Who exactly were The Beatles Anthology series intended for when they first came out 25 years ago?
At first I imagined it was aimed at all those generations of listeners who missed Beatlemania by being born too late, didn’t understand the profound cultural or musical significance of the Fabs or maybe it was those newly-minted vinyl lovers with a reverence for things past, who wanted to know what the real antecedents of modern music were, from the close three-part harmonies and George Martin’s studio wizardry to the backward drum sounds.
Perhaps it was for those latter day mods, and admirers of the then-thriving Britpop craze who wanted to see the purveyors of the original phenomena and destruct the fashion and social statements. Whether is was the stacked Cuban heels, matching collarless suits or mop top haircuts (for which their Hamburg friend, occasional bassist and artist behind Revolver’s cover, Klaus Voorman was responsible) to John Lennon’s irreverent and often inappropriate witticisms, in the years before Brainy Quote existed.
But I was wrong. The three Anthologies are for fans like me: someone who experienced Beatlemania firsthand.
The Songs Live On
I was a card-carrying member of their fan club, I owned and wore a “I Love Ringo” button, (yet I secretly had a thing for Paul). I knew every single lyric (I sat at the kitchen table and tirelessly copied all the words to The Beatles songs off the radio onto large white paper plates, which I actually still have.)
I sold candles door-to-door to earn enough money to travel to Liverpool to meet them. I skipped school and stood in line for 12 hours to get tickets to their second appearance at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on August 13, 1966. And, like so many others, I screamed my way through their 11 songs (no encore).
I religiously followed George Harrison’s soon-to-be wife Pattie Boyd’s advice column in 16 Magazine, living on Ritz Crackers and thin slices of cheese, because that’s what she ate, in the hopes that I too would someday look like a Beatle wife.
The Beatles themselves were signifiers for all of us, helping fans and devotees forge their very identities. Which one you liked best — John, Paul, Ringo or George — said volumes about who you were. Each of them occupied an archetypical niche that was deeper than the “smart one,” the “cute one,” the “funny one” or the “quiet one.” Even more, you found yourself making associations around like-minded Beatles fans. All the John fans — united by their intelligence and misanthropy — would congregate, putting down the Paul fans for being superficial, caring too much about what people thought, mirroring the very tension that was at the core of the two songwriters relationship and the push/pull psychic and artistic balancing act between their personalities that galvanized their songs to greatness. That and the healthy (for awhile) sense of competitiveness between the two friends-cum-bandmates. Ringo fans were clownish outsiders masking as insiders and George fans were just outsiders who truly wanted to be left alone.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I marked events, break-ups and rites of passage by which Beatles’ song was on the radio
But these were the added embellishments of Beatlemania, because first and foremost it was about the songs. For three years, at approximately three-month intervals, a new Beatles song would magically appear, imparting knowledge, wisdom, and mostly hard truths that helped define the ‘60s for fans — albeit sometimes in a way that was a little too sophisticated for their audience. After all, in 1964 they were adults, and sometimes paradoxically, but no one else was giving the younger set any real information about the facts of life back in those unenlightened times; things like all you need is love, that money couldn’t buy it, that you could work it out, that the love you take is equal to the love you make, and maybe, most importantly, all things must pass.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I marked events, break-ups and rites of passage by which Beatles’ song was on the radio, and can call up those memories at will by just hearing the opening chords of “Another Girl,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Birthday,” “Blackbird,” “Come Together” and finally and, sadly, “The End.”
Especially “The End,” because like any child of divorce, or in other words billions of dejected fans, I mourned the day that The Beatles broke up. I hoped they would reconsider one day. I was sure they would. We all were.
Sure there were clues, and cracks in their shiny, happy pop veneer, all the way back to February 1968, when they traveled to India to learn Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s feet. When Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr left the northern Indian ashram early — believing it was a sham– it was clear there was some philosophical split. One greater than we knew, when it came to light that everyone seemed to blame George Harrison for dragging them 4,100 miles across Europe and Asia for this stab at mind-opening enlightenment. They’d already got that from the LSD they’d ingested, as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band proved the year before.
It’s the kind of small, telling details that surface in the Anthology albums that reveal what was really going on and make us love The Beatles even more
Had it not been for Anthology 3’s 102nd (!) outtake of the Harrison-penned “Not Guilty,” we might never had known the real story — something that Harrison revealed to Billboard in 1999. Harrison was referring to “the grief I was catching” from Lennon and McCartney post-India, and explained the story behind the tune: “I said I wasn’t guilty of getting in the way of their career. I said I wasn’t guilty of leading them astray in our going to Rishikesh to see the Maharishi. I was sticking up for myself …” But you feel his pain fresh in his “us and them” use of pronouns.
It’s these trainspotter details that set The Beatles fan’s heart afire when listening to the Anthology series. It’s like finding the early blueprints of the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and being able to find out what the first — or 102nd — rendering of Jesus on the “Day of Judgment” looked like before Michelangelo was finished in 1541. Or an early version of Picasso’s “Guernica” where the bull didn’t have a twisted expression on its bovine face and wasn’t half so menacing.
It’s these kinds of small, telling details that surface across the songs of the Anthology albums that reveal what was really going on underneath those mop tops. It’s the imperfections and mess-ups in songs that make us love The Beatles more, finally showing us that they were human beings and not super beings who lived atop Mount Olympus and did no wrong. For years, their manager Brian Epstein cultivated those perfect pop personas and no one ever saw them out of character, much like KISS just 10 years later. They lived in their own bubbles, or in St. Johns Wood, and were all but impossible reach.
