It was twenty years ago today...The Beatles CD reissues from 1987
...well, not twenty years ago today exactly to be honest, but bear with me.
Over recent months there has been a lot of focus on the digital availability, or lack of, of The Beatles back catalogue. There has been endless speculation that the settling of lawsuits between Apple the computer company and Apple the Beatles music company might herald the iTunes exclusive availability of The Beatles music. EMI's announcement of DRM-free downloads also prompted speculation that this was in preparation for premium Beatles downloads being made available.
It is, after all, in The Beatles' interest to make the material available sooner rather than later, as they face a ticking royalties time-bomb with their earliest recorded performances going out of copyright in six years time.
And with the 40th anniversary of the landmark Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band due to be celebrated, if that's the right word, by a load of modern day Beatle-wannabes recreating the album, and the release last year of the Beatles' own remix album, "Love", you'd be forgiven for thinking that the band never went away.
So I wanted to draw your attention to another Beatles anniversary this year - it is twenty years since The Beatles back catalogue was issued for the first time in the then new-fangled compact disc format.
In truth though, by the time The Beatles catalogue hit the shops, the CD format was no longer new, and had long since passed the stage where people on TV were smearing them with jam and pretending that they would last forever.
The CDs were released in batches during the course of 1987, starting in February, and it is interesting to contrast how it was handled as a reissue programme then, with how you'd expect the CDs to eventually be digitally remastered and reissued after the inevitable online issue of the material.
The original Beatles CDs featured no bonus tracks, no alternate mixes, and no liner notes, unless liner notes had featured on the original vinyl sleeve.
This compares unfavourably with the treatment for other rock legends.
When Virgin, for example, acquired the rights to The Rolling Stones 70's catalogue, they released the CDs in special packaging that replicated the original releases, even down to the metal zip embedded in the sleeve of Sticky Fingers.
Led Zeppelin's back catalogue, meanwhile, is available in Japan in exact facsimiles of the original album sleeves, including tiny cut-out holes in the Physical Graffiti sleeve to enable you to change who appears in the building's windows, depending on which inner sleeve you place at the front.
The Beatles were afforded no such luxury, and their packaging was stuck very much in the standard 1980s CD sleeve mould.
Track-listings on the back of The Beatles CDs, like most releases at the time, featured the track numbers highlighted in a standard box design - emphasising, as consumers made the transition from vinyl and cassette to the digital format, the programmable nature of the track-lists on CDs.
The last page of CD booklets at the time generally featured a standard disclaimer about the advantages, care instructions and limitations of the format. The Beatles' CDs were no different.
When they were first issued on vinyl, The Beatles albums were initially issued on the Parlophone label, and then, from 1968's The Beatles double-set onwards, on the Apple record label.
Stereo copies of their first album in excellent condition were worth a four figure sum in the 1990s if they were one of the few pressed with the old gold style Parlophone label, rather than the black and yellow style label that was introduced around the time that "Please Please Me" was released.
None of this was reflected in the design of the reissued CDs, which featured plain black ink labels, where the "Compact Disc Digital Audio" logo took up as much, if not more, space as the label metadata did.
The only release where this differed was with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band, where the CD label copy design remained the same, but was printed in red ink to match the red colour scheme of the famous sleeve.
In fact Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the only Beatles CD release where any significant effort was made on the packaging, given that the reissue programme coincided with the 20th anniversary of the release of that particular album.
This came not just in a standard jewel case, but with a card wrap-around and an additional 24 page booklet featuring contributions from Peter Blake and George Martin, and photographs of the famous sleeve photoshoot being assembled.
This was still a far cry from the innovation when the album was released in 1967, when it became the first vinyl pop record to be released in a gatefold sleeve, with a dedicated inner sleeve (a red, pink and white psychedelic print on the inner bag), and the first to have the song lyrics printed on the sleeve. Plus it came with a free sheet of cardboard cut-out badges, picture cards and a fake moustache, which were also reproduced in the CD package, albeit not on card - and with the booklet page numbers printed across them.
There has been some speculation that under the new UK chart rules, the entire Top 40 could get clogged up with Beatles tracks when they are finally unleashed upon the download market. The evidence from 1987, looking at the chart impact of the CD reissues, suggests that this is unlikely.
