Pop…crack…whisp…hisssss… hisss…hissss “Hey…hey…hey…hey” BANG!! “Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song….” Some of you may have no idea where I am going with this clumsy onomatopoeia laced introduction. But for many, you know exactly what these sounds of yesterday are. So before I move on, let’s take our digital generation readers through a play-by-play of exactly what was really happening within the first 20 words of this article.
Long Island, NY 1982:
I sat Indian style in my parent’s living room and sifted through a cardboard Coka-kola box loaded with an upright stack of “Beatlely” goodness. I’m talking about records. Not that of a Guinness book entry or a filed tax document, but vinyl LP recordings. Long Play. These are what George Harrison called a “33 and a 1/3rd” and Aerosmith praised as their “big 10 inch”… record that is. They were grooved, matted, and black. Each one was outfitted with a perfect bull’s-eye where the paper label was affixed to the lacquer. This record I held had an orange label with tan bold text that read, “Capitol”. This color combination was indicative of Capitol’s later year pressings of Beatles’ recordings. I was part of the first post-Beatles generation and by the mid-to-late 1970’s, Capitol’s pressing of Beatles’ records were already in double digits when it came to the lot numbers. I only had two Fab albums that were qualified as “first pressing”. These beauties had Capitol’s trademark jet black background, silver text, and a magical rainbow circle of colors on the label’s outer perimeter. One would think these gems would have been under lock and key.
Nope. They were under something though….my bum. As a kid, I had this odd habit of sitting on the unused stack of records while I listened to one. This particular record I had pulled from the album jacket’s inner sleeve was titled Hey Jude. I handled it the way we all handled records back then. It was suspended in between the palms of my hands; like how one would say “it’s about this big” while using their hands as a visual aid. I walked the record to the turntable of the phonograph and placed it down on the rubbery pancake…B-side up. While the cylindrical disc spun at 33.33333 revolutions per minute, I lowered the needle’s arm into the starting groove and sat back down to the comforting sounds of: Pop…crack…whisp…hisssss…hisss…hissss “Hey…hey…hey…hey”. Whoops, the album was skipping already. It was time to get up and give the player’s deck a whack of the hand.
“Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better.” There we are.
What you just read was a daily activity in the early days of this Beatles fanatic. That was 1982. For now, let’s jump the needle up 28 years and dig into an unannounced rock history lesson. For you younger Beatles fans, you may still be sifting through the dated words above that make up my vivid memory and wondering about this or that. Though the biggest question mark you may have drawn is, “What the hell is the Hey Jude album?” Yes, I grew up in the great age of records, intense album art with its’ Zelda-like hidden messages, and Stereo Hi-Fidelity. However, I also sadly grew up in an era of the great continental divide between Parlophone in the UK and Capitol in the US. As foreign as the Hey Jude album may seem to you is as bizarre as Beatles For Sale was to me. Let’s face it, we are all creatures of habit and comforted by what we grew up with. My mother’s meatloaf was awful when compared to my wife’s creation of the classic America dish, but I still miss it nonetheless. It also means that comfort laid in the A Hard Day’s Night album was littered with instrumental tracks, that “Help!” opened with a James Bond intro, and my “Revolver” was 3 songs shy of 14 tracks. The latter being a product of the “Yesterday….and Today” release 2 months prior so that money hungry Capitol could peddle a fast 27 minutes of “new” music to an unsuspecting American public.
But when I was 8 years old, I did not know, nor would have cared, that the 1970 “Hey Jude” album consisted of songs hand picked by the cash-grubbing Allen Klein from 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969; blasphemy for any Beatles purist. All I knew was that this album was JACKED with great music. How could anyone not get excited when you look at the album’s line up? While it did not matter to me then, it sure matters now. I can’t stand the fact that I grew up on albums that the Beatles themselves had no idea what the album titles were or the songs they were made up of. The American albums I so adored were a complete mystery to my heroes and something they loathed. Listen to John Lennon when he introduces “Baby’s In Black” at the first Shea Stadium show. He goes on to wrongly say with obvious passive aggression that it is “off of Beatles Six or something…I don’t know. I haven’t got it.” Of course, we “all” know that it was released on “Beatles ’65”, even if John did not. The Beatles hated that they had no control of their American releases. John in particular was bothered by this.
“We used to say, ‘Why can’t we put 14 [songs] out in America, you know? ‘Cos we would sequence the albums how we thought they should sound and put a lot of work into the sequencing too. And we almost got to not care what happened in America ‘cos it was always different, they wouldn’t let us put 14 out, they said there was some rule or something against it. Well, whatever it was, you know? And so we almost didn’t care what happened to the albums in America until we started coming over more, and noticing… they’d have outtakes and mumbling on the beginning, which used to drive us crackers.”
