Monday, February 06, 2012

The Convoluted History of the Beatles Catalog

Sounds like a fascinating subject, eh?  Well, I think it is.

(By the way, I am opting to use the more modern spelling of "catalog" in this post, because I am tired of having Google Chrome tell me I am spelling it wrong.  I have always spelled this word as "catalogue," but apparently that spelling is no longer in vogue [or should I say "vog"?].  Perhaps "catalogue" is the British spelling.  Either way, you're getting "catalog.")

As my Twitter and Facebook followers will know, I just received the entire Beatles catalog for my birthday.  There aren't many performers for whom you can buy the entire catalog in one fell swoop, but the Beatles, evidently, are no common musicians.  In 2009, their record company released a box set that basically includes every song they ever recorded and released during their reign in the 1960's.  I had never owned a Beatles album before, but have been increasingly interested in their music as I've gotten older, so I decided to just go all out and get the whole thing.

As it turns out, the actual catalog itself has an interesting, and at times extremely confusing, history.

To put it simply, by the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, they essentially had two catalogs: their UK catalog, and their U.S. catalog.  To put it in modern parlance, they basically had two separate discographies - different albums, with different titles, different songs, and different artwork.

To explain this mess, and how it was resolved, it is perhaps best to begin by explaining the often confusing, and sometimes completely paradoxical, terminology used in the music business.

There are three basic types of releases common in the music industry.  The first is the so-called "single."  This is perhaps one of the most confusing terms in the history of popular music.

To begin with, there are two types of singles.  The first type is a song that is released only as a single unit.  It cannot be purchased on a full-length album because it was never put on an album.  It was only and forever a single.

The second type of single is a song that is released as part of a full-length album, but is also released as a single unit.  You can purchase the song either by buying the single, or by buying the entire album.  When I was growing up in the 1980's and 90's, this was the most common type of single.  An album would be put out, and several of the best songs from the album would also be released as singles.

Earlier, in the 50's and 60's, the first type of single - the stand-along single - was much more common.  Bands and performers frequently released songs as singles that were never on a full-length studio album.  With the advent of digital MP3 downloads, it has become common once again for performers to release songs that are only released as singles.

In addition to this, the word "single," itself, is a misnomer, because in the days before digital music, a "single" actually had two songs on it, not one.  So it was really a "double."  There would be a song on the front, or "A" side, and a second song on the back, or "B" side (this was true whether it was a record or a tape).  The A-side song would typically be the song that would get the most airplay on radio stations, and, as such, it would usually be the song that would make the Top 40 lists.  Sometimes, however, the B-side song would get a lot of radio play as well, and it, too, might become a hit.  There are a few cases of B-side songs actually ranking higher on the Top 40 than the corresponding A-side song.  

The second type of music industry release is the so-called "LP."  This stands for Long Play, and it is the most common type of album.  When your favorite performer releases a new, full-length studio album, it is considered an LP.  In the 60's and 70's, an LP might have had 8 or 9 songs on it, depending on how long the songs were.  With the advent of tapes, and later CD's, LP's generally became longer, with as many as 11 or 12 songs (records couldn't hold that many songs, unless the songs were really short; as a result, during the 1980's, when both records and tapes were still being mass-produced, the record version of an album would usually have fewer songs, or the songs would have portions cut out of them to make them shorter).  Even though CD's can hold much more than that, the 12-song standard has generally remained in place for modern LP albums.

The final type of music industry release is the EP, or Extended Play.  Even though this sounds like it should be the longest of the bunch, it's actually in between a single and an LP - something that I always found extremely confusing.  If a single had 2 songs, and an LP had 10 songs, an EP might have 6 songs.  Guns n' Roses' second album, G n' R Lies, is a famous example of an EP.      

