While the Beatles‘ first Anthology, released 20 years ago this month, isn’t exactly canonical Fab Four, it’s worth remembering how momentous the compilation seemed at the time. Perhaps you were among those whose minds were blown in anticipation of new Beatle baubles, demos, outtakes and live cuts that went beyond what even the most rapacious bootleg collector would have been able to gather up.
Would it feel as if one were present at Abbey Road, beholding an impassioned conversation before the next masterpiece was commenced? Would there be takes to challenge the known, canonical ones for “best ever” versions? Would one discover a fresh McCartney vocal to claim as a favorite going forward, some new delight that would repay hundreds of listenings, just as the old Beatles records always had?
Upon its November, 1995, release, Anthology 1 was a huge seller, as if there was any way it could not be. Posthumous round-ups of rarities were normally geared toward the obsessives, but as we’re talking Beatles, Fab Four diehards form their own kind of widespread subculture, and thus a listening majority.
And it’s not hard to imagine fans agog over performances like a live cut of “This Boy” from The Morecambe & Wise Show, which torches the official B-side, thanks to a Lennon vocal on the middle eight that explodes with the same intensity of “Money” and “Twist and Shout,” only with more finesse, and perhaps more heart.
The idea that Beatles masterworks — or eventual masterworks, to be technical about it — could morph so drastically as to go from quirky Buck Owens pastiche to scream-your-balls-off rock & roll adrenaline-fest is, of course, part of the purpose of the Anthology, but the series, and its first component in particular, poses the neat challenge of determining just where a performance like this fits in with everything else. Beatles albums tend to be ridiculously of a piece, even for the variety each may contain. They work as wholes in oft-impeccable ways, a Beatlesesque knack that even extends to the best Beatles bootlegs and various post-career sets like the BBC albums.
There’s a prevailing spirit to Anthology 1, which is tantamount to “We are coming for you, world.” This is the sound of youth, the sound of confidence where maybe others think that that self-belief is a tad — or a ton — over-estimated, and then the sound of full-on delivering the goods.
Which occurs around the time you get to the end of Anthology 1‘s first disc, with the Beatles in Sweden in October, 1963, playing what is arguably one of the finest concerts anyone ever gave, complete in this form with a voiced-over line from John Lennon saying, in effect, that the Beatles, as a stage band, were the best in the world. And, what do you know, that wasn’t even close to the best thing about them.
But one wonders how often something like Anthology 1 might be listened to straight through, if it features in a regular rotation of Beatles albums. Or is it best heard in piecemeal fashion, when you’re curious, again, what that first attempt at “No Reply” sounds like? But that’s part of the reason why the release is an in-betweener; if you’re down for the nitty-grittiest material on the rarities side of the ledger, bootlegs are probably your thing, with their sheer curatorial density, that rich, scholarly fullness that never feels overly filling if you’re into all of that.
So Anthology 1 occupies a unique perch in the Beatles’ discography. This period, from 1958 through autumn, 1964, covers the pre-fame years, the development years and the global-explosion years, so we’re ranging pretty far. Ditto the fidelity, which is what you’d expect considering that some of these cuts are from the bathroom of Paul McCartney’s house in spring, 1960. And then there is “Free as a Bird,” the 1977 Lennon piano demo that the so-called Threatles worked on with producer Jeff Lynne, for a “new” Beatles song.
No one can begrudge anyone for revisiting their history, and doing what they wish, work-wise, even if it causes the devoted to think that something sacrosanct has been violated in some way. If Michael Jordan wants to come back and play for the Wizards, and you just like him as a Bull hitting that final shot, you need to get over yourself, and keep those memories separate from the new ones, or else just accept that more will be made, and maybe they just won’t be as good. Probably won’t be. That’s life.
And in that sense, there’s an affecting life quotient to something as ostensibly twee as “Free as a Bird.” Same goes with “Real Love,” which featured on the second Anthology, but that song feels smaller, more of a whispered word under the covers to a lover, and less heraldic than “Free as a Bird.”
Two other Lennon demos — “Now and Then” and “Grow Old With Me” — were also provided by Yoko Ono for possible beefing up, but the lyrics were just too inchoate. Something that actually worked as an advantage on “Free as a Bird,” when Lennon’s verse essentially trails off, as if words, of the variety comprised of letters, can do no more, and it is time for words of a more outright musical nature to carry on.
Which is exactly what happens in a guitar solo from George Harrison that Paul McCartney described as a “blinder.” Take the final Harrison solo from Abbey Road‘s “The End” — the one that soars with those high notes and vibrato before Lennon issues the concluding excoriating guitar blast — add years of seasoning, and you have this passage a quarter of a century later.
McCartney’s bass appears simple, but his subtle modulations work in tandem with Lennon’s compositional maneuvers, and it’s like the two are still in each other’s pocket even on such a singular outing. Take that, corporeal world.
Is it “A Day in the Life?” Ha — no. But, no need to be. Give the most you can every time you can, and if you were starting so far ahead of everyone else to begin with, it’s liable to be enough. Another very Anthology-ish conceit.
And in the spirit of which we’ll now look at five key selections from Anthology 1, performances which you would have needed to be a master burglar to have tracked down prior to November, 1995.
1. Please Please Me”
The song that signaled authorial arrival on the parts of Lennon and McCartney to producer George Martin was still a work that they had to fight for. At this date — early September, 1962 — Martin still wasn’t sure it was hit material. This version is a touch bluesier than the final product will be, but it’s not hard to see what an epiphany it must have been when they decided to have Lennon add harmonica.
2. “You Can’t Do That” (take 6)
The second side of A Hard Day’s Night is a curious beast, almost like a countermove to the comparative sunshine of Side One. What would happen if you did “You Can’t Do That” today, with an extreme PC culture that presses Lennon into service with a song like “Imagine,” but would also feel a need to rail against a song of this nature? It’s very Northern, as the Beatles would say, and certainly controlling. Chock-full of jealousy, too, which is even more rakish in this flintier take. But then again, the song is no more loaded with threats than a Delta-blues number.
3. “And I Love Her” (take 3)
Ah, electric “And I Love Her.” What a notion for everyone who grew up with the sequence from the A Hard Day’s Night film when that white light comes streaming through. A happy accident according to director Richard Lester, so let us consider this outtake a happy experiment. McCartney’s acoustic ballads were fairly transposable to the electric medium — “Yesterday” works nicely as a full-band number on the 1966 world-tour recordings — and that holds true with “And I Love Her.” The song would get lighter in terms of instrumentation, and deeper, too, in mood. The Beatles were becoming skilled at jettisoning approaches, no questions asked, when they knew something better lay ahead
4. You Know What to Do” (demo)
A bouncy, throwaway Harrison song, but one which follows in the Beatles’ bouncy, throwaway tradition of, say, “Bad to Me.” Though this number wasn’t given to Billy J. Kramer to become a hit for somebody else, it is winningly tuneful, and a sign that Harrison — who had been struggling with the melodic component of his early songwriting efforts — was adding another arrow to the quiver.
5. “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” (take 2)
Broad strokes have rendered the Beatles’ story such that Lennon was the screamer, McCartney the balladeer, but each was just as often the other, and here’s McCartney trying to knock the shit out of “Kansas City,” as Lennon put it. It’s fascinating to note the differences in approach between the two men when it comes to cutting loose. Lennon shredded his larynx, really having a go at the top of the beat, like he was trying to win a race against the backing track to the song’s final note, whereas McCartney sings just as loudly, but more from the diaphragm, letting the song come to him, à la Big Joe Turner. What it must have been like to cut a take like this and then been like, “Nah, let’s use that other one.”