The initial reissue flurry saw "A Hard Day's Night", "Please Please Me" and "With The Beatles" re-enter the charts in March 1987 all in the top forty. Although only at numbers 30, 32 and 40 respectively. In October of that year Abbey Road re-entered the chart on the strength of CD reissue sales, again at a lowly number 30
Only two albums breached the top twenty. The Beatles, usually known as The White Album, hit #18 in September of 1987, and, with all the hype surrounding the 20th anniversary of the original release, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band re-entered the charts at number 3 in June 1987.
"Beatles For Sale", "Help!", "Rubber Soul", "Revolver", "Magical Mystery Tour", "Yellow Submarine" and "Let It Be" all failed to make a renewed impression on the UK charts when they were digitally issued for the first time.
There is a significant difference as well between the physical digital format in 1987, and the virtual digital format in 2007.
In 1987 it wasn't possible for consumers to have already converted their own Beatles back catalogue to the new CD medium - domestic CD burning technology was years away. In 2007 however, consumers have already had plenty of time to produce their own digital files from their Beatles CDs, and to make them DRM-free and of a higher quality than those that will make up an official digital download release.
Over the years the range of Beatles compact discs has expanded, to include the "Number 1" album, the Anthology series, the BBC Sessions discs, the 'naked' version of "Let It Be", the songtrack version of "Yellow Submarine", and the aforementioned "Love" remix album, and the packaging associated with them has also improved on the 1987 reissue offerings.
This trend started almost immediately.
Back in 1987, it was to be another 6 years before the "Red" and "Blue" Beatles compilation albums were to be reissued on CD. In order to mop up the odds and ends that didn't fit onto The Beatles proper albums, two new compilations were created the year after The Beatles CDs were first issued - March 1988's Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2.
As the sleeve notes at the time explained:
This compact disc, and its sister volume issued simultaneously, simplifies matters considerably. If you have the other 13 CDs, and these two, you have everything that the Beatles, the most successful artists in the history of recorded sound, commercially issued during their remarkable reign. These two sets gather together A and B-sides of singles, those special EP tracks, oddities like the Beatles' two German-language recordings, a song recorded primarily for the American market and another especially donated to a charity album. But don't fall under the illusion that these songs are mere "fillers". 'She Loves You', 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', 'I Feel Fine', 'We Can Work It Out', 'Hey Jude' and many others like then didn't exactly wallow in the lower reaches of the chart.
Despite containing exclusive and popular Beatles material, these discs also had a negligible impact on the album chart of the time, failing to reach the top 40 in the UK. However, in 2007, if Beatles digital downloads become available, one suspects it will be the non-album singles like "Lady Madonna" and "Hey Jude" contained on these volumes that have the most chance of denting the UK singles charts.
I fully expect to see digitally remastered reissued physical Beatles CDs to follow a year or so after any digital download release. Hopefully this time the packaging will do justice to "the greatest song writers since Schubert", as Tony Palmer described Lennon and McCartney on the sleeve-notes to 1969's "Yellow Submarine" album.
And the timing of The Beatles catalogue becoming available digitally? Well, I wouldn't bet against the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper being the date, on June 1st this year.
 The first four albums, "Please Please Me", "With The Beatles", "A Hard Day's Night", and "Beatles For Sale" were released on the 26th February 1987. "Help!", "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" followed on the 30th April. The Sgt Pepper album was reissued on the twentieth anniversary of the original vinyl relase, on the 1st June 1987, and two months later, on the 25th August, the 2CD "The Beatles" set and the "Yellow Submarine" album were reissued. "Magical Mystery Tour" came out again on the 21st September, and the reissue programme was completed by "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be" on the 19th October 1987. (Date information thanks to the Beatles discography at jpgr.co.uk) [Return to article]
 This was a constant bane when I used to work in second-hand record stores. You could guarantee that once every six months a British newspaper would include an article about making money from your old household items, and as an example point out that the first The Beatles album was worth £1,000.
Whilst neglecting to mention the rather important facts that it had to be i) in stereo (which most weren't as mono copies vastly outsold the stereo issue), ii) with the specific gold and black label (which most weren't as there were barely a thousand-or-so pressed using that label stock) and iii) it had to not have been played and scratched to death like every copy I ever saw was.
Needless to say, I got into a lot of heated exchanges with people claiming that their tatty mono copy with the wrong colour label was worth £1,000, and that I didn't know what I was talking about and was trying to rip them off. Those were the days. [Return to article]