Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Beatles US Albums versus The Capitol Sound


When the release was first announced, I idly wondered why the Beatles called the new box set the “U.S. Albums” when there were already two volumes out there called “The Capitol Albums,” which consisted of their American releases in 1964 and 1965. Why wouldn't they just call the new release the “Capitol Collection”?

Unless...

Unless there was some sort of fundamental change in there. Then there would be a reason for the title difference. And my thinking on the matter then became anything but idle. So while carefully reading the articles on the box set by the Beatles news master, Steve Marinucci (he really is a Beatles Google news search come to life), I looked for something that would result in the name change, however subtle it might seem at first. And I found it regarding the sound. Which is kind of an essential part of music. So it's really not that subtle a difference at all.

And when I found out it was the sound, I knew the issue. My overriding question and concern when I first heard of the box set was whether they would they release it the music the way it originally sounded on the American releases, or do something different. You see, when the Beatles were first released big-time in the U.S. on Capitol Records (there were American releases on smaller record labels before that, which is the reason for my specificness), the sound was much different than the British releases. That's because Capitol wanted to get the records released as fast as possible, and so that sometimes necessitated faking stereo records from mono master tapes. This is called “duophonic” sound, used by many record companies back when stereo came into vogue and everybody wanted stereo records, even if the only available master tapes were mono.

So Capitol had to create fake stereo Beatles masters, and according to the Duophonic Wikipedia page as well as the box set liner notes, they went about it the way that Capitol usually used to make “duophonic” sound. A Capitol engineer would take the mono master of a song and make a copy. So they'd then have a tape for the left channel and a tape for the right channel. To create the stereo simulation while running both tapes through the mixing board, they'd really boost the bass and minimize the treble on one channel, and pretty much reverse it on the other channel. They'd also add some reverb or echo on both tracks. And then, they'd play the two tapes out of sync with each other to create even more echo, otherwise known as “out of phase.” They'd record that mix, and voila, simulated stereo, aka the “duophonic sound.”

The “duophonic” sound ended up on Capitol Beatles albums for years because they were in such a hurry to release the albums they couldn't wait for the stereo masters. You see, in Britain when the lads first started recording, mono was still the preferred format (because many Britons could not afford upgrading to stereo record players- like the Beatles themselves when they were growing up). So after recording the tracks, the lads would sit in on the mono mastering sessions but not the stereo mastering sessions. Probably because they had to go tour or record a BBC session or do a teevee show or make a movie. Anyway, that meant the mono masters were done first, and Capitol was in such a hurry to release the records they took the mono masters and duo-phoniced them up.
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A not unsubtle dig to Capitol. But they printed it anyway.
So, the result: the Beatles American releases weren't even close to what the Beatles intended an album to sound like. The duophonic sound, for one. Two, even when they had stereo releases, Capitol engineers were often told to put more echo on the tracks. And then those tracks were put anywhere the Capitol “producers” felt like putting them. A typical Capitol album included tracks from at least two British LP's, plus at least the a- and b-side of one single. The album “Yesterday and Today” is more infamous today for the “Butcher Cover,” but it's the biggest example of Capitol, well, butchering the Beatles music (in the lads  opinion). (Which explains the cover- it's a dig at what Capitol was doing to their work, but Capitol didn't get the joke and was in such a hurry they printed it anyway.)  “Yesterday and Today” includes tracks from three British albums plus both sides of a single.

This happened in the first place because there was no stipulation in their early days that the American release had to be exactly the same as the British release. So Capitol record executives were free to do what they wanted with whatever got sent over from Abbey Road Studios. And they did, in order to max out the earning potential. In England, The Beatles generally didn't release their singles on the album, but that happened in America as a matter of course. (The Beatles are held in wide regard as doing this throughout their careers, but it really didn't happen as much as we are led to believe. Of their 13 British albums, six, or nearly half of them include tracks that were originally released as singles. In fact, late in their career when their accountants were screwing them, they actually released the “Come Together/Something” single after Abbey Road was released precisely to make some more scratch. But I digress.)

