/singles comp hybrids. The Beatles had seen their masterpiece butchered, the dismembered parts lumped inside a cover banned for being “offensive”, and on a few occasions, their preferred versions of their albums would not be the ones a lot of fans preferred. In the end, Hey Jude is just another strange destination to visit when you turn left at Greenland.

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