The Beatles Anthology: The Fab Four’s Second Coming
The Beatles have come to TIDAL. As part of our massive celebration of this historic addition to the TIDAL music library — which includes The Beatles Experience, our immersive presentation of their timeless catalogue — journalist and Beatles expert Jeff Slate has been writing an ongoing feature series on the history and legacy of the biggest band to ever live.
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Since they broke through in the early 1960s, The Beatles have remained the cornerstone of popular and rock ‘n’ roll music.
But as beloved and – especially in this streaming age – as ubiquitous as they are these days, they weren’t always so obviously at the top of the heap. The 1970s saw the luster of the band’s legend a tad faded, as the solo Fabs dealt with the ups and downs that their musical peers had always faced, but that they had dodged as four parts of the biggest band in the world. And following John Lennon’s death, the 1980s felt even more unkind to that legend.
Of course The Beatles have always had a massive core following. And each reissue that came along – especially the 1987 release of the band’s catalogue on CD – caused another spike in their popularity. But remarkably it was not until the mid-’90s, as the sounds of Britpop saturated the airwaves, that The Beatles finally solidified their position on the top of rock’s pantheon with the release of the TV series, book and three-volume album release of The Beatles Anthology.
“Everybody has always asked, ‘Who’s going to be bigger than The Beatles?’ It turns out it was us,” Paul McCartney said at the time.
The Beatles Anthology series, which began life as a documentary called The Long and Winding Road, compiled by band intimate and long-serving Apple Corps head Neil Aspinall in the 1970s, eventually developed into a multi-night television extravaganza that reunited the band on screen, telling the band’s story from the inside out. They were in the eye of the hurricane, John Lennon observed at one point. It was quite calm there, George Harrison recalled, even if it seemed to him that everyone around them was “going potty” (i.e. “mad”).
It’s a fascinating, essential glimpse into The Beatles’ world, and priceless in retrospect, especially now that not only Lennon, but Harrison, George Martin, and aides Aspinall and Derek Taylor, are no longer with us.
The Beatles Anthology was also a chance for the Fabs to reunite on record, one last time.
In 1994, Paul McCartney flew to New York to induct his best friend and former bandmate John Lennon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. During the evening Yoko Ono handed him several cassettes that contained unfinished songs Lennon had been working on during his “househusband” days, while he was taking care of his infant son Sean.
Kicking off Volume One of the Anthology albums with the crack of Ringo’s snare, and the sting of Harrison’s soaring slide guitar, “Free As A Bird” may not have been the reunion everyone had always hoped for, but it was a reunion nonetheless. With a few added lines of lyrics and melody from McCartney and Harrison, some ukelele, backwards chat and a production assist from Harrison’s fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, John, Paul, George and Ringo were The Beatles once again.
But the real gems are deep inside. Volume One chronicles The Beatles from their genesis as the Quarrymen, through their Cavern and Hamburg residencies, to their conquest of the U.K., Europe and, finally, the U.S. It includes songs that were new to even the most ardent bootleg collectors, and showed what set The Beatles apart from the rest of the musical herd: They were great songwriters, fearlessly inventive in the studio and a truly cracking live band.
The highlights are numerous, but Volume One gives hard evidence for the sacking of original drummer Pete Best, as well as why Decca Records passed on signing The Beatles. It allows us to hear the song George Martin wanted the band to record as their second single before John Lennon showed up with “Please Please Me,” and it includes the early, R&B-tinged version of “One After 909” (which the band wouldn’t revisit until 1970′s Let It Be), as well as early, alternate takes of some of the Fabs’ best-loved songs, not to mention a fistful of live tracks that put the claims of the bands’ contemporaries that they weren’t a great live act to bed.
Having lifted the lid on the treasure trove inside Abbey Road studios, how could The Beatles top Volume One? Well, with Volume Two, of course.
Kicking off with the second, and only other released, Threetles track, Lennon’s “Real Love,” satisfyingly dolled up a la “Free As A Bird,” we then join the band back in Abbey Road in 1965, at the height of their collective powers, during sessions for Help! The unreleased “If You’ve Got Troubles” and “That Means A Lot” are fun, but it’s Take 1 of McCartney’s “Yesterday” that is Volume Two’s first show-stopping moment. Imperfect, tentative, but still unbelievably beautiful, it’s perhaps rivaled only by the “strings only” version of “Eleanor Rigby” for pop music perfection on this volume.
George Harrison’s take on the Carl Perkins rave up “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” at Shea Stadium is further proof of the peerless nature of The Beatles as a live act, and works-in-progress from Rubber Soul and Revolver, are simply stunning.
But then we reach the “studio years,” and everything changes. Lennon’s early demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever” leads us along into Take 1 of the song – a shadow of what it would finally become – before we are treated to the record as it might have been, Take 7. It’s mind-blowing.
Alternate versions of “Penny Lane,” “A Day In The Life” and a handful of songs from the Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour-era follow, showing the band pushing the boundaries of composition, song structure, technology and production. And it all ends with probably the best version of Lennon’s beautiful – if underserved on record – “Across the Universe.”
It’s a breathless sprint once The Beatles are off the road. But the decline is just ahead. And what a glorious decline Volume Three is.
Without a third Threetles track to start things off, we begin with a brief, if beautiful, orchestral piece by George Martin, before delving behind the scenes of the White Album, including several acoustic demos of the songs the band wrote while in Rishikesh with the Maharishi and recorded in George Harrison’s home studio at Kinfauns in Esher, as well as a glorious, menacing, slow take on “Helter Skelter.”
An unadorned “Blackbird” is beautiful, as are early takes of Lennon’s “Sexy Sadie” and McCartney’s already anthemic “Hey Jude.” Even Take 102 of Harrison’s “Not Guilty” is a gem, while the Lennon/Harrison collaboration “What’s the New Mary Jane,” stripped of its mystery as a lost track, is carried along on the good vibes in which it was conceived.
There are a lot of tracks from the difficult Let It Be sessions, but they’re presented with care here, rather than as some bootlegger’s thoughtless money grab, illustrating that all was not as grim as we were led to believe.
“She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” “For You Blue” and “Teddy Boy” show the band having about as much fun as four young men with the weight of the pop music world on their shoulders were probably capable of having, and George Harrison’s demos of “All Things Must Pass” and “Something” are priceless.
McCartney’s one-man-band demo for protégés Badfinger had circulated for ages, but it’s a remarkable piece of work nonetheless, as is the rollicking Harrison/McCartney/Starr recording of “I Me Mine.”
But if you want to revel in just how amazing the chemistry was between The Beatles, look no further than the a capella version of Lennon’s “Because.” It’s a masterclass in production and precise harmonizing, but it’s also soulful, beautiful and something that only The Beatles could have produced.
Fittingly, we end with “The End,” remixed to include the magnificent last chord of “A Day in the Life” to round things out, capping off the alternate history to the most beloved band that has ever walked the face of the earth.
You can complain that there’s more in the vaults, or that The Beatles should have finished more of Lennon’s songs (or not touched his half-finished works-in-progress at all), but Volumes One, Two and Three of The Beatles Anthology are a window into the creative souls of these four remarkable men who did something unlike anything we’d seen before or are likely to see again. Sure, The Beatles Anthology launched a thousand sub-par reissues, with countless, unnecessary bonus tracks, from the band’s peers, but it was surely worth it.
This is a treasure trove of insight into the greatest creative minds of the 20th Century. Listen again – or for the first time – and revel in what true creative chemistry is. The Beatles Anthology is a gift that really does keep on giving.
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
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