In addition to that, while in Britain an album was considered “whole” if it had 14 tracks, an album in America had 12 tracks. Or 11. Sometimes ten. So, let's pretend you're a Capitol record executive in 1964 with this major cash cow called the Beatles. (who, let's face it, not a single record executive expected to be remotely relevant in six years time.... maybe even six months, so you've got to wring cash from these screaming girls and mod boys any which way you can.) These diligent Liverpool lads are not only sending you brand new14-track albums across the pond every six months, but the special Pan Am Freight delivery will also be bringing you new singles every couple of months. So that's more than 30 new songs in 1964 alone. You also have two albums from 1963 and the singles from last year to release as well. So Capitol released four Beatles albums in 1964, and four in 1965. And don't tell me you wouldn't have done the same.

Capitol, it should be said, did occasionally do things right. The lads first Capitol album, “Meet the Beatles,” deserves more praise in this regard. Whereas the Beatles wouldn't release an “official” album of originals for another six months in Britain, “MTB” consists of eleven originals and one cover, thus becoming, albeit very accidentally, a very important showcase of their early songwriting. And the Beatles second album on Capitol- which, in a stunning piece of originality, was named “The Beatles Second Album”- showcases many cover versions that were otherwise a bit ignored on the British releases. In retrospect, this thrown-together second album, as opposed to being taken as a a joke, has been revered by music critics as an amazing piece of rock and roll. It's six of the Beatles best American rock covers on one album, plus five solid originals. It's high energy from start to finish- even if it's length is an astoundingly short 22 minutes. (It should be noted the track that leads off the album, “Roll Over Beethoven,” got so much airplay in the US that Capitol was going to release it as a single, until the Beatles got wind of it and asked them to wait to see if they liked their next original. Which was “Can't Buy Me Love.”)
In addition to those two happy accidents, while the Beatles themselves relegated “Yesterday” to the b-side of the British “Help!” soundtrack album, Capitol executives recognized it as a major cross-over hit, and released it as a single in addition to putting it on an album. “Yesterday” is the most-covered Beatles track of all time, you really can hear it everywhere you go to this day if you keep an ear out for it (and I do).

But, despite those unintentional successes, (“even a blind pig finds a few truffles”) Capitol did more things wrong than they did right back in the 60's, as far as the Beatles were concerned. Consequently, the Beatles “punished” Capitol by refusing to even slightly acknowledge the American versions. Even when the Beatles first put their albums on CD in the mid-80's, the plan was to never put the American albums on CD, to make sure that nobody mistook them for “The Real Thing.” However, Capitol continued to make cassette versions of the American releases for at least a decade (I know this because I bought them). The other way I got the American releases was from my aunt and uncles hand-me-down records, and I gotta tell you, I thought the duophonic mixes were amazing. And hearing those songs in a different order even made me appreciate them more, because I listened to the British releases over and over and over. So for example, to hear “Roll Over Beethoven” lead off an album instead of being stuffed in the middle, or hear a b-side of a single somewhere besides the b-side... well, it makes a difference.

In the mid-2000's the Beatles relented (because the people who worked for them who were from the States kept badgering them) and let them release the Capitol albums in two CD box sets (the four albums from 1964 and four from 1965), complete with the duophonic sound. They made Capitol release the albums as a box set and not as individual albums because they figured that if an American baby boomer saw “Meet the Beatles” and “With the Beatles” in the store, they would get what the were familiar with, aka, the bastardized version. And, as far as the Beatles concerned, they would then be listening to versions of the songs that they didn't like on albums they hadn't authorized. When you really think about it that way, Capitol was the first Beatles bootlegger.

Since that time, the Beatles have realized (even more so) that a dollar is a dollar and it doesn't matter if the buyer is a fanatic or a casual listener. If it gets them to buy the same song four different times on four different discs, they should probably let the consumer do that. (And I have done that.) They remastered and re-released the original British albums in both stereo and mono format in 2009 (I got the mono box set, of course- but not the stereo), and then came to the conclusion that they should release the Capitol albums.

