Past Masters

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The Beatles released their last album of new material, Let It Be, in April 1970. But by that time, the re-purposing of Beatles content (not a phrase anyone would have used, but an idea whose time had come nevertheless) was underway.

—Even before Let It Be, in February 1970, Apple released Hey Jude, a compilation mostly of singles and B-sides that had been hard to find in America since their original release, thanks to Capitol’s practice of reprogramming Beatles albums for North America. Although it’s completely forgotten today, Hey Jude went to #2 on the Billboard 200.

—In 1973, in response to the success of a copyright-violating Beatles compilation called Alpha Omega, came the fabled “red” and “blue” releases: The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970. During the week of May 26, 1973, the two albums sat at #3 and #1 respectively on the Billboard 200. They were critical in the musical education of kids who had missed the 60s. Young me bought the blue one; the young Mrs. bought the red one.

—In 1976, responding to the success of a couple of Beach Boys compilations and a cresting wave of nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s, Rock and Roll Music hit the stores. It was boosted by an honest-to-goodness hit single, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” repurposed from Revolver. Rock and Roll Music went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Wings at the Speed of Sound kept it from #1.

—A year later, some sketchy 1962 recordings made at the Star Club in Hamburg and released on a couple of obscure European labels started getting some traction, to the point at which the Beatles sued to keep them off the market. Capitol dipped into its vaults for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, recorded in 1964 and 1965. Although prominent critics praised it, what listeners heard most clearly was the frenzied screaming of the audiences. It went to #2 on the Billboard 200 during the summer of 1977, but was quickly forgotten and fell out of print for 30 years. (The album was reissued in 2016, remixed to clean up the sound.)

—At the end of 1977 came another two-disc compilation in the mold of Rock and Roll Music: Love Songs. (In his book Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield differentiates the two albums as the one with fast songs and the one with slow ones.) It hit record stores just in time for Christmas, but made it only to #24—the first Beatles album of any sort to place below #3 on the American charts since Capitol’s first repurposing effort, the 1964 album The Early Beatles.

—In 1980, Rarities collected songs that were, for various reasons, hard to find in America, including alternate versions and rare mono or stereo mixes. Most notable among these were “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which had been the flipside of “Let It Be,” and the German-language version of “She Loves You,” “Sie Liebt Dich.” Rarities went to #21 in Billboard.

—In 1982, Reel Music collected songs from the soundtracks of A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Several songs appeared in stereo for the first time in America. Released with the album but not appearing on it was “The Beatles Movie Medley,” a cheesy and overlong montage that rose to #12 on the Hot 100 mostly on curiosity value at the height of the medley craze. (On the whole it’s not good, but some of the transitions from one song to another are well done.) This was Capitol, and its British parent company, EMI, scraping the bottom of the Beatle barrel: the band remained the most popular of all time, but EMI was running out of ways to monetize them.

—At the end of 1982, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniverary of the band’s first hits but also just in time for holiday shopping, came 20 Greatest Hits which, in pure Capitol/EMI fashion, was released in separate UK and US configurations. Perhaps America was Beatled out at that point, as the album made it only to #50.

—In 1987, the Beatles’ original albums began coming out on CD, in their UK configurations. This necessitated a series of albums to catch up on the non-album singles: Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2, which were released in 1988.

—In the CD era, Beatles compilations remained thick on the ground. Three volumes of Anthology went to #1 in 1995 and 1996; the compilation titled simply 1 went into millions of Christmas stockings in 2000 and was Billboard‘s #1 album of the year in 2001.

Fifty years after the Beatles’ breakup, with streaming the main mode of musical consumption, this kind of catalog chopping and channeling will happen no more. (At least not at the behest of a record company. Playlisting is another thing altogether.)

7 thoughts on “Past Masters

  1. TN

    The Red and Blue albums made a nice set with the White Album. The Blue Album was literally blue, but the Red Album was standard black vinyl, disappointingly.

    1. Yah Shure

      The White, red and blue albums were all originally issued only on standard black vinyl. All three appeared in special limited edition releases on their respective white, red and blue-colored vinyl in 1978. These limited edition titles were no longer being made by the time of John Lennon’s untimely death in 1980, and any copies still remaining in the retail pipeline sold out within days of that event. I’d picked up the red vinyl edition before December 8th, but had dragged my heels on purchasing the blue and white vinyl albums. That was my first order of business on the morning of December 9th.

    1. In Rob Sheffield’s book, he quotes Ringo as saying they hated the cover of “Rock and Roll Music” for its 50s iconography, and they also disliked the sequencing of the various compilations, so I am guessing they were not much involved at all. I suspect based on very little that they might have had more direct involvement in the Anthology series, however.

      1. TN

        George Harrison was supposedly involved with the selections for the Blue Album (and presumably the Red Album as well), which is why his B-side “Old Brown Shoe” showed up on it.

  2. John Gallagher

    I have fond memories of purchasing the Red and Blue albums on vinyl in 1973. It ended up being the only Beatles collections I purchased. Guess I should have realized at that point in my life how much of their material I was missing from my collection.

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