Because The Beatles were so central in developing our concept of the album as a unified statement of artistic purpose, it’s easy to forget that they started their career at a time when most artists measured success in stand-alone singles. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? Not on a Beatles album—at least not in the UK. (Capitol repurposed some of the band’s early material in the US, but hodgepodge.) Ditto “She Loves You,” and “Day Tripper,” and “Paperback Writer.” Even after Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s helped redefine the boundaries of what albums could do, the band still saved some of their best material for singles: “Get Back,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” the eternally cathartic “Hey Jude.” (As to the latter in particular, producer George Martin worried that radio wouldn’t play a seven-minute-long single, to which Lennon—never exactly meek, especially by 1968—said, “They will if it’s us.”)
As a collection, Past Masters serves the separate function of summarizing the short career of a singularly dynamic band. Like vast country seen from the window of a plane, things move quickly and at geologic scale: the early club years, Beatlemania, the advent of psychedelia, the imperial phase of the late '60s, the rootsy autumn—90 minutes, eight years, a microcosm of rock music in its radical adolescence. And to think they started stamping it out as nothing more than product.