From the start, the Beatles have all been about the sound. When they signed their first record contract, a four-man group with two guitars, a bass, and a drummer seemed like it was on the way out. It's why they got turned down by nearly every label before Parlophone took a chance on them. And when they became the de facto producers of their records, it's because they were experimenting with the sound, trying to find ways to make it more interesting- and most of all, making sure that everyone knew that they were responsible for what the records sounded like.

Which, ultimately, was their biggest problem with the Capitol releases. And that's why when they finally put all of the Capitol releases out on CD for the first time in January, the Beatles and their people decided to use.... the original mixes made in England, and not the Capitol sound, whether it was duophonic or whatever.

The Beatles think that by doing this, they're making sure that no matter what album you buy, you get the same sound. The American and British albums now vary in terms of tracklistings, but that's the only difference. The sound is the same.

And this, thousands of words later, is the massive problem I have with the latest releases. The Beatles consider the Capitol remixes of their songs to be mistakes. But they were not. They were far from mistakes. If you listen to any American rock record of the mid 60's, it is positively drenched in echo and reverb and “out of phase” effects done on the mixing board. Listen to a Motown record from 1965 and tell me that the Beatles Capitol influence isn't all over that. Take the Billboard Top 100 chart from that same year and go listen to a random ten records. All of those records- not some of them, all of them- were influenced by the Beatles- and the “Capitol echo” done out of the haste to release Beatles records in America as fast as possible. By accident, Capitol engineers and producers changed the Beatles sound- but in the process, they changed how every record sounded in America. (Here's a link to the number 100 song on Billboard in 1965. And number one. Even shouting the intro was a Beatles influence.)

But now, if you listen to, say, the “canon” version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” next to those records, you wonder how the Beatles influenced anything in America. It doesn't sound like any of those tracks. You read about how the Beatles influenced Motown and the Beach Boys and whoever, and then you listen to the “canon” version of any Beatles track released from 1964 through mid-1966, really, and you don't hear how anybody, much less Brian Wilson or Berry Gordy, got from “A” to “B.”

Now, if you take a listen to the Capitol duophonic sound version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” everything immediately makes sense. To this day, the Capitol version of that song sounds like nothing else. It's heavier, it's more in-your-face, and it makes so much sense how that one record changed everything, overnight. The Capitol remixes of the Beatles in the early days not only changed the way America listened to music, it changed the way America made music. By not including those mixes on the new releases, people who have never heard those mixes are being cheated out of what influenced millions of people in the mid-60's, including America's most prominent and influential music makers.

It seems to me a bizarre consequence. By insisting that the sound be what they intended it to be, the Beatles influence on American records of the mid-60's will actually be de-emphasized, because someone will listen to the “new” American versions of “The Beatles Second Album” and “Something New” and “Beatles '65” and then listen to, say Little Stevie Wonder, and figure that the Beatles had little influence on how that record actually sounded. Which is of course not true at all.

So, weirdly enough, 50 years later, the biggest mistake being made to the Beatles Capitol Albums.... is being made by the band themselves. The question is whether they realize this, and when they do, if they will sit idly by while they become less influential. Somehow, I doubt it.


Addendum: You can actually hear snippets of the “duophonic” Capitol edits in the box set. That's because the only CD in the box set that was exclusively taken from the Capitol tapes is the historical oddity known as “The Beatles Story.” While purportedly their history, it is in reality a bunch of journalists capturing what both confused and fascinated the older generation about the lads. It consists of very few audio clips of the Beatles themselves and plenty with the journalists trying to figure out what makes these guys so popular. Anyway, there are a few musical interludes throughout this oddity.... and they're the Capitol edits. More echo, more bass, more reverb.... everything I explained above. If you take the time to struggle through “The Beatles Story” and you only know the “canon” edits, when those clips come on you will go “Whoah!” And prove my entire point.




photos courtesy: rollingstone.com, musicradar.com, beatlesbible.com (twice), barnesandnoble.com, theseconddisc.com