264 – Capitol Records’ shameful handling of The Beatles

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first success in the US, and there is a lot of celebrating and reminiscing going on. Capitol Records in the US probably made more money from The Beatles’ phenomenal success than anybody else, but nobody less deserved to profit from The Beatles than Capitol Records. They were dazzlingly incompetent and shamelessly greedy

Capitol had the right to release all of The Beatles music in the US, because Capitol was owned by The Beatles’ British label, EMI. But for ages they refused to release any Beatles music at all, turning down four singles and two albums, to the enormous frustration and anger of everyone associated with the band. Capitol arrogantly presumed that anything produced by the British would not succeed in the US. Even “She Loves You” (not just obviously a great track but the all-time highest selling record in the UK for the next 14 years) didn’t hit them as something that would be worth releasing. Clearly they were totally incompetent as judges of music, but they couldn’t even take the signals from the Beatles’ extraordinary success in England throughout 1963. American artists touring the UK were returning to the US with tales of the great music and unbelievable success of The Beatles, but Capitol didn’t know or didn’t care.

Eventually they released “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (one source says they were forced to by their parent company EMI) and immediately the Beatles records took off like nothing else before or since. In the opening four months of 1964, more than half of all records sold in the US were by the Beatles. One week they held all of the top five positions on the singles chart, plus the top two albums. Did Capitol learn from their previous arrogance and stupidity and treat The Beatles with more respect? Not a bit of it – they found a variety of ways to add insult to injury.

something_new

In a demonstration of brazen greed, Capitol omitted three or more songs from every Beatles album, and when they had accumulated enough songs in this way, they put out additional albums. This must have infuriated the Beatles, who were always concerned about providing value for money. The average length of The Beatles’ early Capitol albums is about 26 minutes. Most outrageously, Something New included only five new songs; four of the other six had already been released the previous month on A Hard Day’s Night and two had already been released as singles. And they called it Something New! Even including the six songs that fans already had, the album was only 24 minutes long.

They didn’t just shorten the albums, they re-juggled and mashed together songs from different albums and singles, meaning that the albums lost continuity of sound and style. Capitol threw out any of the band’s judgments about album coherence and song sequencing. For American fans, the Beatles’ extraordinary album-by-album progression – so obvious in the rest of the world – was masked. Most of the US albums are incongruous messes, with songs stuck together from several different sources. For example, Yesterday and Today (which was at least honestly titled) included two tracks from Help! from mid 1965, four tracks from Rubber Soul from late 1965, two tracks from a late 1965 single, and three tracks from Revolver from mid 1966. When they released Rubber Soul, they didn’t just trim down the UK version, they slashed four tracks and threw in two tracks from Help! that didn’t belong there at all. All of their albums prior to Sgt Pepper were pruned, muddled and mangled like this.

help

United Artists got in on the rip-off act when they released the movie soundtrack albums for A Hard Day’s Night and Help! In the rest of the world these albums had 13 or 14 Beatles tracks, but in the US they had only 9 (AHDN) or 7 (H!). They were padded out with instrumental music from the soundtrack, not performed by The Beatles.

Displaying further greed, Capitol released an absolute appalling documentary album, The Beatles Story, in 1964. It is truly ghastly.

By this disgusting combination of practices, Capitol and UA required US fans to buy 12 albums (prior to Sgt Pepper) compared to 7 in the rest of the world.

Capitol butchered the sound of the recordings. Without permission from The Beatles or their producer George Martin, they added treble and extra echo to the early recordings and they manufactured fake stereo from mono recordings by putting high frequencies in one speaker and low frequencies in the other. As a result, the sound quality of the US releases was noticeably inferior to the UK originals.

Capitol was so careless about things that they actually failed to release two great Beatles songs on Capitol albums at all (“Misery” and “There’s a Place”). Rather than give US Beatles fans better value for money for a change, they just left them off The Early Beatles, presumably hoping to squeeze out one more album at some point, but there was never a suitable place to put them until Rarities in 1980. (The sleeve notes for Rarities trying to explain the omission of these tracks add dishonesty to the list of crimes. “In the early Sixties … [Beatles’] albums from one country seldom resembled those from another.” Absolute rubbish. Outside North America most releases in most countries matched the UK albums. Only in America did they mangle the albums.)

