For more than two decades after the Beatles broke up, the band members and their producer, George Martin, insisted that everything of quality that they created in the studio was already a matter of record — that there was nothing left worthy of reconsideration, much less release. The extraordinary 1968 demos at the start of Anthology 3 — seven songs taped in gorgeous, unplugged form at George Harrison’s home in Esher, England, shortly before the sessions for the epic double album The Beatles (better known as the White Album) — show that those who make history are often the least qualified to judge it. These priceless Esher pearls include spirited previews of “Mean Mr Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”; John Lennon’s raw, feverish take of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”; Harrison’s subtly vitriolic “Piggies”; and Paul McCartney’s unprepossessing “Junk” (which he later re-cut for his 1970 debut solo album). This is warm, intimate music making, a rare close-up of the Beatles in private, creative ferment, and it is one of the many reasons why the three double CDs’ worth of rough cuts and outtakes in the Anthology series ultimately enhance rather than dilute the legacy and wonder of the Beatles.
Anthology 3 focuses on the end of the line, 1968-1970 — three years of fragmentation that nevertheless yielded the spectacular, sprawling White Album; Let It Be, the tattered but genuinely affecting product of what Lennon once denounced as “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever”; and Abbey Road, on which the Beatles reconvened in better humor for a glorious and proper bow-out. The Beatles’ genius has never been in doubt, but even young men with godlike talent have bad days. The plodding workout of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and the crude pass at “Let It Be,” lacking its later church-hymn grandeur, are two of the lesser performances that have sneaked onto each of the Anthology sets to a minor degree.
But Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry,” a first take recorded live in the studio, is a folk-soul gem that shows how much of the Beatles’ earthy romanticism survived the psychedelic artifice of the Sgt. Pepper era. The energy and imagination that the Beatles brought to the basics of rock & roll are all over Anthology 3 — the slinky recasting of the Buddy Holly B side “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues”; the stark muscularity of Lennon’s dadaist variation on classic Chuck Berry, “Come Together”; the crispness and clarity of the drums-and-guitar interplay in “The End.” Even during their long studio hibernations, the Beatles were always a band, never just a group.
Anthology 3 charts the growth of the individual Beatles, which occurred at the expense of the collective whole until the determined regrouping on Abbey Road. Harrison is the dark horse, finally reaching creative parity with McCartney and Lennon in the purity and melodic strength of the solo demos for “Something” and “All Things Must Pass.” Intriguing curios include Lennon’s offbeat “What’s the New Mary Jane” and McCartney’s prototype of “Come and Get It,” an immaculate, bouncy demo that is almost indistinguishable from the hit recording he produced for Badfinger.
At 50 tracks, there is a lot to digest on Anthology 3. Some of it is merely diverting, but much of it is revelatory. And while it has been a long year — the A-Beatle-C hype of late ’95, the protracted release of the three Anthology sets, the massive eight-video box of The Beatles Anthology — this is history and music to be treasured. It took way too long for the surviving Beatles themselves to come to the same conclusion. Better late than never.