Happy 55th Anniversary to The Beatles second US album Meet The Beatles!, originally released January 20, 1964.
Originally released 55 years ago as the first of The Beatles’ LPs to be issued by Capitol Records, Meet The Beatles! is the poster album for Beatlemania in America. By early 1964, the intense mass hysteria induced by the group had already been the subject of news headlines in Europe and the UK for nearly a year.
The story is well-known by now. Capitol’s parent company EMI had been refusing to release Beatles records in the United States until the Black-owned, Chicago-based company Vee-Jay secured the rights to release the music. On January 10, 1964, Vee-Jay dropped Introducing…The Beatles, the legitimate Beatles American debut, containing twelve of the original fourteen tracks from the band’s first British long player, Please Please Me (1963).
Capitol triumphed in the long run, however, as Meet The Beatles! became one of the bestselling albums of the decade, capturing the zeitgeist and the group’s early stage joy. By the time they landed on US soil for the first time, on February 7th of the same year, they had already amassed enough popularity to obtain never-seen-before success, embarking upon a now-famous run of TV appearances, concerts and photo sessions.
Musically, this album is closer to With the Beatles (1963), their British sophomore effort, containing nine out of its twelve tracks. The remaining tracks are the A- and B-sides for the British version of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single and a lone entry from Please Please Me. This gives the LP a unique feel among all early Beatles records.
For most Americans, this was The Fab Four’s debut album, though it doesn’t sound like a band’s first album at all. Actually, it doesn’t sound like anything else on the Billboard charts at the time. A heavy Motown influence hadn’t been heard from any white group before. It was rock & roll, but it didn’t follow the 12-bar-blues formula already mastered by Chuck Berry. The songwriting pattern was clearly that of R&B. It was a mixture of core Black American music, interpreted by a white British group.
The album starts with the smash hit single “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and it’s a kicker, an all-time pop anthem. It’s the culmination of all of the band’s previous singles released in Europe and the UK. It has the jarring guitar intro, the hand claps, the vocals sung in duet, the harmonized verses, and the get-close-to-you bridge. All in a two-minute teen love song. Maybe the cool kids tried fronting on it, but they couldn’t resist. And the girls, they just loved it. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” changed rock music and pop culture forever, and it serves as the perfect kick-off for the Beatles’ major-label US debut
“I Saw Her Standing There” is the only track lifted from Please Please Me, and it’s a classic rocker for the dancefloors. It tells the typical story of a boy getting a crush on a girl at a party. George Harrison’s guitar solo showcases his early Carl Perkins penchant, and Paul McCartney’s bass line is superb. Everybody and their grandma have danced to this song at least once in their lifetime.
Now, the album kicks it down a few notches with “This Boy,” the UK B-side to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This song is what you get when you have John Lennon trying to deliberately imitate Smokey Robinson’s songwriting. It’s a sad love lost ballad sung in a very delicate harmony. The instrumentation is effective enough to properly showcase the brilliant vocals and the sorrowfulness imprinted in the track. It’s an underappreciated gem.
From this point forward, the album is comprised of repackaged songs from British LP With the Beatles. The run starts at the fourth track, “It Won’t Be Long.” Like a lot of songs from the Beatles’ early period, this is a desperate call for affection and intimacy by Lennon, hidden as a pop song with cheery harmonies and jangly guitars. This type of writing later resurfaces more heavily on British albums Beatles for Sale (1964) and Help! (1965).
Then there’s “All I’ve Got to Do,” another tune influenced by the Miracles and the Temptations, in its songwriting, instrumentation, and of course, the vocals. The harmonies aren’t as present as on other early Beatles records, but still, they’re potent enough to help showcase the somber feel to this Lennon love song. After that, the sprightly “All My Loving” arrives. The songwriting differences between Lennon and McCartney begin to show here. The happy and sad undertones that distinguish each songwriter’s approach to rock ballads are clear. With “All My Loving,” both Lennon and Harrison execute some pretty outstanding work on the rhythm and lead guitar, respectively.
The long-player’s B-side starts with Harrison’s first original song, “Don’t Bother Me.” This is a rare example of a Beatles song in which the singer asks to be left alone. Which might give us a little glimpse of what was going through Harrison’s head at the time, as a counterweight to the duo of Lennon and McCartney.
Just like “Don’t Bother Me,” the next song, “Little Child,” is a notch down relative to the rest of the album’s quality. Although, it’s still interesting, since it’s the first time the harmonica and the piano are heard on the LP, particularly the former, which was very present across the group’s British debut album, and now, not so much.
The only cover conferred on Meet The Beatles! is “Till There Was You,” a Broadway show ballad written by Meredith Wilson in 1957 and sung here by McCartney. It’s an acoustic tune with Ringo Starr playing the bongos in the background. It had been a part of the band’s repertoire since their Hamburg days in 1962. The next ballad of this kind with McCartney on vocals would be his 1965 original and super hit, “Yesterday.”
The album turns it up again with “Hold Me Tight,” a joyous rocker with resemblances to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a back-and-forth bridge. “I Wanna Be Your Man” follows, a Lennon and McCartney original initially released as the first hit single by the Rolling Stones the previous year. Here it serves as the “Ringo song,” the album’s designated track for the drummer to sing along to. The Stones’ version might be looser and even more amusing, but here, Harrison’s lead guitar is better executed, and Ringo on the vocals is always fun.
The final track “Not a Second Time” is a piano-driven rocker written with an R&B template. Lennon himself once affirmed this was yet another attempt by him to replicate Smokey Robinson’s songwriting. The fade out is a good way to close the album. And that’s how the first Capitol Records LP by the Beatles, an album teeming with original tracks and ‘60s rock & roll classics, concludes. The number of Lennon and McCartney compositions was impressive and unthinkable for a pop group at the time.
This LP signified the first major document of the Fab Four’s impact on American culture. It also represented rock & roll’s resurgence after Elvis Presley joined the US army in 1958 and Chuck Berry’s arrest in 1959. In the year of 1964, the Beatles broke almost a dozen Billboard sales chart records and became the first rock group to truly achieve worldwide fame. This led to what was dubbed as the “British invasion.” With English rock acts, such as the Rolling Stones and the Animals, breaking through to the American music market as well.
The historical relevance of this LP is immense, but it can never overshadow its pure quality. These songs shaped the sound of an entire decade and forever changed the musical landscape. The exposure and, to some extent, the geographical distance between the Beatles during their formative years and the Black American music panorama made it possible for them to absorb all of its variations in a unique way and create their own songwriting style. It was all there, the delicacy and freshness of Motown and Atlantic Records, Fats Domino’s swing, Chuck Berry’s cadence. The influence was omnipresent.
55 years ago, the Beatles arrived to revive rock & roll and make it eternal. Although, this too greatly contributed to the eventual whitewashing of the genre and its contemporary lack of substance. For good or bad, the Beatles, and this, their first major American LP, are the most important cultural testaments of their times. And as is fully warranted, this music will forever be dissected and cherished by rock fans all over the world.