Another way that Capitol made easy money was by releasing extra singles for tracks that were only on albums or e.p.s in England. Some of these were good choices for singles (“Yesterday” and “Nowhere Man”) , but a couple of the songs were really second-rate by The Beatles’ standards (“I’ll Cry Instead” and “Matchbox”). Clearly, Capitol couldn’t tell good music from bad, or they didn’t care.

Up until Rubber Soul, the album artwork of US albums was just awful, as illustrated in the above two examples. They passed over some excellent artwork design on the UK albums to release a series of tacky and tasteless covers.

Overall, the contrast between the good taste, value for money and integrity of Parlophone/EMI in the UK, and the tastelessness, greed, incompetence and unscrupulousness of Capitol in the US could hardly be greater.

When the albums were released on CD in 1987, the Beatles insisted on the UK versions being used in all countries, and the appalling US albums were finally put to bed.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately, Americans who grew up knowing only the mangled albums continue to hold a soft spot for them, despite their many failings. Eight of the albums were released in two box sets in 2004 and 2006, complete with the original poor sound. In January 2014, another CD box set of all 13 US-specific albums was released, and you can now buy them all individually. There is no excuse or explanation for this other than greed. This time they have better sound but the dreadful original track listings and covers are preserved. I pity the fans who are allowing themselves to be ripped off all over again. They should be giving Capitol their condemnation, not their money.

Further reading

Lewisohn, M. (2013). Tune In, (The Beatles: All These Years, vol. 1), Crown Archetype, New York. [This is actually about the era that predates Capitol’s worst disgraces, but it’s easily the best of the many Beatles books on the market.]

11 Comments

  • 15 April, 2014 - 2:14 pm | link

    Thank you for letting me know that there were these Beatles’ songs that I didn’t know of. 🙂

    My dad was a fan and I grew up with a cardboard box full of cassette tapes of Mike & The Mechanics, The Traveling Wilburys, The Eagles, Beach Boys, Beatles, Bob Dylan and so on.

    And I hate the box sets too. We even have this book of sheet music for “all” the Beatles songs.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. My dad passed away two years ago but I love hearing about things he and I used to share a love for.

    For some reason my favourite was Paul then it was George. It’s still sort of George but if you asked me who was the smartest, it would be Ringo. For some reason I cannot stand John (heresy! I know!).

    Again, thanks. 🙂

  • Jack Barbera
    18 November, 2016 - 7:39 pm | link

    The first four albums were released in monophonic or monoral. We had a mono set to play them on, and they sounded fantastic. When the stereo versions were released, the sound seemed diminished and diluted. I discovered the British versions of the first four albums in the import section of a record store near us. Albums in 1963 were $3.95. Imports were $11.00. That was very expensive then! The first album had a great sound, but I can’t say the same for the following three. I did not like Rubber Soul as much as Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper just sounded like studio experimentation instead of concentrating on the song writing. Yellow Submarine enraged me! Now they were purposefully putting out crap! Same can be said of Magical Mystery Tour! Then,…..the White Album! 30 cuts, but only 4 quality songs!
    Let it Be was passable, but Abbey Road was the best of all! They saved the best for last! I loved them, but I am also critical of their inferior work as well. The world tour took a lot out of them for sure, and they seemed to have given up by 1968.
    Brian Epstein’s passing was another element of their confused musical direction after 1967. Thank God they had George Martin! I loved monophonic records, but there are no longer mono sets to play them on!

  • Jack Barbera
    18 November, 2016 - 7:52 pm | link

    In addition, Paul McCartney was the best musician of the band. He’s really a lead guitarist playing base. After Stu Sutcliffe passed away, he took on the base playing role. I can think of dozens of lead guitarists more talented than George Harrison, but in the context of their type of music, he wasn’t tasked too hard, and was perfect for the group. Rings was a better drummer than displayed on record. Drummers can improvise, but he was handcuffed by the uniformity of the type music written.
    Look at the live concerts they did in Europe before the US visit in 64. He can really bang those drums! And John Lennon was John Lennon. Not a great guitarist, but he didn’t HAVE to be. Perfect for the Beatle formula. More a great song writer!
    All in all, they were 4 guys from a rough neighborhood who loved music to the point of obsession, and they made it out of their environment and got a bit of luck thrown in as well. It’s one thing to be talented, but someone has to NOTICE you’re gifted!
    Enter Brian Epstein, and the rest is history!

