Please Please Me (Parlophone, 1963)
With the Beatles (Parlophone, 1963)
A Hard Day's Night (Parlophone, 1964)
Beatles for Sale (Parlophone, 1964)
Help! (Parlophone, 1965)
Rubber Soul (Parlophone, 1965)
Revolver (Parlophone, 1966)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967)
Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol, 1967)
The Beatles (Capitol, 1967)
Yellow Submarine (Capitol, 1967)
Abbey Road (Capitol, 1967)
Let It Be (United Artists, 1970)
The Beatles 1962–1966 (Capitol, 1973)
The Beatles 1967–1970 (Capitol, 1973)
Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol, 1977)
Live at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany (Bellaphon, 1977)
Past Masters, Vol. One (Capitol, 1988)
Past Masters, Vol. Two (Capitol, 1988)
Live at the BBC (Capitol, 1994)
Anthology 1 (Capitol, 1995)
Anthology 2 (Capitol, 1996)
Anthology 3 (Capitol, 1996)
The Yellow Submarine Songtrack (Capitol, 1999)
The Beatles 1 (Capitol, 2000)
Let It Be…Naked (Capitol, 2003)
The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1(Apple / EMI, 2004)
Love (Apple / EMI, 2006)
The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2 (Apple/EMI, 2006)
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set (Apple/EMI, 2009)
The Beatles in Mono Box Set (Apple/EMI, 2009)
John had the vision, Paul had the heart, George had the spirit, and Ringo had two fried eggs on toast, please. Together, they were the Beatles, four working-class Liverpool boys who came out of nowhere to conquer the world with the greatest songs ever heard. In case you're from Mars, John Lennon (the Smart One) and Paul McCartney (the Cute One) wrote the tunes. George Harrison (the Quiet One) played lead guitar. Ringo Starr (the Drummer) played drums. They all sang. They invented the idea of the self-contained rock band, writing their own hits and playing their own instruments. They invented the idea that the world's biggest pop group could grow up into arty, innovative musicians. For that matter, they invented the idea that there was any such thing as the world's biggest pop group. They also invented drugs, beards, bed-ins, India, concept albums, round glasses, the Queen, breaking up, and vegetarians.
The Beatles left behind more great music than anybody can process in a lifetime. Sheer abundance is part of their story: Life with the Beatles means vaguely disliking a chestnut like "Nowhere Man" or "Blackbird" for years until it sneaks up and gets into your blood for good. Just check out "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which explodes out of the speakers with the most passionate singing, drumming, lyrics, guitars, and girl-crazy howls ever—it's no insult to the Beatles to say they never topped this song because nobody else has either, although the lads came pretty close themselves with "You're Going to Lose That Girl." It's the most joyous three minutes in the history of human noise.
The Beatles were already bar-band veterans when they released their 1962 debut single, "Love Me Do," toughened by speed-fueled all-nighters in the sleazy clubs of Hamburg. They banged out Please Please Me in one marathon 10-hour session with producer George Martin on February 11, 1963. It's a blueprint of everything the Beatles would ever do, mixing up doo-wop, country, R&B, girl groups, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Tin Pan Alley into their own exuberant sound. John and Paul sang the openhearted originals "Ask Me Why," "There's a Place," and "I Saw Her Standing There." Ringo shouted, "All right, George!" in his gender-flipped cover of the Shirelles' ultrafemme "Boys." All four Beatles sang and played with total emotional urgency, holding nothing back, knowing their first shot at getting out of Liverpool could have been their last. You can hear John completely blow out his voice in the last track, "Twist and Shout."
On With the Beatles, the mop-tops stepped out with a bunch of great Motown tributes: "Please Mister Postman," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," and the window-rattler "Money (That's What I Want)." They also shone with the originals "It Won't Be Long" and "All My Loving," George's "Don't Bother Me," and the Ringo showcase, "I Wanna Be Your Man." Unfortunately, there's also some real crapola here, such as "Little Child" and "Devil in Her Heart." The old show tune "Till There Was You" would rank as the Beatles' all-time ghastliest moment—if not for the horrifying "Hold Me Tight" ("It's you!/You, you, you!") which happens to be an original.
