Rock Albums that Changed the World: Meet the Beatles

Like any warm-blooded American kid of a certain age, I was raised on Beatles records. My favorite as a youngster was one of the two that my Mom supplied our household, Rubber Soul. Little did I know that the folk-rock masterpiece Rubber Soul I knew and loved was actually the creation of, not my beloved British Fab Four, but of one American record executive, Capitol Records’ Dave Dexter, a man The Beatles and Brian Epstein truly hated, and from their perspective, for pretty good reason.

First off, Dave Dexter was the executive at Capitol that rejected The Beatles’ first 4 singles for release in America (all U.K. chart-toppers: “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “She Loves You”) before finally agreeing to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in December of 1963. Mind you, all of these records were then released in the U.S. by the tiny label Vee Jay Records and none of them sold, which was par for the course for U.K. groups in that early 60s era. By the time it occurred to Dexter to let Capitol get in on the wild success of the Beatlemania phenomenon sweeping through Europe, The Beatles had already released two full albums on the tiny EMI subsidiary Parlophone in the U.K., Please Please Me and With the Beatles. But Dexter was still skeptical that any U.K. group, even The Beatles could break through in the States, so he did the unthinkable. He actually fucked with the masters, substantially and without apology.

The “I Want to Hold your Hand” Capitol single took off like a rocket in America — a smash hit, played endlessly on radio in numerous markets across the country — but then, rather than just re-release the Beatles’ Parlophone albums in the U.S. on Capitol (both wildly successful in the U.K.), Dexter decided that America needed Dave Dexter’s input — and maybe he was right. We will never know for sure.

What we do know is that for the initial album release in America, Capitol cobbled together elements from all of the available U.K. Beatles resources, music and artwork (Capitol lifted the classic Robert Freeman photo from the cover of With the Beatles and tinted it blue) and — to the horror of The Beatles, Brian Epstein, and George Martin — augmented the Beatles mixes with more reverb and extra treble and then released to Americans, what they were told was the group’s debut album, Meet the Beatles.

If Capitol’s arrogance was at all damaging to their careers, it’s impossible to tell. Beatlemania swept the U.S. in a way that had never been seen then or since. And Meet the Beatles positively crushed the American market, shooting to number one and staying there for an astonishing eleven weeks, until it was overtaken by their next American release, The Beatles Second Album. By April 4th, the top 5 slots on the U.S. singles charts were songs by the Liverpool quartet. The American market was the lynchpin to worldwide dominance and The Beatles conquered America in very short order with Meet the Beatles leading the way.

The Beatles’ U.S. debut album sold an unprecedented 4 million copies in its first year of release (Elvis’ breakout debut album sold 1/4 of that). The Beatles went on to sell 600 million albums in America to date, but the most significant impact of Meet the Beatles was how deeply it affected the record industry itself.

First, it’s important to realize that the 12” LP was a relatively new format for the pop market. Until that point, with a few rare exceptions, pop music was the domain of the 45 rpm 7” single, an affordable purchase for teenagers whose obsession with the latest hit song could be easily satisfied by plunking down some pocket change. The album was the necessary format for long form works — original cast albums of broadway shows, classical, and jazz — but not for the short attention span that was the pop music and rock and roll market of the early 60s. Up until The Beatles, most groups and artists were only good for one or two songs anyway. The Beatles changed all that in the U.S. starting with Meet the Beatles.

Capitol continued their plundering of the U.S. Beatles market by chopping up the Parlophone albums, “enhancing” the recordings and compiling such familiar titles as Something New, Beatles ‘65, Beatles VI — all without the blessing of the band and its team. So great was the demand in the States that U.S. companies started looking around for other groups from England, sparking a feeding frenzy and spurring a genuine cultural phenomenon, one that changed rock music forever, The British Invasion in America.

The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” on Pye Records was imported in the U.S. by Reprise Records and became a top 10 single in the fall of 1964.

Kinks producer Shel Talmy then sold The Who’s early recordings to Decca Records in the U.S.. Their first singles were released on Brunswick in the U.K., Decca’s British label for American acts.

The Rolling Stones spent 1964 building a rabid following in Great Britain as a bad boy alternative to The Beatles and, following the Lennon-McCartney path, Jagger-Richards broke out as songwriters 1965, scoring a wave of hits on both sides of the Atlantic, cresting with their indelible #1 smash, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” By that time, the British Invasion was in full swing with the U.S. charts crowded with songs by The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, The Zombies, The Animals, and The Hollies.

Early 60s American music trends such as the folk revival were pushed back through the mold of the British Invasion as Folk Rock (concocted intentionally as a hybrid of folk music with a Beatles beat and sensibility by The Byrds in 1965), and the growing sophistication of the good time Beach Boys, culminated with Brian Wilson’s 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, both of which were then profound influences across the pond. Also, through this fertile period of 1964-66, folk music poet Bob Dylan’s pervasive impact was felt, and all of these evolutions were echoed back in his music as well, even strapping on a Stratocaster in 1965. Soon it was impossible to tell just who was influencing who. The arrival of The Beatles in America and the commercial wave set off by that initial burst of sales of Meet the Beatles had a ripple effect that completely changed the landscape and thrust rock music to the forefront of the culture in a way that would transform history forever.

Whether any of this is attributable to Dave Dexter’s strategy and arrogance is debatable and I don’t know if this is a widely held opinion (I know it’s sacrilege to some to say) but it’s my contention that Meet the Beatles is actually a far superior album to either Please Please Me or With the Beatles, added reverb and extra treble be damned.

