Let it be? Never

"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.

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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky