THE BEATLES: ANTHOLOGY 1 (1962-1965; 1994)
CD I: 1) Free As A Bird; 2) Speech by John Lennon; 3) That'll Be The Day; 4) In Spite Of All The Danger; 5) Speech by Paul McCartney; 6) Hallelujah I Love Her So; 7) You'll Be Mine; 8) Cayenne; 9) Speech by Paul McCartney; 10) My Bonnie; 11) Ain't She Sweet; 12) Cry For A Shadow; 13) Speech by John Lennon; 14) Speech by Brian Epstein; 15) Searchin'; 16) Three Cool Cats; 17) The Sheik Of Araby; 18) Like Dreamers Do; 19) Hello Little Girl; 20) Speech by Brian Epstein; 21) Besame Mucho; 22) Love Me Do; 23) How Do You Do It; 24) Please Please Me; 25) One After 909 (Sequence); 26) One After 909; 27) Lend Me Your Comb; 28) I'll Get You; 29) Speech by John Lennon; 30) I Saw Her Standing There; 31) From Me To You; 32) Money (That's What I Want); 33) You Really Got A Hold On Me; 34) Roll Over Beethoven.
CD II: 1) She Loves You; 2) Till There Was You; 3) Twist And Shout; 4) This Boy; 5) I Want To Hold Your Hand; 6) Speech by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; 7) Moonlight Bay; 8) Can't Buy Me Love; 9) All My Loving; 10) You Can't Do That; 11) And I Love Her; 12) A Hard Day's Night; 13) I Wanna Be Your Man; 14) Long Tall Sally; 15) Boys; 16) Shout; 17) I'll Be Back (Take 2); 18) I'll Be Back (Take 3); 19) You Know What To Do; 20) No Reply (Demo); 21) Mr Moonlight; 22) Leave My Kitten Alone; 23) No Reply; 24) Eight Days A Week (Sequence); 25) Eight Days A Week; 26) Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey.
There is no better way to understand the real meaning of «quality control» than to give a good listen to any of the three Anthology volumes. When the Beatles saw the light, and knew that it was good, they let it out. When they were not sure, they left it in the can. It is really as simple as that. Despite the sometimes inadequately warm reception that the Anthologies got upon release — for the most part, from Beatle-hungry fans with an anti-bootleg disposition — I insist that there is not even a single track on any of these six CDs that would in any way be «better» than its original counterpart. The demos are demos, the work-in-progress mixes are in progress, the abandoned arrangements were abandoned for a good reason, and the outtakes remained outtakes for an even better one. Take together even the most polished of these versions, and they will still suck next to what we have always known.
On the other hand, the sheer historical value of the Anthologies is certainly priceless — with one important drawback: as a «history package», this set is drastically incomplete, and will never truly satisfy the dedicated Beatles scholar. Clearly, the Beatles scholar will want to hear all of the preserved takes, so as to assess each song over the natural course of its development; and the Beatles scholar might, in fact, be offended at the idea of creating new tracks by splicing together parts of different takes — this is like tampering with history, man. It's one thing when you are making your original ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ out of two entirely different visions for the song; it's quite another thing when somebody is twiddling and reshuffling your stuff thirty years after the fact — be it even under your own supervision.
Still, we have to admit that «history lite» is a necessity as well; the difference between Anthologies and a complete package of everything that remained on the cutting floor is like the difference between a school textbook of history and a multi-volume edition for high-level scholars, each of which has its audience. And from that point of view, the amount, selection, and sequencing of the material processed for the collection seem to be just about right. We get to see the Beatles as initially lousy students of American rock'n'roll, as constantly improving energetic live performers, as generators of all sorts of musical ideas, good and bad, as perfectionists and innovators, and, above all, as human beings made of flesh, blood, testosterone, good humor, and bile — a fact that is occasionally forgotten behind the immaculate appearance of their official recordings.
Anthology 1 is often called the weakest of the three volumes, for an objective and easy-to-understand reason: it covers their early «formative» years, halting right at the end of 1964, and a large chunk dates back to the pre-Please Please Me era, where the tracks frequently involve horrendous sound quality and, sometimes, a shot of embarrassment. To me, however, it has always been and still remains the most interesting and intriguing of the three sets — not only does it feature the largest amount of songs (most of them non-originals, but still...) not featured on regular Beatles albums, but it is here that we actually witness the biggest transformation of all: the amazing maturation of a sincere, vivacious, but still somewhat clueless and clumsy pop-rock band, into the greatest pop outfit of its generation.
It is not even entirely clear how far do we have to extend that «maturation period». All of the pre-1962 era material is either grossly amateurish (early Quarrymen records) or atrocious (the 1960 recordings at Paul's house in Liverpool; even when the sound quality is relatively acceptable, as on the instrumental Shadows knock-off ʽCayenneʼ, there is nothing here to suggest that these guys would go on to something bigger than art school, or working in a local garage). The Hamburg recordings from 1961 are already a major step forward: while backing Tony Sheridan, «The Silver Beetles» finally became professionals, and John and George's ʽCry For A Shadowʼ is a fine, driving, catchy instrumental that is every bit as good as the Shadows' best hits, and maybe even better — because the entire band is getting into it with less restraint and a more «primal» attitude than Hank Marvin ever allowed his boys.