Just listen to killer lineup of Side A alone. The album kicks off with the song that every teenager and their mom wanted to hear in 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it hits that coda with the full band punctuating those famous triplet chords, and as the final sustain trails off, Paul’s “uh-one, two, three, FOH!” launches the powerhouse lead-off song from their U.K. debut, “I Saw Her Standing There.” Pure excitement. It’s about the greatest one-two punch in rock history. This is Meet the Beatles.

The next song is John’s vocal tour de force, “This Boy,” with Paul and George joining him in beautiful 3-part harmony, a performance not to be rivaled again until “Because” (on their final album). The remainder of Meet the Beatles is a pretty much straight replay of the With the Beatles sequence (but with all but one of the cover songs omitted, titles which will crop up on future Capitol albums).

The next two songs on Side A are lesser known, but well-loved by Beatle fans, “It Won’t Be Long” (which features another one of their best vocal arrangements, this time as a call and response with John’s lead vocal), and the dusky, emotional ballad, “All I’ve Got to Do,” (which John describes as him doing his best Smokey Robinson), and finally, Side A of Meet the Beatles ends with another fan favorite, “All My Loving” which is my idea of Paul’s first songwriting masterpiece of many, sporting a much marveled-at bassline, chord progression, melody, and lyric.

Side B contains the remaining original songs off the Parlophone With the Beatles record played in the original sequence of that album, so it appears that Dexter’s vision for Meet the Beatles was to present, not only the exciting sound of the four moptops from Liverpool, but also to feature the strength of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. The only non-original is one of the most curious inclusions in the entire Beatles catalog, “Til There Was You,” a sweetly old-fashioned chestnut from Broadway’s The Music Man. It must have meant something special to Paul because this is the song that he sang for the Queen at The Beatles’ Royal Variety Performance in November of 1963, the one where cheeky John quipped that the people in the cheap seats can clap, the other should just rattle their jewelry.

My personal take on Meet the Beatles is that it’s about the strongest dose of what the Beatles had to offer by February 1964, barring the inclusion of a couple of songs (“She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” in particular). By removing all but one cover song from their recorded output, and by concentrating on their 2nd U.K. album, With the Beatles (a more deliberate, well-crafted release than their quickly recorded debut) Meet the Beatles introduced John, Paul, George, and Ringo to America as a group of musicians with a unified sound and purpose. I think it’s important to note also that from the start, the group was portrayed as, not just a teen craze, but as a band with strong musicianship, eclectic taste, and a depth of feeling in their music and lyrics, their American debut providing glimpses of rock and roll, soul music, Broadway, doo wop, and their own unique music as well, with a great blend of high energy rockers, soulful ballads and everything in between. Their strong musicality and eclecticism, as well as their songwriting muscle would become hallmarks of the band for their entire tenure and they never really retreated from the pinnacle they found themselves upon after the release of Meet the Beatles.

Capitol’s U.S. releases from this point on were all pretty much rank exploitations that could not help but succeed given the position The Beatles held in the hearts and minds of the American audience. Dave Dexter continued at the helm and essentially put out Beatles compilations with sketchy artwork right up until it came time to consider what to do with the Beatles’ 5th and 6th U.K. releases, 1965’s Help! soundtrack and Rubber Soul. I may be imbuing Dexter with undeserved genius, but by removing a couple of rockers, “Drive My Car” and “What Goes On” from Rubber Soul and replacing them with a couple of tracks from the U.K. Help! release, the ultra-catchy country-tinged “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (the leadoff song), and the introspective “It’s Only Love,” what the American audience came to know as The Beatles’ great folk rock album, Rubber Soul was created. Most Americans, myself included, were completely unaware that their beloved Beatles albums were actually alternates until their catalog was released on CD in 1987 (only the original, Beatle-approved U.K. albums were available on CD — up until 2006’s release, The U.S. Albums CD Box Set). I think the first Beatles CD I owned was Rubber Soul and man, did I get a rude awakening when it kicked off with “Drive My Car” and another one when it awkwardly segued into “Norwegian Wood.”

Dave Dexter has gone down in rock history as a notorious figure, first known as the man who rejected The Beatles (he has company there in the U.S. and the U.K.), and later as the man who defaced their masters and crassly repackaged their albums as tossed-together compilations. He has earned his fair share of scorn, but he also, to this writer’s ear, made a rare few improvements to The Beatles’ catalog along the way, one of them an incredibly important one to the timeline of rock. The Beatles’ impact on Western culture is immeasurable. In terms of the butterfly effect, they are a pterodactyl flapping its wings for the better part of the most significant decade in terms of seismic shifts in society, politics, art, and specifically rock music. If we experience trends in our culture as waves, The Beatles were a tsunami.

It’s impossible to say whether their appearances on Ed Sullivan, the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a single, and then the importing of their U.K. albums alone would have been enough to generate the momentum in the U.S. to break the “singles model” for pop music, create the British Invasion in America, and started the cross-pollination that propelled rock and roll, the teenage dance craze, into the high art form we’ve come to know simply as rock. What we do know is that Meet the Beatles accomplished all of that and more and deserves a special place in history as one of the most important album releases of all time, the one that broke The Beatles in America and created a tipping point for the band and for rock music throughout the world.

For further exploration:
U.S. vs. U.K. Beatles album guide
Ritchie Uterberger on Dave Dexter

Photo credits:
Bass guitar photo
Beatles arrival in America photo