The full-length original albums didn't come out in America until 1987. Today, the hacked-up U.S. versions don't even have any nostalgic value, except maybe Meet The Beatles or Yesterday…And Today. The U.S. Rubber Soul adds acoustic tunes from Help! for a folk-rock album more conceptually unified than the U.K. original —though shorter, and not as good. The 2004 Capitol Albums box collects them all.
A Hard Day's Night, the soundtrack from the Beatles' superb debut film ("Don't touch Ringo's drums—they loom large in his legend"), was also the first album comprised entirely of Lennon-McCartney originals. Although they were now the four most famous people in the world, the toppermost of the poppermost, bigger than Elvis, bigger than Jesus, they were still holding nothing back emotionally or musically: Just listen to "If I Fell" or "You Can't Do That."
The strain of Beatlemania shows in Beatles for Sale, as the lads unload some of the ickiest covers from their bar-band days. But they keep growing with "What You're Doing" and "I'm a Loser." The harmonies of "Baby's in Black," the hair-raising "I still loooove her" climax of "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," the eager hand claps in "Eight Days a Week"—it all makes "Mr. Moonlight" easy to forgive.
Help! was a big step forward, exploring doubt, loneliness, alienation, adult sexual longing, acoustic guitars, electric piano, bongos, castanets, and the finest George songs known to man. The Cute One suddenly proved he was also the Smart One, the Smart One proved he could sound cuter than the Cute One, the Quiet One got Smart as well as Cute, and "Act Naturally" proved how much they all loved Ringo. Help! was utterly ruined in its U.S. version, which cut half the songs and added worthless orchestral soundtrack filler, so it's always been underrated. But Help! is the first chapter in the astounding creative takeoff the Beatles were just beginning: the soulful bereavement of "Ticket to Ride," the impossibly erotic gentleness of "Tell Me What You See," the desperate falsetto and electric punch of "You're Going to Lose That Girl."
On Rubber Soul, the Beatles grew up with an album of bittersweet romance, singing adult love ballads that feel worldly but not jaded. "Drive My Car" was a brash pop-life satire featuring Ringo's hottest drumming, while "Girl" upped the folk-rock ante on Bob Dylan. "Norwegian Wood" wove sitar and acoustic guitar together as John cryptically sang about an affair so his wife wouldn't guess what the song was about. (The rest of us can get confused as well—does he light up a joint at the end or burn the girl's house down?) John and Paul both took off as singers: "Nowhere Man" might be slight as social commentary but it's heartbreaking as music, while "I'm Looking Through You" and "Wait" bare the vulnerable emotion in Paul's vocals. "In My Life" was one of the last Lennon-McCartney songs that the pair actually wrote together, and it could well be a loving farewell to each other before the friendship turned sour.
For Revolver, the Fabs tuned in to Dylan, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and decided to top them all. They also decided to make Ringo sing the one about the yellow submarine. On top of the world, at the peak of their powers, competing with one another because nobody else could touch them, the Beatles breezed through acid rock ("She Said She Said"), chamber music ("For No One"), raga ("Love You To"), R&B ("Got to Get You Into My Life"), and everything in between with superhuman confidence. It contains their prettiest music ("Here, There, and Everywhere"), their bitchiest ("And Your Bird Can Sing"), their friendliest ("I Want to Tell You"), and their scariest (the screaming-seagull acid-nightmare "Tomorrow Never Knows"). John's songs are the best, but Paul gets in the funniest line: "If I am true I'll never leave,/and if I do I know the way there."
