The Beatles’ ‘Red’ And ‘Blue’ Albums at 50: Celebrating the Greatest ‘Greatest Hits’ Records Ever

Fifty years ago, The Beatles released the Red and Blue Albums, officially titled 1962-1966 and 1967-1970. The anthologies came out on April 2, 1973, and became the foundation of the Beatles legend for the next few decades. Arguably the most influential greatest-hits albums in history. The gateway drug into the Beatles songbook for generations of fans. Their most crucial post-break-up albums, even if the Fab Four wanted nothing to do with them. But these weren’t cheesy samplers—they were double-vinyl shrines with iconic artwork, celebrating the mystique of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. The Red and Blue Albums defined the whole Beatles story as we know it today. 

These compilations came out at a time when the world was still agonizing over the band’s split, but they made a radical case for the crazy notion that the story was really just beginning. Nobody in 1973 had any way of knowing the Beatles would be infinitely more famous and beloved in 2023. But the Red and Blue Albums are a huge part of how that happened.

The albums were compiled by their notorious manager Allen Klein—the only favor he ever did for them. Klein also assembled the Rolling StonesHot Rocks—say what you like about this old shark, he knew how to do a greatest-hits package. It’s 54 songs on two double albums—lots of hits, lots of deep cuts, one “Old Brown Shoe.” They had matching artwork: the Red Album had John, Paul, George, and Ringo in 1962, smiling down from a stairwell at EMI’s London headquarters. The Blue Album had the same lads seven years later, re-staging the photo as longhair adults. Same pose. Same photographer, Angus McBean. But all eight smiles blazing with excitement. 

1962-1966 and 1967-1970 were originally meant to go with Neil Aspinall’s documentary The Long and Winding Road. The film got shelved, later evolving into Anthology. But Klein hustled the comps together as his big chance to release some new Beatles product, which seemed like a brilliant idea to everyone on earth. With four exceptions.

The ex-Beatles were conspicuously silent about the albums, with reports that they were upset, especially John and Paul. “There is the feeling that perhaps Klein exceeded his power with these albums,” a Capitol executive told Rolling Stone. None of the four were willing to admit they’d approved the project, much less had any input. “George controlled the choice of the material on those albums more than any of us,” John told Melody Maker that fall, a comically absurd claim given that George didn’t get a single vocal on the Red Album. “They sent me lists and asked for my opinion, but I was busy at the time.” 

John at least admitted listening to the finished records—“I thought the sound was a bit rough”—which was more than Paul would do. “I didn’t take an awful lot of interest in them, actually,” Paul told Rolling Stone in 1974. “I still haven’t heard them.” For him, this was just another Klein scam. “I haven’t really taken much interest in Beatles stuff of late just because there has been this hangover of Apple and Klein. The whole scene has gone so bloody sick. The four ex-Beatles are totally up to here with it.”

As for George, his involvement was to take a look at the records after they came out. As music producer Richard Perry told Rolling Stone at the time, George’s comment was, “It seems incomplete.” That might have been the Quiet One’s way of asking where the hell were “Taxman” or “If I Needed Someone,” a question asked many times since.

But the rest of the planet did take an interest.  The Red/Blue compilations secured the Beatles’ legacy for future fans. We can argue all day about the song selections—too much Magical Mystery Tour, not enough Revolver. But both albums were designed to take a curious kid, or a casual dabbler, and turn them into a stark raving Beatles freak for life. As Oasis’ Noel Gallagher proclaimed in Rolling Stone, “Those are my favorite records because they were the first ones I ever had as a kid.”

They didn’t just go for safe hits, either. Just to pick the most obvious example, there’s “Old Brown Shoe” on the Blue Album. Nobody has ever explained how the hell this happened. Sorry, I don’t care what a clever contrarian you are or how big a ride-or-die George slut you are, “Old Brown Shoe” is not one of your 54  favorite Beatle songs and we both know it. But who cares—it sounds great. And if you’re one of those people who has a problem with “Octopus’ Garden” making the cut, you’re a drag, a well-known drag.

