"Past Masters" Still Masterful
In America after Capitol passed on The Beatles (still hilariously dumb, more so than U.K. Decca's passing on signing the group since that was before the group had written and recorded original tunes), the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label picked up the option, releasing a series of singles on Vee-Jay and on its Tollie subsidiary. While Vee-Jay was mostly an r&b and jazz label, it was also The Four Seasons' label and that group was a break-out success in the early '60s.
Along with the singles, Vee-Jay issued in January of 1964 the oft-bootlegged album Introducing the Beatles that was originally slated for release in the summer of 1963 but held up because of financial problems caused by one of the principle's gambling problems.
At first Vee-Jay was going to duplicate the group's fourteen song U.K. debut but then decided to issue a twelve song version as was the rule in America, removing "Ask Me Why" and "Please, Please Me". By the time the company got the album out (with various back covers because of a lack of artwork), it had been served with a restraining order because Capitol's music publishing division held publishing rights to "Love Me Do" and "P.S. I Love You."
This restraining order was served despite the fact that the first Beatles album Capitol was about to release, Meet the Beatles, did not contain those two songs! So Vee-Jay was forced to pull the album, which had by then sold more than 75,000 copies in mono and but a few thousand in stereo, and re-issue it with the two songs it had previously cut! Only "I Saw Her Standing There" appeared simultaneously on the two albums, though Vee-Jay's lacked Paul's countdown because Vee-Jay's engineers thought it an editing mistake.
Capitol and Vee-Jay fought it out in court all during this time and eventually Vee-Jay was allowed to market their album until the mid-October 1964, after which all rights to the songs reverted to Capitol. At one point Vee-Jay repackaged the album as Songs, Stories and Pictures of The Beatles in a 3/4 gatefold sleeve. Both of these albums charted simultaneously and sold well, though stereo copies of the Vee-Jay albums were very rare.
Late summer of 1964 I was in the Cortlandt Street area of lower Manhattan, which is where "Radio Row" was located before it was torn down to build The World Trade Center. Radio Row of course is where the American audio industry had its beginnings and I was there to drool in front of the windows of Harvey's, Leonard's, Rabson's and the other hi-fi stores in the area. The windows were full of McIntosh, Marantz, Harman-Kardon, and the rest.
I stopped into a small record store and there was this album Songs, Stories and Pictures of The Beatles (VJLPS-1092). Stereo? Could it be "real" stereo? I bought it and yes, it was, and it sounded amazing. The only problem was that the packaging was beyond tacky: "Look inside. Complete story of their favorite male and female singer, their favourite foods, types of girls, sport, hobby, songs, colors, real name, birthplace, birthdays, height, education, color of hair & eyes."
Yikes! The back cover had outlines of hearts next to each Beatle and the words "Paul Loves," "Ringo Loves" (etc.) that you were supposed to paste your picture on. But it sounded so good I ignored that. By my sophomore year of college Capitol had released the same tunes on The Early Beatles using a cover photo probably taken at the same session that produced the cover for Beatles For Sale, so now I could get rid of that stupid Vee-Jay album.
I remember in the fall of 1965 selling it at a record swap in the coat room of Willard Straight Hall, then the campus student union for a dollar. Today that record regularly sells for around $600. I hate when that happens!
The point is, the first few years of Beatles music was issued in a confusing heap on both sides of the Atlantic and various versions of many songs abound. Many tracks were issued in America that never were on "regular" albums in the U.K. though they were in America, and instead were on the popular glossy sleeve 4 song E.P. format. Some tunes, like "Bad Boy", slipped through the cracks altogether. "Bad Boy" was issued on LP in the U.K. a year and a half after it appeared on Beatles VI in America, on a "greatest hits" album called A Collection of Beatles Oldies (Parlophone PCS 7016) released there in December, 1966.
That album was the first British Beatles album I ever saw and I bought it just because. But when I heard it, OMG! First of all, "I Feel Fine" and "Day Tripper" were in real stereo, unlike on the Capitol albums, and even though eight songs were crammed onto each side, they all sounded so much better than on the Capitol albums, my next step was to order all of the Parlophones, not knowing how different the track listings and orders were.
So, getting (finally) to this double LP set: it's essential, particularly in the context of a box set based on the original British album releases since so many of these tracks did not appear on the original albums. Other than the original version of "Love Me Do" on which Ringo plays drums, taken from a 45rpm mono disc (he was replaced on later pressings), and a few others, all of the tracks were transferred from stereo master tapes and all of them hold interest for one reason or another.
I'm not going to go through them track by track, since you can easily find the track listing elsewhere. The very nicely produced gatefold insert with photos contains thorough notes by Kevin Howlett, written in February 2009 for the CD box set release. What's best about the notes is that it sorts and threads together the singles recorded by the group between 1962 and 1970 to produce an exciting narrative, even without the benefit of playing the records.
The sound here is mostly superb, taken in the context of the "house sound" produced for this box set reissue, which is ultra-clean, dry, and in many ways "revisionist" in nature in terms of EQ and what sounds like a restricted top end that's common to the entire set.
Every song, even the most familiar, produces added, often surprising pleasures, particularly those that only previously appeared on American Capitol. For instance, "This Boy". Here, minus the echo and whatever else Capitol did to "prepare" the songs for "kiddie" release, there's an immediacy and power to the 12/8 rhythm guitar track centered between the speakers that will floor you.
I think I enjoyed listening to this two LP, thirty three song set more than any of the other records in the box set, in part because I felt that few of the box set records surpassed or even equalled the sound of the originals. Here, with no context the results are far more pleasurable.
Highly recommended for both listening and for the set's musical story-telling.