Tracing The Beatles Rise
These discs — especially Anthology 1 — catches them in the act of becoming The Beatles, and consequently the most famous four people in the world for five years. In the 11-second interview snippet “Just Four Guys,” John Lennon says, “We were just a band that made it very, very big. That’s all.” Which in simplest terms they were. But it’s these small scraps of talk that we get a real sense of who they are, their sense of humor, or in the case of George Martin, how hard he fought to get them signed, and how he attempted to protect them from disappointment when Decca Record passed on signing them. The interview sections were abandoned for Anthology 2 and 3, and they are poorer for it.
The historical aspect of the songs included in Anthology 1 is irrefutable evidence that proves that The Beatles were not just a rare accident of history, timing and happenstance; these proto rockers surpassed what was on the radio, possessing more sizzle than Bobby Rydell, more recklessness than the Shadows and more sex appeal than Ricky Nelson — plus they wrote their own songs. They were the future, and they knew it.
“We were performers, we played straight rock. There was nobody in Britain that could touch us,” Lennon said sanguinely. Even with Pete Best. (The unexpected karmic benefit of Anthology 1 is that ousted drummer Pete Best finally got some of The Beatles’ royalties.)
As the subsequent discs were released, we see a much more manicured persona of The Beatles emerging. No longer becoming The Beatles, they are The Beatles. Yet it is still those mess-ups, miss-said words and expletives that are the most entertaining and revealing. For instance, when Lennon begins a tremendously raspy version of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” he mutters, “Oh shit, wrong chord.” Then starts up again, singing, “No, No Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono, Oh Yes,” in the middle of the track. It’s sweet, but also one of the first indications that his allegiance had shifted from his three bandmates to Ono.
Perhaps the biggest reveal of the entire project is the unvarnished beauty of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
It’s also highly interesting to see what doesn’t make the cut, what remains an outtake and why, weighing in silently in a Monday Morning Quarterback kind of way. There was a public perception that everything that The Beatles did they did perfectly and in one take, like the mock recording sessions in their first movie A Hard Day’s Night. But these versions show otherwise, allowing the listener to hear the rushed lyrics, the second-guessing, the sometimes micro-managing of Paul McCartney who repeatedly urges them to do another take, when what they just did seems fine. John’s comic book voice chimes in occasionally when he miffs a line, but except for once instance — in “Rocky Raccoon”– Paul continues after a mistake, like nothing was amiss.
Perhaps the biggest reveal of the entire project is the unvarnished beauty of “Strawberry Fields Forever” before George Martin got his inventive hands on it. It’s like a dream sequence, or more like an argument John is having with himself, and the bare tracks convey such utter aloneness it’s heartbreaking to listen to without the embellishments. “No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low/That is you can’t, you know, tune in/But it’s all right/That is I think it’s not too bad.”
By the time the listener gets to Anthology 3, there is little of the peering behind the curtain. Instead you get the feeling that you’re eavesdropping on a dress rehearsal for the last act of The Beatles. The final installment of the Anthology series has two discs of previously unreleased material from the “White Album”-era through the group’s final days in early 1970.
Sonically, it might be the most listenable of the collection because it contains only studio recordings rather than any live concerts or outtakes, but because of that, it’s the least revealing. The famous infighting is nowhere in evidence and you get the sense everyone is getting along, if you listen to the slight studio repartee it’s not clear why they had to end. Or even that the end is near.
There is no mention, save one of John not being there for eight days during the Get Back sessions because of the car accident he and Yoko were in, or that Ono had a bed wheeled in for sessions equipped with a microphone hanging above her head, so she could chime in when she felt it necessary. Also missing is the impolitic version of “Get Back” with Paul’s Pakistani-bashing lyrics. Instead, we find George finally stepping out of the songwriting shadows and writing some fully realized and important tunes, such as the deeply metaphysical “I Me Mine,” which pointed to his next phase, along with “Something,” which was written for “White Album,” but didn’t appear until Abbey Road.
The band was apparently lukewarm about George’s song, and he offered it to Jackie Lomax, and then to Joe Cocker, who had a hit with it before The Beatles did. For such a lovely song, it generated much controversy. Harrison’s then-wife Pattie Boyd insisted it was written for her, but Harrison contradicted her, explaining that it was written with Ray Charles in mind. It was the second most-covered Beatles song (after “Yesterday”), including a version by Charles. In addition Phish, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Shirley Bassey, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Isaac Hayes, Julio Iglesias and Neil Diamond have all done versions. (It’s James Brown’s that Harrison liked best, which he kept in his personal jukebox.)
The Beatles last recorded song, “The End,” was a sad signifier, but The Strokes reminded us ‘The End Has No End,’
We disheartened Beatles fans never got our reunion — even though insiders insisted John talked about it shortly before his death. The titular raison d’etre for the Anthology was to effect a virtual reunion, since after Lennon’s death in December 1980, a real reunion was impossible.
Yoko unearthed some songs John recorded at their New York apartment — but “The Threatles” as they were referred to — only used only two of them as the third wasn’t to their liking. “Free As a Bird,” which starts off Anthology 1, was reconstructed from a demo that John Lennon recorded in 1977 — Paul wrote a bridge that made the song seem to be about The Beatles, and additional instrumentation, vocals, and arrangements were added by Paul, Ringo and George, and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, who had worked with Harrison on hia solo album Cloud Nine and as part of the Traveling Wilburys, was asked to produce the record. Ringo Starr said hearing the track was very “emotional” him, and the three remaining members said they approached the project as if Lennon had just “gone for lunch” or had gone for a “cup of tea.” Recording “Real Love,” wasn’t as strong and offering, but still it’s of importance because it is the last “new” music recorded by the then-surviving member of the band.
So why re-release the Anthology digitally in 2016? Unlike The Beatles last recorded song, “The End,” The Strokes reminded us “The End Has No End,” and in this modern world, I’d rather believe that.