Sunday, May 8, 2011

Revisting the Beatles "Anthology" project, two decades later

The surviving Beatles and George Martin at Abbey Road studios.

"As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John remains dead."
-George Harrison (1989)

The late George Harrison spoke those words a mere five years before his participation in The Beatles Anthology, a multi-media project that was essentially sold to the public as the next best thing to a Beatles reunion.

No mere TV special, the Anthology would encompass an eight-part documentary series on ABC (which would temporarily rechristen itself A-Beatles-C for the occasion), three double albums of musical outtakes and rarities, and finally a mammoth coffee table book. This material trickled out over the course of several years. The TV show aired in 1995. The albums were released in 1995 and 1996. The coffee table book, for whatever reason, didn't come out until 2000. All, of course, were tremendous financial successes and conquered their respective charts (the Nielsen ratings, the Billboard charts, and the New York Times best-seller list).

But the Anthology project concluded over a decade ago, and I thought it was high time we reexamined it to see how it has held up over the years.

First of all, it's important to remember that for many years, there really wasn't that much "new" Beatle material on the market for fans to collect and obsess over. The group as we know it, i.e. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, only existed for about seven tumultuous years. During that time, the group released roughly a baker's dozen LPs, some non-album singles and B-sides (enough to fill up an additional double LP), and a few feature films.

When you come right down to the numbers, the Beatles canon (and their legacy) consists of about 212 songs: 187 originals and 25 covers. That's it. You could easily get through their entire catalog in about half a day and have plenty of time for meals, breaks, siestas, whatever. Following the group's demise in 1969 or 1970 (depending which timeline you're following), those same 212 songs were mixed and matched in endless combinations and resold to the public again and again. Apart from the Live at the Hollywood Bowl LP (recorded in 1964 and '65 but not released until 1977), it was mainly just recycled bits from the now-very-familiar canon.

But the Anthology project opened the floodgates, and since its time there have been a number of "official" new releases of archival Beatle material, such as Let It Be (Naked), Live at the BBC, and Love, a soundtrack album which weaves together parts of various Beatle songs into a sort of audio collage. So now, instead of having 212 Beatles songs on my iPod, I have well over 500 (closer to 600). The rarities and outtakes the Beatles have released after the demise of the band now outnumber the tracks they actually released during their time together! Is this a good thing, or does it somehow make the canonical 212 Beatle songs a little less special? That is ultimately a question for rock historians to decide. As for the various elements of The Beatles Anthology, here are my thoughts:

The television series (1995)

John is back from the grave in this group shot.
The syndicated 1980s radio series The Lost Lennon Tapes (which you can find streaming online HERE) offers its listeners an unusually intimate portrait of John Lennon both as an artist and as a man during all phases of his life, from his childhood in Liverpool to his final years in New York. Listen to a few episodes, and you'll feel like you've really gotten to know John on a personal level.

After an experience like that, The Beatles Anthology feels weirdly impersonal. The Anthology series focuses almost entirely on the group's professional life and tries its best to record the basic facts of the group's career: essentially, what they did and when they did it. But the series offers very little insight into the group members' private lives or their interpersonal dynamics.

And this is very much an officially-sanctioned Beatles product, so the series downplays a lot of the negative aspects of their story such as the petty financial squabbling of the group's final years. Where Anthology excels is in assembling lots and lots of vintage Beatle audio and video into an exciting, well-paced compilation. There are television appearances, press interviews, live concerts, and promotional films galore here for your viewing enjoyment. It's a mother lode of Sixties nostalgia, and the sound mix is absolutely magnificent.

As for the much-vaunted new interviews with the surviving Beatles, it's interesting how much the musicians inadvertently reveal about themselves.

Paul remains the consummate show-off, the teacher's pet who has to constantly remind himself to appear humble. (One of the series' oddest touches is the decision to film a distracted Paul while he's steering a yacht.)

George, recently described by Rolling Stone as "the first to sour" on any project, is the one who is obviously the least impressed by the Beatles legacy.

And good old Ringo seems like the nicest, least pretentious chap in the world. He can be quite funny, too, as when he very candidly discusses John's decision to pose nude on an album cover.

The series occasionally gathers the three surviving Beatles for roundtable discussions, and it's remarkable how much they've changed since their heyday. It's hard to believe that these guys were once at the center of a maelstrom. They all resemble slightly dilapidated old hippies who should really cut their hair and start wearing suits at this point in their lives. Ringo's scruffy beard and ballcap actually make him look a bit like a panhandler at times.

Sometimes, you really can't go home again.

The most intelligent and well-spoken commentator is not any of the Beatles themselves but rather their producer, George Martin, who brings an insider's knowledge of the Beatles recordings to his interviews. I think the emotional high point of the entire series is the scene in which Martin listens to a take of John singing "A Day in the Life" and simply reacts to it.

The albums (1995-1996)

The three album covers formed a triptych.

Divest yourself of the notion that these three double LPs are going to be a treasure trove of unreleased Beatle songs. Such a trove does not exist. There are only a handful of tracks that the Beatles recorded but did not use, and these were already very familiar to Beatle fans due to their inclusion on bootleg albums.

So what will you find on the Anthology LPs?

Well, live recordings for one, though these of course taper off during Anthology 2 since the Beatles stopped touring in mid-career. The rest of the tracks are alternate versions of songs you already know very well: demo recordings and unused takes from their recording sessions. Your interest in this material will largely depend on your interest in the Beatles' creative process. If you want to enter the restaurant through the kitchen, so to speak, this is your opportunity.

There are a couple of revelatory moments along the way, such as the evolution of John's "Strawberry Fields Forever," the isolated backing tracks for "Eleanor Rigby" and "Within You, Without You," and an a cappella mix of "Because." The Anthology albums are not really designed for straight-through listening sessions, but these tracks can be quite entertaining in small doses. You can skip around them freely, stopping here and there depending on your interest level.

I suppose this is also the place to talk about the most controversial and highly-publicized aspect of the entire Anthology project: the two "new" Beatles songs which were created by taking unfinished demos that John recorded in the 1970s and adding new vocals and instrumental backing to them.

Some observers were put off by the "ghoulish," grave-robbing aspect of these recordings, and others griped that producer Jeff Lynne made the two new songs sound less like the Beatles and more like his own band, ELO. Personally, I had no real moral qualms over tampering with John's demo recordings, and I kind of like ELO.

That said, it should be noted that "Free as a Bird" comes from a very shaky, nowhere-near-finished demo recording, so the audio quality of John's lead vocal is quite poor. "Real Love" was much closer to completion, so its transformation into a post-mortem Beatles song is less dramatic. But by the same token, I think "Real Love" is a stronger song than "Free as a Bird." Either way, these songs are pleasant curiosities. Nothing to get hung about.

The coffee table book (2000)

Try taking this bad boy to the beach.
And now we arrive at the most lavish and unnecessary aspect of the Anthology project.

A ridiculously oversized and hefty tome, this is a book that all but defies you to actually sit down and read it. An oral history pieced together from quotes from the four Beatles, this book also contains many hundreds of photos and archival documents and should be a vital resource to the earnest Beatlemaniac.

Unfortunately, its sheer weight and size prevent it from being portable, and its very busy and cluttered layout (an attempt, I guess, to recapture the chaotic visual aesthetic of the Swinging Sixties) basically prevent it from being readable. The Anthology coffee table book is perfect for casual browsing, but I wish it had been released as a nice, sensible, B&W paperback.