With that background in mind, we look now to the actual Beatles catalog.  The first two Beatles albums were released in the UK in 1963.  However, when Beatles music finally came to the U.S. in 1964, entirely new albums were created for the U.S. market.  They were basically made up of songs that had been on the first two UK albums, as well as some songs that had only been released as singles in the UK.  Otherwise, the titles were different, and even some of the cover art was different.  This trend continued up through the 1966 album "Revolver."  Beginning in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the catalogs were finally brought together, and with one exception, all the following albums were the same in the U.S. and UK.

The one exception was the second album of 1967, Magical Mystery Tour.  In the UK, this was a Double-EP album - meaning two EP records.  Each record had 3 songs - 2 on the front and 1 on the back.  In the U.S., however, it was an LP with a total of 11 songs on one record.  The front side had the same 6 songs that had been on the UK version, but the back side had an additional 5 songs that had been released only as singles in the UK.

Because of all this, by the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, they had a significant number of LP's, EP's, and singles to their name, and none of it was unified.  In the UK alone, they had released 12 LP's, 13 EP's, and 22 singles.  Among all countries combined, it was 27 LP's, 21 EP's, and 55 singles.  The various catalogs were made up of essentially the same songs, but they were on different albums with different names and different artwork.  Some songs that had been singles in one country were on albums in other countries, and some songs that were part of an LP in one country were part of an EP in another country, and on and on and on.  Even the record companies themselves were different, depending on where the song/album was released.

This mishmash remained until 1987 when the catalog was released for the first time on CD.  Apple Records, the Beatles record label by that time, decided to streamline the catalog to make it easier to access.  The way they fixed the problem was simple: they essentially did away with all the releases in the U.S. and other countries, and made the original British LP's the "official" discography.  However, this act, alone, did not solve the problem, because there were a significant number of Beatles tunes that had never appeared on any full-length LP in the UK.

To correct this problem, Apple first did away with all the British EP's.  They could do this because the vast majority of the songs released on British EP's had also been released, at one time or another, on British LP's.  However, there were still a number of Beatles songs that had been released only as singles in the UK (as well as one song that had only been released in the U.S.).  So Apple took those stand-alone singles, combined them with the handful of EP songs that had not ever been on a British LP, and made them into two compilation CD's, which they called "Past Masters."  These albums also included several singles that were later re-mixed or re-recorded for full length albums (such as Let It Be, which was released first as a single, then later re-mixed and re-released on the album of the same name).

Even after this, however, the problem was still not solved, because the 1967 Magical Mystery Tour album had only been an EP in the UK, while it was a full-length LP in the U.S.  So instead of including those songs from the U.S. version on the Past Masters compilation, and then doing away with the British EP, they simply made the U.S. version of Magical Mystery Tour the "official" album.

Now, finally, every song ever recorded and released by the Beatles was available in a unified format as a single catalog - 13 studio albums, of which 12 were original UK releases, with the original UK titles and artwork, and 1 was an original U.S. release, and two compilation albums that included all the songs that were leftover from singles and EP's.

And now I have them all.  And you can too!  Just follow the link below.

The Beatles Stereo Box Set


Trent N. said...

Interesting. By the way, didn't Michael Jackson purchase the entire Beatles catalog several years ago? I know at one point it was said to be worth in excess of a billion dollars. Certainly one of the few savvy business decisions MJ made.


Scott said...

In the early 80's, MJ outbid Paul McCartney for the publishing rights of the songs. His estate, as far as I know, still owns them. But from what I've read, at his death, his debts were higher than what the catalog was worth, if you can believe that. So even if the estate sold the rights, it still wouldn't pay off all his debt.

Anonymous said...

Pretty sure SONY has had the rights for a while.....before MJ died. But interesting that SONY must get their permission ( Paul, Ringo and the estates of John and George albeit Yoko and Olivia) to even touch the catalog....... Chuck.

Scott said...

MJ sold half his rights to Sony in the mid-90's, according to what I read. I'm pretty sure that the MJ estate, and Sony, still own the catalogue rights. But that doesn't take away any of the song-writing royalties the various Beatles receive anytime a song is used or re-made. It just means the Beatles don't get to choose who uses their songs.