It's easy to forget that underneath the hype of the Beatles Anthology merchandising campaign lies nothing less mundane than a collection of songs. Which isn't to say that the songs themselves are boring — far from it. The essence of the Beatles' legacy is the deceptive ease with which the band assimilated musical influences from J.S. Bach to Chuck Berry, from Ravi Shankar to Karlheinz Stockhausen. More than mere standards, the songs of the Beatles' are among this divisive century's rarest achievements: a lasting body of work that crosses cultural and generational boundaries.
Anthology 2 opens with yet another faux Fab Four reunion cut, "Real Love." With a sprightlier melody and a less self-conscious attitude than "Free as a Bird," this once-quaint 1979 John Lennon demo has been fluffed up into '90s pop meringue by the surviving Beatles and their new producer, Jeff Lynne. It answers the question: What if Lynne had produced Double Fantasy with some really famous sidemen sitting in? But who asked?
The remaining 44 cuts document what is arguably the most creative 36 months for one band in rock history. From February '65 to February '68, the Beatles recorded six EPs (including the double EP Magical Mystery Tour) and four albums. But statistics don't do the story justice. The Beatles' growing preference for the creative hothouse of the recording studio coupled with the demands of pop fame meant that by 1966, the Beatles were essentially two bands. One was pushing rock's boundaries with experimental sound collages and increasingly sophisticated pop. The other was still going through the motions of playing for screaming throngs.
The majority of Anthology 2 consists of early takes that reveal the foundations beneath the Beatles' studio constructions. This is almost The Beatles Unplugged, and the revelations are gratifying. Paul McCartney weighs in with first-take renditions of "I'm Down" and "Yesterday," which are remarkable for their jarring stylistic divergences from the final versions. Lennon's introspection — and his awareness of Bob Dylan — can be traced through sublime acoustic renditions of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "It's Only Love," as well as the not-quite-there first version of "Norwegian Wood," on which George Harrison's tentative sitar lines don't yet suggest the word mastery.
The album's warts 'n' all ambience deflates high expectations of unreleased Lennon and McCartney masters. Ringo Starr seems to sense the direness of the lame Help! outtake "If You've Got Trouble," and he punctuates the break by blurting, "Rock on ... anybody!" McCartney's reverb-laden "That Means a Lot" was given to P.J. Proby to cover, and the curious instrumental "12-Bar Original" proves the Beatles weren't Booker T. and the MG's.
Documenting the live performances of that era undermines the musical continuity. Relatively strong performances of "I Feel Fine," "Ticket to Ride" and "Help!," from a '65 New Musical Express poll-winners show, segue into a train-wreck rendition of "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," captured amid the pandemonium of the first show at Shea Stadium, in New York. Oh, for another 20 minutes of Rubber Soul or Revolver instead.
The Lennon-McCartney axis reached its most perfect balance on Revolver. Lennon's experimental side blossomed (witness the first take of "Tomorrow Never Knows") while his introspection grew more languorous (an acoustic "I'm Only Sleeping" is preceded by a fragment of equally dreamy neo-cocktail jazz). Meanwhile, McCartney's pop genius was never more refined than on "Eleanor Rigby" or the early version of "Got to Get You Into My Life," presented sans horns.
Anthology 2 neatly deconstructs the grossly overanalyzed Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with choices that uncover warmth and intimacy. "Strawberry Fields Forever" quantum-leaps in three cuts from a troublesome acoustic demo ("I cannot get it," Lennon mutters) to a technically problematic masterpiece. Clever editing of sessions also gives listeners a chance to dissect the layers of "Penny Lane" and "A Day in the Life."
The final tracks are mostly from Magical Mystery Tour, and they indicate that the participants had essentially become session players on each other's compositions. With the exception of Lennon's stripped-to-the-chassis "I Am the Walrus" and the pre-Phil Spector "Across the Universe," McCartney dominates. "The Fool on the Hill" is nearly perfect in its raw demo form, and "Your Mother Should Know" is an unlikely revelation in a version that treats the song as a spare military march.
All told, these tracks offer a compelling human story along with one of the most crystalline definitions of synergy in popular culture.