The Beatles Again... Semi-American Style: Thoughts on The U.S. Albums

By , Contributor
With The U.S. Albums 13-disc box set, Capitol Records has finally brought the “Americanized” Beatles catalog to CD and iTunes. Though not without controversy, fans can now choose between the original, Beatles-sanctioned U.K. albums or the rejiggered U.S. versions. It should be made clear up-front —these new reissues are, with a handful of exceptions, the same remastered stereo and mono mixes released in 2009. According to the liner notes, the production team decided to avoid going to the “second-, third-, and even fourth-generation tapes” from which the original Capitol vinyl was sourced.

The distinctive duophonic (i.e. fake stereo) mixes that original U.S. fans grew up with have been replaced with the true stereo mixes “approved by George Martin and The Beatles.” While fans debate whether this is unacceptable revisionism or an understandable way to preserve the band’s authentic vision, it should be noted that “great care was taken to preserve the specific mixes and edits that make these U.S. albums unique.” That may sound a bit like double-talk, but it’s not. The unique mixes scattered throughout the set were the ones provided to Capitol by George Martin, not the ones that Capitol’s team (lead by the late producer Dave Dexter Jr.) created. The U.S. albums were “used as models and set the overall direction for the process.”

Beatles US versions box TMR.jpg
What’s great about The U.S. Albums?

The packaging is great, similar to what was done for The Beatles in Mono box set. Each U.S. album jacket has been carefully recreated, far sturdier and more detailed than the previous Capitol Albums box sets. Each cardboard album comes in its own resealable plastic sleeve. Inside the mini-jacket, the CD itself is in a plastic sleeve of its own. There’s even a replica paper dust sleeve (complete with ads for other Capitol titles), in which the plastic-protected disc can be stored. The two standout touches are the Help! soundtrack album’s gatefold jacket and, especially, the original Yesterday and Today “butcher cover.” There’s even a replacement “steamer truck” cover sticker that (if you so chose; I doubt many will!) can be applied to the jacket.

Another great aspect is the inclusion of mono and stereo on the same disc. Unlike the 2009 U.K. versions, issued as a separate stereo and mono box, The U.S. Albums gives you both in one package. For the many fans who skipped the premium-priced The Beatles in Mono, having the mono mixes (which are first on each album) will help differentiate this from the more familiar ’09 stereo reissues. Of the baker’s dozen in the box, only the “audio documentary” The Beatles’ Story (1964) and Hey Jude (1970) are stereo-only. The former is exclusive to the box set, while each of the other 12 is available separately (for a “limited time,” according to the press release). Even though it almost approaches novelty value, The Beatles’ Story is a nice addition as it’s the CD debut of the entire 49-minute album (and the instrumental A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack tunes, not performed by The Beatles, debut on CD here as well).

What’s good about The U.S. Albums?

It’s a good thing they didn’t ignore the actual Capitol editions in favor of the ’09 remasters altogether. Early consumer reaction suggests a degree of misunderstanding, even though the liner notes make it pretty clear why they didn’t use the Capitol masters. Truth be told, Universal Music Group’s press materials did seem to sidestep the issue early on by referring obliquely to the inclusion of “alternate mixes.” Those mixes are scattered throughout, though only the most serious of Beatle fans are likely to find them essential. Detailed accounts of which songs are presented in unique mixes are available (visit The Beatles Rarity for a particularly level-headed, informative rundown).

Most of the differences are relatively minor, though a few jump out. The unique stereo mix of “I’m Looking Through You” on Rubber Soul opens with two brief false starts. On A Hard Day’s Night, the mono “I’ll Cry Instead” has an extra verse. “She’s a Woman” and “I Feel Fine” on Beatles ‘65 have a bit of reverb applied. A couple dozen different mixes spread over 12 albums is not a significant incentive for anyone who already owns the two ’09 box sets. But they’re better than nothing.

What’s not so good about The U.S. Albums?

Beatles Revolver US ad TMR.jpgEnough beating around the bush—these aren’t the authentic Capitol masters that many first-generation U.S. fans wanted and expected. This is a $170 box set that mostly repeats what was made available in 2009. The Capitol albums were basically authorized “mix tapes” and not one of them improved upon their corresponding original configuration. In some cases, particularly Yesterday and Today (a jumble of U.K. Revolver, Help!, Rubber Soul, and 45-only tracks), they really cobbled together some incoherent monstrosities. Anyone with the ’09 versions can assemble their own playlist to replicate them (save for the non-Beatle soundtrack instrumentals).

But for American fans who bought these albums in the ‘60s, the crummy duophonic mixes and oodles of reverb slathered all over the tracks on albums like The Beatles’ 2nd Album are what was burned into their consciousness. The Capitol Albums (Vol. 1 in ’04 and Vol. 2 in ’06) actually delivered what this niche audience wanted: the sound of the American versions. But those contained only eight of the albums. I don’t blame the surviving Beatles and the keepers of their legacy for not wanting to preserve these inferior albums.

But since the vast majority of the tracks have been available in this form for years, here’s what the best value would’ve been. Issue a box with all the empty replica album jackets and dust sleeves. Include one disc that contains all of the unique mixes. That’s it (okay, throw in The Beatles’ Story too). The people could’ve just burned the Capitol track lists themselves using the U.K. CDs they already own (dropping in the unique mixes when applicable). No, this of course is a ludicrously unprofitable suggestion and I don’t mean to imply that it would’ve ever been considered a viable alternative. It’s just hard to imagine anyone ever wanting to listen to, say, Revolver with three John Lennon songs missing. Why does anyone really need to buy it that way?

Lastly, another thing that’s not so good is the use of George Martin’s 1987 remixes of the Help! and Rubber Soul material. These albums in the 2009 The Beatles in Mono are presented in both their original 1965 stereo and mono mixes (the individual 2009 stereo CD versions only include the ’87 remixes). Using the ’87 remixes takes these “U.S. versions” even one more step further from their source.

In summation, The U.S. Albums is exactly what the set’s liner notes claim it to be: the technically best-sounding remasters, arranged to mimic the U.S. track listings, with a couple dozen unique mixes sprinkled in. The authentically reproduced packaging is fun to look at and display. But if you personally feel the tampered-with, lower fidelity Capitol masters are worth keeping around, this set is likely to disappoint.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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