The Inessential Beatles

What separates the Beatles from pretenders to their level of popularity is the intensity of our love for them. Aside from a few odd covers on the first album or two and this or that strange track on the White Album or Yellow Submarine we have a curiously intimate familiarity with their entire recorded oeuvre. Elvis may have sold more records, and Michael Jackson or Garth Brooks may yet still; but none of them can claim as the Beatles can that approximately a generation and a half of white Americans can sing along to just about every musical note they committed to vinyl. As the star-making machinery of rock ‘n’ roll has gotten better at marketing, leaving the audience wanting more has become economic foolishness. But it was in just this state that the Beatles left us some 26 years ago.

We can’t complain about the quantity of the product they offered. Today, two- and three-year promotional plans for superstar albums are not uncommon, and putting out a record a year is considered a cavalier, almost punk attitude toward marketing. Between 1963 and 1970 the Beatles released about three traditional-length LPs and about five singles annually. Elvis Presley produced a similar density of material over a longer period of time, but a large percentage was artistically and commercially unnotable. Few today can call to mind the melodies of more than a few of Presley’s latter half-a-hundred singles, whereas, again, most Beatles album tracks are happily imprinted on our memory.

All of which to some extent explains why Anthology 1, the first of three two-CD sets of Beatles excavations, disappoints. On this first–and it must be said generous–selection of nearly 60 tracks, there is exactly one song that can be remotely considered a contribution to the Beatles canon, the frequently bootlegged cover of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone,” a randy vocal performance by John Lennon. The rest is live tracks–blithe and pleasant but hardly revelatory music from TV and radio appearances–and alternate takes of some key (“Can’t Buy Me Love”) and not so key (two versions apiece of “No Reply” and “I’ll Be Back”) songs. If you have a thirst for new Beatles material, this is not the place to turn.

Look at Dylan, whose routine studio work since the 1960s has been supplemented in the years since not only by The Basement Tapes and more than a dozen unreleased tracks on Biograph but also the three-CD set Bootleg Series in 1991–in all, nearly 100 tracks that are either of exceptional quality or developmentally important; and there’s more to come. This was the result of a restless and uncontrolled talent firing off work in all directions. The Beatles, by contrast, helmed a finely tuned machine that, even operating at capacity for seven years, was never able to meet the demands that fans made on them.

That said, there are still some treats on Anthology. Like many people, I can’t listen to the Beatles with fresh ears; familiarity has deafened me to the charms of the songs. When some of the tracks here, slightly different from the canonical versions, allow me to rehear songs I’ve already heard too much, the set succeeds. For me this process reinforced a sometimes forgotten truism–that Lennon’s early songwriting and vocal skills were much more potent than McCartney’s. Lennon’s “Please Please Me,” surely the most apocalyptic plea for mutual oral sex ever recorded, seems as tumescent as ever on the alternate version here, made slightly more deliberate by the absence of the original’s harmonica. Early McCartney songs like the insipid “Love Me Do” sound trite. It’s true that Lennon was capable of much greater callowness (“You Can’t Do That”), and not until “Imagine,” arguably, did he equal McCartney’s treacly but emotional way with a ballad. But it’s also true that as a singer his grit and wit left McCartney’s protean but shallow stylings in the dust. In its early years the band cheerfully recorded all sorts of hack material: compare here McCartney’s too forgiving and entirely forgettable take on The Music Man’s “Till There Was You” to Lennon’s blistering reading of the chestnut that is “Ain’t She Sweet.”

In the end Anthology is an important but not illuminating bit of archiving from the vaults of a group that gave all it had many years ago and whose members have with only a few exceptions done their best not to embarrass their legacy in the years since. The heavily expurgated three-part promotional film that was broadcast over Thanksgiving and the “new” Beatles song, “Free as a Bird,” are in this context somewhat horrifying. The latter particularly–the most overhyped musical tchotchke in the history of the world–takes a watery few lines of a Lennon solo demo and adds enough studio folderol to make it radio friendly for the 90s. McCartney, most vomitously, adds six lines of heavily cliched lyrical tripe, one-third of it lifted straightaway from the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand).” Lennon’s fragile voice cannot withstand such muscle. John was always the cockiest Beatle, and by implication the strongest; it took a kook with a gun and, now, the machinations of his former band mates to make him seem vulnerable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photos.