Let it be? Never

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

It's the post-Rubber Soul period that fascinates most Beatles fans--the way the band experimented with overdubbing, the studio trickery and multi-tracking and vocal layering--but the years between 1958 and 1964 are perhaps the most fascinating, and not merely as a period of minor revelation. It's not just like looking at someone's high-school yearbook pictures and wondering how they ever lost all that hair:To hear the Quarry Men playing Holly's "That'll be the Day" in 1958--the same time the band, which then included pianist John Lowe and drummer Colin Hanton, recorded the Lennon-McCartney track "In Spite of all the Danger"--is to understand how astonishing the Beatles were, even when they were nothing more than a rock and roll band.

They track the history of rock itself, from dead-on Buddy Holly covers to "Revolution No. 9" in the span of a decade--from cradle to grave.The live-in-Stockholm version of "Money (That's What I Want)" included here is louder, angrier, nastier than the take recorded by the BackBeat band two years ago--and that band included members of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Afghan Whigs, and Soul Asylum.

If Beatles Anthology, both the mini-series (now on sale at your local video store) and albums, is an attempt to humanize the band--to bring these aging legends back to earth for a brief moment, allowing us to hear the mistakes and hidden secrets both through their memories and music--it actually serves a very opposite purpose. The documentary was filled with the safe and sterile recollections of middle-aged men who had time to get their stories straight, but the album allows us further into the myth, showing us quick glimpses of the boys before they became famous and disappeared into the recording studio.

The Beatles' story is one we already know by heart, and so Anthology 1 is the first chapter we've yet to read--the inexplicable covers of "The Sheik of Araby" and "Besame Mucho," the Lennon-McCartney songs recorded but never released ("Like Dreamers Do," "Hello Little Girl"), the R&B influences (Ray Charles, the Coasters) to which they pay homage. The music is rough in spots, raw in others, sometimes hard to hear on the aging lost tapes, but even the poorest-quality cuts knife through the static of time.

"A guy from Capitol [Records] came to see me and asked if I would allow them to put out an album of John's outtakes. After listening to them, I realized they were just too unfinished and raw for people to hear. They were mostly rehearsals and outtakes, anyway...John always told me to get a lawyer to try and get the Beatles' master tapes back, so that we could burn them. He was afraid someone would remix the outtakes and put them out after we died."

--Yoko Ono, 1984

As one local musician said minutes after hearing the debut of "Free as a Bird," the first "new" Beatles song in 25 years, if you love the song or hate it, you're right. It's at once exhilarating to hear the band "back together" and altogether sickening, like watching someone make love to a dead corpse. For something so simple and so thin, it's a song that exists alone within the continuum--a Beatles song we'll soon grow tired of, but one that will fascinate and confound us for years.

The context for "Free as a Bird" is just all wrong. John Lennon wrote it and forgot about it, never intending to finish it (or to let McCartney and Harrison finish it, either). He wrote it during his last years, as he was coming to terms with his rekindled relationship with Yoko and with his life as a family man: He's a man who's "home and dry," Lennon sings, his voice distorted and thin because of the quality of the demo.

But McCartney's new bridge completely changes the meaning of the song; his additional lines--"Whatever happened to/The life that we once knew/Can we really live without each other?/Where did we lose the touch/That seemed to mean so much?"--make the song about the Beatles, which is a touching enough nod to the past but not what Lennon intended when he wrote the thing. Add to that the over-the-top video, filled with references to every single original Beatles album and featuring archival footage of the lads superimposed over the images, and you're left feeling "Free as a Bird" is nothing but a slick, cynical commercial for back catalogue. Moreover, they've turned Lennon into a Traveling Wilbury, a fate worse than death.

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