  • Michael Taylor Noonan
    21 January, 2017 - 9:17 am | link

    I have read that the major reason Capitol mangled the UK releases was to do with record royalties. Under the UK system, royalties were paid on a per track basis. As such it didn’t matter how many tracks were on the album. In the US, royalties were paid on an album basis, so obviously the more albums that were released, the more money paid. And the the best way to increase the number of albums was to decrease the number of tracks each had. Now, if this is true, the Beatles themselves would naturally benefit from the arrangement. So perhaps we shouldn’t come down too hard on Capitol, they were also looking after the interests of their artists besides lining their own pockets. And then there’s Dave Dexter and DUOPHONIC!!!! Nooooo!

    • 25 January, 2017 - 2:15 pm | link

      Thanks Michael. My bet is that the Beatles would have preferred to keep the albums in their original form, even if it meant a financial sacrifice. In any case, there are plenty of additional reasons to come down hard on Capitol. Cheers Dave

  • Michael Taylor Noonan
    21 January, 2017 - 9:29 am | link

    In the beginning, Canada received the masters from the UK. The first two Canadian Lp’s (Twist & Shout, Beatlemania) had 14 tracks. The Beatles’ Second album became Long Tall Sally, although with the Capitol standard 12 tracks. Thereafter US Capitol made sure that Canada got the US versions. Some have suggested that the US company didn’t like imported Canadian versions actually competing with the US album in border cities. The only other album to vary between Canada and the US was Let It Be. Canada got the printed booklet. The US got the orange-labelled counterfeit version!

  • Jack Barbera
    19 February, 2017 - 11:08 pm | link

    Interesting. I always thought they were under pressure from Capitol to release discs on such a regular basis as to satisfy demand. Parlophone had nothing to do with that, I assume.

    • 7 March, 2017 - 8:25 pm | link

      Actually, I think it was Brian Epstein and George Martin who first came up with the idea that they should produce 2 albums and 4 separate singles per year. They only actually achieved that in one year (1963), but they went close in all the other years except 1966 (if you count the White Album as two albums and assign Let it Be to 1969). Capitol sometimes asked for recordings to be provided in advance of their release in the UK (e.g. the three songs that got left off Revolver and included on Yesterday and Today), but all the songs they recorded were mainly done with UK albums and singles in mind. They just were unbelievably productive.

      • Jack Barbera
        20 March, 2017 - 10:12 am | link

        I’d say 95% of their work was fantastic. The Yellow Submarine and Magical History Tour albums were their low points, though there were two or three great songs on each. About the White Album,..I thought at the time of its release they just wanted to get out of their contract with Capitol asap, and released the two discs. It was them in trasnsition as a band, for sure. Had no idea the end was ver close! They finished strong with Let It Be and Abbey Road. I often wonder, if they somehow continued past 1970, what they would have sounded like, or morphed into. Glad they didn’t do what the stones did, and just release album after album with such low quality just for the sake of releasing a disc. Ironically, the Stones best work was before 1973, when the creativity seemed to just disappear!

  • 3 May, 2017 - 8:34 pm | link

    I have to agree with the point about having a soft spot for the Capitol releases. It’s what I grew up with and even to this day I find it hard not to expect the next track to be…Perhaps for me the best way to cure that is make a compilation CD of their albums and put it on shuffle.

    But thanks for clearing up the mystery. Now it all makes sense.

  • Marc Ball
    16 May, 2017 - 4:42 am | link

    Thanks for your reporting of how The Beatles releases were mismanaged by greedy Capital Records executives. I grew up buying Beatles albums and knew when they were being released. At that age, I had no idea what was happening. I was just thrilled to get the next one to hear what they created in the studio. I’d never sat down and really listened to the Mono versions. I think I was brain-washed that Stereo was the only way. The new remastered Beatles in Mono, vinyl versions, are absolutely amazing. Thank you Apple records and the audio technicians who toiled over this remastering project.

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Please solve this to show you\'re a real person *