The Red Album has an easier job to do: 26 early bangers, all done and dusted in 63 minutes. The only real curveballs are “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “Girl,” both welcome picks. But the real coup is how the Blue Album sums up their concept records. For kids who loved the moptops, it was a way to explore the adult, bearded, difficult Beatles. I spent years carefully lifting the needle after “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” just to avoid “A Day in the Life,” which was just too scary for me, especially that final “ka-chunggg!” chord-crash. I learned to drop the needle in the precise right spot to catch the opening fanfare of “All You Need Is Love.”

Both packages were absurdly generous—especially the Blue Album, with vinyl sides ranging 24-27 minutes. I mean, get a load of Side One: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Sgt. Pepper,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy,” “A Day in the Life,” and “All You Need Is Love.” The pace flatters every song. So many daring picks, especially “Don’t Let Me Down” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Let It Be” will never sound better than it does in the middle of Side Four, right after “Octopus’ Garden.”

They also had printed lyrics, an argument starter ever since. The Blue Album officially ruled that John was singing “Hold you in his armchair,” not “hold you in his arms, yeah.” (That debate will go on forever.) But even better, there was a one-sheet headlined “For Your Information,” giving you a full Beatles discography, including solo records. (Except John and Yoko’s Two Virgins, the one where they’re naked on the cover.) It’s tough to overstate the influence of this cheat sheet. These were pre-internet times, but now any newbie kid could learn all the arcane corners of the Fabs’ career. This is why Noel Gallagher could write a song called “Wonderwall,” knowing that his audience would get the in-joke reference to George’s Wonderwall Music.

But the pièce de résistance: both albums had the same mysterious gatefold photo, the Beatles mingling in a London crowd. It was from their now-famous “Mad Day Out” romp of July 28, 1968, with photographer Don McCullin. No caption, no hint of a time or place. Just the four adult Beatles, unsmiling but friendly, passing for ordinary boys, in a mob of little kids, old folks, teen girls, none of them noticing the rock stars. (Okay, that hippie girl is slightly aware she’s next to Paul. He’s Paul, people.) Ringo kneels kindly by a toddler. Each face burned itself into the brains of fans, the way each car on the cover of Abbey Road did. For all we knew, the sweet old lady in the upper left corner was Eleanor Rigby.

On April 2, the day the Red and Blue collections came out, John and Yoko flew to NYC to give a press conference—but not about the albums. They announced that John, George, and Ringo were finally firing Allen Klein. (They got scooped by their now-ex manager, who’d released his own statement a few hours earlier.) It’s ironic the Beatles chose this day to dump Klein, since this project was the one time he indisputably did right by them.

John reluctantly conceded the split meant Paul had been right about Klein all along. “We’ll decide among the four of us how to deal with it,” he told Rolling Stone’s Stuart Werbin that day. “Which is something we should have done a long time ago, but obviously *que sera sera*, and now is the hour.” Asked about his relationship with Paul, he summed it up: “Distant physically. And mentally, pretty OK.”

Beatle reunion rumors were all over the press. After Newsweek ran such a story in March, one Rolling Stone journalist responded by writing his own exclusive report for the magazine. This reporter’s name? John Lennon. He wrote, “The extreme humility that existed between John & Paul seems to have evaporated. They’ve spoken to each other on the telephone, and in English, that’s a change.” But he still couldn’t resist a dig at his old mate. “‘If only everything were as simple and unaffected as McCartney’s New Single “My Love,” then, maybe Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would be reunited with the Marx Brothers and Newsweak could get a job,’ said an East African official.”

John’s report noted that he, George, and Ringo—“the three ex-Beauties”—still played together, but with zero intention of re-Fabbing. “As usual,” John wrote, “an awful lot of rumors, if not downright lies, was going on, including the possibility of impresario Allen DeKlein playing bass for the other three.” In the same Rolling Stone issue—on the same page—Ringo told reporters at Heathrow Airport, “There is hardly any chance at all of us appearing together again. We are still good pals, but it’s just not on.” 

