Let it be? Never

The Beatles' Anthology is the first chapter you've never heard

"Anything that we didn't record, we erased or got rid of, so there isn't that much outtakes...A lot of it is just alternate takes that we turned down, and they're bringing them back and calling them interesting takes. They're actually the takes we rejected. They could get a real nice Gone With the Wind out of the outtakes, probably."

--Paul McCartney, 1990

The hype has come and gone, the backlash has kicked in and spread like a virus, and until the whole thing begins again in February with the release of the second volume of The Beatles Anthology, the first two discs will quickly be forgotten and left to sit on the shelves.

After all, it happened last year with the release of Live at the BBC--a quick burst of new-found Beatlemania (or so said the press), video clips of shoppers lined up at their nearby local record shoppe to buy the "first new Beatles album in 25 years," whopping early sales, then...nothing. The new Snoop Doggy Dogg record will come out, or the next Mariah Carey record, or Pearl Jam will go back into the studio and amaze us once more. Hey, AC/DC was No. 1 on the charts for a week, so why not the Beatles?

The reviews for Anthology 1 have poured in (2-to-1 negative, of course, because critics don't like static to get in the way of their music), the TV specials have come and gone, and the entire record industry goes on holiday until January 16 (till then, the biggest release will be KISS Unplugged--Merry Christmas!). The local affiliates are even out of material, though Channel 8 was gasping for air the moment it sent Brett Shipp to interview his dad, former Channel 8 newsman Bert Shipp, about interviewing the Beatles three decades ago.

On the surface, of course, Anthology 1 is a documentary, an artifact, and nothing more--a collection of outtakes, miscues, a smattering of rejected rarities, live performances, excerpts from interviews. What was once the property of the fanatics--the oft-bootlegged studio demos, the between-take chatter, the mistakes and rough takes, the numerous radio broadcasts--has become more product with which to stock the bins. They're this year's Christmas present, not unlike the Live at the BBC release--which, in retrospect, is the essential Beatles album most Beatles fans don't own.

Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Yoko Ono grew tired over the years of watching bootleggers profit on the refuse, so they did the obvious--they held a garage sale and invited the fans, allowing them to sift through the garbage at $31.99 a pop. And in most of the cases, it's the best of the best: Anthology 1 features much of the same material as 1994's Artifacts II, the five-CD boxed boot available from something called Big Music/CD Music, trimming down the excess from the two early-years CDs and adding some previously unbootlegged material.

But those who would dismiss Anthology 1 as a collection of music the Beatles never intended fans to hear miss the point. If nothing else, Anthology 1--like so many of the bootlegs that have surfaced over the years, not to mention that astounding Live at the BBC two-fer--serves as a reminder that, at their worst, the Beatles were still the best four players who ever stood on a stage or in a studio at one time. And at their best, they were the Beatles.

There has never been another rock and roll band that so thoroughly understood or embraced the music's simple, eloquent power. Bzzacked by one of the most underrated drummers in history (Ringo Starr always deserved more than Caveman), they were as loud and anthemic as the early Who and as dirty and raw as early Stones, punks who wore ties. And it's obvious on Anthology 1 whether it's Paul, John, and George harmonizing through the old Leiber-Stoller cut "Three Cool Cats" in the Decca studios on New Year's Day 1962 or the entire band performing "All My Loving" on "Ed Sullivan" in February 1964. The boys stood their ground in the small clubs in front of quiet crowds, and they didn't miss a single note when they couldn't hear themselves over the shouting girls in the Hollywood Bowl.

They were white Englishmen who didn't hear any difference between Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, the Isley Brothers and Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Gene Vincent; and so they incorporated the whole lot into something familiar but unheard. They were shabby punks who found enfranchisement through American soul, imbued it with sneering British middle-class angst and anger, then found it was so much fun to stand on a stage and play with each other that they could perform even the dumbest song and still find some bit of truth in it.

When John Lennon howls "Ain't She Sweet" on Anthology 1, recorded in Hamburg in 1961 for a Tony Sheridan album, he sounds less like a puppy-dog romantic with love in his eyes and more like a madman out to quench his thirst; and his growling vocal take on Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," which was inexplicably left off Beatles for Sale, is remarkable, soulful, powerful--more like the Lennon of the Plastic Ono Band, not the Beatles. It's a bona fide revelation here, though it ranks among the most-bootlegged of the Beatles' songs.

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