Then there are selections from the January 1962 Decca tapes — all covers, with the exception of two early Lennon/McCartney originals (ʽHello Little Girlʼ, later turned into a minor hit by The Fourmost, and ʽLike Dreamers Doʼ, later covered by The Applejacks). If you need my opinion, I might have turned these guys down, too, based on this stuff, were I a Decca decision taker back in 1962. The covers almost slavishly follow the originals — and the Beatles, even at their best, would never out-humor such masters of the «fun rock» genre as the Coasters; let alone the fact that handing the lead vocal part on a Coasters cover (ʽThree Cool Catsʼ) to George Harrison, at that time the «clumsiest» singer of them all, could never be a good idea. And that early Lennon / McCartney stuff... don't get me started. Saccharine teen-pop, imitating radio fluff of the day — next to ʽHello Little Girlʼ, even ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ sounds like Brahms.
Basically, the wonder of it all is that the Beatles only turned into professional, original songwriters upon signing the EMI contract — which brings George Martin into the picture, and solidifies his «fifth Beatle» status to a previously unsuspected degree. As ʽPlease Please Meʼ and even the early incarnation of ʽOne After 909ʼ emerge from the sad shadows of ʽHello Little Girlʼ, we get an altogether unexpected leap in quality, and then — there is no turning back.
Yet there are fascinating and intriguing slips and trial-and-error bits all over the place. On the second disc, for instance, there is a barely listenable take on ʽAnd I Love Herʼ with Paul «bleating» over the top of his range and the main guitar hook of the song still nowhere in sight; an early demo for ʽI'll Be Backʼ as a slow waltz, crumbling to pieces by the time the band gets to the bridge; a thoroughly lame early Harrison composition (ʽYou Know What To Doʼ) that was originally intended to be the 14th track on A Hard Day's Night, but was allegedly — and justly — ridiculed by the rest of the band and turned George off songwriting for almost a year; and an early take on ʽEight Days A Weekʼ that starts off as a Beach Boys vocal harmony tribute — a rather insecure and out-of-place "oooooooohhh..." that works far less effectively than the eventual fade-in of the guitar melody upon which they would settle later.
In the end, the only studio material that could probably make it onto «real» (non-historical) anthologies, is a finished 1963 take on ʽOne After 909ʼ — the original also sounds like another tribute to the Shadows, but I have always loved its detached, cool, ironic hide better than the more bluntly aggressive rooftop delivery from 1969 — and ʽLeave My Kitten Aloneʼ, a rather vicious Lennon-dominated cover tune that probably should have made it onto Beatles For Sale instead of ʽMr. Moonlightʼ. But maybe they thought it sounded too hateful or something (John would later summon much the same mood for ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ).
But there is also some prime-time live stuff here: carefully selected performances from mid-size venues, mostly, where the Beatles could still hear themselves above all the din and, most importantly, were dedicated to giving the fans all they had to give. The crown jewel consists of five tracks from a Sweden performance on October 24, 1963: here you will find the tightest, most focused and compact ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ that you are ever going to find, a ʽRoll Over Beethovenʼ on which George manages not to mess up any of the trademark Berry-licks, and a ʽYou Really Got A Hold On Meʼ on which John, as was usual for him, mixes up the lyrics and still gets away with it — showing all of us how little the words really mean on all these tunes.
Of all the three volumes, Anthology 1 is the one that is most fully equipped with monologuish bits from the accompanying movie (all of them on Disc 1, for some reason), but this is not a big bother since all the bits are very short; and Disc 2 also captures the full version of a brief comedy sketch with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, culminating in a joke performance of ʽMoonlight Bayʼ — the jokes are mostly awful, and the performance is below-the-belt clownish, but the Beatles really did a lot of that on TV in the early days, and, once again, we do need to be reminded from time to time that these guys were only human.
Of that, Anthology 1 keeps reminding us every step of the way indeed. But can that be a cause for unhappiness? Not if you get over 20-30 minutes of excellent live performing, over 20-30 minutes of previously unknown / unexperienced cover tunes and Lennon / McCartney / Harrison originals, not if you really want to know how, sometimes, a fabulous melody does not arrive to the songwriter right on the spot, but is steadily built up along the way, sometimes, with great hardship and toil — you try and deduce for yourself the ratio of inspiration to perspiration. And here is one final hint for you: the difference between the common songwriter and the really great one is that common songwriters — and approximately ninety-five percent of the world's songwriters are «common», I'd say — never succeed in rising above the level of Anthology 1. The truly great songwriter, however, will at least try to make it over to Please Please Me.
PS. No review of Anthology 1 can, of course, get along without a mention of ʽFree As A Birdʼ — the first «new» Beatles song in twenty-five years, consisting of a Lennon piano demo, a McCartney bridge section, a Harrison guitar solo, and a Jeff Lynne production. (Ringo is in there somewhere, too, but the drum sound is 100% Lynne anyway). Who knows, maybe the Beatles would end up sounding like that in 1995, had things turned out differently, although something tells me John probably wouldn't be too happy of Lynne imposing his sonic attitude on the band (somehow, George, who had already fallen under the Lynne charm during the recording of Cloud 9 in 1987, ended up convincing Paul that this was the right thing to do). In any case, it's a good song that still carries a bit of John's spirit from the late 1970s — and the video row that accompanied it in the movie was fairly epic as well.