Revolver got butchered particularly badly in its U.S. release, which only gave John three songs, the same number as George. Incredibly, Americans didn't get to hear the uncut Revolver until the CD came out in 1987. Ever since Revolver has steadily climbed in public estimation. These days, Revolver has earned its reputation as the best album the Beatles ever made, which means the best album by anybody.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the psychedelic soundtrack of the Summer of Love, was the first Beatles album released in its original uncut version in America, where fans hadn't even heard the full Revolver yet. So it was a revelation of how far artists could go in a recording studio with only four tracks, plenty of imagination, and a drug or two. It's a masterwork of sonics, not songwriting—the words and melodies are a lot more rickety than on the previous three albums. But with Paul overdubbing every instrument under the sun and George Martin fixing the holes, Sgt. Pepper still sparkles, especially the jangly "Getting Better," the half-past-dead "A Day in the Life," and Ringo's greatest hit, "With a Little Help from My Friends."
Sgt. Pepper marked a turning point: No longer playing live, increasingly dimmed by drugs, the Beatles were drifting apart. They collaborated less and worked solo, isolating John's caustic rock edge, Paul's light pop whimsy, and George's sere spiritualism. Magical Mystery Tour was a lot goopier than Sgt. Pepper, though lifted by the cheerful "All You Need Is Love" and the ghostly "Strawberry Fields Forever." Her Majesty the Queen had the best comment: "The Beatles are turning awfully funny, aren't they?" By now, the Beatles didn't need to push—they could have hit #1 with a tape of themselves blowing their noses, which would have been catchier than "Hello Goodbye" or "Lady Madonna." Yellow Submarine was a flat soundtrack rather than a real album, but here's a question: Why is George's "It's All Too Much" not heralded as one of the top five all-time psychedelic freakouts in rock history?
The Beatles wrote most of the White Album on acoustic guitars while on retreat in Rishikesh, India, a place where they had no drug connections, which probably explains why they came up with their sturdiest tunes since Revolver. As John recalled, "We sat in the mountains eating lousy vegetarian food and writing all these songs." Even Ringo: a big hand, please, for the man who wrote "Don't Pass Me By." The double-disc White Album, officially entitled The Beatles, has loads of self-indulgent filler—even the justly maligned "Revolution #9" is more fun than "Honey Pie" or "Yer Blues." Before CDs, most people just made a 45-minute tape of highlights for actual listening; now you can program "Sexy Sadie" and "Long, Long, Long" without having to lift the needle to skip over "Helter Skelter." But nobody would pick the same highlights, which is part of the fun, and besides, if the Beatles had edited it down to one disc, "Rocky Raccoon" would have been the first to go, which would have been tragic. "Martha My Dear," "Blackbird," "Dear Prudence," "Julia," "Cry, Baby, Cry," "Savoy Truffle," and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" are all among the Beatles' finest songs, even if nobody will ever understand how they talked George Martin into permitting that godawful bass feedback at the end of the otherwise perfect "Julia." As a strange footnote, the White Album acquired permanent notoriety during Charles Manson's 1969 trial, when an L.A. district attorney floated the theory that the album had inspired an alleged hippie murder cult. Silly stuff, but the accusation stuck, even though there's never been any evidence behind it; as Charlie himself admitted, he was more of a Bing Crosby man. Oh, well—"Helter Skelter" still sucks anyway.
Despite its solo vocals, the White Album was the last Beatles album to evoke the old team spirit. Let It Be, the ill-fated documentary soundtrack, wasn't even released until 1970. The singing, playing, and writing are weak, despite the White Album–style gems "Dig A Pony" and "Two of Us." "The Long and Winding Road" is actually a not-terrible tune under Phil Spector's orchestral dreck (just listen to Aretha Franklin sing it on Young, Gifted, and Black). Fortunately, the band decided not to go out like that, and reconvened to make the farewell Abbey Road. Slick, polished to the point of easy listening, Abbey Road devotes side two to a Paul-dominated "pop symphony," as George's "Here Comes the Sun" gives way to a medley of inspired tunelets such as "Golden Slumbers," "Sun King," and "The End." The spottier side one has John's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," his de facto sequel to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and Ringo's kiddie fave "Octopus's Garden," which makes "Yellow Submarine" sound like "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Good night, everybody. Everybody, everywhere. Good night.