Yet for millions of people around the world, that denial wasn’t clear enough. On April 7, just a few days after the Red/Blue release, John, George, and Ringo all attended a Barbra Streisand party in Hollywood, to raise money for the Pentagon Papers Legal Defense Fund. (Other guests: Joni Mitchell, Cicely Tyson, Hugh Hefner.) One donor offered $3000 if the three ex-Beatles sang “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Barbara, yet she gallantly begged off for them and sang it herself. George and Barbra stayed up till dawn, eating hors d’oeuvres and discussing songs he could write for her next album. 

All four Beatles were busy men when the Red and Blue Albums exploded. They were pushing their solo careers, desperate to make the world forget their old band. Later that same week, Paul released his new single “My Love,” which hit Number One for four weeks. The song that replaced it at Number One? George’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” from Living in the Material World—one of the greatest songs he ever wrote. And who replaced George at Number One? Good old Billy Preston, with his solo smash “Will It Go Round in Circles.”

But the kiddies’ choice? Ringo. His November 1973 self-titled solo smash had two superb Number One hits, “Photograph” (with George on guitar) and “You’re Sixteen” (with Paul on kazoo). It was the first album with all four Fabs since the break-up—though not all four on the same song. When Ringo and John cut “I’m the Greatest,” George heard about the session and called to ask, “Can I please come down?” As John said, “The three of us were there and Paul would most probably have joined in if he was around, but he wasn’t.”

One reason the lads were grafting so hard—their royalties were frozen in their Apple litigation, so they needed new hits. But an even bigger reason: the audience simply could not get enough Beatles. The Red/Blue phenomenon was a strange case of the fans and the music business colluding to create a new Fabs album, simply because the Fabs themselves refused to do it. The pop audience was essentially saying, if you won’t give us the Beatles, we’ll build our own Beatles from the spare parts.

Both 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 were immediate blockbusters, as everyone knew they would be. A Billboard story welcomed “pop music’s super kids, the Beatles.” The Blue Album was the bigger hit, hitting Number One until it got bumped by Paul’s Red Rose Speedway, not the first or last time Macca relished a chance to compete with his old band. After this, Capitol got more daring, realizing they didn’t want or need the group’s blessing to keep re-selling the catalog, going way over the line with the mega-cheese 1976 Rock ’N’ Roll Music

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Yet the Red and Blue Albums just kept sounding (and selling) better over the years. Give the devil his due: Klein did his job, with his lieutenant Allan Steckler. It’s funny how Klein is one of the most universally loathed figures in rock history, yet he compiled the all-time most beloved rock anthologies. Like the Stones’ Hot Rocks, another Klein/Steckler classic, the Red/Blue sets gave bang for the buck. He knew a legacy package like this isn’t the place to cut corners; it’s where you sell, sell, sell the franchise. Klein had a big incentive—he knew his contract was set to expire on March 31, so this was his last shot to get a piece of a Beatles best-seller. But Capitol pushed back the release date from March 28 to April 2—just in time to leave him out.

The Red and Blue Albums finally came out on CD in 1993, launched with a George Martin press conference at Abbey Road. Surprise guest George Harrison came out to light incense and say, “Lest we forget, all you need is love.” Fans complained that the Red Album could have fit on one 63-minute CD, but somehow it felt right for it to remain a double. The single-disc 1 compilation dropped in 2000, and took over as the go-to sampler. But the Red/Blue combo is twice as long, therefore twice as good. These collections were a defining moment in the Beatles story. When people were fiending for good news about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, the Red/Blue sets delivered—no happy-ending reunion, nothing corny like that, just proof that this music was in absolutely no danger of fading into the past. It was a totally accurate revelation of the Fabs’ future: these songs would live on, long after the band stopped playing, and the world was going to keep on dreaming the Beatles forever. Fifty years later, these albums are still guaranteed to raise a smile.

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