This was the altering, or butchering some might say, that Capitol Records would do with established UK Beatles albums for the American market. It was not until the advent of Compact Discs that American-based fans had the record set straight. In 1987 the entire British, and only the British, catalogue was released on the new digital media that was changing the way we listened to music. This included the 12 studio albums the way God intended them to be, and two collections of A and B sides. For the budding fans of the mid-80s, it was almost a guarantee that they would be getting off on the right foot. However, for me and so many others, we were stranded as countless zombies to sift through the rubble of Capitol Records greed. Where was The Second Album? What was on With The Beatles? And why the hell was “Drive My Car” on Rubber Soul? What had they done? It was as if they took the entire pre-1967 library, tossed it up in the air, and let the songs fall where they may. Little did most of us know, but Parlophone had done us all a favor and FINALLY set us “Yanks” straight on the way it really was, and should have always been. Yes, this new technology that was too run vinyl out of town provided the greatest Beatles history lesson of all. So here we are, some 23 years after those 120mm iridescent discs of reflective plastic drank up the entire Beatles catalogue and belched it back out to us its intended and proper order. Except now, they themselves have been all but eradicated by the latest “electronic noise” in the form of digital music and its many methods of delivery. What I once held in 4 soda pop cartons can now be stored in something half the size of a Pop-Tart. While the advancement of technology is frustrating for those who get used to a certain way, it does do one significant thing for a last century act like the Beatles. It introduces them to the next generation of fans by using their medium of choice.
The choice among these fans is the iPod; a music device that has allowed them to put 3500 songs in their hip pocket. On November 16th 2010, Apple Computers, with its game changing iPod, announced that it would finally be releasing the entire Beatles catalogue for download via its iTunes store. Once again, it is time to “Meet the Beatles”. There is no question that this move will have a positive swelling among the iconic group’s young fan base and guarantee the Beatles remaining in the public’s watchful eye. Unfortunately, that is where I feel the positives will end. My biggest concern is the potential for the fan’s loss of understanding and appreciating the band’s full albums as a complete work of art. As we well know, the miracle of iTunes is all about logging in, and cherry picking songs by title familiarity and likeness. Somebody hears Come Together on the radio, logs into iTunes, and pulls it down. What this type of musical commerce does is it leaves the other 16 songs that make up the incomparable “Abbey Road” in its 99 cent wake. When I was a kid, if I wanted Come Together I had to take along with it Something, Mean Mr. Mustard and his lesbian sister, Pam. Even though I may have been raised on the “wrong” records, they were still albums, albeit haphazardly compiled. And while the waning Compact Disc era rightfully presented the Beatles music in tidy, organized bundles of song; this latest technology may just crush that 23 years of Beatle album righteousness for this next generation. While the Beatles may have fallen to the iTunes gravy train, there are some big names that still refuse. Most them are sharing and standing the ground of my aforementioned concern. Take the classic hard hitting Aussies, “AC/DC”. When asked ‘why’? Here is what lead guitarist and founding member, Angus Young, had to say.
“We don’t make singles, we make albums,” Angus says. “If we were on iTunes, we know a certain percentage of people would only download two or three songs from the album — and we don’t think that represents us musically.”
Even country sell out, Garth Brooks, is worried about the integrity of the album. “Until we get variable pricing, until we get album only down loads, then iTunes is not a true retailer for my stuff, and you won’t see my stuff…,” Brooks said.
So where does this leave us Beatle fans now that the mighty have fallen? I myself embrace the partnership Apple and, well, Apple have agreed upon. I think such a move is almost unavoidable and maybe even career suicide for some acts. However, no amount of payola can excuse the importance of the album. This will need to be cultivated and hammered home to the iTune loons. It will be incumbent upon long time fans such as me, my mentor brother, and my best friend to not only nourish and nurture these fresh Beatle saplings, but to make sure they will be hit full bloom when they mature armed with the full understanding that the tree is indeed made up of its single limbs. The promise of this vibrant plumage lays solely in their working appreciation of the full albums and not the convoluted compiling of “playlists” created as they pluck low hanging fruit from the Apple superstore. Capitol already did this to us by cramming singles and misguided collections down our throats and we all know how bare that left the pure Beatles Album orchard. Unlike Capitol listeners, iTunes users will have a choice. Unfortunately, it is the luxury of this choice that may be the undoing of the sacred album.