In We’re No. 1, Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers The Beatles’ Yesterday And Today, which went to No. 1 on July 30, 1966, where it stayed for five weeks.
When iTunes announced in 2010 that it had finally reached an agreement with Apple Corps to digitally distribute the most celebrated catalog in rock ’n’ roll history, the only Beatles fans who might have had reason to protest were album-fetishizing purists. I admit I am one of those people. I’m totally an LP-obsessed perv. I believe Beatles albums are intended to be heard in a specific way, in a specific order, just like they’ve always been heard.
This album-centric way of looking at music is sort of like being a strict constructionist with the Constitution. It’s all about staying true to what the creators originally intended, progress be damned. I realize this makes me some kind of fuddy-duddy Luddite, and I am okay with this. I have no problem with using electricity on the Sabbath. But allowing Beatles LPs to be served up à la carte just seems wrong to me.
The irony of this argument is that for a significant part of The Beatles’ recording career, a huge portion of the band’s audience only heard bastardized versions of their albums, with songs taken from various releases and thrown together willy-nilly. Up until the game-changing 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which according to dozens of “greatest albums ever” lists by Rolling Stone, ushered in the era of the album as a self-conscious artistic entity on par with films and novels—The Beatles’ American record company, Capitol, routinely rejiggered the band’s British records for its own financial ends. Instead of hearing proper Beatles LPs like Please Please Me, With The Beatles, or Beatles For Sale, stateside kids were sold Meet The Beatles!, The Beatles’ Second Album, and Something New, among other reconstituted titles.
In these American versions, songs were shaved off their UK counterparts in order to spread the wealth of valuable Beatles material across more money-making LP releases. Stand-alone singles padded out these crass profit-margin busters, forcing Beatles-hungry fans to repurchase songs they already had on 45. And in the process, carefully assembled track lists were thoughtlessly cast aside, and an accurate representation of The Beatles’ unprecedented artistic growth was obscured.
Yesterday And Today is notable among these “fake” Beatles U.S. albums for a number of reasons. Released in 1966 between the historic double-shot of Rubber Soul and Revolver (probably the two best Beatles albums ever, and I’m sure not a single person would disagree with me), Yesterday And Today was among the last of Capitol’s fabricated Fab Four releases. Though it should be noted that the versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver released in America aren’t the “real” UK releases. Yesterday And Today lifts songs from both records; it takes “Nowhere Man,” “Drive My Car,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “What Goes On” from Rubber Soul, and “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” from Revolver. Yesterday also borrows from Help! (“Act Naturally” and “Yesterday”) and re-purposes the epic “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” single to round out the 11 tracks.
Yesterday And Today is also remembered for its original (and quickly pulled) “butcher” cover, depicting John, Paul, George, and Ringo clowning it up in white lab coats with bloodied doll parts in their laps. The cover was taken from a conceptual photo-art session by Robert Whitaker, later known for his contributions to the cover collage for Cream’s Disraeli Gears. Nearly three-quarters of a million copies emblazoned with the gory cover were printed and shipped to radio and retail distributors, but they didn’t survive long. After being inundated with complaints—The Beatles were still growing out of their teenybopper image at this point—Capitol (in no position to defend a product even The Beatles would’ve been reluctant to support on artistic grounds) pulled the original copies of Yesterday And Today. Many of them were dumped into an Illinois landfill; others simply had a new cover pasted on top of the old offensive one.
While not intended as a direct comment on Capitol’s shoddy treatment of their music—McCartney and Lennon later said it was a statement on Vietnam—the original cover of Yesterday And Today is nonetheless a darkly humorous visual representing a haphazardly assembled record-label product. The songs all come from roughly the same period, but the gap between the Ringo-sung Buck Owens cover “Act Naturally” and the druggy psychedelia of “Doctor Robert” hardly seem compatible on a skimpy record that’s barely 27 minutes long. The former track belongs solidly in the Beatles’ early period; the latter points directly to the explosion of sound and color coming right around the corner.
If you know the ins and outs of Rubber Soul and Revolver backward and forward—and if you’re a Beatles fan, or simply a fan of rock music, you probably do—it’s strange hearing the lysergic folk of “I’m Only Sleeping” after the sleek guitar pop of “Drive My Car,” or the country shuffle “What Goes On” between McCartney’s pointed relationship song “We Can Work It Out” and Lennon’s heavy riffing “Day Tripper.” Yesterday And Today still sounds pretty great, for the most part; how could anything made up of Beatles recordings not sound great? But the songs are oddly disconnected from each other. It’s just a bunch of tracks thrown together, with little rhyme or reason. And while the parts are beyond reproach, they’re never up to the magical whole expected from a Beatles album.
Of course, I mean that strictly in the artistic sense. Looking at Yesterday And Today purely from a mercenary record-company perspective, the practice of slicing and dicing Beatles albums into more Beatles albums was a stroke of capitalistic genius. The appetite for new Beatles material in the early and mid-’60s was so ravenous that greedy record executives were fighting each other for their piece of the pie. Ten days before Capitol released the iconic “first” Beatles album in the U.S., Meet The Beatles!, rival company Vee-Jay scooped them on the oncoming mop-top craze by releasing Introducing… The Beatles. The Vee-Jay record was similar to The Beatles’ actual first album, Please Please Me, but with two important differences: 1) The songs “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why” were chopped off; 2) The label’s engineer decided to edit out Paul McCartney’s “one, two, three, faw!” count-off from the start of “I Saw Her Standing There.”
The only problem with Introducing… The Beatles (other than the unnecessary alterations to Please Please Me) was that Vee-Jay wasn’t authorized to put it out; due to an accounting discrepancy involving unreported royalties for sales of Beatles singles, Vee-Jay’s licensing deal with The Beatles’ British label EMI was declared null and void. But the label was so strapped for cash, it decided to release Introducing anyway, immediately prompting a restraining order from Capitol. Vee-Jay eventually got around the order by removing “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You”—since Capitol owned the publishing rights to those songs—and re-inserting “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why,” clearing the way for Introducing’s eventual re-release and joining of Meet The Beatles! at the top of the pop charts.
The U.S. versions of The Beatles’ pre-Sgt. Pepper albums have mostly been forgotten. When the group’s catalog was introduced on CD in 1987, American listeners were treated to the original UK records in an official capacity for the first time. It was a victory for the band and for those who longed to hear the albums as they were actually created. As far as most Beatles fans were concerned, the UK versions were now and forever the only versions.
But for anyone who grew up on Meet The Beatles! or Yesterday And Today, this had to be a mixed blessing. For better or worse, those versions were their Beatles albums. It didn’t matter what the band’s intentions were at the time; for these listeners, this was the way the music was meant to be heard. In the early 2000’s, the Capitol albums were finally reissued for these nostalgic fans. Nothing had changed since the ’60s—this was music already available in different packaging, it just didn’t happen to be the “right” packaging for this segment of The Beatles’ audience. No matter what purists might want to believe, there’s never been one “real” way to hear this band.
Coming up: Boston’s Don't Look Back