Beatles reissues are a story in themselves. Over the years, Capitol has cranked out Beatles anthologies from every conceivable angle— Love Songs, Reel Music, Rock & Roll Music, Rarities, and so on. Hardly any of them have been rip-offs, however; Elvis Presley should be so lucky as to have his legacy preserved with this much care. The Beatles 1962–1966 and 1967–1970, the "Red" and "Blue" albums, became the canonical sets in the Seventies, and they still sound great, although they're overpriced, each spreading a single CD's worth of great music over two discs—and nobody has ever explained what the hell "Old Brown Shoe" is doing on the Blue Album. Hollywood Bowl is a loving tribute to the screaming girl fans who drown out the band in these 1964–65 shows; those girls were heroes on the rock & roll frontier, and they deserve to be the lead instrument on a Beatles album of their own. Live at the Star Club is a dull live set from the tail end of the group's early Hamburg days, right about the time the Beatles were making it at home and going through the motions in Hamburg. Past Masters collects their singles on two CDs, including essential nonalbum cuts such as "She Loves You," "Hey Jude," "Yes It Is," and "Rain." The 1977 Love Songs had a nice cover.
The long-bootlegged Live at the BBC has excellent radio performances of the lads chattering, nattering, cracking one another up, dedicating songs to their aunties out there in radio land, and playing many otherwise unrecorded covers, as well as the great original "I'll Be On My Way." The all-outtakes Anthology sets are too much of a good thing, good for only a couple of listens apiece, although Anthology 3 has "Junk," a sweet acoustic White Album ballad Paul revived on his solo debut. The three surviving Beatles reunited in 1995 to touch up the John outtake "Free as a Bird," which in retrospect wasn't a bad song at all, although the very idea was dead grotty. The song peaked at #2 in the U.K. and therefore missed inclusion on 1, the budget-priced collection of #1 hits that shocked the music business by selling zillions of copies, even though everybody on earth already has all the songs. In fact, the Beatles were the top-selling act of 2001. "Free as a Bird," no doubt, will appear on the inevitable sequel 2, which will also have "Please Please Me" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"; also brace yourself for the Beatles' H, so everybody can buy new copies of "Help!," "Hello Goodbye," "Hey Bulldog," and "Her Majesty." 1 turned out to be the best-selling album of the 2000s.
The 1987 Beatles CD releases were so expertly done, they remained definitive for two decades, but the 2009 remasters were a revelation, especially the way they punched up Ringo's drums— "Magical Mystery Tour" goes from a likeable psychedelic trifle to a heavy krautrock blow-out. The remastered stereo versions were available individually or in a box. The mono versions were only available as a box, but are worth hearing—Sgt. Pepper in mono is a whole new trip. The Paul-supervised Let It Be…Naked remix wasn't worth his trouble or yours. Love was George Martin-supervised, sped-up remixes for the soundtrack to a Vegas show. The Beatles Rock Band video game settled all arguments about the Fabs' instrumental chops—you try playing the drum break from "Drive My Car" or the bassline to "Paperback Writer."
The Four Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles came out on DVD in 2003 with no fanfare and a clumsy title, but it's essential. You get 20 1964–1965 Beatles performances, including three versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but the real revelation is how badly the rest of the show sucked. Mitzi Gaynor singing show tunes? Mr. Acker Bilk doing a clarinet solo called "Acker's Lacquer"? Magic from the Great Fantasio, acrobats, card tricks, and a host who resembles a suburban funeral director with a mouthful of Vicodin? So this is what people did for fun before the Beatles came along? No wonder America freaked out.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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